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Went off the deep end yesterday at a workshop with Rinne Allen, the photographer I’ve admired ever since I saw her work in the Alabama Chanin books.

Such fun to meet the woman who made the images I’ve studied over and over.

She was talking cyanotypes, or what she calls light drawings. (Her light drawings are really beautiful, as you might guess.) The medium is paper treated with light-sensitive chemicals, onto which even mere mortals like me place plants or leaves, wait five minutes, rinse off the paper, and see what happens. (Invented in 1842 by Sir John Herschel, it all feels very 19th century to make these.)

I thought instantly, of course, of the glass flowers at Harvard.

cyanotype weeds

Not to be depressing, but I also thought about John James Audubon, who killed the birds he used as models for his paintings. I felt kind of bad, yanking out a plant just so I could capture it in a cyanotype.

But I told each plant that this would be its finest hour. It would live on forever. Hey, plantain, you’re going to be immortal!

At first I hunted for showy flowers—daylilies, sweet peas, Queen Anne’s Lace, thinking that pretty would be, you know, pretty.

cyanotype sweet pea

But the closer I looked, the more I discovered that even the lowliest weed was fascinating. Imperfections vanish when the image is a silhouette. Tiny roots show up. You see patterns in the image that you didn’t see in the plant itself.

cyanotype glass

I went smaller and smaller. We ran out of paper just in time—I was about to get into moss spores and mushrooms.

cyanotype rinne

I show you this photo of Rinne in rinse mode mostly because I admire completely what she is wearing. We should all look so Rinneful.

The randomness of what seems like a straightforward process cannot be overstated. You don’t know what you’re going to get. My two light drawings on the right are deep, saturated blue. Other efforts were more pale, more blurry, who knows why. Rinne prepared the papers for us ahead of time with a paintbrush in her darkroom, so the human hand is surely a factor.


The sun dodged in and out, adding an excellent low-key drama to it all. Will our cyanotypes work?



  • Hi there from Dublin!

    We have our own Blaschka glass models here in our Natural History Museum. This is a very very cute museum, being tiny compared to the one in NY.

  • So interesting, and so beautiful in a minimalist way. Cool stuff.

  • Hmmm…wondering how to make this application work on fabric?! So beautiful…such understated elegance!

    • (tried this as one comment, but I think it went to a moderation or spam queue bc too many links… if the original eventually shows up, I apologize for the multiples!)

      A great resource for cyanotypes on fabric (pre-treated fabric, chemicals to DIY, and great troubleshooting info) is:

      Something to note about cyanotypes on fabric: the print is permanent, but the blue color will change to yellow if it’s ever exposed to certain common laundry chemicals (phosphates, soda, borax, bleach), so you need to use special detergent to wash printed items if you want to keep the blue.

    • There are a few different methods of doing sun prints on fabric, both cyanotype and some newer photo-reactive dyes. The thing to know about cyanotypes on fabric is that while they are permanent, the blue color will change to yellow if you ever wash the cyanotype with phosphate, soda, borax, or bleach (meaning most regular laundry detergents are out). The same thing would happen to cyanotypes on paper, it’s just that people don’t usually wash paper unless it’s on purpose!

      A great resource for ready-to-print cyanotype fabric (and cyanotype chemicals so you can DIY) is:
      (their website also has some neat info on cyanotype troubleshooting and cyanotype history!)

      Dharma Trading carries other photo-reactive dye/fabric paint products (click the “Information” tab for articles and tutorials):

      I can say from experience that this is an enormously fun thing to do with people of all ages!

    • When my kids were little, I bought white cotton fabric and cut out pajama bottoms for my kids. I had them paint the pajama bottoms on a large piece of cardboard indoors using a product called “sun paint.” They then placed various items on them (leaves and flowers and spangles) and then we carried them out to the backyard to lie in the sun till the paint dried. It faded where the sun had been blocked. Really cool. We had first done pictures using photo sensitive paper, and really enjoyed it. If I recall, while the packet of paper was marketed for doing this, it was really just architectural blueprint paper, cut up into usable 5×7” pieces.

