This is what failure looks like


Well, this blog has gone beyond abandoned to bereft, forlorn, and all those nasty adjectives that make me feel super guilty.  I’m sorry I haven’t posted in so long.  I’m even more sorry that I haven’t been able to actually do any work.

Brief update – we now have 3 kids, and the last, Kelton, is 11 month old now.  If trying to keep up with 2 kids was crazy then dealing with 3 under the age of four is insane.  I’m just now starting to catch my breath and start inching toward beginning my cyanotype work again.  I wanted to enter some photographs into the recent county fair here ( I know, quaint! that’s the best I can do right now!) and I was seriously depressed to only find pictures of my kids that I could work with.  Good pictures of my kids, true, but very one-note.  So…here’s to new beginnings and grand promises that I probably won’t be able to keep.

So, first I have to admit: these aren’t my photographs.  Nope!  But it doesn’t really matter because you can’t tell what they’re supposed to be anyway.  We hosted a French exchange student this summer, and while she was here we tried printing some of her photographs in cyanotype.  Wow, what a difference location makes!

I vividly remember struggling with the heavily chlorinated water in NY when I printed, but I finally found the process that worked for that set-up.  Here it’s totally different.  We tried to print using the same process and the prints looked like we fogged them in direct sunlight for a minute or more.  It was bad!

There seems to be some sort of chemical reaction in this water as well.  I’m not a chemist, so I can’t explain what the problem is.  So far, it looks like I’m going to have to do a single coat of emulsion, maybe skip the sizing, and probably adjust my curve to account for wonky effects.

I have a Herculean task ahead anyway due to a new printer.  It’s not an HP, so I can’t hope that the ink is the same.  It’s a very basic Epsom workhorse that we needed for office stuff, although it prints fairly decent photographs too.  I’m probably going to be working through a ton of charts as I figure out how this Epsom printer does with digital negatives.  And since I have almost nil free time that’s going to take a while.  Boring!



I’ve fought with insecurities my entire life, as I think every woman has.  Perhaps some of my demons differ from other women’s and I seem to be accumulating more now that I’m a parent.  Yay for judgmental parents and the infuriating media for disrupting my peaceful stay-at-home mommy  moments!

This particular demon though, is one that I bet a lot of artists deal with whether they admit it or not: am I a “real” artist?  By the way, if I’m not a real artist, where are all the fake artists running around?  Can I join that club?  I bet it would be fun – probably a lot less snobby and most everyone would poke fun at themselves a lot.

Besides, how do you define a “real” artist?  I create art, some of it better than others, therefore I am an artist, right?  Nope.  Validity as an artist is apparently tied directly to how much you’ve exhibited and where, how much you sell – and by extension, what you charge (the higher the better) – and lastly, how you look.  Yup, even art is tied to appearances!

Now, since I haven’t really exhibited much (one solo show, a few group ones) and I don’t sell all that much – low points for prices under $100, that leaves only one category – appearance.  I don’t have brightly colored hair, wear goth outfits, or pierce/tattoo numerous parts of my body.  The truth is, I’m rather boring.  Most days I’m running around in jeans and a simple shirt that’s just a tad fancier than a t-shirt.  I wish I could blame motherhood for my appearance, but honestly, even in college I looked like an english major had wandered into the art department.  It’s certainly not because I have any opinion about said tattoos or piercings – I wish I had gotten a few back in my younger days when it wouldn’t have looked like I was a middle-aged idiot trying to fit in.  And truthfully, I hate needles, and both of those activities involve needles.  I deeply admire someone who lets a person armed with needles do that kind of work on their body – that takes some serious pain suppression.

Appearances aside, I usually have a nagging suspicion that I’m actually posing as an artist.  It’s as if I’m not really, truly one, I just say I am.  And judging by the reactions I get when I say I’m an artist, I don’t pose very well.  I guess this insecurity is a leftover legacy from college, where the professors never gushed over my work like they did other students’ incomprehensible (to me!) work.  What comments I got were usually technical, and more than once I heard a student say in critique “I just don’t get what you’re trying to say here.”  I’m not full of angst, I’m not way “out there,” and I don’t try for shock value.

I work with subjects that interest me or that have a personal emotional impact.  Even when my work has a deep emotional identity, I don’t like showing it, discussing it, or being exorbitantly passionate about it.  That’s just not who I am – and it’s what people seem to expect from an artist.  Actually, people seem to expect artists to be some sort of manic-depressive personality – not that any of the artists I’ve met are.

Most days I placidly go on working and ignore my insecurities, but sometimes they rear up their ugly heads and bite.  Usually just before something important happens that I’m worrying about anyways.

What does that have to do with this image?  Well, since it’s taking me so long to get Project Joy finished, I finally printed out a few 8x10s from the series to show in the current Sow’s Ear Studio group show.  They fit the theme nicely and I was happy with how they turned out.  Did you know it’s really difficult to get cyanotype to print shadow details that well?  This particular image is one that resonates strongly for me – and my inner editing thought process usually takes note of that as one of the better images.  The show is almost over and I’m really late getting this posted, but I’m proud of myself: I finally got back in the printing groove.

