Saturday Studio: Makin’ Monoprints

Claire Elliott, FWMoA High School Intern

Although we put precision and perfection on a pedestal, they can never obtain the enigmatic beauty and excitement of uncertainty. So, while oil paintings and their long, focused hours deserve their praise, we must appreciate the more spontaneous arts as well. One of such is the art of monoprinting. Also known as monotyping, monoprinting is a bridge between painting and printing. Like a painting, there is only one copy of the art; however, the piece itself is printed on a metal plate and transferred to paper rather than painted directly on the paper. When completed, the artist places damp paper over the ink and runs it through a press. The artist must work quickly to print the image before the ink dries.

Michael Mazur, American, 1935-2009. Sunflower, Night and Day II. Monotype and etching on paper, 1983. Museum purchase with funds from the Main Street Art Society, 1987.01. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

At the FWMoA, the monoprint Sunflower, Night and Day II by Michael Mazur (above) is currently on display in the John S. & James L. Knight Learning Center. While Mazur is known internationally for his monoprints, he also dabbled in sculpting and drawing. One of his techniques is the use of “ghosts.” No, not the scary spirits that lurk in the shadows during Halloween! These ghosts are simply ink residue left on the metal plate. When additional ink is added, it redefines the image, while the ghost gives it a transparent, complex look, visible in the lighter-colored sunflower stems above. Mazur creates both his original image and its ghost with a personal approach. First, he paints the metal plate with a background of ink. Using a rag, he wipes away said ink to create white lines. With his palm, Mazur softens the edges of his picture before adding more colored ink. Next, he rolls over the ink, creating traces of color throughout the image – a look that is distinct to monoprints. Once completed, Mazur adds damp paper and runs the plate and paper through a press.

The second ghost image must be completed immediately after its predecessor. Otherwise, the ink will dry and become unprintable. As a result, monoprints are looser, less exact images. In fact, it is this human reinvention of the model that excited Mazur. As the first and second prints are not exact replicas, there is an element of unpredictability: an element found in the elegant processes of nature itself. Moreover, according to Mazur, there is always some surprise in the finished print, whether positive or negative. In this way, monoprinting exhibits a philosophy that accepts the unpredicted and makes beauty out of it – a positive counter to the mental aches of perfectionism. Rather than exerting intense energy over a particular line, Mazur “goes with the flow”, if you will. His simpler works take no longer than twenty-five minutes, while his more complex ones fill up only an hour.

Following Mazur’s free-flowing footsteps, we will be creating botanical monoprints!

Supplies:

  • Paper – thick drawing paper will be more effective
  • Printmaking ink, tempera paint, or acrylic paint
  • Plexiglass scraps or a Styrofoam tray to act as your plate
  • A brayer or rolling pin (if using the latter, wrap saran wrap around it to protect from paint)
  • Paintbrushes
  • Tissues or paper towels
  • Spray bottle (optional)

Procedure:

Cut your paper to dimensions about a centimeter or so wider than your plate (Plexiglas or Styrofoam). Use a spray bottle to dampen your paper, if desired, to prepare it to absorb the paint. Next, prepare your paints! As this is water-based paint, it dries quickly. Thus, you need to complete your design quickly. Preparing your supplies gives you an extra minute of cushion. Now, pour paint over your plate. Using the brayer or rolling pin, evenly roll out the paint over the plate. As I chose two different colors (black and blue), the background is mottled. In fact, part of Mazur’s path in monotypes arises from his affinity for the mottled look that they produce.

Once your background is complete, work quickly to create your botanic design. While completing the rest of the steps, feel free to spray your paint with water. This will help the paint’s drying time slow down. Using a paper towel or a tissue around your finger, wipe away the background paint. After, use a small paintbrush to add color to your white lines. In my monoprint, I am painting a daisy. Thus, I colored the petals white, the center yellow, and the stems green. In Mazur’s process, he often rolls the brayer lightly over the added color to soften it. With our medium, I do not recommend such a technique; instead, if you want to alter your image, I would use your finger or a tissue.

After you add your colors, carefully place your paper down on the paint using one hand to stabilize and the other to firmly press down on the paper. Try to evenly distribute pressure across the whole paper for thirty seconds to a minute, allowing the paint to fully absorb into the damp paper. Once completed, slowly pull your paper off the plate.

Are you surprised with the outcome? Remember that Mazur himself always found surprises in his monotypes. Personally, I doubt I had as many positive surprises as he did. In fact, I ended up redoing the print, as much of my paint dried on the first try. This is what makes monoprinting such an invigorating (and sometimes stressful) art. While you have control over the process, you do not have control over the outcome. This dynamic mimics that of life.

When you visit FWMoA, be sure to check out the exhibition Drawn from Nature in the John S. and James L. Knight Learning Center for more botanical inspiration!

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