The following information is from Victoria Anderson who outlines the basic things you need to be aware of when creating Chemigrams. A Chemigram is an artwork that is created on photosensitive paper primarily using a photo fixer and developer, but varnish, wax and oils can be introduced for additional effects. It is a cameraless art that was introduced by Edmund Kesting in the 1930s which he called Chimigramme.
I have included a number of digitized and processed examples of my own Chemigrams to illustrate, how the process can be moved into the digital image-making process..
The main components you want to be aware of are: Lighting, paper, fixer, developer, stop, and protectant.
As you know light sensitive photo paper absorbs light. It’s how it is able to absorb the chemicals to create your artwork. You want your paper to soak up an adequate amount of light and have a tint of colour to it before working on your image, that way, you can see the results of your painting instead of waiting for the black or white to come through. Different light sources affect the paper differently, florescent gives a yellow or red, natural light makes it bluish grey, LED makes a blue or green tone, and tungsten creates a purple in my experience. This is important to note, as any parts of your chemi that have no chemical on it will continue to expose even after you’ve created a finished piece. So it will continue to change colour (up until the paper has reached its maximum amount of absorption) after the artwork is complete, the only way to control the colour shift is to ensure it is absorbing the light you want it to, I tend to place my finished pieces in a dark folder as to keep them safe from light until I’m ready to bring them out.
There are three main types of paper that affect chemigrams, pearl, satin, and glossy finished paper. Pearl has a matte finish, glossy is glossy, and satin is an in-between. Not only do the finishes affect the final look, but for chemigrams they also affect how they react to chemicals. I have not done anything with glossy prints, so I can’t tell you its reactions, but I know that pearl is a bit slower than satin at taking chemicals, as well satin is slower at absorbing light. For satin, you can use chemicals like fixer for more immediate results, but I find pearl needs to be dipped in stop for the chemical results to show through. The colour it is at the end changes as well, the stop turns satin paper pink, while it gives a more magenta purple to the pearl paper, you can experiment with putting sheets under different light sources to see how each is affected and what colours they produce.
Fixer makes the paper turn white, usually, it makes it impossible to add any more developer, but that is only in typical photo development processes, this is because the paper is left to soak for specified amounts of time before transferring over. In chemigram creation, you can do whatever you want or let it soak for as long as you’d like or not soak at all. Dipping, painting, splatter, mixing, everything is allowed and encouraged, so the chemicals don’t have time to do what they typically do so the fixer does not stop the developer during this process at all. As stated before if you’re finding the fixer not showing on your paper, dip it into the stop bath and it will show up.
This turns the paper black, all the same rules I mentioned previously apply except for dipping if it isn’t showing up. For developer, if you dip it into stop while it is still absorbing into the paper it will give you grey tones instead. It continues to develop for a few seconds after putting it into the stop, so you have to anticipate the darkness you want instead of dipping it in once you’re actually happy with it’s tonal value. Once you think it’s going in a direction you like, that’s when you dip it in stop to get the grey you actually want.
The stop is a mixture of water and vinegar, though I find for beginners, a pure water stop bath is better (and cheaper) to use. Pure water has less of a chemical reaction so it’s slower, this gives you time to do certain things while getting into the motions of creating chemis fast-paced. Hot water can also act a bit as a bleach to the parts of the paper with no chemical on them, it however does not stop the paper from reabsorbing light and colour.
This shields any part of your paper you do not want to have chemicals on it during dipping, soaking, painting etc. There are many different things you can use as a protectant, such as jams, coconut oil, other oils like olive oil, tape, wax, crayons etc. My favourite is coconut oil as you get good control with it, it is transparent so the paper continues to develop colours underneath, and sticks well to the paper. Each protectant does different things so experiment with them to find out what each one does, jam tends to tint the paper permanently with its colour in whatever spot you put it in, so it’s good for staining, however, the sugars or expired jam can create an odour when contaminating your chemicals. Tape adheres well and can be used to block parts off, but its edges lift as liquid affects its adhesive strength, this created interesting bubbles and ripple patterns that can be used for underwater effects. Olive oil rests on top of water or chemical, it can create interesting globs or spots on the page when lifted out of the water.
