by Gerald Boerner
Yesterday we examined the Cyanotype printing-out paper that created beautiful blue images from contact prints from negatives or photograms of objects placed upon its surface. These prints required ultraviolet (UV) light of the sun. The image is “developed” by washing in water followed by toning (optional).
Today we examine another type of non-silver printing-out paper that uses a different iron-based sensitizer to coat fiber paper, the Van Dyke Brown process. This color was first developed by the painter, van Dyck, and used by many of the Flemish painters. The beautiful brown image produced on this paper is exposed with UV light (the sun) just like the Cyanotype. The processing of the image on the paper involves a water wash followed by a “fixing” bath to remove excess sensitized compounds followed be a long (30+ minutes) bath.
These images, as will be seen by some of the samples included below, are stunning and durable. They can be toned to bring out some additional tonality. This is a process that requires patience and practice to master, but results in stunning images. GLB
“The darkroom is just the means to an end.”
— Kim Weston
“I’ve been a photographer all these years… I haven’t been in my own darkroom for 10 years.”
— Graham Nash
“My lifestyle is bizarre, but the only thing you need to know is where the darkroom is.”
— Robert Mapplethorpe
“I never stopped photographing. There were a couple of years when I didn’t have a darkroom, but that didn’t stop me from photographing.”
— Imogen Cunningham
“Then I thought I was going to be a photographer. I tried a hand at darkroom technician. I played in a band. It took me quite some time to discover that I wanted to write.”
— Guy Johnson
“When I’m about ready to press the cable release on the View camera, I’ve tried to anticipate some of the challenges I’m going to encounter in the darkroom.”
— John Sexton
“For me the printing process is part of the magic of photography. It’s that magic that can be exciting, disappointing, rewarding and frustrating all in the same few moments in the darkroom.”
— John Sexton
“I’ve found even after nearly 30 years of doing this, there are all kinds of new surprises that rear their heads at various times and I truly believe that 51% of the images, success takes place in the darkroom.”
— John Sexton
This posting is intended for the educational use of photographers and photography students and complies with the “educational fair use” provisions of copyright law. For readers who might wish to reuse some of these images should check out their compliance with copyright limitations that might apply to that use.
Early Photographic Technique: Van Dyke Brown
Printing with Van Dyke Brown requires the use of a large format negative in the size of the desired print, a suitable substrate for coating and subsequent printing, and a UV light source, either sunlight or suitable bulbs. The substrate can be almost anything that the solution will adhere to. Watercolor paper is a good first choice, but trickier substrates such as metal, glass or tile can be first ‘sized’ with gelatin or arrowroot to facilitate coating. The substrate is coated with solution under tungsten light, air dried, and coated a second time if desired for a stronger image.
The negative is placed on the thoroughly dried coated substrate, and is then weighted with a piece of glass. Frequent printers often use a printing frame to ease the checking of printing progress without disturbing the registration, or alignment, of the negative on the paper. These printing frames also ease the printing of a second coat over the same image.
The glass-negative-substrate ‘sandwich’ is exposed to a source of UV light. UV bulbs offer more control and consistency of light than sunlight, but at greatly increased cost. Standard daylight fluorescents produce some UV light, but printing times may be very long. A good starting point for printing time is to check a region of your photo that is very light but should still show some tone or detail (a highlight), and note how long it takes to register this detail, and print as long again. The latent image now appears, although flat and lacking substantial shadow tones.
Processing the Printed Image
The image must now be washed, or cleared, in several changes of water to remove soluble iron and silver compounds It is good practice to slightly acidify the wash water, as iron compounds are more soluble in acid. A pinch of citric acid, dab of vinegar or pineapple juice will do the trick. As the image soaks, white cloudy precipitate of silver chloride will appear from the reaction of silver nitrate with chlorine in the water. Continue to wash for a few changes of water after this cloudiness ceases to appear.
Fixing is best done with a weak, alkaline fixer of 5% sodium thiosulfate with a teaspoon of household ammonia per liter. The alkali slows the fixing process and prevents rapid bleaching of the image. Almost immediately, the tones of the image will change to a deep chocolate brown. Keep fixing until the whites appear clear; about 2 minutes, and finish with a second, clean fix if desired for thorough removal of salts that would fade the image. Use a fixer clearing bath of sodium sulfite to help remove residual fixer, and give the print an extended wash fitting the absorbency of the substrate, around 30-45 minutes for absorbent papers, or 5-10 minutes for gelatin sized tile or glass.
Air dry the print without heat. High heat will change the color of the print to more neutral and weaken the shadows.
Observe precautions for handling chemistry. Know your tools. Wear gloves and goggles if in doubt.
Like many photo processes, VDB is based on the light sensitivity of a salt, silver tartrate, which gives it a unique color and scale.
