Harvesting filler flowers and herbs at my local Sprouts market (because thanks to my black thumb, the bounty once blooming in my windowsill has gone limp), I look for those with ornate edges.
“Plants with the most detail result in the prettiest prints,” artist Sarah Bourne Rafferty had said of this critical ingredient in cyanotype printing.
A centuries-old photographic technique (it was discovered in the 1840s by astronomer Sir John Herschel), cyanotype was typically done with photo negatives to produce a cyan-blue print. Like Rafferty, many modern artists use botanicals to create whimsical white prints against this deep-blue canvas. “You can also use objects,” she says, noting that her husband once created a print with a pair of scissors.
I gather thyme, cilantro and parsley, plus some sage and rosemary for experimentation’s sake; later, I’ll pick rose petals from my yard, and some Queen Anne’s lace and other wildflowers from a nearby meadow.
This morning I’m printing on watercolor paper, a craft I learned from Rafferty at her studio in West Chester, Pennsylvania. I’d seen her work at an art gallery in Chadds Ford, and she’s also hosted virtual workshops through Kurtz Collection in Wilmington. During the spring and summer, she hosts workshops in her backyard, where she’s planted a garden diverse for cooking (another passion) and printmaking.
Rafferty discovered cyanotype in college in Asheville, North Carolina, where she majored in photography. “It was a project in my first alternative process photography class,” she says. “I fell in love—I’ve always enjoyed photography and printmaking, and this is both of them combined. …There’s this tactile piece of using objects and being outside in nature, but also the magic of the developing. Even after making thousands of prints, I still get a kick out of watching each one develop.”
But it wasn’t until she was earning her master’s while teaching photography years later that the “lightbulb went on.” While advancing her studies in book art and printmaking at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Rafferty realized cyanotype is she wanted to pursue most.
Found objects scattered around her studio nod to a series she created at the time called The River Web, a collage of abstract materials found at the water’s edge—nests, feathers, animal skulls. She’d used cheesecloth to creative the feeling of water.
“I really love to have fun with the process and not take it so seriously,” she says.
Starting out a few years ago with $600 and a collection of greeting cards, she founded Atwater Designs, after her mother’s maiden name and her own middle name before she was married. It’s also deeply significant because of her affinity for the water. The artist now offers everything from calendars and gift wrap to wallpaper, textiles and large-scale works, including reproductions and commissions.
Cyanotype is a three-day process. Earlier, I had mixed ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide (find them at most art-supply stores) in separate vessels with water, avoiding any contact with skin and allowing the salts to dissolve in a dark, cool place overnight. The following night, I combined them 1:1 in a small dish, using a foam brush to evenly and lightly apply the solutions—which become light-sensitive when mixed—across sheets of deckle-edge watercolor paper, heeding Rafferty’s advice to “avoid any pooling.” What starts as a vivid yellow will dry to a muted green. Leaving them to dry in the dark, I slipped them into a black linen envelope early in the morning so they wouldn’t be exposed to sunlight.
Now it’s time to create. With my pressed plants, I arrange different compositions on the treated side of the paper—abstract collages, sentiments, my daughter’s name—pressing them inside a contact sheet. (Two sheets of plexiglass also work.) Next, I head into the sunshine at midday, when the sun is the strongest. The time it takes to print depends on the angle and intensity of the sun, and therefore the seasons. “So, anywhere from three to 30 minutes,” Rafferty says.
Experience has made her a good judge of time, but on this partly sunny day in late fall, I am winging it. Angling my sheet toward the sun, I can see the green ripen into a rich blue, and in 10 minutes I remove the plants and transfer my sheet to a developing tray, which I’d already filled with cold water. I give it five minutes, flipping it on either side and swishing it around to rinse away any residue.
Last, I hang it with tiny clothespins from a photo wire, where it continues to oxidize for another 24 hours, by contrast intensifying the white prints my botanicals left behind. At least in theory. It turns out I either underexposed it to the sun or water, and part of my prints blend into a faded gray.
“It’s all about experimentation,” Rafferty says. “If you’re someone who has trouble letting go, this is not the process for you—or maybe it is.”