Utter Nonsense: The cyanotype workshop

11 May 3021

A couple of years ago while researching for photographic groups to join in both Suffolk and Norfolk, I came across a very interesting enterprise in Great Yarmouth, a forty minute bus ride from me.

Utter Nonsense, Hendee House, Battery Road, Great Yarmouth, NR30 3NN

The Utter concept was created in 2015 by the photographer Mark Cator with an aim of inspiring more people to get involved with the medium. His passion for photography, and the chance to explore its wider uses as a means of expression, came together in 2018, with the launch of Utter Nonsense.

Since 2018 Utter Nonsense has hosted eight exhibitions, produced a short film on the photographer Peter Henry Emerson, staged three piano and experimental music recitals, put in motion a collaborative project looking at the town of Great Yarmouth, published five issues of Utter Journal and expanded Utter Studios to deliver gallery and workspace for the painter, Bruer Tidman and the sculptor, Andy Sloan.

Today we’re a small team with big intentions and we operate out of an old fishing warehouse in Great Yarmouth, home of the ‘silver darlings’, the Venice of the North Sea, a town with a thousand year history uniquely built on a sandbank.

At the start of 2021, we expanded our activities and launched Utter Learning. This will provide a platform of learning based around workshops and online podcasts, with the emphasis on exploring the narrative structure of photography and the manufacture of the photobook as an object in its own right.

We’re also big fans of the pioneering photographer P H Emerson who studied the lives of East Anglian people, including the fishing community of Great Yarmouth, in the late 19th century. He was the first photographer to declare photography as an independent fine art form.

Utter Nonsense (2021)

From May 2021 Utter Learning is launching a series of workshops, plus an online learning platform, to encourage a wider understanding around photography as a process of artistic expression. The workshops will be split into the aesthetic and the technical, and go right back to the origins of photography in the mid-nineteenth century.

Utter Nonsense (2021)

During lockdown I re-visited their website and bought their first Utter Journal, Issue 001, Spring 2001 titled Great Yarmouth because it was showing a ‘body of new work, a synthesis of photography and paintings’ (Geitner, 2019) connected with Yarmouth, the people, architecture and life as it is visually perceived by those that live and visit the seaside town. A review of the journal can be found here.

While I was reading through their website, I came across the Utter Learning tab which took me to a couple of advertisements for workshops that they are/were delivering. The one that caught my interest was the cyanotype workshop, an area of photography that I have always wanted to learn more about as a learning experience.

The Workshop

To participate in the workshop I was sent two packages. The first contained a set of instructions and a safety information page for the cyanotype solutions, an A5 sketchbook and pencil, a foam sponge with a wooden stick as a handle, an A4 picture frame and two containers in a black light proof bag. In the containers were the liquids to be mixed together for the production of the working solution, the liquids are Ferric ammonium citrate and Potassium ferricyanide which when mixed together create a light sensitive liquid.

The cyanotype kit.

The second package that I received contained two A4 negatives of images that I had sent via email for the hosts to make for use at the workshop. The two images which can be seen below were a portrait of my mum and dad on their wedding day which was printed onto transparent acetate and an abstract glitch image I had created of a religious theme which was printed onto a piece of translucent tracing paper.

Workshop itinerary

  • Introduction
  • Going through kit
  • Presentation
  • Coating the paper
  • Short Break
  • Designing the image
  • Exposing
  • Short presentation
  • Washing and drying

Materials used in workshop

  • Access to zoom – iPad
  • Ferric ammonium citrate
  • Potassium ferricyanide
  • Container for the light sensitive solution which the sponge brush will fit into
  • Teaspoon
  • Sponge brush on stick
  • Watercolour paper
  • Glass frame to hold paper and objects and negatives into place
  • Scalpel
  • Rags
  • Tray of water
  • Negatives and a selection of objects both 2D and 3D
  • Sun or UV lamp
  • Old clothes
  • Plastic work surfaces

Introduction to cyanotypes

The workshop began with an introduction to various artists/ photographers, who work with cyanotypes within their practice. We learned about Anna Atkins who was a botanist who used the process in a creative way and contemporary practitioners, Xuxa Kidd, Matt Hughes, Louise Coates, Meghan Riepenhoff and Melanie King.

Method

Before I began the workshop I set up my workplace in a darkened room so that when I applied the light sensitive solution to the paper it did not begin to react to light. Due to the fact that I needed access to water and the garden for the sun, I decided to use my downstairs computer area.

Workstation showing iPad on Zoom
  1. Make the working solution. Mix 1 teaspoon of each chemical solution together in the container for 2xA4 pieces of paper. Mix the amount according to how many pieces of paper required.
  2. Coat the paper in the solution using the foam brush.
  3. Once the paper is coated put it in a dark place to dry so that it is not exposed to light.
  4. Make some more of the solution and coat some more paper during the drying period if required.
  5. Once the paper is dry, using one piece at a time, place chosen objects or a negative onto the paper. If the objects are thin enough a piece of glass or perspex can be placed on top of the paper and objects to ensure that there is good contact with the paper as well as holding them in place.
  6. Put paper and objects in the sun or use an ultra violet lamp to expose light onto the paper.
  7. The exposure time is dependent on the type of and strength of light available. So experimenting first is a good idea. By experimenting a rough estimate of the time needed for each exposure can be gained. Remember different materials will need different exposure times.
  8. Watch the uncovered part of the paper as it turns from a yellowish-green to a darker grey colour.
  9. Once it has been exposed, place it into the tray of water. This will stop the light developing the paper further and will process the print. Place the print face down into the static water, changing it a couple of times and waiting until the yellowish-green colour on the white areas has been washed off.
  10. Dry the print.

The prints

Below you can see the photographs from which the negatives were made and the negatives themselves.