The following formula was taken from Bob Schramm’s article in Post-Factory Photography. I have tried varying the amounts of each of the three ingredients but have found the basic formula to give the best results. Adding more tartaric acid seemed to increase contrast slightly and move the image color to a more neutral gray but then graininess became a problem. Adding more silver nitrate didn’t have much effect, as was the case with more ferric ammonium citrate. I doubled the amount of all the chemicals in the formula in an attempt to make a single coat solution and got excellent contrast with rich blacks but grain was again a problem. A drop or two of 1% gold chloride can be added to the sensitizer just before coating to move the image color towards purplish-brown. My main supplier of chemicals is Artcraft Chemicals at artcraftchemicals.com and I highly recommend them.
- Ferric Ammonium Citrate: 9.0 gm
- Distilled Water: 33.0 ml
- Tartaric Acid: 1.5 gm
- Distilled Water: 33.0 ml
- Silver Nitrate: 3.8 gm
- Distilled Water: 33.0 ml
Combine Solutions A and B and slowly add C while stirring. Pour the sensitizer in a brown bottle and let it age for a few days before using. Keep it stored in a dark place. I keep mine in a covered box. I have used sensitizer that had been sitting around for a year or so and it was fine. Care should be taken when mixing.
Wynn White’s Description of the Vandyke Process
I was first drawn to the Vandyke process when I became dissatisfied with the lack of variety and character of the baryta base of conventional gelatin-silver photographic papers. I wanted to make prints on some of the many beautiful and interesting papers that are available to printmakers and watercolorists and first worked with salted paper but with limited success and considerable frustration. That was when, in January of 2000, I read Bob Schramm’s article on the Vandyke process in Issue #1 of The World Journal of Post-Factory Photography. I tried my hand at Vandyke and was able to make satisfying prints on my first attempt. I was immediately hooked on the process and from the beginning started keeping notes on what did and didn’t work for me. I wish to share with you what I have learned.
The Van Dyke Brown Print
The Vandyke brown print is based on the first iron-silver process, the argentotype, invented in 1842 by the English astronomer, Sir John Herschel. Both processes utilize the action of light on ferric salts and their chemistry is very similar. The Vandyke process gets its name from its similarity in color to the deep brown pigment used by the Flemish painter Van Dyck. Vandyke brown prints are very simple and economical to make, with the sensitizer consisting of three readily available chemicals. Clearing is carried out in water and fixing is done in a weak solution of hypo.
A wide variety of papers can be used to make Vandyke prints and part of the fun is searching for a paper that suits one’s taste aesthetically. Image color and contrast will vary from paper to paper and with some papers the chemistry of the sensitizer doesn’t match the chemistry of the paper, resulting in blotchy or grainy images. Paper is usually purchased in large sheets and then cut to size and, if a deckled edge look is desired, paper can be torn to size rather than cut. I use a metal straight edge to tear paper and haven’t had any trouble with detached metal particles although I have read that this can be a problem. After cutting, the name of the paper should be written on the back of each piece so that it can be identified later.
Canson Lavis Technique, Lana Royal White, Cotman Take (Japanese for bamboo) Bristol, Rising Stonehenge White, Rising Stonehenge Warm White, Rising Gallery 100 and Holbein albireo are papers that I have had good results with. Most of my paper is purchased through Daniel Smith at danielsmith.com in Seattle or Sekaido in Tokyo.
I use a coating rod made out of glass tubing but foam brushes, first dampened, work very well too. I have tried using the traditional Japanese hake (literally brush in Japanese) but prefer the coating rod. Bostick & Sullivan sells a very nice one called a puddle pusher or you can make one without much difficulty. Breaking the glass tubing is the tricky part but with practice it can be done.
Place the paper on a flat surface. I use a sheet of 6 mm plexiglas. Using masking tape that has been applied to fabric a few times to make it less sticky, tape down the four corners of the paper. A lot of people recommend marking the area to be sensitized with a pencil but I prefer not to do this. Rather I place a piece of paper or film to the side so that I know how far down to bring the rod.
To transfer the sensitizer from the brown bottle to the paper I use .5 ml or 2 ml bulbed pipettes, depending on the size of the image. The pipettes have been pre-marked so that I know the correct amount of sensitizer to load into them. I take up the correct amount of sensitizer into the pipette and lay a bead along the glass rod that is being held at the top of the paper. Rock the rod back and forth a couple of times to make sure that the sensitizer is evenly distributed across the rod and then make a pass to the bottom of the paper. When you reach the bottom of the paper lift the rod and place it on the back side of the bead and move it toward the top and repeat until five passes have been made. Bring the fifth and final pass down slightly lower than the previous passes and then absorb any excess sensitizer with a paper towel.
The New Platinum Print by Richard Sullivan and Carl Weese has an excellent section on hand coating. There is an online sample page from this book that gives a step by step description, including photographs, of glass rod coating.
After a sheet of paper has been coated I place the paper in a photo paper box to avoid exposure to light while I coat the next sheet. I place that next sheet in another box and continue coating until I have done about six or eight sheets. I dry each sheet with a hair dryer and give them a second coat. I have tried single coating Vandyke prints but have found the dark areas of the print to be very weak. Double coating is a must.
The Vandyke print is not nearly as sensitive to light as gelatine-silver enlarging paper but I have noticed slight fogging unless I work under red light. I have a small red 7 watt light bulb that hangs about one meter above my coating area. Since I started using this red light I haven’t had any problems with fogging. Sensitized paper is best used right away but I have, on several occasions, coated the night before, and then sealed the paper in a light tight plastic envelope and printed the next day with good results.
