Cyanotype Process Printing


The cyanotype process was invented by Sir John Herschel in 1842. As a scientist, he was motivated to avoid having to make copies of his field notes by hand. A neighbor and family friend named Anna Atkins–an amateur botanist–seized upon his technique to make prints which she self-published in 1844 as Photographs of British Algae. Made with hand-written text, this is generally believed to be the first book ever published with images from light-sensitive paper.

Not only is the cyanotype process historic, the watercolor paper I use (Canson Montval) is made by a paper mill in France that has been making paper since 1557. That's not a misprint. To put this into perspective, Michelangelo was 82 in 1557 and Shakespeare would be born 7 years later. 

Some of the prints on this website are camera-free photograms made using simple iron salts solutions, paper, water and plant materials, made just like they were in the 1840s. Others start with a photo that's made into a transparency–which is then used to make the cyanotype. Either approach involves a contact print that can be exposed in sunlight and produces a unique, characteristic cyan (or blue) print. Due to variations in exposure time, cloud cover, humidity, water temperature, pH, etc., no two cyanotypes are ever exactly the same, so in this context "print" does not mean reproduction. Each print is actually a handmade original.

The cyanotype process produces a permanent print unless hung in direct sunlight. If a print does fade, it can be placed in a dark closet or drawer for a week or so and it will be magically restored to its original state. 


Tom Ellison's family owned a plant nursery and garden center when he was growing up. After college in the mid-1970s, he started a city-wide community gardening program in Austin, Texas. In the 1980s he started a publishing company–initially in his garage–and operated it for many years before selling it and retiring in 2006.

Ellison and his wife live in Boulder, Colorado and love to travel–especially if there’s a botanical garden somewhere to explore. He's known to have an almost obsessive fondness for the color blue.