Art and Chemistry

The magic of substances

Most art processes rely on some kind of chemical substance. Oil paints are mineral pigments ground with special oils, diluted with turpentine (an essential volatile oil). Printmaking techniques, darkroom photography, even charcoal relies on the transformation of a substance ( wood, fire= charcoal)

Most of the time we are completely unaware of the chemical make up and processes at work when we are making art.

A Chemistry/ Visual Arts Collaboration

This practical activity outlined below is an approach to making images that relies on a chemical transformative process.  It increases the art students' awareness of the importance of materials, reveals the role of chemistry behind art processes and the alchemical nature of artistic experimentation. This project requires a collaboration with the chemistry teacher and use of the lab. It is not difficult however, and produces reliably interesting results. It is also a great way to create connections between the subjects and at the same time generate some great material for process portfolio screens! I worked with my colleague Jana Krainova in the Chemistry department years ago on this collaborative project which we hope you will enjoy!

Seeing the transformation

Alternative Photography – The Cyanotypes (Prussian Blue)

What is a Cyanotype?
Making a cyanotype print involves placing a negative image, either a photographic negative, or an object, as in a photogram — on paper or fabric that has been prepared with an iron-based solution.  The paper with the negative image on it is placed under ultraviolet light, or in direct sun, to develop. When the desired "print" is reached, the objects are removed and the paper is rinsed thoroughly to fix the image.

Cyanotypes are sometimes referred to as a"Sun print" in that the final image appears only with the aid of ultra-violet, or sun light. The cyanotype process is about 150 years old. The colours can range in their final metamorphose from pale to deep blue tones and everything in between.

Originally, Cyanotypes (called "Ferro prussiate") were used in conjunction with scientific recordings of mathematical tables, a diverse range of plant specimens and architectural structures. In fact, the first woman photographer, Anna Atkins, used Cyanotypes to print "Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns" and was the very first book of printed photographs and text. The ability to coat this inexpensive sensitizer onto surfaces other than paper, such as wood or textiles, gives it added versatility.

Prussian Blue was first made accidentally in 1704, from ox blood or other animal bits, by near-alchemical procedures that defy my analytical powers.

Prussian blue (German: Preußisch Blau, Berliner Blau) is a dark blue pigment used in paints and formerly in blueprints. Prussian blue was discovered by accident by the painter Diesbach in Berlin and therefore it is also called Berlin blue. He originally was attempting to create paint with a red hue. It has several different chemical names, these being iron (III) Ferro cyanide, ferric Ferro cyanide, iron (III) hexacyanoferrate (II), and ferric

Part 1: In the Chemistry Lab


22.50g Ammonium Iron (III) Oxalate; (NH4)3[Fe (C2O4)3].3H2O
7.50g Potassium Ferricyanide; K3[Fe (CN)6]
3.75g Ammonium Dichromate; (NH4)2Cr2O7
Distilled water


Pestle and mortar, beaker, Bunsen burner, heating screen, stirring rod, thermometer, scales, weighing boats, funnel, filter paper, stand and clamps.


This work should be carried out under tungsten light, not fluorescent or daylight.
Please note that all chemicals are poisonous!

1. Using a pestle and mortar finely powder 7.50g of Potassium Ferricyanide. Avoid inhalation of the powder and pay attention to thoroughly completing this step, which is indicated when all red crystals are crushed to a yellow powder.
2. Heat about 25 cm3 of distilled water to approximately 50°C and dissolve in it 22.5g of Ammonium Iron (III) Oxalate.
3. Prepare 25% solution of Ammonium Dichromate by dissolving 3.75g of the solid in distilled water and making up to a final volume of 15 cm3.
4. Add 0.4 cm3 of Ammonium Dichromate solution to the solution of Ammonium Iron (III) Oxalate prepared in 2 and mix thoroughly.
5. To this solution while still hot add 7.50g of finely powdered Potassium Ferricyanide in small portions with vigorous stirring. Few ( or preferably no) red crystals should be seen and green crystals will begin to appear. Set the solution aside in a dark place to cool and crystallise for about an hour.
6. Separate most of the liquid from the green crystals by filtration. The green solid is disposed of safely! The volume of the solution extracted should be approx. 25 to 28 cm3.
7. Make up the olive-yellow coloured solution with distilled water to a final volume of 75 cm3.
8. Filter the sensitizer solution and store it in a brown bottle kept in the dark


Part 2: In the Art Studio, or outside is better!

Preparation using acetate negatives

Prepare all the paper you will be using for the prints, experimenting with different paper types. A textured heavy paper, like watercolor paper works really well. You can also print on cloth or wood. Prepare all the objects, or shapes you will use for printing first because the actual process all happens quite quickly.

You can also create negatives on acetate with a photocopier or drawing on acetate. As long as it is transparent to allow light through it will make an impression. This part of the process is actually the most creative part and requires thinking, planning, exploring ideas beforehand.

Try using objects that have perforations or meshes, or varying opacity for more interesting prints. A completely opaque solid object will just make a silhouette shape.

Have baths of water ready for rinsing off the chemicals, or basins in the sink.


Using a wide even brush, paint the prussian blue solution on the paper.

Arrange the objects you have chosen, or the image on acetate, on the still wet surface. (Glass or perspex sheets will aide in keeping the objects in place when making prints of relatively flat things, such as leaves . Heavier objects will weight the paper themselves)

Expose to sun light for a few minutes

After exposure carry the piece inside, remove the objects and rinse the paper thoroughly and leave to dry away from the light

Teaching Materials for this lesson

Cyanotype photography ppt presentation

Cyanotype photography pdf version

Apparently, cyanotypes are very trendy! Read this recent article in the New York Times Cyanotypes, Photographys Blue Period is Making a Comeback

“One of the best-selling points of this exhibition is that cyanotypes are both underrepresented and trendy at the same time,” said Nancy Burns, who organized the Worcester show with Kristina Wilson of Clark University. “It’s very hip in contemporary art, when you start looking for it.”

The cyanotype process — from the Greek cyan, or “dark-blue impression” — was invented around 1842 by the British astronomer and chemist John Frederick Herschel (1792–1871). The benefits of the format were evident from the start.

Anna Atkins, considered by many to be the first female photographer and the first person to create a book of photo-based images, blended science and art in botanical cyanotypes, starting in the 1840s. Atkins’s “Honey Locust Leaf and Pod” (circa 1854) is featured in the Worcester show.

The fine-art application was scarce for more than a century after Atkins’s day — rare enough that Steichen once called his use of cyanotypes a “secret” in a letter to his friend and mentor Alfred Stieglitz. For fine artists, it was often considered an “ugly stepchild” of the larger medium, Ms. Burns said, “because it was too easy.”

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