Gifted | Pretty in Print: Cyanotype workshops

When I was at school, my second-favourite subject was Art (the first was English, of course!)

I miss painting. More to the point, I often miss creating with more than just words. I miss stepping away from the screen, getting my hands messy, and thinking about what things look like, rather than sound like.

So when local artist Bex Willis invited me along* to experiment with a completely new (to me!) style of art at one of her Cyanotype Workshops, I couldn’t RSVP quick enough!

Hampshire-based Bex and I have worked together in the past, and her creations never fail to impress and intrigue me. She currently uses the Cyanotype printing process predominantly in her art at the moment. It’s incredibly distinct; stark white outlines of leaves or everyday objects on a deep- or bright-blue background. I love what she does, so I couldn’t wait to try it for myself.

For those of you that don’t know what Cyanotype printing is, let me fill you in (with my very limited knowledge). It’s basically the technique for creating literal blueprints – hence the name – and has been used for centuries.

Cyanotype printing uses ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide: non-toxic, light-sensitive chemicals which react with UV rays. After treating the paper with these chemicals, and leaving them to dry in the dark, you can use objects and light to create pieces similar to negatives. Sounds complicated? It’s not!

Blue prints with white outlines of plants

Our Cyanotype Workshop took place on a Sunday afternoon at the Nutshell – a small, newly opened space in the centre of Winchester. This was the perfect location: within easy reach of a train station, local, and off ‘peak time’ (Saturdays are so often taken up with weddings these days, and weeknights just aren’t practical for me).

Getting crafty and learning a new skill seemed like the ideal Sunday afternoon activity.

I joined four other women around a table decked out with all we needed. I liked the uncomplicated, low-tech look of it all. We had aprons, plastic trays, bottles of water, latex gloves and a variety of leaves, fronds, and flowers. I was curious to see how all of this would come together to make some art!

Bex Willis sets up her Cyanotype workshop

dried plants on paper, set out for the cyanotype workshop

Once we’d settled in, Bex explained the basics of the process, introduced us to the kit, and answered all of our questions.

We would be using the plants and belongings on the table to create shapes on our pages. Images would be formed by laying the items on top of the pre-treated paper Bex brought with her, then exposing it to UV light.

Usually, on a sunny day, you can just use natural light through windows; but as it was an overcast day (thanks, June!) we had a special UV lamp set up to do the hard work for us.

Once the pieces had been under the light for about fifteen minutes, we would need to take the plants off and wash the paper with water until it ran clear (to remove all chemicals – any residue would mean the white parts would eventually turn blue, too!). Then, the pattern would develop – just like a photo.

Developing a cyanotype print

It really was a case of spending a few hours working out how to get the best effects and outcomes; whether we wanted the clearest definition, or something a little different through experimentation. Bex guided us through, advising us on techniques and ideas, suggesting alternatives, and ensuring that we followed the steps precisely to get the best results.

Personally, I was aiming for simple, clear, floral images, using plants Bex had provided. Some of the other women in the group were a little braver and cut up plastic bags and used glass to try and make some unusual shapes and patterns.

We were all able to get what we wanted out of the workshop and work in our own unique ways, and we all inspired and encouraged each other.

a tote bag dyed with cyanotype print

Four hours passed in a flash and before we knew it, we’d made our final piece! Bex had been extremely busy and generous, and we each had four A5 prints, two A4 prints, and a cotton tote bag to use and take away. It meant we had a lot to play around with, and ultimately keep!

Only one of my prints didn’t go quite to plan, meaning I still have plenty to display with pride in my own flat – or gift to loved ones.

The thing that impressed me the most about this Cyanotype workshop was how simple it was to create something so beautiful and unusual. Granted, all the complex chemical treatment had been done for us by Bex; we just had to pick our plants or objects and work out exactly how we wanted our next piece to look. However, the workshop was accessible and pleasurable, and it was so good to try something new.

You really don’t need to be ‘arty’ or ‘creative’ to enjoy these sessions. There’s no drawing involved, and no ‘wrong way’ to make your design. The steps are easy to follow, the atmosphere is relaxed and friendly, and it’s almost meditative. I loved getting back to basics, using a very traditional craft, and combining science and art! This is not your usual art class.

It’s really not hard to create something beautiful from this process, which means basically anyone can get the most out of the workshop and have a great time along the way.

I can’t wait to hang my pieces from my walls; I’ve managed to make myself a complete set and I love them so much. I am so proud of what I managed to make with a process I’d never experienced before, and I know many other people in my life who would enjoy these workshops too!

Bex is a wonderful teacher. She is knowledgeable and welcoming and knows just when to guide you, and when to let you do your own thing.

I genuinely felt like I could continue creating patterns and images for hours on end, and wanted to keep going long after the session ended.

I’m already eyeing up the dates for the next workshops!

Speaking of which, you can find all the latest workshop dates, as well as details on the rest of Bex’s work, on her website.

*Bex offered me a space in the session in return for a review; but as always, my opinions and thoughts are honest, unbiased and completely my own.

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