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How to Make Sun Prints from Any Object in Your Home (or Yard)

September 17, 2015

Known as cyanotypes, these blue prints feel like magic to make.

rinne allen

Years ago in college, I learned how to make light drawings, or "sun prints" as they are commonly called, using an alchemistic process that uses light sensitive chemicals combined with sunlight to render an image on paper. This simple process was one of the earliest photographic processes, relying on just the basic principles of photography without using a camera—in fact, this process eventually led to the invention of the camera.

Some of you may be familiar with photograms and the process here is the same. These photographic prints can be made in shades of blue, sepia, or black, but today I'm going to talk about how to make the blue ones, called cyanotpyes.

cyanotype rinne allen

What you'll need:

A low-light area (like your home at night; instructions for setting one up during the day, below) 
Gloves and an apron, optional
Light-sensitive cyanotype solution (I prefer to order it in two parts that you mix together in equal parts, but you can also find it pre-mixed.)
An opaque bowl or bucket, for mixing solution
Thick watercolor paper
A wide, cheap paintbrush, for painting the solution on the paper
A heavy black trash bag, for storing coated papers
Leaves, flowers, or scraps of lace (any object you want to print in silhouette!)
A piece of glass, like one from a picture frame, for holding down the objects (optional)
Tray or baking sheet
A sunny day

How to make your own cyanotypes:

1. Set up a low-light room in your house.

I do this process in a darkroom, but you may do it in any space you have available that has no UV light (sunlight or light bulbs) present.

An interior room without windows, like a bathroom or a basement, would work well. You can place a few small candles in the room to shed just enough light to see what you're doing—though I mix the solution and paint it onto the paper in complete darkness when necessary. It is kind of a fun experience! 

cyanotype in progress rinne allen

2. Mix the solution. 

There are readily available kits for making cyanotypes (called sun-print kits), as well as easy-to-brush-on light sensitive emulsions like Lumi’s inkodye, but I prefer mixing my chemicals from scratch. To do so, order cyanotype emulsion from a photo-supply store, which often comes in two parts that you mix together

When you're ready, take your solution supplies and an opaque bucket into the low-light room and mix them according to the instructions on the bottle (you might read the instructions before you go into the dark). The solution will last a few months sealed up in the opaque container and stored in a dark place, so you can wait for a sunny day to come along. 

One thing to note: These are chemicals, so be careful and wear gloves. The pigment will stain clothing, so it is also wise to wear a smock or apron.

3. Coat your paper. 

In the low-light room, paint one side of each piece of paper with the chemical solution, taking care to ensure it's well-coated, and allow the paper to dry overnight. (I would dedicate an inexpensive craft brush to this process and not use it for anything else.)

Once the paper is coated it is sensitive to sunlight, so you must take care to keep it in the dark until you are ready to begin making your prints. (You can stack and store the sheets in a heavy black plastic trash bag to keep the light out. It will last for months or even a year this way, so long as no light gets in the bag.

leaves for cyanotype  feathers for cyanotype rinne allen

4. Gather objects. 

Once you have coated your paper, the next step is to collect the specimens that you want to turn into prints. I often use cuttings from my garden, but I have also used old lace, and I have even asked my children to hold very still and place their hands on the paper (the chemicals are safe to touch once dry). Specimens that are flat work best, but sometimes you can get good effects from things that are more 3-D. 

cyanotype rinne allen

5. Wait for the sun.

Next, you need to wait for a sunny day. I prefer making them around midday when the sun is high in the sky, and often in the summer—as that's when my garden is most bountiful. This can make for a hot day, but I love it.

You may also make these indoors under UV lights, but I do not, since you lose the experience of being outside, which is part of the fun. Inside, you are able to control the light more—for instance, you do not run the risk of clouds passing in front of the sunlight and you can make the light drawings at any time, rain or shine. 

cyanotype rinne allen

6. Expose your sun prints to the light. 

Once your paper is coated in solution and you have gathered your specimens, the process is simple: When you're ready to make the light drawings, open the black trash bag where your paper is being stored and pull out one sheet. Place it, emulsion-side up, on a tray or baking sheet and arrange the specimens on it in the desired pattern, then quickly walk the whole arrangement outside into the sunshine. (You may use a piece of glass if you wish to hold the specimens flat on the paper.)

On a very bright day, you should see development happening almost instantly; the paper will turn grey. After about 5 minutes in bright sun (longer if it is cloudy), the piece is ready for the next step. You may check exposure by carefully lifting up one corner of your specimen to see if there is a color change underneath it.

cyanotypes rinne allen

7. Rinse

A simple water bath rinses the extra chemicals from the paper and fixes the image in place permanently. This wash should take about 20 minutes and can be done outside with a garden hose in the shade, or inside in a sink or darkroom, if you have access to one. 

cyanotype rinse

8. Hang to dry.

Once your print has been thoroughly rinsed, you may hang it to dry. A simple clothesline situation in the yard will make this fly by.

hang cyanotype to dry

I love this process because it gets me out in my yard, is a great way to preserve what is growing in it, and each one is unique and impossible to predict as the process is so alchemistic. It is a nice break from the digital world of photography! Note that sometimes the prints do not work out, as that is the nature of the process, but keep trying…when one finally works you will be so glad you did it.

cyanotypes  cyanotypes rinne allen

How are you making good use of the last long, hot sunny days? Let us know in the comments!

Rinne Allen is a photographer living and working in Athens, Georgia. 

24 Comments

Jenny August 26, 2018
How do you make these in black? Once I get started, I think I could make a hundred prints, it’s such a fascinating process!
 
