How to create art prints from the sun

Somewhere between science and magic, cyanotypes are fine art prints that use the power of the sun to record blue and white graphic impressions. Developed in 1842 by John Herschel, cyanotypes are an early form of photography made by placing objects on light-reactive paper.

The process is simple: take a cyanotype kit (which usually comes with sun-sensitive paper) and place objects on the paper in a decorative pattern. When exposed to sunlight, the paper will only change color where the sun hits it, leaving you with a monochromatic art print after removing the objects on the paper.

Plants, seashells, rocks, and pine cones are all good candidates for solar footprint. Only shadows cast by objects will appear, so opacity, size and shape are critical. The same goes for timing: if the sun is directly overhead, the shadows will be shorter and better capture the true outline of the object. You can also experiment with lighting angles, exposure times, subjects and compositions. Part of the fun is the process and the surprise shapes you find.

Kelsey Hansen

How to make cyanotypes

Supplies needed

  • Cyanotype kit

  • natural objects

  • large piece of cardboard

  • piece of glass

Step by step instructions

With the right materials, you can make your own cyanotype prints in just minutes. Follow these simple instructions to create your own art prints from the sun.

Step 1: Prepare your paper

You’ll want to get everything ready in a shady spot, or store everything indoors and take it out into the garden when you’re ready to start. As soon as the paper is exposed to sunlight, it will begin to expose. Most kits also have a light-blocking bag that you can keep the paper in until you’re ready to take it out.

Step 2: Organize your design

Place cyanotype paper on a flat surface (like a piece of cardboard) and lay out your natural findings on it. If you can, cover with a piece of glass or acrylic to flatten your work. The flatter your objects are, the sharper the final image will be. Then cover the paper and the objects with a piece of glass. Be sure to use glass that is not UV treated or the cyanotype will not develop. The glass should be larger than the paper to avoid any unwanted shadows. You can use clips or tape around the edges to hold everything in place while your print develops.

Step 3: Develop the print

Expose the layout to sunlight until the paper looks bronze. This should take around 3-5 minutes on a sunny day. Then, develop your print in a water bath according to the kit instructions. If you don’t have water handy (or if you want to make several prints before doing this step), you can put the exposed papers back in the light-blocking bag and then rinse them later. Dry flat. Be sure to let the prints dry completely before framing them.

Elaine F. Brim