Thanks to my black thumb, the bounty of filler flowers and herbs once-blooming in my windowsill has gone limp. So I’ve been harvesting them instead at my local market. Either way, I look for ornate edges. “Plants with the most detail result in the prettiest prints,” says artist Sarah Bourne Rafferty.
Such detail is the critical ingredient in cyanotype printing, a centuries-old photographic technique discovered in the 1840s by astronomer Sir John Herschel. Though cyanotype was typically done with photo negatives to produce a cyan-blue print, many modern artists like Rafferty use botanicals to create whimsical white prints against a deep-blue canvas. “You can also use objects,” she says, noting that her husband once created a print with a pair of scissors.
To prepare, I gathered thyme, cilantro and parsley, plus some sage and rosemary for experimentation’s sake. I also picked rose petals from my yard and some Queen Anne’s lace and other wildflowers at a nearby meadow.
This morning, I’m printing on watercolor paper, a craft I learned from Rafferty at her studio in West Chester. I’d seen her work at an art gallery in Chadds Ford, and she also teaches virtual workshops through Kurtz Collection in Wilmington. During the spring and summer, Rafferty hosts workshops in her backyard, where she’s planted a diverse garden for printmaking and cooking (another passion).
Rafferty discovered cyanotype as a college student in Asheville, N.C., 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 years later, when she was earning her master’s degree while teaching photography, that the “lightbulb went on.” Advancing her studies in book art and printmaking at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, she realized that cyanotype was what she wanted to pursue most.
Found objects scattered around her studio nod to a series she created back then called The River Web, a collage of abstract materials found at the water’s edge—nests, feathers, animal skulls. Cheesecloth creates 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, Rafferty founded Atwater Designs. Her mother’s maiden name, Atwater is also Rafferty’s middle name (prior to marriage). It also hints at her affinity for the water. The artist now offers everything from calendars and giftwrap to wallpaper, textiles and large-scale works, including reproductions and commissions.
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A cyanotype takes three days to complete. Earlier, I mixed ammonium ferric citrate and potassium ferricyanide (found 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 deckled-edge watercolor paper, heeding Rafferty’s advice to “avoid any pooling.” What starts as a vivid yellow dries 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 outside at midday, when the sun is strongest. The time it takes to print depends on the angle and intensity of the sun, not to mention the seasons. “Anywhere from three to 30 minutes,” says Rafferty.
Experience has made Rafferty a good judge of time, but on this partly sunny day in late fall, I’m winging it. Angling my sheet toward the sun, I can see the green ripen into a rich blue. In 10 minutes, I remove the plants and transfer my sheet to a developing tray, which I already filled with cold water. I give it five minutes, flipping it on either side and swishing it around to rinse away any residue.
I hang it on a photo wire with tiny clothespins. It continues to oxidize there for another 24 hours, 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 parts have blended 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.”