And while I may not look like a stereotypical artist, I truly feel the most artistic when I’m in print mode.  Something about watching the images develop makes an impact on those insecurities.


Note: scanning this image seems to have added a lot of dust.  Gak.  Must clean the printer now.

Blue Ribbons



I’m pretty happy right now – I entered 4 images in the fine art category at the Altamont fair (the limit was 4.)  Two of those were cyanotype, and two were black and white images printed at my local Sam’s Club.  Much to my surprise, two of my images won first prize in their respective categories.  Now, honesty compels me to admit that of the three categories, the two I entered (black and white film and digital imaging) combined were only about half the size of the color category.  Bluntly speaking, I had less competition.  Still, one of the officials told me when I went to pick up the images that “the judge just loved your egg photograph.”  Cue the happy dance!


At the risk of getting all artsy and snobby, I have to say it won for a reason: there was a story behind my image, and I believe that it made it more interesting.  Someone once told me that every piece of art needs a story behind it, and he was right.  Granted, he made up his stories, but his premise was still true.  Every conceptual image, at least, needs to make you wonder, make you think.  It’s not enough for me to rely on the process being interesting – the image has to be good, interesting, evocative – the process is only the trappings.  Which is why my image won, instead of the salt print image of someone’s dog.  (At least I think it was a salt print, could have been a Van Dyke process.)

The story behind this image is highly personal, and I don’t think I’ve shared the details except to a few people.  It started with this piece that I did for my Verba series:

"Dolori" - Verba series, Coffee Toned Cyanotype, 15x15

The Verba series, not surprisingly, was based on writings I had done at key points in my life: usually low points.  The image doesn’t show the poem very well, so I’ll transcribe it here for convenience’s sake:

My body is a tomb / a grave of dead hopes.

I watched the beating heart of dreams / fade into nothing.

I have no tears left /my heart is weeping still.

How can I go on living, / knowing I have given birth to death?

I wrote this poem one night when I was still dealing with the emotional aftermath of literally watching my unborn child die.  One day the ultrasound showed a strongly beating heart, the next day, something happened. While an early miscarriage might be nature’s gentle way of dealing with  a baby that can’t survive, the emotional toll certainly isn’t gentle.

When we found out that Corbin was coming, I decided to document his birth in the same way that I documented my miscarriage.  From the very beginning of my creative process, I stuck with this one image.  It now hangs in his nursery.

As happy as I am to have Corbin, I still grieve over the child that didn’t live.  That bittersweet emotion was behind every creative decision in Nesting – from the set up to the lighting.  I’d like to think that some of that story shows in the image, but I’m sure most people look at it and say “oh, an egg in a nest, how cute.”


So that’s the story behind the image that won first in the Black and White division at the Altamont fair.  The Digital Imaging division winner’s story is simpler:  I challenged myself to create a series of things you wouldn’t expect to see in a photograph – and you wouldn’t recognize them either.

They’re forks – salad forks, actually!



Cyanotype toning: the basics


“No one but a vandal would print a landscape in red, or in cyanotype.” (Peter Henry Emerson: Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art, London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, 1889) Citation courtesy of Luminous Lint/Mike Ware

I happen to agree with Mr. Emerson so I tone pretty much all of my cyanotypes.  I have several posts about different toners and how they (generally) look, but this post will go over the basic process of toning and try to troubleshoot a few common problems. 

Toning a cyanotype involves two basic steps: a bleach phase, and a toning phase.  Every toner I know of contains some type of tannin in it: tannin chemically binds to the iron in the emulsion and changes the color.  If I understand this process correctly, it produces a form of gallic acid – used in dyes and inks, especially medieval ones.  I’ve read that gallic acid is normally corrosive, but I’ve never found this to be the case with toned cyanotypes.

If you’re concerned about the archival quality of your toned cyanotypes, Dr. Mike Ware (inventor of the “New” cyanotype process) has said that his family photo albums contain what he’s pretty certain are toned cyanotypes – because they look very similar to other alternative processes it’s easy to confuse with Van Dyke prints or Kallitype prints.  I’ve personally never had issues with mine – I’ll get back to you in some 20 years or so and see if that’s still the case. 

Keep in mind that toners are funny things – you can mix and match things, you can vary the sequence of bleach and toner and get different results.  I have a lot of good results with simply leaving the prints in the toner for long periods of time without bleaching at all.  Take things one at a time – don’t try to tone or bleach multiple prints together.  Experiment and have fun with it!  Just remember that the key to a successful toned print is to wash well between steps. 

