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Photographic Possibilities: The Vandyke Brownprint Process

Vandyke Brownprint Characteristics

The Vandyke Brownprint technique is named after the characteristic rich brown tones found in the paintings of seventeenth century Flemish master Anthony Van Dyck (or Vandyke). A Vandyke image produced from a longtonal-range negative will have complete detail, from full shadows to full highlights. Shorter-tone negatives produce less-deep shadows. The color can range from medium brown to dark black-brown. Image contrast can be slightly controlled during development with the addition of potassium dichromate to the developer water. The emulsion has a shelf-life of a couple of months and improves with age. Ideally, the emulsion should be prepared and allowed to age 2–3 days before it is used.

Most acid-free rag papers, such as Arches Platine, Arches Cover, and Strathmore 500, offer good starting points. Rives BFK will work, but it should be sized first for consistent results (see the section on “Gum Bichromate Process ” later in this chapter). As with cyanotypes, the emulsion may be applied in subdued tungsten light by brushing or floating (see “Applying the Emulsion ” in the earlier “Salt Prints ” section). No metal should come in contact with the silver nitrate, as it will cause a chemical reaction, so polyfoam brushes with all-wooden handles are recommended for coating. After the paper is coated, it should be dried in a darkened room. Paper may be heat or fan-dried and should be printed on immediately, as the coated emulsion loses its sensitivity rapidly, producing flatter, grayer images. Be sure the coating is yellow before making any exposures. If it looks brown, it is not good, and should be discarded.

The Vandyke process works well on many fabrics because it contains no colloidal body such as gelatin or gum arabic. The emulsion soaks into the fabric, leaving it unaltered (it does not stiffen up). Natural fibers, such as close-weave cotton, produce the deepest brown tones. Do not use permanent-press materials as they repel the emulsion.

When combining a Vandyke with a cyanotype image it is necessary to print the cyanotype first, to prevent the Vandyke from bleaching.

Safety Alert
Do not mix Vandyke and cyanotype together chemicals as the Vandyke has tartaric acid, which could produce an almond smelling cyanide gas. (The cyanide gas used in an execution chambers is a slightly different cyanide compound.)

Vandyke Formula

Stock solution A
Ferric ammonium citrate 90 g
Distilled water (68°F/20°C) 250 ml

Stock solution B
Tartaric acid 15 g
Distilled water (68°F/20°C) 250 ml

Stock solution C
Silver nitrate* 30 g
Distilled water (68°F/20°C) 1 liter

*Wear gloves when handling silver nitrate because it will stain black anything it touches.

Mix each stock solution separately. With constant stirring, combine stock solutions A and B, then slowly add stock solution C. Store in a tightly closed opaque container in a cool, dry location. Allow to ripen (age) 2–3 days before using. Shake the emulsion before each use, including between brush dips, to ensure even distribution of the silver nitrate. Tightly sealed and refrigerated solutions can last for years.

Exposure
A Vandyke Brownprint is contact printed, using a print frame or heavy piece of glass and a smooth support board, under sunlight or an artificial UV light source until highlight detail becomes visible. Summer sunlight exposures can be as brief as 30 seconds but winter exposures can take 1 hour or more. The color of the emulsion will change from yellow to dark reddish brown during normal exposure. The exposure time for the Vandyke emulsion is about half that for cyanotypes. A typical trial exposure in full summer sun might be about 2 minutes. A comparable exposure with photofloods at about 24 inches from the print frame could be about 15 minutes. Underexposed (thin) negatives can be exposed until the emulsion turns a tan-brown color. Overexposed (dense) negatives should be exposed until the emulsion turns silvery brown.

Development and Contrast Control
The Vandyke is developed in a darkened room in running water at 68°F (20°C) for a couple of minutes, or until the water runs clear. The negative basically determines the contrast, but it may be increased slightly by adding a 10 per cent dichromate solution to the developer water. After the print has washed for 1 minute, transfer it to a tray containing 16 ounces (475 milliliters) of water and about 10 drops of the dichromate solution. Increasing the number of drops of dichromate solution produces more contrast. After the desired level of contrast is reached, transfer the print back into a tray of running water. This process may be repeated.

Fixer
To achieve the true Vandyke brown and ensure permanency, the image must be fixed in a 5 per cent bath of plain thiosulfate for 5 minutes at 68°F (20°C). Since it is a weak solution, it should be monitored with a hypo check and replaced often. When the image enters the fix, it will darken and turn brown, and the highlights should become brighter.

Fix, with agitation, for 5 minutes. If the image is allowed to remain in the fix longer than 5 minutes, it can begin to bleach. Extending the time in the fix can correct for overexposed prints.

Vandyke Fixer Formula
Sodium thiosulfate 25 g
Water (68°F/20°C) 500 ml

Washing and Drying
Wash the image in running water at 68°F (20°C) for 5 minutes. Then place it in a hypo-clearing bath for 2–3 minutes and give it a final wash of 30 minutes to ensure permanence. The image can be air- or heat-dried. Heat drying will darken the brown tone.

Figure 10.15 Rayner constructed this mixed media work using images of skeletons taken in a museum in Strasbourg, France and of skulls taken in the Catacombs in Paris. She printed them on vellum using the Vandyke process. The resulting brown tint reminded her of dirt, which seemed to embody death, and the vellum provided further associations with fragility and decomposition. Rayner painted the backs of the prints with white gesso, which amplified the highlights and integrated the images into the folding panels onto which she adhered them. In this work, Rayner constructs an “archaic looking, sometimes humorous, pseudoscientific contraption that suggests what research in these fields might have looked like a century ago, an expansive time in science that seems nearly impotent to us now. I use this visual framework to point to our shortcomings, in spite of our current technological process. We are still a far from being in control in our search for knowledge. ”  © Beverly Rayner. Relentless (detail), 2006. 9½ x 19 x 7 inches. Vandyke print with mixed media.

Figure 10.15 Rayner constructed this mixed media work using images of skeletons taken in a museum in Strasbourg, France and of skulls taken in the Catacombs in Paris. She printed them on vellum using the Vandyke process. The resulting brown tint reminded her of dirt, which seemed to embody death, and the vellum provided further associations with fragility and decomposition. Rayner painted the backs of the prints with white gesso, which amplified the highlights and integrated the images into the folding panels onto which she adhered them. In this work, Rayner constructs an “archaic looking, sometimes humorous, pseudoscientific contraption that suggests what research in these fields might have looked like a century ago, an expansive time in science that seems nearly impotent to us now. I use this visual framework to point to our shortcomings, in spite of our current technological process. We are still a far from being in control in our search for knowledge. ” © Beverly Rayner. Relentless (detail), 2006. 9½ x 19 x 7 inches. Vandyke print with mixed media.

Since first appearing in 1990, Photographic Possibilities has become a concise and trusted resource for individuals desiring to actively interact with the photographic process in order to thoughtfully interject their personal responses to the subject being portrayed. The book presents a stimulating survey of works by over 150 contemporary international photographers that illuminate, not illustrate, concepts, and methods discussed in the book. Each reproduction is accompanied by a caption in which the artist explains the ideas and the techniques that went into making the image.

The above post is an excerpt from Photographic Possibilities, 3rd Edition.

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