Using light

Because developing in the sun requires a certain amount of experimentation connected with timing, a few of my first prints were either under or over exposed. This occurred for two reasons. The first reason is my lack of knowledge and skill when working with this technique and secondly the strength of light was changing throughout the afternoon due to clouds. This means that the bright sunlight was causing the changes in the solution to develop quicker than the light gained when different densities of clouds were present.
Underexposed images were caused by the lack of bright sunlight and should have been left longer in the sun and the overexposed images which were developing in the brightest sunlight did not need to be exposed for as long as they were.

Processing order

The diagram below shows the processing order of a cyanotype print once the transparent negative had been placed on the prepared paper and put under the glass.

Tomlin, D. (2021) Dad and Mum’s wedding

Exposure times

Following on from this print where I had used a negative printed onto transparent paper, I decided to expose my second negative which had been printed onto tracing paper which is translucent. Although I had learnt that different materials had differing developing times, I did not put this fact together when timing the exposure of this second print. Thinking along the lines of ‘it is a negative’ I developed it for the same amount of time as the transparent negative.

Due to the fact that the translucent paper needed a totally new developing time I had to trial the exposure more than once.

During the workshop we were told that exposure times varied from print to print and that once we had practiced the technique for a while that we would be able to begin to estimate the times it takes to develop a specific image depending on the available light source. We were also told that you can perform a test strip where you would block off light on a strip of paper for different amount of times which when developed would show you the different shades of the development solution for you to choose appropriately from.

I will definitely practice the test strip method in future which is the same method I used in art college in the 80’s when processing from 35mm negatives in a darkroom. However rather than creating the blank strips below I would put a photograph on the test strip this way I could view an actual image to inform my timing.

Veteto, N. (2021) Cyanotype test strip tutorial

Further workshop images

During the workshop I went off on a tangent yet again. Never satisfied with that which I am asked to do, once I had completed a straight forward plant print of a bluebell which incidentally I did not put under the glass because I wanted to see how shadows transform an image, I began to experiment.

The bluebell

I found that if the sun casts shadows on your paper then it indeed will change the visual outcome of the image when compared to a two-dimensional object that lays flat against the paper. If you look at the bluebell image above, the partially exposed areas where the shadows were actually develop lighter blues. The end image is softer and indeed does give a three-dimensional result.

Using shadows in cyanotype images is another area which I will explore further because I find the effect fascinating and visually pleasing.

The peacock feather

One of my experiments looked at splitting the paper into two sections and laying a peacock feather across them both. I also experimented with the coating of the solution on the paper. I made the first coat as usual with the sponge brush and then I spilled a pool of the liquid. The paper took longer to dry but it was worth the wait for the results that I obtained.

If you look at the images below you can see the outcomes of the different levels of solution that I used, especially on the dried image on the right. The more solution I used the stronger the colour blue is obtained.

To complete the presentation for the two sections of paper they will be separately mounted into individual frames and hung left to right. I really like this design and I am planning on making a few more on one sheet of paper. I am going to produce different coloured ones which I will acquire by adding Epson printer ink to the solution.

I know that by adding the Epson ink to the solution that instead of the negative spaces staying white they actually turn the colour of the ink. I know this because it is one of my experiments that I trialed in this workshop which can be seen below the peacock image.

Flower, Flower

Tomlin, D. (2021) Flower, Flower experiment

My tutor for the day was very surprised when I showed them the above image and asked how I did it.

Once I had made up the solution I added one drop of Epson magenta ink from my printers ink refill bottle. I did not know what to expect but I knew that using printer ink meant the magenta pigment shouldn’t disappear in the development phase of the making the image.

In the above images, which show the changes in the colour during the creating process, the print begins as the colour magenta with more of a red hue. Once the image is put into water, the red which has been exposed to sunlight is gradually washed off which can be seen in the paper’s colour change to blue. However the areas which were not exposed in the sunlight stay a definite red magenta after the image has been washed.

Another interesting fact is where I had put on a second brush of solution on the left hand side if the print we have noticeably darker colour streaks. This can be seen clearer in the cropped section below.

Visible streaking caused by an extra layer of colour solution

I found my experiment results intriguing and immediately wanted to experiment more but due to the workshop ending soon, I decided to experiment more with coloured solutions in my own time.

That which I found especially intriguing is how the added colour washed off the areas where the light sensitive solution was exposed to light yet stained the areas which were untouched by light. This is a scientific area I would love to find the answer to, Why has this happened? It is quite exciting but mysterious to me.

I am definitely looking forward to my experiments with coloured solutions and already have some ideas on how to use this technique.

Conclusion

I have always wanted to learn how to create a cyanotype image but it was not until I saw this workshop advertised on the Utter Nonsense website, that I decided that the time was now.

I have learnt the technique and found it ever so easy and I definitely want to continue using this technique in my photography practice.

I also enjoyed the social aspect of the workshop where I was learning a new skill with other beginners so I personally did not feel anxious about going wrong or not knowing what I was doing. The tutor helped as she was young and enthusiastic and welcoming.

All in all, this was £60 very well spent.

Bibliography

Geitner, A. (2019) Between River, Port and Sea. At: https://www.utternonsense.co.uk/great-yarmouth (Accessed 11.05.2021)

Utter Nonsense. (2021) About Utter Nonsense. At: https://www.utternonsense.co.uk/about-us (Accessed 10.05.2021)

Utter Nonsense. (2021) The Utter Learning Workshops At: https://www.utternonsense.co.uk/utter-books (Accessed 10.05.2021)

Veteto, N. (2021) Cyanotype test strips tutorial. At: https://www.blueridgebotanic.com/blog/teststriptutorial (Accessed 14.05.2021)


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