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In this installment of The Creative Spark, Brian talks about why he uses historical processes and shows how he combines them with Photoshop and other modern imaging tools. We follow Brian as he creates a digital negative, exposes a print, and then adds additional layers to create a final image.
Skill Level Appropriate for all
(music playing) Here we are, in my office where I do all my digital photography. I'm going to work with an image that I shot in New Mexico, outside of Gallup. I have scanned my black-and-white negative on a flatbed scanner, brought it up into Photoshop, and now we are going to make adjustments the easy way here in the digital world, taking care of dust spots. And then I am going to flip the whole thing into a negative in order to end up with a positive print on my watercolor paper.
I am going to change the contrast, because I know what sort of negative I need in order to make gum prints. And instead of printing on a piece of paper, like most photographers who are finished with their digital print, we are going to print to a sheet of clear acetate to make a big negative. (music playing) Welcome to my dungeon--I mean my darkroom--where we are going to try and put all of these processes together.
We are going to use digital negatives, and we are going to layer different 19th- century processes together. So let's start with making a cyanotype right now, and I am going to take two potions. One of them is a very poisonous and evil and the other, not so much. But I am going to use equal amounts of A, or ferric ammonium citrate, which is very tame, and then I'm going to put an equal amount of B, or potassium ferricyanide, which, as the name implies, is pretty evil.
Potassium ferricyanide, if I were to toss this into anything acid, even stock acid, some of the chemicals that you find in a darkroom, it releases cyanide gas similar to the gas chamber, so I won't do that right now. So I am going to mix equal portions, and then I am going to dip just a simple hardware store 49-cent black foam brush into this cyanotype potion. And I've got a sheet of Rives BFK watercolor paper here, and I'm just going to come to these yellow lights, coat the emulsion onto the paper.
And as you can see, this particular photographic process is not very sensitive to light, and the key thing is to keep blue light away from this. This emulsion--cyanotypes and gum prints and platinum most non-silver processes-- are really sensitive to ultraviolet light, or blue light. So as long as we have got yellow light-- kind of the opposite of blue--this emulsion isn't seeing a thing in here. Now that our cyanotype paper is dry and ready to be baked out in the sun, exposed for maybe ten minutes or so, I am going to get my contact printing frame and we'll put the negative in contact with this light-sensitized piece of watercolor paper that's now dry.
And the way to do that is to bring up what is called a contact printing frame. I just made this myself with a sheet of Masonite and a big sheet of coffee-table-thickness glass, quarter-inch glass, with the edges sanded or seamed so you don't cut yourself. So now we've got our coated sheet of watercolor paper with the cyanotype potion. We have got our negative.
And we'll press these together in contact. Even though the glass is heavy, I want to really make sure it's under pressure. And then we'll take this out in full sunlight for about ten minutes and it will turn blue as it exposes to sunlight. We exposed it in the sun for ten minutes, brought it in, rinsed it.
It's now dry and ready to have a gum bichromate run brushed onto it. And what I like to do is cover the whole thing with brown. You know, after all, I never wanted my desert scene to look blue. I would love it to look kind of a sandy sepia brown. So what we'll do now is switch to the gum bichromate process. I have got my favorite paint here. Some people use watercolor. I actually like to use gouache. This is Winsor & Newton gouache. The difference is gouache is opaque; watercolor is kind of transparent and you get kind of a thinner result, but this is very bold and rich.
And I have got my old-fashioned scales here. And I am going to weigh out about a gram of it. And from years of experience, I just know what a gram feels like. Then I am going to put that pigment into some gum arabic, 10 ml of gum arabic. And gum arabic is actually what makes watercolor and gouache wet.
Gum arabic is actually the medium of watercolor and gouache. So what I'm really saying is this pigment is just going into its own friendly environment. So the pigment is getting mixed up into gum arabic, 1 gram of pigment in 10 milliliters of gum. And gum is very, very tame, very non-toxic. You'll notice gum arabic in the ingredients in so many foods, like chewing gum and other things.
