A degree of darkness

I spent my weekend in a graphic workshop learning the art of cyanotype. Or, to be more precise, studying the method of cyanotype – the art will hopefully enter into my work as I go along. Cyanotype is a nineteenth century photographic process using chemicals that produce beautiful blue prints when exposed to sunlight.

paper covered with chemicals, protected from uv-light

The cyanotype process uses a mixture of iron compounds, which when exposed to sun- (UV)light and washed in water oxidize to create Prussian Blue images.

brushing the chemicals on to paper
finished prints hanging to dry

The cyanotype technique was invented in 1841 by John Herschel and was popularized by photographer and botanist Anna Atkins. Her book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, published in October 1843, is considered the first photographically illustrated book.

examining possibilities – printing on different types of paper

I do not have a favorite color per se, but there is something very special with the blues …

There are many interesting philosophical – & literary works portraying blue, an absolute personal favorite is Maggie Nelson’s Bluets – 240 short pieces, at once lyrical and philosophical, on the color blue. (Some years ago, I wrote a short piece on Bluets – it can still be read here).  

As regular readers know very well by now, I have directed my creative energy mainly on making my own pictures lately. And so the following text-lines are stolen from all over … the images are mine.

As yellow is always accompanied with light, so it may be said that blue still brings a principle of darkness with it. This color has a peculiar and almost indescribable effect on the eye. As a hue it is powerful — but it is on the negative side, and in its highest purity is, as it were, a stimulating negation. Its appearance, then, is a kind of contradiction between excitement and repose.

— Goethe

For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go. For the blue is not in the place those miles away at the horizon, but in the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains.

“Longing,” says the poet Robert Hass, “because desire is full of endless distances.” Blue is the color of longing for the distances you never arrive in, for the blue world. […]

The blue of distance comes with time, with the discovery of melancholy, of loss, the texture of longing, of the complexity of the terrain we traverse, and with the years of travel. If sorrow and beauty are all tied up together, then perhaps maturity brings with it not … abstraction, but an aesthetic sense that partially redeems the losses time brings and finds beauty in the faraway.[…] Some things we have only as long as they remain lost, some things are not lost only so long as they are distant.

— Rebecca Solnit

If you'd like to try making your own blueprints have a look here

9 Comments Add yours

  1. Thank you, Sigrun. After reading this post (and the linked pieces), I signed up for a cyanotype class in the spring and just dug out my copy of Nelson’s Bluets. I bought it several years ago but couldn’t quite get into it for some reason. I think it wasn’t the right time to read it. I’m going to begin again today. I love Solnit’s essay on blue. I will probably read it again today, too. Your blog always inspires me.

    1. Sigrun says:

      Wonderful! Looking forward to see what you will be making!
      It’s really a very simple process, but the magic is great. Here in Norway one has to use artificial light for the process in winter. My plan is to test out more possibilities outdoors next spring. I might even try to incorporate som of Nelson’s quotes into it, like a kind of palimpsest …

      1. I hope you will post your results.

  2. pflanzwas says:

    I just wanted to try monotype right now, but when I see your amazing blue cyanotypes I would love to do that too 🙂 So many fantastic possibilities, but I think I will do one after the other. If there is a workshop around here I will give it a try. I love this unpredictable and surprising kind of creative work! Beautiful images you made! I wish you lots of fun for your further experiments.

    1. Sigrun says:

      Thank you! So much fun – you should give it a go if you get the chance. One can also buy prepared paper online, which makes it all very easy 😉

      1. pflanzwas says:

        I am doing a class at the moment where I try a lot of different methods of printing, which is already a great experience. But as soon as possible, I must try this blue wonder 🙂 Thank you for your advice with the paper. I will look out for it!

  3. bluebrightly says:

    This post has been a rich pleasure. I can’t believe the serendipity of the blue hose in the fourth photo – it’s priceless. Your cyanotypes are beautiful. I like the way the strong brushstrokes in the last image echo the wild energy in the curves of the plant stems. The grasses are wonderful, too. So many possibilities. And thanks for the links, too.

    1. Sigrun says:

      Thank you so much! I had a wonderful weekend in the workshop – days filled with experimentation and unexpected discoveries.

  4. I did this with my children when they were young. I found a kit that had chemically-treated papers and a basic how-to for children ages 5-15. I admit, I found the process and results as fascinating as my children did!

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