1. Toning Preparations:

Before you start your toning, always:

  • Age your prints at least 24 hours for the emulsion to harden.
  • Pre-wet your prints in filtered water to allow the solutions to penetrate the paper fibers evenly.
  • It’s a good idea to have multiple prints – toning is fickle, you never know what you’re going to get.
  • Plan to leave the print face down for long periods of toning, or plan enough time to “babysit” the print – agitate it while face up in the toner.

2. The Bleach Phase:

Bleaching is a tricky thing.  The purpose of bleaching is to help break down the iron a little so that the tannin in the toner can “grab on” easily.  If your water is heavily chlorinated, you may not even need to bleach your prints.

How much you bleach really depends on how you coat, how much emulsion is on the paper, and what toner you’re using.  If you bleach too far, you lose shadow density.  If you bleach too little, your shadows will stay a stubborn blue shade while your highlights cooperate.

Bleach types: the most common form of bleach solution is Sodium Carbonate.  That’s Washing Soda, usually found in your grocery store’s cleaner aisle, or at a photography chemical supply store.   Don’t confuse this with Sodium Bicarbonate – baking soda – it won’t react the same way. 

Other types of bleach that I’ve used are Ammonia and regular chlorine bleach.  Ammonia stinks, horribly, and usually produces a browner image.  Chlorinated bleach destroys paper fibers and is better left to your laundry. 

My typical bleach solution is about 1-2 teaspoons of Sodium Carbonate combined with 1 Liter of water.  If your print turns a bright purple the second you place it in the solution, it’s too strong.   Play with the solution until you’re comfortable with the rate of bleaching.  As you practice bleaching, you’ll notice that it’s a good idea to yank the print out a few seconds before you think it’s ready – the print will continue to bleach a bit while starting to rinse. 

Always rinse the print well in running water between the bleach phase and the toning phase.

3. The Toning Phase:

All cyanotype toners are pretty much variations on a black/brown/purple theme.  Certain toners are more efficient and stain less, while other toners produce a wider range of possible colors.  Keep in mind that all toners will stain your paper base a little despite your best efforts.  (please note that the following links lead to blog post about the toners, or examples of the toner shade.)

Tea toner:  Most tea toners that I use are brewed for about 10 minutes in  25o mL of hot water, then added to a 1.5 Liter of room temperature filtered water.  I use about 8-10 small tea bags, not a very accurate measurement!  Every type of tea has a different quality or color to it – make sure that you use teas with tannin in them like black tea or green tea – white tea, red tea, and most herbal teas don’t have enough tannin to do anything to your print. 

Green tea produces an eggplant/black shadow, and is so mild that it doesn’t stain the paper base too badly.  If you’re toning a high key image, green tea will sometimes produce a really cool pink highlight.  It has a tendency to split tone for me because of my double coat of emulsion. 

Black tea will stain your paper the most, but it produces a lovely warm black/brown shade that’s nearly impossible to get anywhere else.  I generally use a Lipton tea product for iced tea, but any black tea will work.  If you want an easy split toner with warm highlights and blue shadows, black tea is the fastest way to get it.  

Earl Grey tea: avoid this one – it has a lot of oils in it that can damage your print.

Tea toners work really well with a minimum of bleaching, but they do require a longer immersion for the iron to shift.  I normally tone prints in tea for about 2 hours, but depending on the print, it’s taken up to 8 hours.  Some people suggest that tea toners should be hot for a faster toner – in my experience that shaves about 30 minutes off the toning time, and stains the paper much worse.   It’s a good idea to let the print sit in clean filtered water for about 10 minutes before the final rinse to help remove some of the excess tannin.  All tea toners should be used freshly brewed – they lose potency after a day and should not be reused.

Tannic Acid Toner:  This stuff is a royal pain to work with.  It can produce the closest thing to a true black, but it’s far more likely to screw up, or produce a weird purply brown shade.  It has the widest range of color tones that I’ve seen in a toner, but you have absolutely no control over what you get.  Be extremely careful how much bleaching you do, because this toner is totally unforgiving if you go the slightest bit too far.  

Done well, this toner produces the least paper staining – however, I’ve run into some chemical issues that I don’t quite understand that leave my paper the shade of cardboard.  (I’ve narrowed it down to interactions with the tap water, or the age of the toner.)

Tannic Acid is produced from wood chips, and is extremely hard to mix into a solution.  It’s a gummy mess.  Because of this it’s difficult to estimate how much I use, but generally about a Tablespoon mixed into a Liter of water is a good place to start (and then remove the gummy bits.)  A good tannic acid solution should be almost clear, and will take a minute of sitting in filtered water to fully tone out.  Toning times for tannic acid are usually quite short.

If mixed with distilled water, tannic acid toner will last for a few weeks/months.  A little mold is normal, just filter the solution every time you use it.  Once the solution starts turning a dark brown or granulating (tiny little granules appear – not sure what they are) it’s time to start fresh.  Tannic acid is also quite expensive, and only available at a photography chemical supply store like Photographer’s Formulary. 

