Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

Recently, I was working with a cyanotype that I had originally planned to over-expose and tone later. I let it wash for an extended period of time (40 minutes or so) and after coming back to check on it, I found most of the image had bleached away, leaving an extremely under-exposed print. So, figuring it couldn't actually get worse at that point, I dunked it in my 6.4% tannic acid to see what might happen.

See? Mauvey!
The resulting print, as you can see, was.. uh, special. Instead of turning brown as cyanotypes normally do when immersed in tannic acid, the print turned pale mauve. This was unexpected. Further unexpected is that it was perfectly split-toned, with the highlights mauve and the shadows retaining a deep blue. See? Isn't it pretty?

I had a suspicion that something might happen. So, I scanned the image after pressing it dry. Then I left it to hang up and waited to see what would happen. Turns out the mauve color wasn't permanent. It wasn't archival. When the print completely dried, the split-toned mauve-blue became a flat, monotoned brown-maroon. It isn't bad, but it far more closely resembles what I'd normally expect from a fully-bleached cyanotype that was given a soda ash or borax bath, instead of a half-faded cyanotype that just spent too long in the rinse. This may indicate a need to check my tap water for acidity.

Booooring. Brown.
Aside from a potential tap water purity issue, the mysterious self-bleaching cyanotypes and strange reactions of toning chemicals made me start to question things. I have a scan of my self-bleached, perfectly split-toned mauve/blue cyanotype. However, the print itself has shifted its color. As far as I know, that can't be fixed. So what I've got now is a digital file that has recorded a gorgeous print, and a piece of paper with a boring image on it. Why is the boring piece of paper my image?

I'm a photographer. Part of my job is to record things that no longer exist. Maybe, mostly, things that never existed outside of my own imagination until given form by my manipulation of pixels, light, chemistry and paper. Those things are real because I recorded them. I recorded them digitally, with a camera, a scanner and Photoshop. I've recorded things on film and on paper. So why is it that when using some processes to make my records, its the paper that's my record and anything but the paper is cheating?

Anthotypes can't be preserved without extraordinary measures. The natural pigments that make up the image continue to decay as long as they're exposed to UV light. Even UV-proofing sprays don't halt the fading fully. Placing them under expensive, UV-reflective glass may stop the fading, or at least slow it drastically and enable them to be displayed in a gallery. Otherwise? They have to sit, forever, in a dark box. What's the use of prints no one can see? So, I take photos of the prints, or I scan them and I keep the digital files.

Lumen prints can't be fixed without destroying or altering their color drastically. The original print can't be kept in light without it eventually turning black. Even UV-proof glass won't stop that, because normal light causes the exposure to keep building up. So, what can be done with them? They'll be destroyed faster than an anthotype if left out to be seen. I scan them, too, and keep the digital files.

Recently I've been experimenting with trying to burn more (any) detail into my cyanovellums. I think there's something about the surface that prevents it from recording detail, because my exposure times have ranged up to 2 hours and once fully developed, nothing but a silhouette. But detail does show up in the latent image. The visible, blue-green image that washes away when the cyanotype is put in water to print out, there's detail in that. So, I scan them and keep the digital files. Oh, I keep the parchment as well, but it doesn't look anything like the scan since all the detail washes off in the water.

Photography records things that are transitory. If an image in-progress looks better than the 'final' result, why settle for the final result? Why not present the best face of your work, even if it wasn't permanent? There are dozens of forms of art that leave no permanent result and are displayed later only through photographic, video or audio recording. Thanks to my mauve cyanotype, I'm starting to realize that photography itself doesn't have to be any different. The point at which we stop manipulating an image and consider the result final doesn't have to be the point at which some physical piece of paper becomes archival. We can make more pieces of paper.

Your art is finished when it fully, faithfully and accurately represents the concept you intended it to display to the viewer. 

