Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Surface Design in Plein Air ~ Cyanotype and Heliographic Printing with Guest Artist Sue Reno

Carol R. Eaton here again for post #2 of the Plein Air Series! In the first post we talked about setting up a permanent outdoor creative space and a tutorial on ice cube painting. This week I invited guest fiber artist, Sue Reno, to talk about her approach to working outside. Next week my guest will be Maggie Vanderweit Meredith and the following week Lorie Hancock McCown

For Sue working outdoors began as an extension of an interest in and observation of her surrounding environment. Sue says this approach forms the basis of her creative process. She spends as much time as possible outside, hiking and gardening, and that spills over into other aspects of her life. Sue feels making artwork or the components for artwork outdoors now seems as natural as planting flowers or picking vegetables for dinner!

Sue Reno getting up close and personal with some spring crocus. I'm sure the color, texture and shapes will find their way into a design! 

Sue: My main processes for getting imagery onto fabric are directly tied to working outdoors. I make cyanotype prints from natural objects like leaves and flowers that I either forage for or harvest in my yard. I gather the objects, bring them indoors to arrange on treated fabric in the dimly lit studio, and then go back outside for timed exposures in the sunlight. The process is literally dependent on ultraviolet rays and would be difficult to replicate indoors. 

Sue is also known for her heliographic printing. Cyanotype... Heliographic... those are unusual terms so let's start by identify these techniques!
 Cyanotype: a photographic process that produces a cyan-blue print. Engineers used the process well into the 20th century as a low-cost process to produce copies of drawings, referred to as blueprints. The process uses 2 chemicals: ammonium iron (III) citrate and potassium ferricyanide.
Sue's design is a perfect image transferred directly onto fabric!
Heliographic: is a word derived from Greek and Graphein. The Heliograph is a type of "sunshine recorder" and Heliography is the photographic process used to make the earliest known permanent photograph from nature.
Sue lays foliage onto painted fabric and exposes to the sunlight. Over time the flora imagine will be seen on the fabric. 
Sue: I make cyanotype prints of animal skulls for works in my Flora and Fauna series. This began in response to a possum skull found while hiking and has grown from there. With the skulls I take macro photos that I turn into transparencies, which I use to make blueprints as described above.

Carol's Cyanotype Notes: Jacquard offers a starter set for cyanotype printing. The chemistry comes premeasured in lightproof black bottles. Fill each bottle with water to create solutions A & B and mix the two to create the cyanotype sensitizer. Coat fabric or paper with the sensitizer and allow to dry. As Sue mentioned above the next step is exposing the fabric to sunlight or UV (3-15 minutes, depending on conditions), using objects or a film negative to create an image. After exposure, prints are processed in a tray of cool water and allowed to air dry over about 24 hours; prints will oxidize to their final deep blue color. To instantly oxidize the print to its final color, submerge in a dilute bath of hydrogen peroxide after washing, then rinse and dry.

Sue: I also make heliographic prints, aka sunprints, using plants. I paint fabric, apply leaves as a mask, and put the composition out in the sun to dry. As the paint dries, it wicks out from under the mask and leaves an outline. It’s a physical process, unlike the chemical reaction of a cyanotype, and the possibilities seem endless. 

Sue: With both cyanotype and heliographic printing, I feel I am capturing a unique moment in the life cycle of my subject. The variables introduced by printing outdoors, at the gentle mercies of the environment, give the prints substance and meaning. I improve with practice but will never fully master control over those variables, and that keeps the process interesting and sustainable.

Carol: In the previous post I discussed creating a permanent outdoor space but I know not everyone wants this option. With all the fabulous artwork Sue creates she is not bound to a designated outdoor space. It doesn't matter if you have access to large outdoor spaces or a small balcony; you too can work outside! Sue's studio is located in the daylight basement of her home, allowing easy access to the outdoors. Living in a 4-season climate most of her printmaking is done in the summer months, however deadlines have driven Sue to working in wintry conditions on occasion! Her setup is impromptu and informal. She has a picnic table as her main work surface, and a hose available for cleanup. Sue follows the sun around the yard and uses the driveway and decks as print-drying locales. Sue has also used her wrought iron patio furniture as a drying platform when painting yardage to compliment her prints - secret - if you look closely you may spot some diamond designs on the fabric from the chairs!

More ideas for Heliographic (sun) printing from CAROL R. EATON! 
TIP: Once you place your object on the wet fabric apply a little more paint around the edges. This creates a more precious outline as the paint dries. 
Try all kinds of masks in your sun printing
Go Wild! 
Any object is fair game! 
Rethink your solid colored hand dyes. Use sun printing to create a new look 
with layers of fabric paint
Be Fearless!  

Nature is never perfect so don't leave out the fun foliage that's been tasted, torn or otherwise lived on when selecting flora for printing! 

Giant Ferns - sometimes it's just fun to go for the biggest foliage you can find. These ferns are about 30" tall! 
I hope you give Cyanotype and Heliographic Printing a try! Please share your results on the blog! If you have any questions, please feel free to start a dialogue and we can all get in in the conversation… and don’t forget to comment on the blog for a chance to win a pack of fat quarters using all the techniques we’ll discuss over the month of June! The winner will be announced June 30th

Next week our guest fiber artist is Maggie Vanderweit Meredith  who will share her rusting techniques!  

Setcolor fabric Paint - Dharma Trading Co

Jacquard Cyanotype Starter Set - Dharma Trading Co

SUE RENO: I am primarily a studio art quilter.  I make art in response to the natural environment and historic architecture in Lancaster County, PA. I use a variety of surface design techniques to put imagery onto the fabric, such as heliographic and cyanotype printing. I also work with screen printing, collagraphy, and digital printing from my own photography. Lately I have added felting and fabric manipulation to my repertoire.


  1. I LOVE your work. It makes me feel giddy about playing with paints again. Would love to play with your gorgeous fabric!! Thanks for sharing your great talents. I for one truly appreciate it. Pam Gonzalez

  2. Thanks for sharing..Ilove sun prints..especially nature . For fun IHave used different shaped confetti. I am a big fan of Sue Reno also.. I will miss it when the 52 week challenge is finished.

  3. I'm enjoying this series and soaking up the info you all share. I love seeing photos of the different fabrics.

  4. Wonderful post with excellent information. I've done heliograpgic prints and am itching to try a cyanotope. I've always enjoyed Sue Reno's work.

  5. I have a question and thought the expert may know. I went to purchase white Kona cotton and it was stiff. I found some with the soft hand at another store . Has anyone else seen this ?

    1. I use pimatex PFD fabric from Dharma Trading. I LOVE the hand and it accepts paint and dye very well!

  6. Stunning results here. I must make time to play!

    1. YES! You must make time to play - always! It's good for the soul :)

  7. Thanks for the very clear photos. The layering in these sun prints is really inspiring.

  8. AN FYI -- the sun printing with the Setacolors doesn't really require sun. What makes the difference is the drying rate disparity between the fabric that is covered and that that isn't. The paints will migrate to the drying fabric from wetter areas. It's terrific fun to do with leaves and found objects.


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