Electron Microscopy, Cyanotypes & Washi

After years of wanting to take the Elementary Scanning Electron Microscopy course at UAF, I finally found the time in my schedule to register. Over the last month, I’ve learned how to control a $500,000 machine, coat new samples with Iridium by way of a sputter coater, and have taken a few shots that I am excited about. Over the next two and a half months, I hope to take the images I capture and create a series of albumen stereoscope cards.

As excited as I am to start on this project, there’s bound to be a lot of work behind the scenes to make it successful. Over the last couple months, I’ve felt like I’m stuck in a rut and have been anxious to get out of it — so tackling such a large project immediately sounded unwise.  After being in a creative drought for so long, I needed something less focused on results to get me moving in the right direction. Project avoidance, although often written off as procrastination, can be explained rationally (at times): failures, setbacks and progress stalls often hurt worse after a long drought. So, I went searching for a low-impact creative solution — cyanotypes and washi — hoping that having a few successes behind me would make the big project easier to tackle.

While visiting Seattle last fall, I picked up some cheap washi in hopes of using it in an upcoming project. Having never truly worked with washi, I didn’t want to spend real money on a quality product that was likely to sit in my darkroom for years – so I purchased the cheapest washi available in bulk.  Similarly, rather than using a new (or more involved) alternative process to print with, I chose the process I’m most familiar with after Van Dyke Brown: the Cyanotype.  With plenty of both solution and paper, I started playing.

Star Anise, 25x, SEM Image.

Without a doubt, the following results are preliminary. Choosing a cheaper and thinner washi certainly caused  problems because it failed to hold together in even a short wash. However, I was able to establish a standard printing time, digital negative curve, and some decent progress toward good prints even with the paper as fragile as it was. Thanks to my wife’s suggestions, I started using her printmaking screens to wash prints, greatly reducing the possibility of print breakup. Overall, I feel confident in my first steps toward using washi and am certain that I want to continue printing with it. I hope to share additional results in the coming weeks, hopefully refining what I have here and adding some new imagery to the mix. Although I won’t use washi in my upcoming stereotype project, this little side project has made me confident the SEM imagery will work well in alternative processes.

Spider Leg, 525x, SEM Image. Print needs work: washing cycle was too rough and caused the paper to begin breaking up.



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  1. 1
    Dennis Moser

    Processing this particular washi on a screen will greatly reduce the problems you’re having with it; the alternative is to find washi that is a little thicker and/or uses gampi fiber or long kozo fiber. Basically, if it is long-fiber, you are likely to have fewer issues in wet handling and processing.

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