How you arrive at that point is up to you. My anthotypes and lumen prints can't be preserved in their 'original' form. They have to be translated to a new form to become archival. An exposed negative can't be preserved in its original form. It must be developed, stopped and fixed before it can be viewed without destroying the integrity of the image. I no longer see a difference between those two processes. I'm done thinking I must find a way to recreate the exact feel and texture of my anthotypes when I print out the scans. Those scans are my result, not the original paper. I may still want that feeling of heavy paper and painted pigment, but it isn't intrinsically required in order to make my anthotype 'real'.

I'm done with a piece when I say I'm done. If I go three steps further before realizing I was done four steps ago, that's my choice. As long as I have a record of the step where the image was finished, I have my piece.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Pressing Paper Problems

In an earlier post, I talked about substrates that can be used for anthotypes. I stand by the advice given in that post, except for one detail. At the very end, I mention that largely what goes for anthotypes also goes for cyanotypes.

Speckles on Arches 140 lbs
Whelp. That's not quite correct because you don't have to develop anthotypes. They don't get washed or anything, you just paint on the pigment and let 'em expose. That's it. Cyanotypes do have to be developed. They require at the very least a water bath of several minutes to clear the excess chemistry and expose the image. In fact, this should be a fairly extended bath to make sure there's no hidden chemistry lurking in the paper fibers. When you start wanting to tone a cyanotype, you're looking at even more baths. Generally at least four more: a bleaching bath, a rinse to remove the bleaching agent, a toning bath and then a final wash to remove extra toner. All that water is going to be hell on your paper unless you're using the right kind of paper.

If you're just printing a regular cyanotype, you're probably still clear to use most of the types of paper I covered in the anthotype substrate post. The cheapest types of alternative process paper (you want at least 100 pound) is going to be watercolor paper. It can be Canson, Arches or even a store-brand. I've had quite decent results on generic, store-brand 100-pound watercolor paper when printing ordinary, one-coat, one-wash cyanotypes.

Bleeding Edges on Arches 140 lbs
However, if you want to get complex with your cyanotypes and start bleaching or toning them, you need better paper. You're going to want to start looking at heavy-weight (150 lbs+) papers designed for wet media and printmaking. Rives BFK, Copperplate, Stonehenge, Hahnemühle, etc. These are papers intended to be washed and soaked. They feel like cloth, not stiff and hard like a watercolor paper. Printmakers often soak them overnight before printing on them. Water won't hurt them at all. These are the kind of papers you want to use for cyanotypes you intend to tone.

Extreme speckles on Arches 140 lbs
So, why am I saying all this? Well, because I bought a block of Arches Hot Press Watercolor paper (140 lbs) and I had an old block of Arches Cold Press Watercolor paper (also 140 lbs). When I tried using these papers for my cyanotype toning test sheets, the results were sometimes good, but I had numerous difficulties. Bleeding around the edges, strange splotches showing up during extended washing, odd starburst effects. These weird things didn't happen every time, but I'm not happy with them happening any times.  I want predictable, repeatable results each time I make a cyanotype. If I want weird, unpredictable behavior, I'll print my cyanotypes on vellum because, holy crap, vellum never acts predictable or regular. The skin itself is irregular and splotchy, so trying to get a consistent result is automatically futile. Fabric tends to be the same way for me, though if you carefully handle fabric you can get pretty nice prints off it, depending on the fabric itself. It might be that I'm using raw silk for most of my cyanotype prints (I love it soooo much), and raw silk is... uh, raw. Not fully processed, so it's got its own irregularities.

Anyway! To summarize: if you're going to be toning your cyanotypes, you have to splurge a bit on the paper. You want something that is intended to be soaked thoroughly and takes water really well. These are going to be your heavy-weight printmaking papers for the most part. Watercolor paper is designed for wet media, but only on the surface. It isn't designed to be submerged fully in water for extended periods of time and doesn't always react well to that.

