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Cyanotype on Wood

Cyanotype on Wood
Ash Leaves Section, Cyanotype on Ash Wood

1) Your series "We All Fall Down" combines cyanotype with wood stumps, creating bold tridimensional pieces. Can you describe the process behind creating these cyanotype prints on wood and how you achieve such unique and ephemeral results?

The pieces for “We All Fall Down” are part of a project started in 2019. The work is printed upon remnant ash wood that were intentionally cut down from the property of the The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in an effort to control the Emerald Ash Borer infestation. The work was intended to educate and give a new life to discarded wood. With that in mind I set out to make pieces that caught people's attention. I begin with Holga 120 film negatives, then prepare digital negatives with sufficient contrast and expose the double coated wood outside in the sun for about 12 minutes. It’s important to have a heavy piece of glass on top of the wood to make sure the negative is in close contact with the wood so the image is as sharp as possible. I then gently rinse the wood outside with a hose or soak it in a kiddie pool or in my utility sink, being careful not to mar the surface. Soaking rather than spraying the wood and using room temperature water is the best path forward. Hot water and touching or manipulating the surface will ruin the image. The ephemeral results are a combination of the qualities of the holga negative, a properly prepared digital negative and the natural markings on the surface of the wood.

Cyanotype on wood
Outdoor Installation

2) Going more in depth into the process itself, can you tell us how you treat a porous material like wood in order to create such detailed crisp prints? Do you select the logs by a certain criteria? Do you have a special coating method?

As a process artist, I chose to work in cyanotype on wood because it is generally friendly on alternative surfaces, as long as you take the time to figure out how to prepare the surface. It took me a while to find the right kind of sizing for the ash wood. I knew I would need some kind of surface preparation, but I started testing with no sizing, which produced muddy results from the cyanotype sinking into the wood and creating a flat image. I then moved on to using gelatin, which has been my go-to sizing for my gum bichromate work. Through some experimenting I found that 2 coats (drying in between coats) of gelatin was enough of a surface to keep the chemistry from sinking too deep into the wood. Then I give it a good 24 hour dry time to let the gelatin set. I use a crock pot with 1 cup of room temperature water to I tablespoon of gelatin and heat it to 120 degrees. I use a foam brush which I change often because there is a lot of debris from the wood that collects in the hot gelatin. I don’t select specific logs for my work, but I do make sure the wood is dry for at least a few months and I use a belt sander to smooth the surface so that the digital negative can come in tight contact with the surface of the wood.

3) We all know how important testing for exposure and for materials is, what does testing to ultimately print on logs looks like?

Testing for exposure and materials is important, but I don’t generally run numerous tests on small sections of the wood before I begin to make my work. I kind of jump right in with a piece of wood I like and see what happens. Once I do print on a specific type of wood, I assess the results and make changes on the next piece. These changes usually involve making a new negative, more sanding to the surface of the wood or exposure time. I recently started printing on 200 year old Elm that I have had for about a year. The results are horrible so far. But, I’m thinking about what modifications I need to make to have a successful print. Different kinds of wood have different qualities so I’m doing some reading to help me understand the wood and rethinking my surface preparation. I also benefit from having several woodworkers in my studio building and they are happy to answer my questions.

Installing cyanotype on wood exhibition

4) The process of cyanotype inherently involves a degree of unpredictability, and in your work, the wood stumps retain latent chemistry, potentially leading to fluctuations in the prints. How do you embrace and work with this impermanence, and how does it contribute to the overall narrative and aesthetic of your artworks?

The subject matter of my process work has always been about growth, decay and impermanence. When I began to work on ash wood, it was the first time that fluctuation in the actual piece was so apparent and it took me a while to become comfortable with this idea. I began to realize that this unpredictability was an extension of the work I was already making and when others were also embracing the ephemerality, it was a big move forward. I think that the imagery on the wood combined with the impermanence of these pieces connects to environmental issues we are facing. For me, these wood pieces serve as an omen regarding the current crisis we face.

Cyanotype on wood

5) How do you emotionally and practically deal with failed attempts? I know too well what it feels like to work with alternative processes and objects. Even if you have mastered a process and are familiar with your surface there still is a wide margin of error because of all the variables in the game (humidity, environment, coating, the uniqueness of each surface, seasons etc.). What does your process of analysis and problem solving look like?

There are many failures when printing on wood, but oftentimes what looks like a failure initially ends up being an amazing piece after you let it dry down. You need a certain amount of openness when working on wood because the results are never really what you expect. I have made prints that look like they will not be readable and then a few days later, a ghost like image appears or some new cracks form in the wood and it’s beautiful. Or you print too darkly but the rings in the wood begin to connect with the image and when it dries the contrast ends up being perfect. That said, I have a closet full of failures and sometimes when I am having a bad steak with my printing, I decide that the alt process Gods are not with me right now and give it a little break. Then in a few weeks I print again. I try not to stress about it because many factors are beyond my control and I may never know why something didn’t print the way I wanted it to. But I always come back!!

The Alternative Processes Academy includes an entire module on how make cyanotypes, with a section dedicated to cyanotype on wood (as well as marble, fabric, teabags, glass, ceramic, shells!!) see the full curriculum here

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