Coffea Toner: I love coffee toner.  It’s a cold toner, as opposed to the warmer tea shades, and it leaves the paper pretty close to the original color.  It will still stain, just not as badly as tea.  Coffee doesn’t produce a true black, but more of a blue/black like a blackbird’s feathers.  The highlights will stay pretty clean so make sure your contrast is good and your highlights aren’t blown out. 

I generally use the cheapest instant coffee I can find – about 4-5 heaping tablespoons of instant coffee dissolved into 250 mL of hot water, then added to 1.5 Liters filtered room temperature water.  I’ve read that other people have great success re-brewing used coffee grounds – since I don’t drink coffee I can’t exactly test this. 

Coffee toner doesn’t seem to take quite as long as tea toner, but expect at least an hour of toning, perhaps more.  Again, it’s a good idea to let the print rest in a water bath before the final rinse.

Wine Tannin: This is my new favorite toner, and I don’t have that much experience with it yet.  So far, it produces a nice dark shadow and a brown/tan highlight on a fairly regular basis.  It can be rather fickle if you keep the solution for a long period of time, so I suggest storing this toner no more than a month. 

Wine tannin is basically the same thing as tannic acid, but produced from a different source.  It’s designed to use in microbrewing so it mixes into solution a lot easier.  It leaves the paper almost paper white, producing almost no staining.  It’s slightly cheaper than tannic acid, but since it requires more to produce the same effect – half an ounce of wine tannin mixed into 1 L of water – the price is probably pretty close.  I use the powdered version, but some stores have a liquid solution available. 

Wine tannin has a tendency to put any coating discrepancies on display.  Unless I use the Christopher James variation listed in the link (toss the print into the tannin instead of bleaching first) I lose some of my highlight detail.  Like the tannic acid, it works pretty quickly.  Wine tannin also has a weird chemical reaction that can turn my paper to a cardboard brown, requiring a water bath before the final rinse. 


1. My print looks faded!  What happened?  You probably bleached the print too far.  Try test strips in varying times to get a better idea of what works – the ideal is to tone your shadows dark without losing highlight details.  Usually this means bleaching until the shadows are a dark purple and the highlights are slightly yellow.

2. I left the print in the toner forever, but it’s still blue!  What now?  Rinse the print for at least 5 minutes and go back to the bleach bath.  After bleaching again – just a little, rinse it again for 5 minutes and put it back in the toner.  Your initial bleach probably didn’t break the iron down enough.

3. The print toned nicely, but now that it’s dry I hate it!  Why does it look so flat?  I don’t know why, but that’s normal for a toned cyanotype.  Try brushing a diluted solution of acrylic gloss medium onto the print to bring back the shadow depth and give the surface a little shine.  It will look like it did when the print was wet.

4. Why can’t I produce the same results each time?  What am I doing wrong?  Nothing.  That’s a quirk of toning.  If you have a batch of prints that need to look similar, try toning them all at the same time with the same solution.  Otherwise you run the risk of variations that you may or may not like.  If you’re still having issues, stick with the basic tea toner – it’s a little less fickle.

5. My print looks mottled – it didn’t tone evenly.  What’s going on?  If you’re leaving the print in the toner for a long period of time, make sure you place it face down.  Paper floats oddly, and you may end up with “dry” spots that don’t tone evenly.  If you’re toning face up, make sure you agitate the print constantly.

6. My print has a bright blue round spot on it!  Yup, the curse of the air bubble strikes again.  Make sure the print is lying face down – ease the print into the toner slowly and work all the air bubbles out past the far edge.  If you already have the blue spot on it, try a quick rinse, bleach bath, and return the print to the toner for a bit to remove the blue.

7. My shadows are blah.  What happened to my perfect exposure?  Your original shadows need to be a nice, deep, cobalt blue to tone dark.  If your shade of cyanotype isn’t dark enough, it’s not going to tone well.  Read this tutorial and do some experimenting with your paper and your developer first before you try toning again.

Cyanotype: basic process tutorial

Technically this should be a handy little video.  Since that involves a video camera and me actually talking (horrors!) I settled for some illustrating pics instead.  I’ve been meaning to do a little tutorial of my process for a while and finally got the camera out yesterday while printing.

I’ll go through the entire process from coating to drying, with some troubleshooting tips at the very bottom.  Again, I’m not an expert.  This is how I do things – they work for me, but your variables may differ.  A large part of the fun of working with alternative processes is what happens when you experiment.

1. Coating the paper

I don’t have pics of this, mainly because it was dark while I was doing it.   I double coat my paper with a Japanese hake (brush.)  The key to this process is to do it swiftly, carefully, and don’t glop emulsion.  It’s a good idea to tint some water a light green color with watercolor and practice your strokes.  Coat under a low light situation: I use a strand of small garden lights – Christopher James says a strand of Christmas tree lights.

My coating method is: strokes across the entire sheet, then down the entire sheet.  This evenly distributes the emulsion.  It’s a good idea to shake off excess emulsion or drag the brush over the edge of your container to keep from putting too much emulsion on: it doesn’t take much.  After the paper goes matte (a minute or so) repeat the process for the second coat.  Be very careful not to grind the brush into the first coat.

