Elaine Humpleby- Painting with Light: Cyanotype, Photograms and Chemigrams

I studied an eclectic mix of Three-Dimensional Design and Photography at university three decades ago and I have been teaching ever since. I studied traditional processes as part of my course but was also exposed to the new techniques of Holograph and Digital Design which were very new at the time.

I teach Art, Media Studies and Photography at a comprehensive school in Norwich. Much as I love all aspects of all three courses, over the past few years I had become concerned about three things.

·         Firstly how ‘complacent’ students had become with working through a computer interface; happy to take snapshots and then use the magic of Photoshop (or other brands of software which are available) to churn out versions of the original rather than perhaps seeing the Photographic process as creative and an Art form in its own right or thinking as Artists.

·         Secondly despite the high level of technical skill, the need for a conceptual or narrative content and an understanding of process required to make good, original outcomes they were increasingly happy with volume rather than quality. 

·         Finally there was an increasing cost to studying Photographic processes: printing, editing, computers, cameras etc. and many students were not able to meet that cost. I wanted a cheaper way that they could be successful

 I wanted to find a way to share the sheer magic and excitement I feel when creating images using what are now referred to as ‘Alternative’ Photography. I carried out some research to make sure than I could get the materials at a good cost AND students would get good results and I started to experiment myself: revisiting processes that in some cases I last used when I was in my early twenties. Then I tested it with a small group of students and now all groups use these methods. Students create natural versions of each method but then also use scans to edit with PCs and mixed media processes to develop work experimenting with scale, layers and materials.  There are lots of books on the market and I found these of particular use:

Working together as teachers and artists

Finding the Sketchbook Circle and NSEAD has been such an awesome inspiration. I have has great partnerships and every visit to the facebook group gives me new ideas. Yvette Hughes, Helen Homewood and Rohan Mason have been my closest inspirations but looking at what everyone has done has totally reinvigorated my own practice and my qualities as a teacher. Working together and sharing ideas through this group benefits me and my students. I was lucky enough to be asked to deliver a workshop in London in February this year and it was just brilliant to see how art teachers responded to my session – I took their ideas back to my own classroom. My students clamour to see my sketchbook each month so there is a measurable impact on their own sketchbooks.

Started by Becky Mizon , Norfolk art teachers have set up a ‘TeachMeet’ group called ‘A Nice Cup of Norfolk tea’. Last month we had our first meeting hosted by Helen Homewood at Aylsham where we all had a go at Cyanotypes and combined it with Gelli printing. It was also time to share thoughts on assessment and schemes of work. 


This is a way of creating white prints on a deep blue background. It is very simple but very slow. After painting your surface with the fluid in low artificial/non-uv light let it dry. Then use interesting objects to act as a resist and protect the surface from uv/sunlight. The method uses a chemical process to turn the surface a lovely cyan blue when oxidised and was the original ‘blueprint’

Pitfalls & Challenges

The liquid marks surfaces to cover anything you don’t want to stain. Without an expensive UV light-box you need to either rely on the sun OR leave the compositions to expose in winter or cloudy light forlong time – (I have used moonlight but it takes ALL night). You need 2 lightproof containers to protect the liquid once mixed with water and a third one to store the combined liquids

Tips for success

·         It is very cheap and is a great link to science and maths

·         You can paint it onto all different kinds of paper, fabric and things like low fired, unglazed pottery

·         The colour is fabulous (but fades so when complete keep out of sunlight)

·         The powders are mixed with water and it is super easy. The powders are safe – they are used in food products but avoid breathing in the dust

·         Experiment with different papers and painting bold or rough textures

·         Just use warm water to oxidise it – soak the paper in it until the ‘yellow’ washes out

·         Use vinegar or very, very mild bleach solution in the final wash to make the blue really pop

A helpful video can be found here http://www.lomography.com/magazine/201441-introduction-to-cyanotype

Examples by students / ME

The process - PHOTOGRAMS

Photograms are produced in a darkroom and I am lucky enough to have enlargers but most have been collected by posting notes on the school website and gumtree (it is amazing what grandparents have in garages) and my oldest is from the 1940s. you can do it with a strong lamp but need to experiment with timings

Pitfalls & Challenges

It can be expensive: the developer and fixative go a long way but the light-sensitive photo paper can be expensive. I have become good at trawling eBay, gumtree and car boots for old paper stock which can yield stunning results. it only takes seconds to expose the paper in a strong light source.You need a room which has been blacked out and a red bulb that is 15w or less. I have found that science often have this kind of roombut I have also used stockrooms with black plastic over windows.

Tips for success

·         Same tips as for Chemigrams

·         Plus this is all about opacity and transparency – solid dark things block the light getting to the paper totally, bulbs and clear plastic let light through,  seeds, feathers and delicate flowers , wire and lace work brilliantly



This is a way of capturing positive or negative images straight onto light sensitive paper by using various objects. It is a way of printing using darkroom chemical (Developer and Fixative) to create very expressive and experimental compositions. Smelly fun and immediate: all abilities I have done it with love it, from Y7 to Y13

Find the history here: http://www.pierrecordier.com/

Pitfalls & Challenges

It is smelly and can be expensive: the developer and fixative go a long way but the light-sensitive photo paper can be expensive. I have become good at trawling eBay, gumtree and car boots for old paper stock which can yield stunning results

Tips for success/positives

·         Students and teachers love doing this and it links well to science/maths so sometimes you can tap non-art budgets for funds

·         It is instant

·         Light-sensitive paper reacts very fast to white light – before a class I work in a safe-light area and count 4 or 5 sheets into separate light sensitive bags so that a whole box cannot be exposed. Students (or teachers) get a bag between pairs

·         Use small paper and get small groups to do it at once – a whole class is too messy

·         Litter trays or Tupperware are good for the chemicals

·         Have stuff to wash hands with