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How to tone a cyanotype print

I love the colour blue, and cyanotype prints are beautifully blue indeed. There might be such a thing as too much blue however, so the prospect of altering the colour to something else was something that quite intrigued me!

Enter the concept of toning; the application of another solution, commonly tea or coffee, to change the colour of the print.

A white wall with several framed cyanotype prints in deep blue/black and sepia tones.

Tea or coffee are not by any means the only toners one may use, but they are a great way of starting out with the process, both being readily available (you probably have some in your house already) and simple to use – the process is more or less as simple as brew your beverage then soak your print in it (just don’t drink said beverage after!).

Toning may be done in combination with bleaching – it’s possible to bleach the print before toning or after toning. Or you may like to tone without bleaching at all. The options are endless and there is no ‘right’ way of doing it – experimenting is half the fun!

Getting Started

Things you need
  • 2 plastic trays, each big enough for your print to lay flat in. Old plastic tubs or clean meat or produce trays are good options, and it’s best to use a tray that is a bit bigger than your print, and one that you are not intending to use later for food storage.
  • Hot water – the water should be freshly boiled. An electric kettle is handy here.
  • A brewing container: ceramic, glass or stainless steel are best as they are non-reactive. You may use a jug or pot from your kitchen if using one of the ‘edible’ toners listed above.
  • Toning ingredients:  plain black tea, green tea and coffee (instant or otherwise) are popular toners to start out with, although there is a plethora of others to choose from (see more details below).
  • Cyanotype prints: you can use either the original blue prints, or bleached prints. It's generally recommended that you use prints that are already dry and at least a day old.
How much toner to make

This depends on your print size. If you are using one of my A6 or A5 cyanotype kits, I would suggest a minimum of 250ml and 500ml on toner respectively, though this is dependent on how large a tray you are using. It’s important that the tray has enough solution in it so that the print will float freely, without resting on the bottom of the tray - I suggest filling it to at least 1 cm of depth.

In general, I use 1 tea bag or 1 teaspoon of coffee per 250ml of water, however you may choose to make a more concentrated or more dilute solution – there are no hard rules here and it is absolutely up to you!

Step by step toning instructions

  1. Prepare your area; add some cold water to one of the plastic trays (for rinsing later) and boil the kettle.
  2. Add your chosen toner to your brewing container with the hot water from the kettle and allow the toning ingredients to steep for 15 minutes (set a timer).
  3. When 15 minutes is up, remove the tea bag/s (if using), and wait for the toner to cool. Waiting for the toner to cool helps to prevent unwanted staining of the paper, but if you don’t mind this you can use the toner warm instead.
  4. Pour toner into the remaining empty plastic tray, then lay your cyanotype into the solution. You can have it floating face up or down. If it’s face up, agitate the solution regularly so that dry spots don’t appear on the paper. If it’s face down, check to make sure that air bubbles are not trapped underneath – these can cause spots of untoned print.
  5. Soak the print for until you are happy with the result. This might be 5 minutes for bleached prints, or 2 hours for unbleached prints. As a rule of thumb, the longer a print is soaked for, the darker the print will become.
  6. Remove print to the other tray of clean water. Soaking in fresh water for 5-10 minutes will remove excess toner and can also remove some staining.
  7. Dry!

Toning examples

The picture below displays some of the results one may get from toning with black tea, green tea and coffee, using the same mixtures listed above. Note that these are just one example and results may vary depending on a number of factors, including paper type, exposure time, toning or bleaching time, water hardness and toner temperature, amongst other thing's.


Three toned cyanotype images, each cut into six segments and toned for different periods of time.



Each cyanotype has been cut into 6 pieces - the top darker three of each were left as plain unbleached cyanotype, while the bottom lighter three were bleached to yellow first. 

Paper segments were soaked in the toning solution for different periods of time, ranging from 5 minutes to 90 minutes. As you can see, the longest toning periods for each piece also corresponds to the darkest tones and vice versa.

You can also easily see here the affects of staining, particularly with the tea solutions on the edges of the prints. Note how much darker the staining is on pieces what were soaked for longer.

You may also notice that the staining on the unbleached pieces is worse that the corresponding bleached pieces below, despite them being soaked for the same period of time. This is not because of the bleaching at all, rather it is due to the temperature of the water - I was impatient to get started on this experiment, so started the toning process with the unbleached segments while the solution was still quite warm. The bleached segments were toned later, when the solution was cooler, and they are therefore less stained. Patience if often a virtue here!