Let the paper dry flat for at least 1 hour, preferably 2 in a dark room.  No lights.  After the paper is bone dry (don’t touch the emulsion!) put it in a light safe bag overnight.  The emulsion needs to age for a little bit, but not over a day or so.  Drying with a blow dryer and subsequently printing should be avoided.

2. Exposing the image

I always test the print time with a simple test strip before I start printing.  I know the basic print time for my images – my digital process is streamlined enough that (if prepared correctly) all my prints should need the exact same print time if the conditions are the same.  It’s best to print in full sun, but any sort of UV exposure will work.  Cloudy weather is a little more unpredictable and will take a minimum of double your sunny exposure time.

Always load your negative under low light – once the paper is sensitive you risk fogging the paper: lightly exposing the paper so that you lose contrast and highlights.

The negative needs to be held flat and still on the paper.  An expensive hinged contact printing frame is nice, but not necessary for cyanotype.  My printing frames are simple glass held together with bulldog clips – make sure you don’t use UV resistant glass.

I try to angle my printing frames to match the sun so that the exposure is even.  I’ve heard this increases the contrast, but since my digital negative adjust for that I have no idea how much this affects my prints.

A properly exposed print will reverse:   the highlights and midtones will turn a green/blue, while the shadows look slightly solarized.  A single coated paper will turn the light brown that you see on the edges of this print, while a double coat will go a darker green.  It should look overexposed, because part of the emulsion washes off.

3. Developing the print

I use a 1:10 ratio of vinegar to water for my developer because of the pH of my tap water.  A little vinegar is good, too much will turn the paper into a slightly graded paper and affect your contrast.  No vinegar will produce a slightly lighter blue.

Drop the print into the developer face up and agitate.  Don’t let the water sit still: emulsion will pool and stain your highlights.  Keep agitating until the print has turned completely blue: your highlights may still stain a little yellow, that’s ok.  Drop the print face first in a filtered water bath for at least 5 minutes to finish the development process and allow the water to fully penetrate the paper fibers.

If you look carefully at this image, you’ll see that it’s slightly overexposed and a light shade of blue.  All cyanotypes need to oxidize before they reach their true color – after the water bath, you can accelerate this process by dropping the print into a weak (a capful per liter of water) bath of hydrogen peroxide.  The overexposure will be slightly bleached by my nasty chlorinated tap water in the final rinse – I slightly over-expose to compensate for this.

4. Final Rinse

I final rinse all my prints for at least 10 minutes in running water (face down.)  This clears out the last of the chemicals left over by the development process.  Be careful when picking up the prints: a wet cyanotype will smear emulsion if you touch it.  Once the print dries and hardens, rewetting will not result in more smears.  I usually let my prints rest on blotting paper for a few minutes to soak up the majority of the water, then drip dry on a line until fully dry.

If you plan to tone your prints, let them age/harden for at least 24 hours before you tone.