You most certainly can use watercolor paper to save money if you're working with anthotypes or regular cyanotypes. You can get awesome results! I am not putting watercolor paper out of the picture. It just won't work in all circumstances. Sometimes, you gotta pay.

Oh! Wait! A last word! See, the expensive paper? It's gunna be what you want to use for archival prints. Part of the process in making a cyanotype truly archival is extended washing during and after development. This becomes triple true for toned cyanotypes. If you're not too concerned about archival properties (I rarely am), then you can get away with short washes for your watercolor paper cyanotypes. If you want the cyanotypes to be around in 2525 so that Cleopatra can be awed by your artistry, get the expensive paper.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Woolly Bully!

So, as you can see, I've finished two of my woolen anthotypes. They were exposing for a long, long time. The madder anthotype was exposed for 63 days, and the turmeric-annatto mixture for 15 days. Now some of those days were rainy and cloudy. I will say that 63 days was probably excessive. I checked the madder felt several times during its two months outside and saw little change in the last month it was out there. It was probably done after 4 weeks or so.

63-day madder root exposure
printed on nuno felt.
The madder felt is actually printed on nuno felt, meaning that there is a layer of sheer cloth inside the wool. I don't think this had any effect, it's just a way to get a thicker, sturdier felt while using less wool. As I said before, the felt did a great job of absorbing the madder. This was the first substance I tested madder on that produced a true red. The final result isn't terrible, but it's also not really worth tying up a frame for a month or more. If I ever have some kind of brilliant idea that requires a bright red anthotype, I may try again. Until then, I'm going to have to say that while madder can be used successfully as an anthotype dye, the cons are that it only really works on highly absorbent fabrics and requires a month-long (or longer) exposure. Those cons outweigh the single pro: it's the only true red natural dye I've found that can be bought at reasonable price.

Not to be discouraged by one impractical dye, I decided to test another dye on the same process. Well, a similar process. My second felt anthotype isn't nuno-felted, it's made on pure wool. Again, I don't see any reason that would affect the final outcome. It does affect the integrity of the wool itself. I rushed through making this felt, so it's a bit patchy. I also rushed through dyeing it. I only let it soak in the dye for a few hours instead of a full day. My hope was that the fibers would hold onto the dye less fully and the fading would be more pronounced. That part seems to have worked, but the dye itself hasn't provided a strong contrast. You can see that the unmodified antho-felt hasn't got much visibility. This is actually a problem I've had in the past with pure turmeric anthotypes on paper. They're just so yellow that it's hard to see them, then they show up great when darkened slightly in Photoshop. I added annatto powder to the turmeric, hoping to avoid this, but I don't think it was enough.

Overall, the wool felt anthoype idea is cool, but I don't know that it's really practical. It's cool that it's so very do-it-yourself, with making the dye, the fabric and the print. I really like that aspect, but the final results are extremely time-consuming and not that impressive. I may do another in a while with... I dunno, maybe blue dye from red cabbage? I liked that blue. Turmeric is my most reliable anthotype dye; I know it gives fast exposures and it practically always works. The downside is the low contrast, which I didn't compensate for enough in this experiment.

Even solving the contrast, color and time problems, anthotypes on hand-made felt may simply be something I work with rarely because of the immense time and effort involved in making them work. Making the felt itself and then dyeing it properly take quite a while. Possibly at some point I'll refine my felt-making process and speed it up. Or I might just take a few days at some point to produce a bunch of felt pieces for later anthotypes. Maybe even combine it with hand making a bunch of paper.

The two substrates: handmade felt and handmade paper, remind me a lot of each other. They both bring some very interesting conceptual and textural aspects to the table, but both require a huge investment of time and materials to get a good print. They're definitely 'advanced' anthotype techniques that may be of interest if you really enjoy getting your hands wet. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Faded Glory

As I've mentioned previously, I'm attempting to fully document various cyanotype toning processes that can be done easily at home with fairly safe chemistry. My old alternative process textbook, by Christopher James, has a great chapter on toning cyanotypes. In fact, James has made the whole cyanotype chapter available freely online. So that's very nice of him, should anyone want to investigate his notes. He doesn't provide many examples, but he does cover some toning techniques that I will not be working with. Anything that uses gallic acid, pyrogallic acid, lead acetate or nitric acid is out for me since I do not enjoy working with powdered toxins.