Chiara C. August 28, 2017
Hi, I found your tutorial super nice so I added it to my collection "Inspirational Tuesday". Of course there's full credit. Hoping that it will make you happy, you can check it here: http://www.chimu.it/2017/07/28/inspirationaltuesday-august-september-17<br /><br />Great job again! :)<br />Chiara Chimù
 
Kate October 9, 2016
Thank you for the tutorial. Inspired by this post I tried this today for the first time. My prints worked out reasonably well but most of my prints were pale blue rather than white like yours. The prints continued to expose after washing. Do you have any tips for keeping the prints as white as possible? I was using Inkodyne on cotton paper. Thanks for the inspiration, it was good fun!
 
Linda I. July 19, 2016
How would you do this project using children's handprints? What a wonderful keepsake it would make!
 
Author Comment
rinne A. July 19, 2016
hi linda, i have made these with kids a lot..!<br />it will take 2 or 3 minutes in bright sun to render their handprint, so they need to be patient...just place their hand on top of the paper and sit in the sunlight...most of the time the children are so excited to see the results that they hang in there and not squirm...have fun!
 
Linda I. August 2, 2016
Have you tried making prints on fabric?
 
Author Comment
rinne A. August 3, 2016
hi linda,<br />yes, i have...to varying degrees of success...there are places online though where you can buy pretreated yardage which may yield better results, and also a product called inkodye that works well on fabric (although it not as vibrant as true cyanotype). good luck!
 
Josef V. October 28, 2015
Hi Rinne, how are you able to get the green hue? Thanks! Josef
 
Author Comment
rinne A. October 29, 2015
hi josef,<br />the green hue that you see in the images above is during development, when the piece is in the sunlight...unfortunately, the color shifts and alot of the yellow tones wash away during the rinsing process. i have experiemented with different techniques to retain the green hue, but none have been reliable thus far!<br />:)<br />rinne<br />
 
Author Comment
rinne A. October 19, 2015
hi joanna,<br />yes, you may delay development...i have never delayed it more than a few hours, myself...but it will be fine if you place it in the dark bag and hold it there for a short while...
 
Joanna October 17, 2015
How much of a delay can there be between exposure and development, if you put it back in a dark bag in between? Does it have to be done right away or could it wait a few hours?
 
Author Comment
rinne A. October 29, 2015
hi joanna,<br />yes, you may delay development...i have never delayed it more than a few hours, myself...but it will be fine if you place it in the dark bag and hold it there for a short while...
 
Robert September 25, 2015
On fabric? Yes! I've used well-washed cotton canvas and also cotton muslin.<br />Two tips, 1. A splash of hydrogen peroxide in the rinse water will intensify the blue. 2. Fantastic spray cleaner will "erase" sections that you dab with a cotton swab. I used this technique in art school (further back than I care to admit) and the prints have lasted. It's a great process.
 
Author Comment
rinne A. October 29, 2015
robert,<br />thanks for sharing your ideas!<br />
 
suzanne September 24, 2015
Curious about the chemical rinse. Slow running water the whole time? And then these chemicals are in your garden? Can the paper just sit in a tub of water? Beautiful results, would love to do some Christmas cards.
 
Author Comment
rinne A. October 29, 2015
hi suzanne,<br />yes, you do need to have the running water during your rinse...the chemicals dissipate in the soil- i usually rinse the prints in the back corner of my yard...good luck!
 
STEFANIE C. September 19, 2015
Can you recommend colored paper that would work also?<br />I have never heard of the paper you are suggesting. Where would I go to ask for it? <br />I love this. Thank you for taking the time to post. I'm already on the lookout for items and frames for one wall in my living room
 
Author Comment
rinne A. October 29, 2015
hi stefanie,<br />this process works best on a thicker paper- i have used thinner paper and the chemicals have washed away...any craft store carries watercolor paper, so it should be fairly easy to find...and, using a colored paper would be beautiful- i just recommend finding one that is archival and sturdy...good luck!
 
Shelley September 18, 2015
Can you use fabric to make the sun prints? If so would you suggest which type of fabric would work best?
 
shaunadaughters September 18, 2015
What a fantastic project! Beautiful prints! I would love to do this as an art project . Do you have a favorite paper you suggest?<br />Thanks
 
Author Comment
rinne A. September 18, 2015
hi shaunadaughters,<br />i prefer a hot-press watercolor paper as it is smoother than cold-press (although the cold-press adds a nice texture). <br /><br />i use an Arches paper, but i encourage you to try some different papers, as they yield different results...<br /><br />have fun!
 
marrison September 17, 2015
They are beautiful, I agree. I especially love the feather. I was all ready to do this until I came to the rinsing step. Rinse for 20 minutes per picture?? That's seems an incredible waste of water when so many are experiencing hardship due to water shortages. I don't mean to be a party-pooper, but water is fast becoming our most precious resource. I hope others will think twice about doing this project.
 
Author Comment
rinne A. September 17, 2015
hi marrison, <br />i understand your concerns about the water usage needed for this project, but i should clarify a bit and say that you may rinse your prints *together* during that 20 minute cycle...i realize that it is still 20 minutes, but it will yield many lifelong-lasting prints at once...<br /><br />unfortunately, many photographic processes need large amounts of water in order for them to work...this is an inevitable by-product of photography. but, the water from the rinse cycle in this project could be saved for another use...also, if someone was doing this project in a darkroom, there are recirculating print washers available that cut down on water usage as well. <br /><br />if anyone out there has a good idea for how to reduce the water usage for this project do let us know! <br /><br />- rinne<br />
 
Emily November 11, 2015
A rain barrel might be a good, guilt-free alternative for anyone concerned about "wasting water" that doesn't live in California. I have two in my yard and always have too much water left over.