5. Troubleshooting issues

  • My entire print washed off in the developer, what did I do wrong?   You didn’t expose long enough for the image to fix.  Try a few test strips with stepped increments to find the best printing time.  Don’t be surprised if your printing time is long for a really dense negative.
  •  My image has far too much contrast: You need to adjust your negative.  For ortho film, use filters when printing (it’s been a while, I think you make a super low contrast negative.)  For film negs, try vinegar.  Lots of vinegar.  For digital negatives, read this blog post.
  • My coated paper is dark green/blue/anything but light green when I go to print: dark green usually means contaminated chemicals.  Blue means it got wet – high humidity will do this, or bagging before the print is fully dry. Best case, recoat and try again.  Worst case, you need to remix your chemicals and be super careful to avoid contamination.
  • Why does my print look washed out? Different papers will produce different color tones of blue.  Try Canson Montval if you want my shade of blue – avoid cheap art papers because they will have more chemicals in them that interact with your emulsion.  Also try double coating for deeper shadows.  As in all photography, if your negative isn’t perfect, your print won’t be either.  Make sure your contrast on the negative is perfect. 
  • My image is blurry! Is your negative completely squashed against the paper?  Did it move during printing?  Are you using the negative correctly? (i.e. facing the paper on the correct side – for digital, ink-to-emulsion works best.)  Remember, cyanotype is part of the paper and the paper “tooth” becomes part of the image.  If the paper is particularly rough, try sizing it before you coat with emulsion for a clearer image. 
  • My print stained.  What went wrong? Proper washing is key.  Sometimes your rinse water will react to the emulsion – if this is the case, let it sit in a filtered water bath for a while longer.  Make sure you never reuse your developer – always prepare fresh water/vinegar for each print or risk a blue stain.  
  • Ack! My negative is dusty/shows fingerprints!  I usually wear light cotton gloves when working with my digital negatives.  If I notice a problem, usually the gloves will clean the negative without damaging it.  Dust/fur/brush bristles in the emulsion are far more a problem for me – duplicate prints are a good idea, especially if you plan to tone.  
  • My cyanotype print faded after a few months.  Cyanotypes like a slightly acidic environment, and sun will fade the print.  Shove the print into a book for a few days and let it sit: it should come back to its normal color.
  • I hate the flatness of my prints.  Is there anything I can do to make them shiny? Yes!  Try brushing a half-and-half diluted solution of acrylic gloss medium on a finished print.  This works really well with toned images, bringing out the shadow depth.  If you’re using a single coat of emulsion, try adding a tiny bit of gloss to the emulsion before you coat.  Mix well, or you’ll get streaks – you may have uneven toning issues with this method as well.
  • I don’t have a lot of sun in my area.  Can I use a facial tanning device to expose my prints? Yes, you can, but it’s not a good idea.  UV exposure units need to be built specifically for alternative processes or you risk exposure to yourself, uneven prints, and limited printing size.  You can build your own unit if you’re an electrician, otherwise, check out photo supply stores like Photographer’s Formulary or Freestyle Photographic Supplies and be prepared to pay a lot.  Like, $600 minimum. 
  • Why can’t I just buy precoated paper/prepared emulsion?  You can.  It’s just not ideal or cost effective.  Cyanotype is so cheap and safe (within chemical safety guidelines) that it’s better to mix your own and coat your own if you plan to make a habit of it.  Pre-mixed cyanotype emulsion uses the traditional formula – generally a slightly altered formula works better.  Mine (from college, thanks prof!) is listed here.
  • Um…my B solution is growing mold.  Is this a problem?  Nope, just filter it before you mix the emulsion.  Always make sure you mix solutions A and B with distilled water to avoid chemical contamination, but mold is normal.  Not a problem.
  • Why can’t I just mix up  the entire solution instead of mucking around with solutions A and B? Because it’s light sensitive and it starts to degrade about a day after you mix it.  Best to keep them separate – they last for years.  Just remember to lightly swish the solutions before you start pouring – some chemicals settle to the bottom.

Cyanotype toning: Wine Tannin

It probably looks like I have an obsession with toning – I don’t.  Not really.  Among all the reasons that I love working with cyanotype, the bright blue color isn’t one of them.  So, I have to tone my images.  Though I like the shades of black/brown/purple that I get from toning, I’m always looking for a toner that won’t stain the paper and ruin my highlights.   

So far, I’ve been pleased with basic toners like green tea, coffee, and black tea.  Tannic acid works well – when I can get it to work.  It’s also expensive.  I don’t use tannic acid much these days.  The biggest problem with all of these toners is they all stain the paper really badly, tannic acid a little less. 

I’m happy to say that my recent test of Wine Tannin looks good.  I won’t say it’s the holy grail of cyanotype toning, but it barely stained the paper.  The dark shadows still have a hint of purple like the tannic acid, but the results seem to be more reliable and easy to replicate.  Unlike tannic acid, it dissolves quite easily into a water solution.  No clumpy blots and endless mixing. 

That’s probably because of where I bought it.  Wine tannin is, like the name implies, designed for micro brewing.  As I understand it, it’s produced from wine skins.  Added to a home-brewed wine, it adds a dryness and tang that I would assume is naturally found in a traditional crushed grape wine procedure.  Not that I’m any expert on wine brewing!  But, it is intended to be mixed into a wine/juice solution, so it stirs in easily.

Tannic acid, on the other hand, is produced from wood chips.  I would assume from woods rich in tannin like oak – as I understand it, you can tan hide in an oak stump filled with water.  It’s sold at Photographer’s Formulary, where I get my cyanotype supplies, and it’s in a chemical form that doesn’t mix well with liquids.  It’s also pretty strong compared to wine tannin. 

Wine tannin comes in both liquid and powder form – I was only able to find a local source for the powder form. 


  • 1/2 oz. powered wine tannin
  • 1 Liter of filtered water

Bleach bath:

  • About 1 Tbsp washing soda (sodium carbonate – not sodium bicarbonate, that’s baking soda)
  • 1.5 Liter water

Several different toning methods work well with the wine tannin, but I had the most luck with a variation of Christopher James’ #3 black toner because of my double emulsion coat.

  • Pre-wet the image
  • Dunk the image into the toner solution until the highlights go tan – about 5-10 minutes.
  • rinse for 5 minutes
  • Bleach the solution until the shadows go purple – not too long, about 30-60 seconds
  • rinse for 5 minutes
  • Dunk the print in a weak hydrogen peroxide solution for about 30 seconds
  • return the print to the toner until the shadows go black,  about 15 minutes
  • final rinse for 10 minutes

Bleaching a print seems to be required with this toner – always a delicate operation because you run the risk of losing highlights and shadow density if you go too far.  I theorize that because you tone the highlights first, the tannin binds to the iron and resists bleaching while the shadows are broken down enough to take the toner.

