Art History Reader: Cyanotype

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Meghann Riepenhoff, Littoral Drift Nearshore #209, 2015, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.


The color blue brings a lot of things to mind - the blue sky, blue-ribbon winners, blue velvet, blue suede shoes, and for some, cyanotypes. Though the color cyan is derived from blue and green, the photographic process known as cyanotype is named for its blue tones. Cyanotypes were one of the first photographic processes ever invented and have recently had a resurgence in the art world. And it's all thanks to the over-achieving astronomer, inventor, mathematician, and botanist, Sir John Herschel who really truly blue it.

During the nineteenth century, the technological race to find a way to keep a photograph from fading was intense. A combination of science, chemistry, and art, photography requires light to capture an image and chemistry to both develop and fix that image. While the camera obscura existed to temporarily reproduce images and had often been used to aid artists in past centuries like Vermeer, Reynolds, and Canaletto with perspectives in painting and drawing, the images produced by it could not be kept without fading.

The nineteenth century was full of photographic revelations, from Herschel’s invention of the glass negative to the use of paper negatives and the competing “first” commercially available photographic processes. Scientists experimented with all kinds of chemistry that reacted with light, and even when they would find a way to transfer or reproduce an image, it was often latent, or invisible but requiring a chemical to visualize the image. Herschel coined the term photography, derived from the Greek fos for light and grafo meaning to write, essentially light writing, and ergo, we have Instagram today. It knocked painted realism out of the park, with French Painter Paul Delaroche declaring, “From today, painting is dead” after publicly seeing the first photograph. The ability to reproduce our visual reality was beneficial for science, history, and art, but not everyone could afford to participate.

Henry Fox Talbot’s salt paper prints and Louis Daguerre’s eponymous Daguerreotypes were the first commercially available photographic forms. They both required silver nitrate, fragile materials like glass and paper negatives, and were ultimately not cheap. While Talbot and Daguerre fought over who would publicly be considered the father of photography, Herschel was busy in his lab. He was tired of hand copying his handwritten notes and, after experimenting with iron salts and potassium ferricyanide, the cyanotype was born. Herschel used this to make as many copies of his notes which allowed the world to learn about his findings on the moons of Saturn and Uranus, color blindness, and ultraviolet rays. (He was a classic Renaissance man.) The cyanotype is one of the most democratic processes due to its ease, the price of materials, and time required.

The cyanotype process is named for the print’s blue color. The emulsion, or light sensitive liquid material, is a lime-green color when wet made from a mixture of ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide. This is brushed or rolled onto a penetrable backing, usually paper, fabric, or anything that it can soak into, in a low light environment. When dry, you can lay a negative, objects, blueprint original, or anything that you want a copy of on the coated backing. Wherever the sun or U.V. light hits will turn a deep blue color, while areas that are blocked by objects or darker negatives will stay the color of the original material. The process was manufactured for commercial purposes in the nineteenth century and is still used as a reproduction of thin papers, especially architectural blueprints. While it requires chemistry you likely haven’t thought about since high school, it is safe, easy, and best of all, cheap!

The first artistic use of the cyanotype came from a badass botanist babe named Anna Atkins. She wanted to find a way to capture the details of British algae for a book she was compiling about the subject. Atkins happened to be friends with Herschel, and he taught her the cyanotype recipe. She went on to publish the first book illustrated fully with photographs, and in doing so became the world's first published female photographer. Her use of photograms, a process where objects are laid on light sensitive paper rather than a negative, allows silhouettes, textures, and other tones of any object (in her case, algae specimen) to be clearly captured. Atkins’ use of plants and her aesthetically mindful compositions continue to influence artists in creating quick yet meaningful artworks. These photograms require artists to be aware of the positive and negative space in their composition as well as what their objects mean.

Photograms were popularized, with an addition of narcissism, by artist Man Ray, re-coining the practice as the rayograph. Without black and gray tones, the images have a Surrealist or dreamlike quality, due to their softness. Alternative process photographs also have a painterly quality compared to regular photographs, as the artist has more control over what areas are covered, if the brush strokes are visible, which areas develop, etc. These aesthetics are used with specific concepts in mind.

If you look up the symbolism of the color blue, you’ll find representations for open spaces, calm, and freedom, thinking about the daily blue skies and large bodies of water we see. Others may relate it to sadness or loneliness. Within the Hindu practice of chakras, which are focal points of the body used in meditation, the fifth chakra is noted as blue. It represents communication, self-expression, and truth. Western cultures relate it to trust and authority, while many Eastern cultures see it as a symbol of spirituality and mourning. Author Rebecca Solnit discusses the relationship between the color blue and cyanotypes in relation to memory in her book "The Field Guide to Getting Lost." The chapter "The Blue of Distance" compares the color to the unknown and far away horizon “where you can never go” but see in the atmospheric distance. The cyanotype translates the entire world around you into blue and white tones, so rather than seeing the world through rose colored lenses, you see it through a “melancholy atmosphere.” This is at the center of Henry P. Bosse’s Mouth of Wisconsin River, where the sky and water meet in the distance. These blue impressions of the world give a more somber and serious approach to images.

Many artists continue to use the cyanotype process for its blue tones, quick development, and collaborative capabilities. Some artists use them as a means of proof prints or sketches, to quickly lay something out. Others continue to use them to make copies, like blueprints and Herschel’s notes. Artists also get to control the development, and some will use specific types of water or create the prints within specific places, like Meghann Riepenhoff’s Littoral Drift photographs, which allow the waves to roll over the paper directly in the sun. The cyanotype can stand alone but can also be used in interdisciplinary mediums. It can be layered with other colors of photographic mediums like gum bichromate, used with printmaking like lithography or screen-printing, and is very popular with mixed-media work. The cyanotype has resurged as a process in the art world. During the COVID pandemic, many artists were stuck at home without a studio. The cyanotype process was easy to get through online kits or chemistry and with just water, the sun, and other objects, individuals could create new experimental artworks (and keep themselves busy instead of doom-scrolling).

The cyanotype’s history is one of democracy in photography. While the digital camera has largely taken its place, the cyanotype continues to allow us to live in a blue world. With so many vintage styles being re-popularized, maybe we will see a few more alternative photographic processes in the art world. We can all thank Sir John Herschel for truly “blue”-ing it.


Key Works of Art:


For more technical information about the cyanotype process, I recommend the following books:

Epiphany Knedler

Adjunct Instructor, Forsyth Technical Community College

Comments (4)


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prase denica

Thanks for the article. Very nice and engaging

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Klaire Lockheart

The author had me hooked at "...Sir John Herschel who really truly blue it." Great article!