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Cyanotype on Seashells and other Beach findings (without pre-coating)

Updated: Feb 9

This week, I've run some experiments while working remotely from Fuerteventura. I brought only the essentials with me: already mixed cyanotype liquid, and nothing else!

I wanted to see what could be achieved without using any gelatine or kind of pre-coating. It was quite challenging. Here's how it went:

#1 Cyanotype on Sea Glass

Cyanotype on glass

Seaglass is incredible. It is formed from pieces of glass that have been discarded into the ocean and then tumbled and smoothed by the constant motion of water and sand over many years. The waves act as a natural abrasive that gradually erodes the sharp edges and rough surfaces of the glass. This changes the surface and texture of the glass, making it able to retain the cyanotype emulsion without pre-coating. How amazing is that? 

Of course, we’re working with unique shapes and frosted appearance, which may not suite everybody’s aesthetic. A local fisherman told me that different beaches and ocean conditions can produce varying qualities and appearances of sea glass. The most common colour is green, which isn’t great for cyanotype printing because of the low contrast, but if you’re dedicated you might find clearer pieces.

IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER: If the glass hasn't spent enough time in the water and isn't enough textured, the emulsion will get washed right off.

#2 Cyanotype on Crab Shell

Cyanotype on crab shell

I was very reluctant to try this, because deep down I knew it could not work, but I’ve found so many beautiful crab shells on the island that I’ve eventually decided to try. Crab shells are not completely waterproof but they are water-resistant. The shell of a crab, known as the exoskeleton, is primarily made of chitin, which provides a degree of resistance to water (because of course). My first attempts saw the emulsion washing right off during the fixing stage. After coating several times, waiting for the emulsion to fully penetrate between each coat, and exposing for 15+ minutes, I got some results! You can see the outline of the flower or plant, which is already a great accomplishment, however, for more detailed prints, it is advisable to select the shell accurately as well as pre-coating for a move even distribution of the cyanotype emulsion.

#3 Cyanotype on Cuttlefish Bone

Cyanotype on Cuttlefish Bone

This was particularly hard. Cuttlefish bone is highly porous due to its unique structure and function, so one coat of emulsion won't do it. The bone, also known as cuttlebone, is not actually a bone but an internal shell made primarily of aragonite, a form of, again, calcium carbonate. Normally, I would just pre-coat this, but the challenge is about not using a pre-coat, so here we go.

It's important to find the balance, so that that the emulsion is enough on the surface of the bone to get exposed by light, without coating too much which can result in a muddy print and difficulty washing off the unexposed emulsion.

Here, I coated 3 times and exposed for 20 minutes (UV index 3). In some parts of the bone, it's quite detailed, other areas got very blurred. A pre-coating would seriously improve the overall outcome.

#4 Cyanotype on SeaShells

Cyanotype on Seashells

When it comes to cyanotype on seashells, It's a hit or miss, and it entirely depends on the shell itself. Seashells can vary greatly in their porosity from specie to specie. Nacreous (Mother-of-Pearl) are made of calcium carbonate crystals, interleaved with layers of organic material. This structure tends to be less porous and more iridescent. Prismatic shells, (clams, snails) are made of more porous, densely packed calcium carbonate crystals without organic layers. Which makes them easier to work with.

From the image above, it may look like I was able to print on any shell, but I've collected a great amount of failed prints over the last week.

Here, I printed on mussel, abalone, a broken piece of a sea urchin shell, and what seems a piece of a limpet (not sure).

I will talk more about cyanotype on shells inside the Alternative Processes Academy. If you haven't yet, watch our free Masterclass



❝Working my way through the Alternative Processes Academy has been pure joy. The modules are split into clear and easy to follow videos with pdf’s to support each one. There are tips and ideas on how to organise your materials and great advice on darkroom practice including the right mindset. It’s amazing value as there are not only new modules added regularly but an AP community on discord where we share our wins, talk about our challenges and get amazing feedback, plus there are community calls where we get more in-depth feedback. This community is filled with artists and photographers on the same journey and it’s very inspiring.❞

❝The APA Academy brings together many processes and guides you synthetically and usefully through them. I also love that APA provides a space for direct interaction with other students so you can learn from their experience and doubts. If you want to get started and meet other people who are passionate about these techniques, I recommend it 100%❞

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