Cyanotype Digital Negatives: a basic how-to

According to WordPress, a lot of people have been searching for some variation of the title of this post and end up coming to my blog.  While a lot of them stay around and click a few things (and you guys are most welcome!) I don’t think that they’re finding what they’re looking for because none of my posts to date have actually spelled out my process for digital negatives.  I think it’s time to delve into the technical details and explain exactly how I’ve gotten to this point.

To start, I should emphasize that when I say “digital negative,” I don’t mean a digital image as opposed to a film image.  Well, I do, sort of, but what I’m really talking about is an OHP (overhead transparency) printed on an inkjet printer.  In fact, I don’t use film at all in my process.  All of my images are taken with a digital camera, minimally processed in an editing program for basic darkroom edits, and then printed as a negative for cyanotype.

So.  Technical details.

I use the simplest process for digital negatives – I’ve heard it called the RNP process in alt forums, as opposed to the Quad tone process or Precision Digital Negative process.  For those with a lot of money and a nice Epson printer, the Quad tone is probably a better bet because you can precisely regulate the amount of ink (density) that goes on your negative.

I, however, have a simple HP all-in-one printer.  Nothing fancy.

What that means is that I regulate density by picking the most effective UV blocking color for my printer and applying a harsh correctional curve to my images.

If you want step by step instructions on how to pick the best color for your printer (because they all vary) go to Michael Koch’s website.  Read everything.  If you’re interested in the technical details of how he worked out the HSL color array cone and applied it to alt printing, go to his other page for more reading.  If you need a downloadable version of the HSL color array, go here.  If it wasn’t for this guy, I would have been utterly lost.  His generosity made it easy for me to work out my own issues. (edit: Michael Koch’s website is down, so I linked a JPG copy of the HSL file.  I’ll try to add more detailed instructions soon on how to use it.)

Once I picked out a good color after cyanotype printing the HSL color array, I began the exhausting process of fine-tuning it.  Since my version of Photoshop is so old that it can’t support the handy little Chartthrob script, I had to manually craft a step chart of gradients from 0% to 100% – the tonal range of an image.

My first step chart was woefully off – I had far too much pure white showing and not enough midtones and shadows.  So, I tweaked it, gradually moving up the HSL color line I had chosen until I got a really good range of tones.  That meant that I was awash in identical cyanotype gradient charts for days – it’s a really good idea to label each one or you’ll go crazy.

Once I had the perfect color, I began to extrapolate the information on the step chart to craft my own destructive curve.  Because I use a slightly different process than most people who I’ve “met” on the internet (double coat of emulsion, sized with arrowroot sizing) my process was not only more contrasty than normal, but requires a dense negative.  (in a later workshop a student used an ortho film negative with my process with no problems.  That’s not normal.)  Making my own curve instead of relying on the basic cyanotype curve from the Alternative Photography website allowed me to customize my negative to my process.

Basically, if the chart said that 58% of the color really printed out in cyanotype as 35%, the curve would adjust for that and allow all the tones to print.  It’s that simple.

Once I had the right curve and color, setting up my negatives is a really simple process.

  1. Get the original image perfect.  Set it up as Black and White, but not Monochrome.
  2. Apply the saved curve.  Ignore how it looks – it’s appalling.
  3. Invert the image (I use a 16-bit, RGB setup – for some reason CMYK inverts really oddly.)
  4. Flip the image horizontally (the ink must be surface-to-surface contact to avoid blurriness.)
  5. Apply the color by using the Edit>Fill>Screen option.
  6. Print!  (on the proper side, printer set to Matte Photo Paper option, max DPI)

I don’t just print on any overhead transparency though, I use Arista II, the Freestyle photo version of Pictorio, the brand a lot of the big guys in the hybrid alt community use.  I’ve tried Pictorio, but Arista works just as well for me and is a little cheaper.   Both types have a special coating on one side that holds the ink instead of letting it slither all over the place.

I store all of my negatives in acid-free sleeve protectors, and so far, I’ve used them multiple times with no issues.  Who knows how long they’ll last, but if something drastic happens I can always print another negative.  It’s cheaper and easier than working with Ortho-film in a darkroom – which I have done, and hated.

Note: It’s not necessary to go the whole technical step chart route – sometimes a printer works just fine with a little color added.  Start out simple and test the basic black photo ink for density, then tweak with a little color (avoid blues and purples, usually yellows/greens/oranges are the best UV blocking colors on most printers.)

If you have any questions about my process, or any questions that I might be able to help with, feel free to email me at  I’m not an expert – but I’ll do my best to answer 🙂

Accidental Split toning: Cyanotypes



One of the things I love about alternative photography techniques is the unpredictable nature of the beast.  The same “recipe” for a toner may produce completely consistent results, or it may produce something so weird and wacky that I simply can’t duplicate it.

