Bringing New Life to Reference Photos

The importance of a good reference photo can’t be ignored when working representationally (even when working from life, most artists still take photos.) Once the painting is done, though, the reference photos may seem kinda useless. But, I’ve found new ways to make use of these photos by utilizing them for cyanotypes! 

barbie bob_web

I’ve used some of my barbie pictures, to some cool results. I like how the cyanotype kind of blurs the sense of size and depth to the point that the final images almost look like human portraits. Well, not all of them…

barbie negative_web

 I’ve also made use of my sheet mask reference photos (along with some experimenting with the plate):

I’m really loving exploring literally the exact same subject matter in two completely different mediums (photography and painting.) It gives me the chance to explore a subject in both a more labored process, as well as a very immediate one. After agonizing over one painting for 10 hours, sometimes being able to make 10 prints in one morning is the perfect palette cleanser. 

Haunted Underwear

monotype underwear_WEB

Cyanotype: Underwear I | cyanotype on Arches Hot Press | 12×16″ | Available from ArtOne Gallery

For more of an explainer on what cyanotypes are, see my post here about the process.

So, in my exploration of cyanotypes, I inevitably ended up exploring fabric. Making the best photograms (or exposing actual, physical objects to make the photo) means going all Goldilocks and finding objects that are just right. Ideally, they’re a little transparent, but not too much. They’re intricate, but not too delicate (so as to not let too much light in.) They’ll lay flat, but not completely (as that looks kinda boring.) I don’t know how exactly I arrived at mesh undies in my quest, but I’ve really enjoyed exploring their possibilities from an aesthetic perspective as well as their potential for thematic undertones.

bra monotype1_WEB

Cyanotype: Bra | cyanotype on Arches Hot Press | 12×16″ | Available from ArtOne Gallery

My work, overall, is concerned with feminine beauty rituals and objects that are heavily gendered as feminine. So, this experimental series actually aligns with the rest of my work quite well. I love how the bras and underwear end up looking ghost-like: they just sort of float in a dark, blue abyss. Also, cyanotypes are where the term “blue print” comes from, so one could look at these as showing the “architecture” of (a very traditional view of) femininity. Maybe that sounds too pretentious, lol.

Cyanotype: Underwear IV

Cyanotype Underwear IV, 13″ X 17″ X 1.5,” cyanotype on paper, Available from ArtOne Gallery

All I know is that I really enjoy making these. As with monotypes, I love how I never really know how they’ll turn out until I develop them under running water. So many variables will effect how the print will turn out, everything from the weather that day, to how long I expose it, to how I laid out the underwear over the sensitized paper. Each pair of undies ends up having its own personality!

Something Old, Something Blue

Okay, I am officially addicted to cyanotypes. The rich, Prussian blue, the high contrast style, and that lovely vintage feel come together to create such a unique final result that can only be achieved using this historic medium.

Cyanotypes were invented by Sir John Hershel in 1842, as a way to reproduce notes and drawings (blueprints!) This photographic process involves combining potassium ferricyanide and ferric ammonium citrate solutions, and applying said solution to any absorbent surface- ideally paper or fabric. Objects or film negatives can then be placed on top of the sensitized surface, and exposed to sunlight. The surface is then rinsed with water and viola! You have a cyanotype!


I made this one using a perfume bottle!

I’ve spoken before about how I love making monotypes to wind down from working on larger oil painting projects. Cyanotypes provide that same spontaneous thrill that comes from not knowing exactly how an image will turn out.

sun print Moss_ADJ_WWEB

This one was made using moss

You can buy kits with paper already sensitized with the chemicals (“sun print” kits,) which is what I used to make the above. This is a great way to try out the medium for cyanotype n00bz, but I personally got frustrated by how crappy and flimsy the paper is (it curls and buckles and you can never get all the little ripples out.) I decided to go hardcore and buy the real chemicals. Now, I can work on my favorite watercolor papers- which means I can work into my prints!

abstract orange square CYANOTYPE_web

worked into this one with some colored pencil

I’m excited to see how I could integrate this more into my core work. Right now, I’m just enjoying the thrill (and lamenting the occasional frustration) of experimentation with an unfamiliar medium. I get so overloaded with seeing digital photography everywhere online that it feels refreshing to make photos using such a highly tactile analog process!