How to Make a Chemigram
Making a chemigram involves using different products to influence the development of light sensitive materials. In 1956, when Belgian artist Pierre Cordier first wrote a dedication in nail polish on a piece of photographic paper, he merged the gestural act of painting with the chemical processes of darkroom printing. Usually, great care is taken to eliminate chemical contaminations and light leaks etc. To make a chemigram however, the volatility of the photographic process is exploited to create and preserve the complex visual manifestations of chemical interactions.
Developer, stop bath, fixer and water, each in a separate tub (for a homemade developer recipe, click here)
Gloves and/or tongs to avoid direct contact with chemicals
At least one resist substance (vegetable oil, hand lotion and golden syrup all work well. For more resists, see notes below)
Black and white light sensitive paper (including fogged or old paper)
A brush/spray bottle/sponge (optional)
To make a chemigram, first set up the developer, stop bath, fixer and water in separate tubs with standard measurements and dilutions.
In a dark, light tight room, take a few sheets of light sensitive paper out of the box or packet. Put them aside and reseal the box or packet. Switch on the lights - the rest of the process can be done under room lights.
Apply a layer of resist to a sheet of light sensitive paper. A brush, spray bottle, sponge, or your own finger-painting will create different visual effects and layers.
Next, briefly immerse the resisted sheet of light sensitive paper in the developer (for a dark background) or fixer (for a light background). Then, using tongs or gloves, take the sheet out of the developer/fixer and lay it flat. On contact with the chemicals, the resist will start to shift and dissolve, coaxing out elaborate textures.
If after a minute the reaction on the paper isn't pronounced enough, briefly dip the paper back into the developer or fixer again and remove. Alternating between fixer and developer is also an option. Watch for development and repeat immersion in either the fixer or developer as needed, building up visible layers of chemical reactions.
Once the chemigram looks complete, bathe it in stop bath for 30 seconds, fixer for 5 minutes and then run under fresh water for 10 minutes, making sure to remove the remaining resist.
Different resists manifest differently in the chemigram process. Sprayed canola oil creates an intricate network of visual islands whereas hand lotion creates bulkier mark making effects. Implementing a variety of resists with different applicators will add even greater diversity to the chemigram process. Here are a few more examples of resists worth trying:
Syrups (ie. golden or maple syrups)
Vegetable, olive, canola, sunflower oil etc
Moisturizer or hand lotion
Nail polish remover (acetone)
Peanut butter, jam, Vegemite
Exposure times, paper type and age, ambient light conditions, developing chemistries and resists all contribute to the endless potential of the chemigram. Experimenting with dipping chemigrams in fixer and/or developer, exposing light sensitive paper for a length of time before applying a resist, or allowing a resist to dry and harden on a light sensitive sheet of paper before development are all additional ways to create and document the graphic exchange shared between chemistry and photography.