Cyanotype Experimentation

April 17, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

img20240409_13045268Towers of Ivory. House of Gold.

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to take a dedicated Alternative and Historic Photography class from the world-class Cosumnes River College photography department. I had always been fascinated by alternative photographic processes -- there was something exotic and exciting about all of the chemistry and process names I just loved. While I experimented with several different processes, I really fell in love with cyanotype.

IMG_0268Digital Negative on Paper Coated with Cyanotype
Here's the beginning of the print: a digital negative on top of paper coated with cyanotype prior to exposure.

IMG_0268Digital Negative on Paper Coated with Cyanotype
Here's the exposed cyanotype prior to development in water. I think this stage always looks cool.
IMG_0268Digital Negative on Paper Coated with Cyanotype
Here's the finished print with added gold leaf.

Cyanotypes are, in my opinion, underrated: They're gorgeous in blue but flexible enough to tone, relatively non-toxic, inexpensive, and fast. Especially after banging my head against wet plate, it's a relief to be able to produce prints using a process that Just Works.

IMG_0260IMG_0260
Here's a cyanotype print split-toned with tea (earl grey, hot) and gilt with 24k gold leaf.

I had been curious about using gold leaf to accentuate prints for some time -- I was actually planning on teaching myself the "platinum/palladium on vellum with gold leaf" process. I actually bought all of the chemistry and supplies back in 2019 right before I went into the creative coma from which I've only recently emerged.

Applying gold leaf feels sort of like magic. It's fun to work with real metallic gold hammered thin. The process for applying gold leaf to a print sounds relatively straightforward, but it's definitely one of those "harder than it looks" skills.

IMG_0243St. Cricket

In a nutshell, one:

  1. Applies a gold leaf size to the print where one wants the gold to stick.
  2. Waits for the gold leaf size to dry.
  3. Gently applies the gold leaf using a brush.
  4. Gently brushes off all of the extra gold leaf that didn't adhere to the glue.

IMG_0279Mikhala

Here are my tips for gilding a print -- maybe they'll help someone.

  1. I use "Aqua Size water-base Gold Size" from L.A. Gold Leaf Wholesaler in Azusa, California. I apply it in a single coat using a size 000 miniature paint brush. A second coat of the size is usually not required, and it can actually detract from the image if it makes one's gold lines too thick.
  2. Wait for the gold leaf size to dry. Seriously, it takes longer than it looks like it should to get to the correct level of tackiness. The size instructions state that "Proper tack will develop in 25 minutes at normal humidity and hold this tack for 24 to 26 hours." I'm not that patient, so I've found that 10-seconds with a heat gun gets the size to the correct level of tackiness quickly.
  3. Gently apply the gold leaf using a brush. The key here is being gentle enough. I first tried rubbing the back of the gold leaf paper firmly with my finger, but all that will do is mash the gold into sticking to the subtle texture of the unsized paper. I use a large soft drybrush (like a makeup application brush) to apply the gold leaf. I do it firmly enough to ensure that the leaf has been pressed into the tacky size, but not so firmly that gold adheres to incorrect locations. This is definitely something that takes practice.
  4. Brush off all of the extra gold leaf that didn't adhere to the size. Here, I'm less gentle. I'll actually "scrub" the extra gold leaf off of the print. This makes an unholy mess, but the end result is worth it. This video shows the process: Removing Excess Gold LeafVideo depicting the removal of excess gold leaf from a print.
  5. I've been having so much fun printing cyanotypes that I've reorganized my portfolio to feature them more prominently. I'm still enjoying the wet plate process, and I still dig shooting psychedelic 35mm film, but I feel like my gilded cyanotypes are the "Best" creative work that I've been producing lately.

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