Safety and chemical details
Make sure to have good ventilation and to read all the safety on your chemicals needed, these are weaker chemicals so they won’t kill you or anything but you still want to be safe before doing any process. Gloves are necessary. A lab coat does make the process easier as it won’t get on your skin or mess up your clothing(the chemicals can stain). Make sure long hair is tied back so as to not accidentally dip into any chemicals. Glasses are not needed especially if solo, where you can be more careful, but splash-resistant glasses, especially in groups, are recommended, if you get it in skin wash throughouly with soap on the affected area if an allergic reaction occurs call 911 (allergies can be developed over time if not careful, I shower after working with chemigrams as soon as I can even if no chemical has gotten onto me). If gotten into your eyes immediately wash your eyes out with water, an eye wash station is good but if you don’t have that run your eyes underwater and dip them into the water and open them as well (replace the water after each dip) though running water is highly recommended.
Plastic pans are best for your chemicals since you typically don’t have the chemicals in the pans for longer than a few hours they can be food grade, however for prolonged storage you will want proper Teflon storage containers that are completely sealed. Any chemicals you need to dispose of DO NOT go down the drain, put them in a sealed container (Teflon or glass) and bring them to alpine to be disposed of safely. Make sure to read your chemical’s specific instructions on the label to ensure they are stored at a good temperature with everything they need.
Mixing chemicals is not dangerous but it does weaken the effect of your fixer in particular, in chemigrams this isn’t a huge issue but it’s good to be aware of if your fixer suddenly stop working during a session, excessive cross-contamination could be the cause. You will need 3 pans and a soaking bin, after you’ve finished a chemi, it should soak in a larger body of pure water for a few minutes and be left to dry.
Methods, tips, misc.
Chemigrams are often like action painting, it is a full-body experience, so you will do better getting used to making certain motions and seeing what they cause. If you feel satisfied with a piece and want it to be completely black and white, soak it in fixer at the very end for a few minutes, this gives you a perfect black and white and the paper will not absorb any more light nor create any colours.
Coconut oil can create geode patterns if you dip the entire paper to soak in stop after playing around with some chemicals, the water pushes into the coconut oil and the edges lift off the page, creating circular layered effects or rings of different colours. You will need to take an extra washing step with any protectant you use to get the tackiness, or oils off of the paper, run it under water, and wipe it off with a towel until the protectant is gone. Normal chemigrams can just dry after soaking and be ready.
If you soak a brush in fixer, then dip the tip into developer, then splatter paint, you can actually create halo rings with a white ring and black center.
If you dip the paper in fixer, then paint with developer on top, then dip into stop, it will create orange. This is due to the developer soaking into the paper with fixer on top diluting and creating grey tones, and the stop creating colour shifts. The stop moves rapidly into the paper from the edges, pushing the fixer into the developer, when all 3 mix they create hollow orange spots where your developer was with grey and black linework.
Coconut oil can turn parts of the paper blue, it can, along with the ring geode pattern, create interesting and beautiful variations.
Sometimes washing your chemi will affect the colour, nothing you can do to change it, just be aware of it, personally, I leave the protectant on during the soak and only remove it on the final rinse and towel dry so as to keep its original colour in those areas.
Painting on top of chemigrams to have better control over colours is popular, acrylics are best for beginners but watercolours, inks, paint markers such as Posca brand, and oils are all capable of being used on the paper surface. The paper is not porous and will not soak the paint you use, you will need to wait longer for everything except acrylics to dry, if your acrylics are watered down you will need to wait longer as well. Colour takes very well and can be completely opaque even when watered down, the paper does not soak so it stays perfectly flat with water on top so no need to tape it down like watercolour paper.
If you don’t like some of your chemigrams, you can always cut them up to collage them, put your favourite pieces in a mixed media painting, paint overtop and many other things. Some of my favourite pieces I’ve made were ones I hated the most and decided to paint or collage, and they turned out beautifully. If you have a piece you do like, but want to continue to work on with paint or collage, scanning your chemis and running a few ideas in a digital program like photoshop makes the process less stressful, and so you can come in with a game plan. The scanner does not effectively absorb light-coloured parts of the chemigram so no worries about the chemi changing, it won’t.