Ansel Oommen is a New York based artist working in a variety of mediums. His works borrow techniques and theoretical principals from chemistry, botany, entomology, optics, and health sciences. We asked Oommen about the inspiration and process behind his botanical cyanotype series.
What inspired your interest in documenting plants?
Plants have this complex passively dynamic identity. They are often seen as a backdrop or a decorative accent when compared to humanity, but they are a vital force that can dominate, subjugate, and manipulate their environments through fascinating means. While their resiliency is impressive, they are also quite transient. Some flowers only bloom for a day and when autumn arrives, chlorophyll ceases to be produced, exposing hidden colours in a seasonal dance with death. When I learned about the cyanotype process during my undergraduate studies, I appreciated how delicate leaves could be immortalized through the chemical stability of Prussian blue.
Why did you choose to cyanotype the plant specimens?
At the time, I was an undergraduate toxicology student at St. John’s University. I was also part of the Earth Club and often frequented the greenhouse and student gardens on campus. Since I had access to a laboratory environment, it was both easy and practical to make the ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide solutions. I had access to a beautiful rooftop greenhouse where there was plenty of sunlight for the reaction. I didn’t have to travel far to find my specimens – all I had to do was take a walk around campus. All the conditions were just right to test the process for myself.
Moreover, I was moving in a new creative direction where I was exploring art in terms of chemical reactions and cyanotypes were a perfect match.
Can you briefly describe what is involved in creating cyanotypes and any personal reflections on the process?
The cyanotype is an alternative photographic process that relies on the chemical properties of two iron compounds – ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide. Under UV light, the Fe(III) ions of ferric ammonium citrate are reduced to Fe(II) ions. Photochemically produced Fe(II) ions can then complex with potassium ferricyanide to form a richly coloured water insoluble compound called ferric ferricyanide or Prussian blue.
Basically, formulas of these two iron compounds are mixed together in a 1:1 ratio to form a citrine coloured solution. The solution can then be painted onto a surface such as paper or cotton and should be left to dry in a dark place so that the material doesn’t auto-expose. Once the material is dry, I arrange the leaves on top of the sensitized surface (again in a dark place) and place a glass pane on top of them to add pressure so that I can get accurate prints. Then I move the whole set outside into a bright, sunny spot where they can be exposed to UV radiation from the sun. After the print has been exposed to UV, I let it sit in a vinegar bath followed by a hydrogen peroxide bath to bring out the rich Prussian blue.
While the process is relatively simple, it is also fickle and there are a lot of factors to account for. Sometimes, you can get an amazing print without knowing why and sometimes you can try to reproduce the same environment and get drastically different prints in terms of visual quality.
Traditionally with most botanical cyanotypes, and with my initial experience, you get the negative of the leaf but usually do not get details of the veins. Currently, I am conducting self-directed research at St. Joseph’s College on combining the cyanotype with other lab techniques used in botany to illuminate the leaf architecture, in effect creating blue plant X-rays.
Which cyanotype in your series are you most fond of and why?
The tulip polar (Liriodendron tulipifera) print is my favorite cyanotype so far because I can see the range in tones of Prussian blue. The morphology of the leaves is captured accurately and the veins can be seen as well. I can also see where the leaves overlap, adding another dimension of visual quality. It is not a traditional botanical cyanotype and was created through the combination process that I am working on.
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