I’m pretty sure that’s what happened with this batch of toner.   I have most of the variables locked into place due to routine, including how long I steep the tea, how many tea bags go into the toner, and how much filtered water goes into the final toner bath.  Still, for whatever reason, things go wrong – or produce what my alt teacher in college called a “happy accident.” 

Of course, you can try to force a split tone with a bunch of toner baths (several types listed in Christopher’s James’ book) but this toner was a simple tea toner.   Nothing special or exotic, so the results surprised me.

It seems that my habit of double coating the paper made this split tone more visible.  Areas with slightly more emulsion went lighter, while the edges of the first coat turned the standard black of a tea toned cyanotype.  My highlights are warm tea tones, and the mid tones mostly went tea as well.  If I had left the print in the toner longer, it would (probably) have eventually become a more uniform hue. 

As always, the scanned image emphasizes certain tonal variations as well as paper tooth.

Image: “Nesting,” cyanotype

Size: 7×10 digital negative

Paper: double coated emulsion on Canson Montval Watercolor paper, arrowroot sized

Toner: Straight black tea toner.  (8 small teabags steeped in 8 oz boiling water, added to 1.5 liters of filtered water.)  No bleaching stage used.  Toned for 5 hours – abnormally long for me.

Cyanotypes and digital negatives

I went to a show opening this weekend, and as always, got into some interesting conversations with other show attendees.  It’s amazing the people you can meet at something as simple as a gallery reception.

Anyway, one of these conversations inadvertently ended up on the subject of my work – cyanotypes.  As it happens, the person I was talking to had some knowledge of traditional photography and already knew what a cyanotype was.  Pretty surprising, given how esoteric of a craft it is.  We delved a little into the specifics of my process, and I happened to mention that I use digital negatives.  Her instant response was skepticism: how could that look like a “real” cyanotype? (paraphrasing)

I wanted to laugh.  If I had a dollar for every time I heard that, I would be a very rich artist indeed.

It’s funny that the world of traditional photography clings so stubbornly to its belief that anything digital is anathema and low quality.  It’s especially funny since the best known process today, black and white silver-based photography, was itself sneered at by those who put in the time and effort to produce laborious wet plate or dry plate emulsions. 

Photography has always been characterized by innovation: hybrid processes like my cyanotype negatives carry that tradition along on a new frontier.  And I have to say, some of the pioneers of hybrid processes produce work that’s simply stunning. 

For example, Mark Nelson, a photographer who works with precision digital negatives (slightly different process than I use) prints spectacular images in platinum/palladium.  For serious traditional photographers, platinum/palladium is the Lexus of printing – the best quality with a corresponding price tag. 

Dan Burkholder works with digital negatives in a platinum over gold leaf process – exquisite, different, and rich images.   A lot of his more recent work is done with the Iphone – he’s clearly a pioneer in all things digital.

Another pioneer, Ron Reeder, (caution, do not click link if nudes bother you) works mostly with Palladium prints, sometimes with an additional layer of gum bichromate for a touch of color.  Reeder uses a quad-tone digital process to print his negatives – a highly precise application of ink for exact control of his negatives. 

All of these artists have the funds to work with a traditional darkroom negative but they use digital negatives.  I think that the level of control over a digital negative may be partially why.  Clearly, these 3 artists are extremely picky about their images – and they wouldn’t use a digital negative if it was inferior.  It’s rather funny that my process, cyanotype, is typically viewed by most hybrid artists as simple and less beautiful.

A digital negative can’t be dismissed as low quality off-hand.  Like everything else digital, the devil’s in the details (or the quality.)  While I don’t measure up to the caliber of photographer that these three are, I still try to convince the skeptics – one person at a time – that digital negatives are the next evolutionary step of alternative processes.

Print details:

Size: 7×10 negative

Process: cyantype, double coated Canson Montval watercolor paper

Bristles and test prints

Apparently I’m out of practice at printing cyanotypes.  That’s ok though, because this image was really just a test print to see if I’m happy with the composite look.   After a few months of preparation and pure laziness, Project Joy is finally in the pipeline to be printed.  Assuming I like the composite.

I’m still not really sure if I do like it or not.  Although the composite look fits my overall concept (this project will be combined with some of my grandmother’s images, also in a composite/puzzle format) I’m still not totally happy with the broken image.  I need to decide now if I’m going with a composite look or if I’m going to attempt to have someone else print my negatives in a larger size (and pay out the nose for it.)

Either way, I need to ditch my sizing brush and rethink how to coat the paper.  Despite being pre-treated with wood glue to eliminate shedding, there are still an inordinate amount of hair-like bristles floating around and ruining the print.  I even had trouble with my new batch of sizing glopping all over the place and ruining the finish.  For such a simple process, I seem to find ways of making things harder on myself. 

Print information:

Paper: Canson Montval watercolor, sized with Arrowroot sizing

Emulsion: cyanotype, double coated

Size: 14″x19″

Negative(s): digital inkjet negative printed on Arista OHP