To facilitate coating on overly absorbent paper I have tried applying a gelatin or starch sizing but haven’t had good luck with this technique. I have however done well by adding a few drops of gum arabic 10% solution to the sensitizer just before coating. For papers that don’t absorb the sensitizer well I add drops of 2% Teen 20.
Potassium dichromate can be used as a contrasting agent. I have several small bottles containing pre-mixed solutions of from 1% to 5%. I add one drop of the various percentage solutions depending on the amount of contrast I wish to add. Exposure must be dramatically increased when potassium dichromate is added to the sensitizer. With one drop of 3% dichromate added to 12 drops of sensitizer exposure must be nearly doubled.
Negatives used for Vandykes should be somewhat more contrasty than those used for gelatin silver. Since paper for Vandyke prints is so slow it is only possible to make contact prints and consequently large format negatives are generally used. I have made nice prints from negatives as small as 6×7 however. Groups of small negatives can also be used.
If only small negatives are available enlarged negatives can be made. I have had the best results using the Liam Lawless reversal technique that is described in detail in Post-Factory #2. The process uses inexpensive lith film and is relatively easy to carry out.
Exposure is made under a strong UV light, with the sun being the traditional source. The weather here in Japan is so variable that I decided that rather than use sun light I would make a UV printer. I bought five 60 cm florescent light fixtures, attached them side by side to a 38×60 cm wooden base and wired them in series with a cord running out of the last one. I took out the fluorescent tubes and replaced them with uncoated black lights. They have the code BL written at one end. The BL tubes are much cheaper than the deep blue BBL tubes and work just fine. I attached 20×38 cm boards lengthwise to each end of the printer to support the lights that point downward. The distance between the lights and the printing frame is approximately 8 cm. I put canvas flaps over the front and back to keep the UV light from escaping.
To maintain good contact between the negative and paper a contact printing frame is necessary. This apparatus resembles a picture frame but has a hinged and spring loaded back. The the one that I use was purchased through Bostick and Sullivan and I highly recommend it.
I first write notes to myself on the back of the paper such as exposure time, date and print type. The printing frame is opened and the paper set emulsion side up on the inside of the hinged back. The negative is placed emulsion side down on top of the paper and then the glass and frame is placed over them and locked in place. The frame is placed in the UV printer and the exposure is made. My printer is connected to a Gralab timer and exposure times range from four to twelve minutes. Dodging and burning is generally not necessary but if it is carried out protective glasses should be worn as UV light is damaging to the eyes.
As I prefer not to show brush marks, I cut out a mask made of red construction paper that is just slightly larger than the negative. I place the mask on the paper and center the negative in the cut away area of the mask. Besides giving a neat appearance to the image a mask makes it possible to see whether or not the print has completely cleared or if there is any fogging. If a diffused edge is preferred on the image, the mask can be placed on top of the glass rather than under it.
Vandyke is a print out process and after exposure a faint image is visible, with the print showing approximately half of its final density. The image will darken greatly after going into the fixer and then darken even more after the print has dried. It is better to print the image a bit on the dark side since it can be reduced later.
Most sources state that Vandyke prints can be cleared in plain water. In Mike Ware’s description of the Argyrotype Process he explains the problems iron-based silver processes have. If processed in an alkaline solution residual ferric iron is left in the print which will eventually cause it to fade since iron (III) will oxidize silver. After reading this I decided to change my personal clearing procedure. Since my tap water is quite alkaline at a pH of about 8 I feel that there is a danger of insoluble iron being left in the print after a conventional wash. To avoid this problem rather than use running tap water to clear Vandykes I run them through a series trays that have been filled with water to which I have added a pinch of citric acid so that the pH falls just below 7.
Before processing begins I put on a pair of rubber gloves to keep my hands from coming in contact contaminated clearing baths. I place the print in the first tray and agitate it for one minute and then move it to the next tray and do the same until the print has moved through eight changes of water. Eight trays is probably overkill but I want to make sure that I get all of the iron out of the print. After I have finished the clearing procedure I dump the contents of the first tray and pour the contents of the second tray into it and so on until I get to the last tray to which I add fresh acidified water. To avoid fogging I have illuminated my clearing area with a small red 7 watt light bulb that hangs about one meter above my darkroom sink.
After I have cleared the print I place it in a 5% solution of plain hypo and agitate it for two minutes. This is the point where reduction of the image starts to become apparent. I next move the print to a full strength hypo clearing agent for three minutes. 20 grams of sodium sulfite added to 1000 ml of water works as an effective clearing agent.
After clearing and fixing Vandyke prints I give them an initial wash of 30 minutes in an archival print washer and hang them by the corners above my sink with plastic clothes pins to dry.
Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:
Wikipedia: Van Dyke Brown…
Web Sites and Blogs:
Alternative Photography: Vandyke Notes…
J.B. Schriever: Complete Self-Instructing Library Of Practical Photography…
Brainy Quote: Darkroom Quotes…