Digital photography has moved us into new ways of image making, but more and more artists are returning to the old science behind early photography as a way to revisit and explore the many creative possibilities.
The English scientist and astronomer Sir John Herschel was a pioneer in actino-chemistry and wrote a paper in 1842 entitled – “On the action of the rays of the solar spectrum on vegetable colours, and on some new photographic processes.” His experiments used solutions including those derived from plants and flowers that were light-sensitive. I’ve made anthotypes from a range of pigments including fruit juices (the most successful being pure cranberry and blueberry), vegetable dyes (beetroot and red cabbage are good), coffee, red wine and spices.
Anthotypes are a great little Science/Art experiment to make with kids. The results aren’t instant, but as long as shadows aren’t being cast across your frame, you can leave one on the window sill during the week, and check on its progress at the end of each day. You’ll find that pigments have a range of different qualities and lightfastness. Beetroot, for example, turns yellow when exposed to the sun, which contrasts beautifully to the rich magenta colour of the original pigment, and you can see the exposed colour changing within a few days of sunshine. Blueberry juice on the other hand is very lightfast, and it can take weeks to get a really good contrast. Most pigments will need a few coats to get a really strong colour on the paper. The water left over from steamed red cabbage will give you an intense blue if you give the paper several coats. If you simply haven’t got the time to prepare pigments in the kitchen, you can buy pure juices and dyes off the shelf, but probably the most instant and mess-free way to start, especially for projects with children, is to buy a cheap multi-coloured pack of sugar paper. The pigments used in the manufacturing of this paper are bright and vibrant but are not lightfast, so they work perfectly for anthotypes. When finished, they can be kept and enjoyed in scrapbooks or as bookmarks.
You can, of course, produce anthotypes throughout the year indoors, if you use a UV lamp, but there is something special about the seasonal nature of making them in the sun, and the results are very rewarding. Some artists do exhibit anthotypes, but because the pigments used are so sensitive to any further exposure to light, they are usually viewed in galleries by lifting up a protective piece of black-out material. If exposed to direct sunlight the darker areas of an anthotype will gradually fade away entirely, a reminder that these are truly ephemeral images that appear and disappear in the light.