The other half of gum printing--the part that makes it light-sensitive--is ammonium dichromate. This is definitely evil stuff. I should be wearing gloves, and I want you wear gloves whenever you do this. All this gets mixed together, and now we'll coat this light-sensitive potion onto the cyanotype, and we are going to begin to make this look much more like a desert now.
This is an old hake brush, H-A-K-E, which painters use. It's actually rabbit fur or goat fur, so somewhere out there is a very cold bunny right now. But it's very soft fur. You can see, I purposely don't completely cover up the underlying cyanotype run. I like this imperfection and signs of human hand, the brush marks, and I like to let people see what lies underneath each layer.
So we started with a blue print, a cyanotype. You can still see a little bit of it there. Then we recoated it with the brown gum bichromate. We'll take the same negative now and put it back on top, in register, right exactly where it was before. I have put some letters in Photoshop. You can put bull's-eyes or printer's bull's-eyes or you can even put big letters out in your margins in your canvas area, just to give you something to act as a registration mark.
So now we have just come in from bright sunlight. I have exposed the brown sepia gum exposure for about six minutes in full sunlight. And now it's lying on top of the cyanotype run, but we won't really see much of an image for a few minutes. I am going to lay the print face down in a tray of water--no more running water; we would actually rinse the gum exposure off. The gum is actually going to sit on the surface of the cyanotype just like this thin slime.
But that's when the fun starts, because I'm about to go in with a paintbrush and get my white tepees back. But we will let it soak face down for a few minutes just in room-temperature water. You've got to be very patient to work with these 19th-century processes. Gum prints often take an hour or more of soaking face down before they start developing. Gravity pulls the pigment down off of the paper and you begin to get your highlights back, your whites. But it's a good sign when you begin to see pigment running off and beginning to dirty the water.
This tray should start taking on this brown sepia color when the gum emulsion starts coming off, in the areas where we want it to. We certainly want the gum to stick to the dark areas, in the midtones, but I'm hoping that gum will come off in the white areas, if you give it the right exposure out in sunlight. So what I'm going to do is help my highlights come back. The gum is actually just this thin slime on the surface. It's very delicate. You wouldn't want to run the print over the edge of a tray at this point, after it's been developing for ten or fifteen minutes.
So what I am going to do is help get my tepees back. It's very handmade; it has signs of a human touch, my imperfections. Of course if I make a drastic mistake, I can always correct it by going back in with watercolors. I can retouch this when all is set and done, because after all, it is a sheet of watercolor paper waiting to have anything done to it that you can do to a watercolor paper.
So now we have got brown over blue. And now what I want to do is make the sagebrush in the foliage green, so I am going to mix up another run of gum bichromate emulsion, this time in green. This is olive green, which I really like. It's very kind of khaki green; it's not a bright garish green. Let's take a new bowl of gum arabic, 10 ml.
And we'll give this green gum a place to land. Now it's time to add the other half of gum printing which makes it light-sensitive. Neither of these potions are light-sensitive on their own. The gum arabic is not light- sensitive, the potassium bichromate is not light-sensitive, but when you mix them together they become light-sensitive.
So now I'm going to use this beautiful bamboo brush. I actually have the luxury of sensitizing the print just where I want green to be. And we'll end with a black run, which actually kind of homogenizes the green and the brown. And that will give us a very kind of dark and ominous and nocturnal-looking scene, which is what I am looking for.
Because when I happened upon these tepees, the sun had set, and it was really twilight, very surreal and quiet as I took my camera out and crunched in the desert gravel to set up this scene. And so now we will let this dry. We will take the same negative. I am going to use my registration marks to line up the same negative. We'll take it out in the sun and expose a green layer to give us our grassy sagebrush.
When I took this picture I was interested in making traditional black-and-white silver prints in a darkroom, and you can certainly make a dark silvery print. But photo paper has such a machine-made surface. You know, it's often glossy, or it just seems very store-bought. But what I love about this process is that it will be much more organic, much more human-made than anything that comes out of a box of store-bought paper.