Cyanotype – Technique and science

My production  and creative realisation of cyanotypes has become more organised, now I can control the process better.  The first three images below show something like the key points.

  1. Firstly, working indoors without wind or rain means that the layering of images and text is possible and the position of these could be changed as the exposure goes on.  The UV from a fixed lamp gives a strong glow but a rather uneven area, it will need some experimentation to identify best lamp distance and position
  2. The print can be closely watched and the colour change of the background observed (yellow/green to grey) to check level of exposure.
  3. Washing the final product for at least 6 minutes under gently running water – also the need to allow the deep blues to develop over the following 24 hours.
  4. Further experimenting with layered images and hand written text, trying to see if you write gradually then this writing should be bluer and closer to the background colour as the exposure goes on.

The combinations of images and text come from a more theoretical science of pollution and how it s effects are distributed – taking inspiration from the original use of the process described in a post on Sir John Herschel.  So terms like Gaussian distribution and ‘Grey scales’ are used both for describing the distribution and density of particles in plumes of industrial smoke/steam and are also terms used in photoshop for pixel editing.  Other text has been taken from Tynedale Council’s planning permission for Egger which specifies the discharges and allowable factors in complex tables.  This is a kind of measurement to define or ‘capture’ an image of the smoke stack in a different, reassuring but selective way.


Screen printing 2

Outcome from the extended workshop day. An interesting collaboration. I could maybe use this idea for working with students, could be exciting. To produce a collaborative artwork under time pressure while learning a new skill is exciting but difficult to deliver in school.

The result will always look and be unplanned, even random.

The positive was that this was a publication – we gave it out at a private view. It is mutually supportive for a group, each image reinforcing the others right to be there.


Scottish National Gallery – Ciara Phillips, William Turnbull and Richard Wright

How to make interesting connections between artists at the Edinburgh National Gallery of Modern art. The screen printing of Ciara Phillips, using the techniques of forceful messaging of Graphic Design dominated the downstairs corridor of the temporary displays of the British Art Show 2016.  Phillips’strong combination of layered images and photography with the big text referenced advertising, information posters created artworks that talk ‘at’ problems of the modern world, more than they talked ‘to’ an audience.  However the didactic content is offset by personal imagery and a warm colour field that invites you in to consider more. The gallery linked Phillips to Sister Mary Magdalene – Corita Kent and a tradition of radical printmaking.

Upstairs the work of William Turnbull, which I knew through isolated pieces, grabbed me again.  Turnbull used  multiple symbols or forms like arrows to express a kind of cloud energy. There were two works titled Aquarium, two paintings and also a sculpture.  Turnbull was described by the gallery information as fascinated by fish.  I liked this image of apparently random, but organised movement, an image of Brownian Motion or something more organised a spirit of motion?

Richard Wright’s Stairwell Project is enchanting. Created by thousands of tiny organic flower forms that swirl up to the staircase tower’s skylights, in a perfectly regular but natural and gentle spiral. The flowers are monochrome and perhaps refer to the more tragic past of this building as an orphanage in Victorian times.  For me, this may be an interesting potential way of creating a cloud of forms or text, or memories to rise like a steam plume.  The formal, apparently symmetrical  arrangement in the stairwell project  refers like much of Wright’s work to a classic treatment of surface, like a wall paper, or a fresco.  This allows the more spiritual references to come through, working off the formal structure of the building to create a moving piece.


Sir John Herschel and cyanotypes

How is it that the Polymath and inventor of the cyanotype process, Sir John Herschel, appears to have left no cyanotype images? This startling image  by Julia Margaret Cameron records the man, and in a way pays testament to the contribution he made to Photography.

Sir John Herschel by Julia Margaret Cameron

After much searching, I found this image referenced in an interview with artist Sarah Harper – an early print/paper negative – not a cyanotype.  A haunting view of his father’s telescope – almost like a hangman’s scaffold.


Herschel discovered the cyanotype process in 1842 – in two years of wide experimentation with plants from his gardens and other vegetation, he was constantly looking for a way to use light sensitive materials to capture colour images.  Dr Alfred Smee directed Herschel to potassium ferricyanide which he combined with ferric ammonium citrate.  The resulting solution when exposed to sunlight, specifically UV light, forms ferric ferricyanide or the insoluble Prussian Blue.

My assumption is that Herschel then used it to record his notes, but a reading of Christopher James (James, C. 2007) suggests that it was not until the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876 that the process was fully industrialised and the practice of creating ‘blueprint’ drawings by engineers became the standard for the next century.  Anne Atkins might have learnt the process from Herschel, and her immediate use of the cyanotype process in 1843 was, like Herschel’s, rooted in the scientific method, recording images of seaweeds and algae with classification notes in her own precise writing.

This link of the astronomical, the scientific method, and recording in word as well as image is a link to explore.

James, D (2007) ‘The Book of Alternative Photography Processes’, New York: Delmar.

Below Herschel’s notes in his own hand, diagrams and a drawing of a cloud nebula from Science photo library – all on paper rather than through the medium of cyanotypes…..are any John Herschel original cyanotypes still in existence?


Mouse tails – a pop up exhibition

Exhibition poster: Mousetails – design by Karen Sikora
Installation view:      left: Marta Costa Silva             Right: pym

A one day pop-up exhibition in Northumbria University as part of the MA Programme.

A number of our cohort set up a brief exhibition to trial ideas.

My objective was to create a first showing of work defined into a grid.  Input from fellow exhibitors helped develop more aspects of the work, firstly by breaking the grid to suggest movement, like particles colliding and spreading – an image of the steam moving.  Secondly the grid was altered by emphasising the frame as object or commercial product by displaying the packaging itself.  Some of the frames have their cardboard protectors on, the rest are discarded, shed like skins on the floor.  Thirdly, the string lines used for squaring up the frames seemed to link into the work and emphasise the point of origin.  The whole installation now appears to emerge from the cardboard box and take flight or disperse.  All these ideas came collaboratively, I hope I gave back as much input to the other exhibitors, this is the value of group exhibitions – the ability to respond to others immediately and so collectively define the space.  Feedback was generally good. The mix of media, drawn elements as well as photography and photograms and cyanotypes – seemed to appeal to viewers.

Detail views below and then questions…..


  1. Is the ‘grid’ done or is this a format or scheme that can now be shown in many forms?
  2. Is the next stage to develop further into 3d?…… the photos have left their box, shed their packaging and escaped the grid, is the next stage to leave the room? or leave 2dimensions behind?
  3. Is there more work to do on dispersal?
  4. I continue to fret about the coldness or distance set up with viewers, is it engaging enough? Is there an idea, visual or otherwise that people will be actively engaged with?
  5. Is the whole thing just good experimenting?