6 December 2020
The British Sundial Society have a feature on my cyanotypes of sundials in their December 2020 Bulletin. They contacted me having seen my sundial cyanotypes on instagram and I am very pleased to share the article here in case you’re not a member of their Society 😉
I am a visual artist and my artwork is inspired by the natural world. I am particularly interested in the relationship between plants, insects and birds. I use the cyanotype process to make my work and I have recently started to incorporate diagrams of sundial into my artwork.
Migratory birds serve key functions in the interconnected systems that keep nature healthy, including pollination and seed dispersal of crops for human and livestock consumption and control of the numbers of insects.
Birds use the sun as a navigation aid like a compass to migrate across vast distances which allows them to make progress towards a goal without having to reassess their position constantly. In a local environment birds use solar clues such as shadows cast by hedges for orientation which shows both direction of the sun and time of day – like a sundial.
Flowers respond to the sun in different ways. Many flowers will follow the track of the sun throughout the day much like the shadow from the gnomon showing the direction of the sun on the face of a sundial. Others open and close to match the intensity of the sun. Some flowers face east in order to warm up more rapidly in the early morning which results in a significant increase in the number of pollinator visits.
I use the cyanotype process to make artwork in which photosensitive chemicals are exposed to the ultraviolet rays of the sun to create an image. To incorporate sundials into my work about plants, insects and birds follows as a logical extension.
The Cyanotype Process
The cyanotype is a photographic printing technique that does not use a camera. It was introduced in 1842 by John Herschel (Ref1). A year later Anna Atkins created a series of books using the cyanotype process to document plants. (Ref2)
The cyanotype process was once extensively used for engineering drawings and is the origin of the term ‘blueprint’. Technical blueprints were used by engineers and architects for reproducing technical and specification drawings rapidly and accurately. The process is characterised by white lines on a blue background, a negative of the original. The blueprint was eventually superceded by cheaper and simpler copying processes.
The cyanotype image is made by applying ultraviolet sensitive chemicals to paper. This is exposed to sunlight to develop and then washed in running water to fix the image.
There are various formulas for creating the cyanotype solution but they all involve mixing various quantities of two chemicals: ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide. These are in powder form and prepared by combining with distilled water.
I currently use a variation of the classic cyanotype formula. These solutions are stored away from light and mixed together in equal quantities when ready to use. Once mixed they again have to be stored in the dark.
I apply the combined chemicals to 300 gsm alkaline free watercolour paper evenly with a sponge and allow to dry for an hour or so in a darkened room. The paper has to be strong enough to be able to withstand thorough washing in water following exposure. I find the best results are when the coated paper is used within 24-48 hours.
To create the imagery I use a combination of digitally prepared and printed transparencies of vintage sundial diagrams, birds and insects. I then place this transparency onto the prepared paper and add real flowers or plants.
I place this on a flat surface outside in the sun and put a piece of glass on top to hold everything firmly in place.
Anything that stops the light reaching the sensitised paper will appear white when developed and everything else will be blue.
It is important to me that I use properly delineated diagrams of sundials and I select them from royalty free sources via the internet. (Ref 3)
The sun provides a convenient source of UV (ultraviolet) light with parallel rays and exposure times vary according to intensity and orientation of the sun, amount of cloud and ambient temperature. Exposure times can vary from 30 mins upwards. This can be calculated scientifically using a stepwedge test but you soon get a good idea of timings comes with practise using a particular combination of chemical formula and paper.
Once it has been in the sun for the required amount of time the image is developed by holding the paper under running water for at least 6 minutes. It is a great feeling to see the image appear. It takes up to 24 hours for the paper to dry completely and only then can I add the gold metal leaf detail.
I apply to gold metal leaf detail by hand once the cyanotype image has dried completely. This is a delicate process which involves applying a special glue which dries until tacky –approximately 10 minutes and then apply the gold metal leaf, rubbing away any excess. I then apply a clear shellac varnish to prevent to gold metal tarnishing. I use the gold metal leaf to represent the sun, in some pictures I create a disc (Fig 3) and in others I make a spherical dotted line (Fig 4). I also sometimes apply the gold metal leaf to highlight specific elements of the picture, for example the bees in Fig 5.
I chose to make these cyanotypes at this size and shape in order to reflect the more familiar circular horizontal sundial.
It is a fascinating process which has an element of serendipity in that I never quite know what the image will look like. Combining images of sundials with plants, insects and birds highlights how the rhythms of life are reliant on the cycle of the sun, hence the title of this series of works: Wild Clocks.
And to use the sun to create an image of a sundial adds a sense of completeness to these images.
I use a book called Cyanotype – The Blueprint in Contemporary Practice as my go to reference book and I thoroughly recommend it if you are interested in learning anything further about this process (Ref4)
1.A biography of John Herschel can be found on wikipedia.
2.Images of Anna Atkins cyanotypes can be found at the following website:
3.Sundial geometry diagrams sources include:
Larive and Fleury: Dictionnaire des Mots et des Choses (Dictionary of words and things) Georges Chamerot, Paris (1895) and
Wellcome Collection freely licensed digital information at www.wellcomecollection.org/works
4. Christina Z. Anderson: Cyanotype – The Blueprint in Contemporary Practice, Routledge (2019)