Be the Artist: Anna Atkins

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Take botanical prints into the Jurassic age, using solar print paper found in most craft and educational supply stores. Image by Lisa Kay Tate.

The Artist: Anna Atkins

Anna Atkins was a botanist and photographer, known for her photo prints of plants, algae, and other natural items.

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Anna Atkins’ cyanotypes were both wonderful educational tools and beautiful works of art. Print images: Wikicommons. Atkins portrait: Public Domain.

Born in 1799, she is often credited in books on the history of photography as not only one of first the women photographers, but also the first person to create a publication with photographs as the illustration. Some sources say she was the first woman photographer, but others disagree and credit this milestone to a woman named Constance Talbot. Either way, Atkins was groundbreaking for women in both the fields of natural science and photography.

Atkins was raised by her father, British chemist and zoologist John George Children, as her mother died soon after her birth. She grew to love the natural world, and honed both her scientific and artistic tendencies by studying her country’s native plants and animals. She later created 250 detailed engravings for shells, which her father used to illustrate his translation of the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s book Genera of Shells.

Just as John James Audubon was known for images from the world of fauna with his drawings, Atkins was known on the other side of the Atlantic with plants. She was an avid collector of dried plant specimens, and was made member of the Botanical Society of London in 1839.

In 1841, she purchased a camera and began creating the works for which she is best known: cyanotype impressions. The process was created by a family friend, Sir John Herschel, and Atkins took full advantage of its potential. Discovering photography was an easy way of creating scientific illustrations. She used this process to create three volumes of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Ferns, and other botanical guides.

Only a few original copies of her British Algae books are still known to exist, with one volume selling for more than £220,000 in a 2004 auction. There are currently books which feature her work including Sun Gardens: Victorian Photograms and Anna Atkins: 250 Cyanotypes.

The Project: Jurassic Sun Prints and Faux Cyanotypes

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This dino’s day in the park solar print used a plastic dinosaur, hollyhock leaves and blossom, and a yucca branch. Image: Lisa Kay Tate.

Cyanotype was a photo printing style using chemicals like ammonium iron citrate and potassium ferricyanide to produce a “cyan-blue” print. The process of copying drawings was both simple and inexpensive, spawning the term “blueprint.”

Atkins used this method to create beautiful plant specimen photography. Today, scientists and photographers can purchase commercial sun print paper, like Sunprint kits or other brands, at locations as common as educational and art supply stores.

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Gather leaves, toy or cut-out dinosaurs, shells, feathers, and whatever else captures your fancy. Images: Lisa Kay Tate.

This makes it easy to make prints of plants and animals… including those from the primeval world.

Arrange dinosaur image cutouts, small plastic dino toys, plant leaves (real or artificial), small rocks, feathers, and other small items on a piece of solar print paper in an area away from the sun.

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The easy sun print process: Place items on sun print paper out of direct sunlight. Then let them sit in the summer sun for up to five minutes. Rinse the images with water and dry on a flat surface. Once dry, you’ve captured your dinosaur specimen. Images: Lisa Kay Tate.

The great thing about sun print paper, as opposed to photo paper, is indoor light won’t effect it as quickly. You can see what you are building, before taking it out to the sunlight. If you have mostly flat items, use a piece of clear glass or acrylic to hold the items in place. A piece of acrylic comes with many solar paper kits. Any thicker items like a figure can be placed on top. The flatter the item, the more clear the print.

Now the fun part… carefully take the image outside and let it sit in direct sunlight for around five minutes. Then, rinse the paper gently in water. The blue particles in solar paper react to ultraviolet rays. Any part of the paper blocked will remain white. Simple science mixed with art mixed with geeky creativity. What could be more fun?

Making “Faux-to” Print

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Spray painting over objects can create a nearly identical image to a sun print. Images: Lisa Kay Tate.

If you can’t find sun print paper, an easy way to create the look is by placing the same objects as you would a sun print on a thick piece of paper and lightly sponge blue washable paint over them. You can also use blue spray paint, but make sure you use it on objects you don’t mind getting permanently paint covered. Make sure the items are secured with a small amount of tape, so they don’t move or blow away in the painting process. If using spray paint, hold the can directly above the image and spray in light, short bursts.

For a fun variation, sponge or spray orange and yellow paint over items on black construction paper for an image that resembles a fossil specimen in amber.

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Using black paper with orange paint turns a faux sun print image into an amber-encased specimen. Image: Lisa Kay Tate.

Don’t feel like you are not really making art just because it isn’t a meticulous drawing of the scene. Atkins fully admitted how wonderful it is to have an easier way to capture images in her text in British Algae:

“The difficulty of making accurate drawings of objects so minute as many of the Algae and Confervae has induced me to avail myself of Sir John Herschel’s beautiful process of Cyanotype, to obtain impressions of the plants themselves, which I have much pleasure in offering to my botanical friends,” she said.

Well put. Go and share these works with your own friends.

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Lisa Kay Tate is a veteran feature writer with 20 years experience in newspaper, magazine and freelance writing. In addition to serving as Associate Editor for her local arts and entertainment guide, El Paso Scene, she has been a regular contributor to the site ihogeek.com and maintains her own blogsite at lisathegeekmom.wordpress.com. She and her husband, writer/photographer Rick, live on the edge of "New Texico" where they keep busy raising their two geeklings and sharing space with their dog, Sirius Black, and cat, Loki.