The final touches

Tea toned cyanotype, from the series "Doors of the Dead"

I’ve always wondered about the details of alternative processes.  The photographs appear in books or on the web with dry little titles saying very little: “Dreams, toned cyanotype” or some such.  That hardly answers all the questions I’m brimming with about the process and how they got that effect.  I’m dying to ask things like: what did you use for the toner?  What, exactly, was the process you used with that particular toner? How did you get that glorious shine on it?  What size is the bugger anyway? 

I don’t think alternative photographers intentionally withhold information (it’s MY process, precious….mine alone!) but all the same, the dry little titles leave me wanting more.  So, without further ado, here are all the little details about this series – what I did to get exactly THAT look.

This photograph is one of my “Doors of the Dead” series.  The entire series is identical in every way except the subject matter: size, toner, finish coat, paper, all of that is the same.  This one’s not even titled yet – one of my more dreaded tasks is to sit down with all my cyanotypes for this show and come up with titles.  Not my forte, to say the least.  I’ll probably end up with the hugely descriptive “Detail #1” variety.

  • Paper: Canson Montval watercolor, cold press, 140 lb (300gsm)
  • Paper size: cut 10×12, negative sized 8×10 
  • Sizing: Christopher James’ Arrowroot sizing recipe, less 250 ml water
  • Cyanotype formula: 1:1 ratio of 90 g Ferric Ammonium Citrate (250 ml water) to 40 grams Potassium Ferrocyanide (250 ml water.)  This means darker blues without the 2:1 ratio of the slightly weaker formula.
  • Cyanotype application: brush coated using a Hake, double coated after the first coat turns matte.
  • Coating details: coated and let sit in total darkness for 1.5 hours.  Bagged and let sit overnight, used within 3 days.


  • Exposure: between 5-10 minutes full sun depending on the season/month.
  • Development: regular white vinegar and water, ratio 1:10 vinegar to water.
  • Rinse sequence: sits in filtered water for 10 minutes, then final rinsed for 15 in tap water.  Line dried.


  • Toner details: minimum 1-2 day aged prints, pre-wet in filtered water.
  • Bleaching agent: Sodium Carbonate (washing soda) 1 tsp added to 1.5 liters water.
  • Toner: Steeped black (Lipton) tea, 250 ml tea to 1.5 liter filtered water.
  • Toning sequence: prints are bleached until a purple shift occurs, rinsed for 5 minutes.  Prints then sit face down in the toning solution for 1-1.5 hours until no blue is left.
  • Final rise: 15 minutes.


  • Surface gloss: about a 1:3 ratio of acrylic gloss and varnish medium diluted with water and carefully brushed on with a fine paintbrush. 
  • Flattening: filtered water brushed on the back for initial flattening, pressed between two matboards under weight.  After it’s dried, continue pressing under heavy weights for several days.


Because all toned cyanotypes tend to look really flat, I began applying this surface gloss.  It’s a dramatic difference.  The dark tones gain depth and a deeper tone, and the highlights stand out more.   It’s super important not to apply too strong of a gloss – the more diluted the better.  Applying it is difficult – it’s hard to avoid streaking and tiny bubbles.  Most importantly, it’s permanent.  If you attempt to remove the varnish, it will peel off the cyanotype emulsion and leave only the paper behind.  It dries extremely quickly, so it’s best to practice on failed prints before attempting a good one.

Because this gloss is used to coat paintings for protection and finishing, I’m pretty confident that it’s safe to use. Ask me that question in 10-20 years for a better answer.


7 thoughts on “The final touches

  1. Thanks for the comment on my blog because it has lead me to yours!

    This is wonderful, thank you for sharing your process. It never occurred to me to tea tone. I think this will lead to some interesting experiments.

  2. Thank you for sharing your procedure! I would love to see the prints in person, I’m sure they are stunning.

    I’m interested in varnishing my prints, but at the same time worried that it might affect their lifespan. Could you name the specific brand of acrylic gloss and medium that you use? It would help me choose where to start.. there are so many alternatives. When varnishing an untoned cyanotype, does the varnish turn it purple? Others have reported this effect when using acrylic varnish, and it’s speculated that it might be because the specific type of acrylic varnish is alkaline. Even though the purple tone may be desirable on some prints, they will probably fade because of the alkaline varnish. I will be toning most of my prints, but I’m still worried about prints possibly fading.

    • I have to look up the brand name (and will post it later) but I haven’t had any problem with purple. I do dilute the varnish a good bit with distilled water. I’m pretty sure it’s the Golden brand in a gel format, but I’ll have to find the jar to confirm the type of varnish.

      • Thanks! I tried Liquitex satin acrylic varnish but it was too alkaline, even diluted with water it bleached the cyanotype. I’m testing renaissance varnish now, but I’m not sure I like using it.. it emits a fairly strong petroleum odor while working with it. It doesn’t bleach though, and it’s easy to apply. I would like to compare it to an acrylic varnish that doesn’t bleach the print.

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