This article by Suzi Varin goes into some detail about her experiences with James' toning techniques. She's provided examples of all his processes, except for the two violet processes he lists. I'd love to hear from someone that actually tries the lead acetate violet-grey toning; I'm not brave enough to try that myself.

In the last post, I talked a bit (a lot) about SuperTea vs. Tannic Acid. Now I'm going to proceed with talking about the toners themselves. I'll make some more samples and examples once I get my shipment of tannic acid from B&H. Until now, SuperTea is what I've got results from.

Soaked in SuperTea, then bleached in Soda Ash
Taking a second aside, I want to reiterate something that James covers in his chapter: all the processes I've come across for toning cyanotypes involve a bleach that breaks down the pigment. Then, you're using tannic acid or gallic acid to build a new pigment. The exact color will depend on what type of bleach you used to break down the cyanotype in the first place. There are exceptions, but that's the general idea. You can stop right after the bleaching process. Mostly, this is going to get you some kind of yellow or greyish result where the cyanotype pigment is broken down.

So, let's get down to the actual effects shall we? I still have to try getting good scans for Dektol and Selenium, so those results will come later. My detergent experiments need some work, too, but I've presented preliminary notes on that.

Borax: This is my favorite bleach, and its easy to buy. 20 Mule Team Borax is the brand I find pretty commonly at grocery stores in the laundry section. I keep holding out hope that I'll be able to work out a way to preserve the violet color produced by using a borax solution on prints. So far, no. The violet remains only while the print is wet and dries out to a pale blue-lilac color. The tone is distinctly different from an unaffected cyanotype, but you'd almost need to look at them side-by-side to see it. Let your print sit in borax long enough and you'll get a yellowish-grey color. The blue won't ever fully disappear as it would in soda ash, but it will get patchy. Borax doesn't like to dilute really well, so I tend to just dump tons of the powder into water until it hits the saturation point, then filter off any remaining precipitate. This saturated borax-water can then be diluted down later, if you want. The best thing about borax, aside from the transitory violet created, is that it does great with tannic acid. Borax-bleached prints toned in tannic acid will turn a lovely maroon with hints of brown. It's really nice.

Detergent: Basic laundry detergent. Supposedly this works because it has washing soda in it, but it has distinctly different results. This one has to be carefully watched. High amounts of detergent will destroy your image in short order. You can work with 10% solutions very easily and get good results. Now, by 'good', I do not mean dramatic. Detergent is a nice way to lighten a cyanotype without introducing a massive change in tonality. It will eventually turn your print somewhat yellow, but the color effect is far less pronounced than the other bleaches.

Cyanotype in 1:50 bleach
Bleach: Ordinary household laundry bleach for this one. Yes, all the toning techniques have some kinda bleach involved somewhere. Now, its super easy to use too much bleach. I found that a 1-2% solution is more than enough. If you work much stronger than that, you're bleaching reaction will happen way, way too fast. I tried 10% and the image virtually vanished before my eyes, with almost no chance at all to remove the print and wash the bleach away. Tannic acid added to a bleached print will give you some decent browns, with a hint of red. However the result isn't as dramatic as what you can get with ammonia or soda ash or borax.

Soda Ash: Originally, I learned of soda ash as a dye fixative for textiles. However, it's also a detergent that can be used for cleaning or added to laundry. Turns out you can buy it, very cheaply, as "washing soda". No matter what you call it, sodium carbonate is a dry, white powder and a strong bleaching agent. It will turn your cyanotypes bright golden-yellow. It doesn't take much of the powder to create an effective bleach, maybe 1-2 tablespoons to a liter of water. This bleach can be used to do a blue-yellow split, and it's very pretty, but not as well balanced as bleach. Soda ash really shines when combined with tannic acid, where it creates a lovely brown or reddish black depending on your process.

