Gum Bichromate & Cyanotypes

Gum Bichromate

Steichen's The Pond—Moonlight, multiple gum bichromate print, 1904.
Steichen’s The Pond—Moonlight, multiple gum bichromate print, 1904.

To me this process is one of the hardest darkroom processes to master because it has so many possibilities. I feel very naive in showing you my images which are really just have a go examples. However when you look at the potential that this process offers by viewing the works of art that have been created by dedicated artists you can see that it is technical one to master.

The process and invention is difficult to date as so many photographers (scientists) had a hand in using these chemicals, however in 1839 a Scottish inventor called Mungo Ponton discovered that when paper was impregnated with potassium bichromate it became light sensitive. Other photographers expanded on this technique using other chemicals such as colloidal gelatine, iodine and starch and eventually came up with the mixture that we use today, potassium dichromate and gum arabic.

The potential with this process, allows you to mix water colour paints to the mixture, creating endless colours and even applying them using multiple exposures to build up layers of colour. This would be done by separating the hue properties within a negative. Nowadays you can create separate digital negatives within Photoshop, like the examples below by photographer Tony Gonzalez.

My first attempt at gum bichromate was unsuccessful, my mixture had been mixed with water colours, trying multiple colours on water colour paper. The negative results may have been due to a number of factors such as, poor lighting, long exposure (20 minutes in dull conditions), contamination of the chemicals or brushes, either way neither of my prints worked using digital negatives, as you can see below.

Mixed with water colour.
Mixed with water colour.

My second and final attempt for the time being was a little more successful, in that I have images visible on the paper. However the tones are a little faded and may of required a shorter exposure (I tried 10 minutes) as the conditions were bright and sunny.

Having “had a go”, I would like to develop my knowledge and experience with this technique, especially after seeing the possibilities that can be achieved with a little hard work, determination and luck.


Having complete a whole assignment about cyanotypes last year, this process is nothing new to me and I’d experimented using paper, cardboard, wood, fabric and even egg shell to produce a series of cyanotypes. So doing it again this year in the “having a go” style I’m afraid neither motivated, or inspired me. However I will say this about the process, if you are going to carry out cyanotypes do it the traditional way using chemicals and not the digital way using Photoshop where the results in my opinion ruin images and do not enhance them. Don’t get me wrong I love cyanotypes and I enjoy making cyanotypes but because of the artistic nature of the process I feel it is very much like gum bichromate and needs to be developed over time and experimented with. So on that final note here are my two prints.

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