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How Cyanotype Works, an easy-to-understand explanation

Updated: Apr 20

Cyanotype is an old photographic process, yet it is timelessly beautiful, fascinating and easy. Combination of chemistry and art is a perfect activity for kids and adults of all ages. Below is a printout I have made for my students aged 7-12, explaining the concept in language they and I can understand.

What is it?

Cyanotype is a printing process using chemically treated paper and exposing to ultraviolet light. This process is/was used by architects to produce Blueprints and photographers to print photographs.

Who invented it? And when?

Cyanotype was invented in 1842, by an English polymath Sir John Herschel (

He was an astronomer, mathematician, chemist, inventor, and a photographer.

polymath: a person of wide knowledge or learning

What do I need?

Super Sunprint Kit (pre-treated papers and acrylic sheet included) or

Cyanotype mixing chemicals by Jacquard -follow instructions

Paper (watercolour paper, as it gets rinsed in water) or fabric to print on

Items to print or drawing made with permanent marker on clear plastic sheet

Acrylic sheet (a.k.a. perspex) provided in kit, or any clear material, to hold things in place on top of paper


Tape or clips to keep the acrylic sheet in place

Tray of water

Drying rack

How do I print?

Chemicals on paper react to exposure to light! Keep them out of light until you are ready to print.

Find a shaded place to work in, and set aside all items (except for tray of water and racks) in it.

Think of composition and collect all materials needed for your print.

Laying it out on a piece of non-treated paper will help. Now work quickly from here...

When you have your design ready, lay a sheet of cardboard, then treated paper, painted side up. Start putting your chosen materials on the paper. Then place acrylic sheet on top. Either tape it down to cardboard, or use large clips to hold everything in place.

Take it out into the sun to expose it to the light☀

When using the kit, expose until the paper is almost white, when using paper coated at home, expose until bronze in colour, 3-30 minutes, depending on the UV strength.

Rinse the paper in the tub of water until the image emerges in the colour of the paper. Let dry.

How does it work?

The mixture of low-toxic, light sensitive chemicals, Potassium Ferricyanide and Ferric Ammonium Citrate reacts to UV light and produce insoluble blue pigment known as Prussian Blue. When you place an object on the treated paper, the object blocks out the UV, so the area remains the colour of paper. And the chemicals in the blocked area are soluble, so it can be rinsed away with water.

insoluble: incapable of being dissolved

Anna Atkins

Anna Atkins was a botanist, photographer, and a friend of Sir John Herschel, the inventor of Cyanotype. Using the cyanotype process, she published the first installment of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, in 1843. Some say she was the first woman to create photographs.

Cyanotype of algae by Anna Atkins

An old monochromatic photo of Anna Atkins

Download a printable pdf of this here.

Download PDF • 1.09MB




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