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When art and science meet, amazing prints happen

Updated: Aug 9, 2022

You'd be forgiven for thinking that science and art are worlds apart.

Think art, think emotions.

Think science, think facts.


One woman who mixed the two beautifully was the botanist Anna Atkins. Born in 1799 she lived during a time when women were denied the opportunity to take up science as a profession. However, botany, in particular botanical art and illustration, were considered a “suitably genteel subject for a woman.” And that is where she made her mark.

Anna was a talented illustrator. Before becoming a botanist she made over 250 scientifically accurate studies of shells using graphite and watercolour. It’s clear from her illustrations and paintings that she had a love for the natural world and an eye for detail. Perhaps it was this that drew her to the cyanotype printing process.


A cyanotype, also called a sun print, is a very basic form of photographic print that produces a blue print. Without getting too technical it’s a good idea to take a quick look at the meaning of the two words:

Cyanotype; cyan meaning blue and type meaning imprint so we get BLUE PRINT

Photograph; photo meaning light and graph meaning drawing so we get DRAWING WITH LIGHT

And that’s essentially what a cyanotype is, a blue print drawn or created with light, specifically UV light from the sun. This is why cyanotypes are also referred to as sun prints. Still with me? Good.


To make a cyanotype (sun print) you need one part Potassium Ferracyanide and two parts Ferric Ammonium Citrate. Although these chemicals sound quite alarming they are quite common place. Potassium ferricyanide is used in blood glucose meters for diabetics and Ferric Ammonium Citrate is used as a food additive.

The chemicals are mixed with water and once combined become light sensitive so everything you do until exposure time has to be carried out in a photographic dark room. The resulting liquid is used to coat a porous surface such as paper then left to dry in the dark.

The coated paper is laid flat and natural elements like leaves, flowers, feathers are placed on top. A sheet of clear acrylic is placed on that and held down with clips making sure that the paper and natural elements make contact. This is then placed in the sun.

Exposure time varies depending on the light intensity and can take between 2 minutes - 20 minutes. Once exposure has taken place the natural elements are removed and the print is washed out in cold tap water. This is known as fixing the print and where the magic happens.

Because the natural elements stop the UV light from getting through they will show up as ghostly silhouettes and the background, where the sun was able to permeate, will be blue.


To create your own cyanotypes / sun prints join me on 25 August for an online workshop or watch a recorded tutorial and print in your own time. For full details and to order your ready-to-use cyanotypes CLICK HERE


Rewind back to the 1800s and Anna Atkins has just been shown this process by her friend, the astronomer Sir John Herschel who uses cyanotypes for reproducing notes and diagrams *yawn*. It won’t come as much of a surprise that creatives like to push boundaries and manipulate processes until they’re unrecognisable from their intended purpose. Anna’s head must have been absolutely buzzing with possibilities. I can’t imagine she got much sleep that night wondering if she could use the same method to turn her specimens into ethereal photographs.

And it turns out she could, to amazing effect, becoming known as the first person to illustrate a book with photographic images. These volumes were self-published and contain plate after plate of ferns, seaweed and algae all accompanied with handwritten scientific names. The impressively detailed botanical prints are not only good enough to distinguish one species from another, but they are imaginatively composed even the text pages are thoughtfully arranged using what looks like seaweed to design the lettering. What an innovative, methodical and creative mind Anna Atkins must have had.

Fancy having a go and making your own Cyanotypes? Join me on 25 August for an online workshop or watch a recorded tutorial and print in your own time. For full details and to order your ready-to-use cyanotypes CLICK HERE

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