Cyanotype in weak ammonia
Ammonia: When you first put your cyanotype in the ammonia, provided the ammonia mixture is strong enough, it will turn brilliant violet. This doesn't last at all. In fact, it disappears so quickly that I don't even think it could be scanned while wet. The ammonia will keep bleaching away your image unless you wash it off. Washing it off removes the purple. So, you're kinda stuck. However, after the violet color is gone your print will start to bleach normally. The bleaching is a yellow-blue split, much like bleach, but it leans more heavily towards the blue and grey end of the spectrum. Ammonia bleaching is flatter and lower contrast than bleach bleaching. When combined with tannic acid, ammonia will give you a bit more red in your browns than bleach or soda ash.

For full examples and more details on step-by-step processes, check out this section of my Flickr!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Half Dozen of the Other

My on-going attempt to create a step-by-step document of various cyanotype toning processes continues. There have been some failures and the weather for the last few weeks has decided to swing wildly between blazing sun and thunderstorms, meaning it's been quite difficult to actually make any new prints to experiment with. That and my small supply of good-quality 4x5 negatives combines to make this a rather long-term process.

Still, I've completed documentation of five different bleaching/toning processes. The title of the post mentions six because there's two variations on one of the processes showing what happens at extremes of dilution. The documents for each process are combined JPGs showing each stage, with a note next to each stage saying what solution was applied to achieve the shown result. I'll go into a bit more detail here, and maybe copy the more in-depth explanation over to Flickr later.

Oh, right! Flickr! Yes, because of the size of the files, they're being hosted on Flickr. Blogger gets mad at me when I try to post bunches of super-big files and it really isn't the best way to view them either. So, head over and check out This Collection on my Flickr for full views of the documentation.

Before we start getting into the details of each toning process, I want to take a moment and explain what a common word in the article means. "SuperTea" is what I call an easy way to get tannic acid at home without buying the chemical from a supply company. Tannins are present in all kinds of things: tea, coffee, some wines, wood, tobacco, etc. Brewing up an extremely potent mixture of black tea is just a fast, easy way to get tannic acid without buying it.
SuperTea Recipe: In 1/2 quart of water, microwave 8 bags of black tea for 10 minutes on high. Allow bags to steep for several hours. Before discarding the bags, squeeze them thoroughly to get out all that extra tannin. 
While it's fast and easy, SuperTea has downsides. Some pretty big ones. First off, all the stuff in the tea that isn't tannic acid. That stuff will stain your paper. I've had cyanotypes sitting in tannic acid for hours and come out with white highlights. Prints immersed in SuperTea are going to turn intense yellow-brown in just a few minutes. If that. I had one turn brown on me in only a few seconds when using fresh-brewed SuperTea (it works faster hot). So, that's going to reduce your contrast in the image dramatically by turning all your highlights brown. Guess what color it turns your shadows? Also brown. You see the problem. Further, because of the intense base-staining, instead of actually getting different colors you're just going to get different shades of brown. So that's kinda boring. Oh, and don't forget that if you leave iced tea sitting around outside of your fridge? It grows fungus. If you keep it in your fridge, it gets cold, cloudy and has to be warmed back up before it will work very well.

There's no doubt: buying tannic acid itself is better than using SuperTea. It stains less, it works faster and it'll probably last longer since it tends to grow less fungus. The downside to buying the acid itself is that it's not exactly cheap. Not expensive either, but not cheap. Further, most of my goal here in this blog is to document processes and solutions that you can easily (and safely) use from home. While tannic acid isn't particularly toxic, I like encouraging people to find alternative solutions. In this situation... I have to say, get the tannic acid.

Well, that was long! Know what? Imma split this up and do a whole different post on the processes themselves.