    • Google Shiri and get ready to be blown away by this Japanese art form. Happy to enable you. 🙂

      • Shibori – sorry for not noticing the autocorrect fail

    • Yes, it can be done. My sister, who was a photographer/sculptor often printed negatives onto cyanotype painted cloth and used the result to shape onto her sculpture. Don’t know the details of how she did it, but I think she just used simple cotton cloth. Got some wonderful effects.

  • They speak a world of words in their simplicity. Don’t they?

  • You made my morning. I remember my mom doing this, though not as refined, with my daughter when she was little.

  • Lovely! I remember doing these in my intro-to-photography class in college. I still have them somewhere – should dig them out.

  • If you need to move beyond paper there is a cool product called Lumi that makes cyanotypes (actually it comes in a bunch of colors) & it works on fabric & is super fun to play with…

  • This made me think of the work of designer Vanessa Arbuthnott, whose fabrics I love. Especially her woodland collection.

  • Wow! How beautiful, especially in blue. Very batik-y. Lucky you!!

  • Very cool! Love that shade of blue.

  • She is wonderful looking (the line of her smock, the color!) and I love the work. Great post!

  • I am in love with these. LOVE.

  • Thanks for starting my day with this beauty!

  • I love how great stuff like this just gets delivered to residents of Sewanee/Monteagle in the summertime, like a pizza.

    Also: how do you pronounce Rinne?

    Inquiring minds want to know. (People who know how New Orleanians pronounce Chartres Street.)


  • Beautiful. Would be interesting to have several of these framed and hung in a display.

    I can remember doing something similar with Girl Scouts in day camp one year.

  • We did these on a vacation with the kids. Called them Sun pictures. Like you, we ran out of treated paper …

  • “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

  • So pretty. Nature is such an amazing teacher. Nice that you took the time to explore and share it on paper.

  • A simple version involves a single color t-shirt, a spray bottle with diluted bleach and a leaf/your desired shape. Place a piece of thick cardboard inbetween front and back of t-shirt, and lay on the ground. Put the leaf on top of the t-shirt and spray around the edges with the bleach solution. Let air dry and chazaam, a cool naturish t-shirt.

  • Stunning! I love the roots…awwww heck, I love it all!

  • For anybody who just can’t get enough of this stuff (like me! two comments on one post?!):

    The New York Public Library’s has digitized their copy of Anna Atkins’ _Photographs of British Algae_ (1843–1853):

    “Photographs of British Algae is a landmark in the histories both of photography and of publishing: the first photographic work by a woman, and the first book produced entirely by photographic means.”

    Simply gorgeous — and as someone who’s attempted this with algae with much less success, I stand in awe of Anna Atkins’ cyanotype skills.

  • I remember doing this as a kid, and loving it! Don’t remember who sold the paper, but came pre-treated and ready to be pulled out of it’s foil envelope and set in the sun with random stuff on it. Such fun.

  • Ferric amonium citrate and potassium fericyanide in aqueous solution (kept separate until ready to use). Apply to any porous surface, dry in the dark, and you’re good to go. Piece of glass or plexiglass makes the image a bit clearer.

    It’s a combination of amount of solution and longer sun exposure that makes one blue darker than another.

    For those not into heavy duty chemicals, Jacquard makes a product called Solar Fast that can be used on anything that is washable.

  • What fun and what a lovely outcome!!
    Back in the day, about 20 years ago or so, we used something called blueprint paper. It was what draftsmen drew their designs on, it worked much the same way the cyanotype paper did.

  • Fascinating! And beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

  • We used to do this all the time as kids! There’s also a fabric paint – I think it’s called Sun Dye – that lets you do the same thing with all different kinds of colors. I used it once upon a time to make quilts and it was a blast!

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