July 8, 2016

Trace Monotypes

        Unlike relief block prints, a monotype, as its name implies, is a one-off rather than a method of making multiples.  Generally it’s done just like any painting, only instead of painting onto your paper, you paint onto a smooth plate of some sort, then press paper onto the plate to transfer the design.  Generally I have little interest in this.  There is, however, one sort of monotype I occasionally make, and at the RISD art museum this past weekend I was tickled to see one and discover that it has a name: trace monotype.
        A quick word about names: monotype and monoprint used to be considered more or less synonymous, but recently people have begun to reserve monotype for the image printed from a smooth plate, and monoprint for varying images printed from a plate that may have some etching or carving on it.  I confess that I’ve been using them interchangeably, so I guess I’d better get more accurate in future!
        Anyway, a trace monotype is done by inking a plate, laying paper down on the ink, and then drawing a design on the back of the paper.  Wherever you draw, the paper is pressed more firmly and sharply against the ink, making a dark inked line on the front of the paper.  There’s often a shadowy look around the line as the pressure, and therefore the amount of ink, fades away from the line.  You can also see on this piece by Hedda Sterne (USA, 1910-2011) the smudgy appearance caused by random ink transfer, especially wherever the artist’s fingers happened to brush or press.
        I make monotypes in only one particular circumstance: when I’ve just finished printing a block and there’s still a fair amount of ink left on my plate.  Rather than waste it, I roll it out as evenly as I can, and use it for a monotype.  In addition to the tracing technique, I also play with several other methods to manipulate the way ink transfers to paper.  First, I remove ink from the plate in some places, for white highlights.  I can use the tip of a paintbrush handle for a sharp white line (as the outline of the chair), the bristles of the
paintbrush for a brushy-textured area (as the skunk’s stripe), or my fingertips for a wider line with smudgier edges.  Then I lay the paper onto the plate and work from the back, again tracing with the paintbrush handle tip (or just a pencil) for a sharp black line (as the tenrec’s lines), or pressing with my fingers with various amounts of pressure for various amounts of ink transfer (as the doodle below).  One other method I’ve used is to cut a stencil, lay it over the ink, and then press the paper over it.  The stencil blocks the ink from the paper (as the snowflake).
        Unlike an ordinary block print, monotyping gives not only black and white but potentially a whole range of greys.  However, it’s quite hard to control.  If the ink is too thick and wet on the plate, the whole monotype turns out a black blob.  If the ink’s too thin and dry, you get barely any image at all.  Still, I’ve had fun fooling around with it on occasion.
        Also, the kids in my classes love this.  At the end of each class, just before it’s time to clean up, one child takes each plate and tries a monotype.  I help by holding the clear acrylic plate up while they work so that it’s backlit and they can see a little bit more what effect they’re having.  All the other kids watch and cheer the artist on and applaud the results - or groan sympathetically if it doesn’t turn out.  There aren’t as many plates as students, but over the course of a couple of days everyone gets a chance.
        I don’t post my monotypes on my web site or bring them to shows.  (And unlike my block prints, I don’t keep track of when I make them, which is why I have no dates below.)  I’m not particularly proud of how they turn out, and I see them as mere doodles and experiments.  But that’s just because I haven’t been interested enough in them to work at figuring out how to make them better.  For me they’re an amusing little afterthought to the “real” printmaking, but obviously some artists, such as Sterne, have used this technique more seriously.

[Pictures: Untitled (Radar), trace monotype by Hedda Sterne, c 1949;
Untitled chair, monotype by AEGN;
Tenrec, monotype by AEGN;
Monoprint Skunk II, monotype by AEGN;
Untitled snowflake, monotype by AEGN;
Untitled doodle, monotype by AEGN.]

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