A brief history of monoprints and monotypes
Although we don't have a recorded history of the origin of monoprints and monotypes, we can trace early stages in the development of what would become a unique method known today as monoprinting.
One of the early artists who experimented with printing in color, on unusual papers (and linen), and with unusual horizontal formats to emphasize the horizon, was a Dutch painter and printmaker called Hercules Seghers (1589-1638).
Most of his images differ widely from impression to impression, and most are preserved in only a few sheets. His eccentric style makes him the most original and impressive artist in the history of printmaking. Not only did he experiment by using different inks and papers, but reworked his prints by adding accents by hand.
In the 1650s Rembrandt often retouched his plates with drypoint, burin or by burnishing areas to delete some unwanted parts. He also inked and wiped the plate each time differently, reworking some areas by moving around the ink with rags, fingers or paintbrushes. This was the only way to beautifully render flames, smoke and rich areas of shadow which would otherwise be impossible to obtain with simple etched lines. He created dramatic darkness and oustanding shadows by
controlling the ink on the plate each time he printed. Therefore, each impression was virtually different from the previous one.
Benedetto Castiglione (1609-1664) was another unique artist who handled etchings in a very personalised way, skillfully managing the light and shade in a painterly fashion. By copying Rembrandt's prints, he had learned how to manipulate ink to obtain rich dark areas, but it was Castilgione himself who devised a new printmaking process by drawing images directly onto an unetched plate and then pulling a unique impression; he drew white lines with a stick, created tonal areas with his fingers, rugs and brushes, then printed the plate using a press, just like we do today.
His extraordinary painterly effects have rarely been rivalled since.
Although Castiglione had devised anew printmaking process, the medium failed to become popular because of its limitation to one print and also because it depended too much on accidental effects and uncontrollable properties of ink when subjected to the heavy pressure of a press.
150 years later, William Blake (1757–1827) started experimenting with monotypes and became one of the most important artists to work with this media. He painted with oil and egg tempera onto a copperplate or piece of millboard from which he pulled prints by pressing the dampened paper against the paint. He then retouched his works by hand with ink and watercolor. it is said that Blake kept his method of producing monotypes a closely guarded secret and that some of the monotypes were used as a guide for overpainting in another media.
In the years succeeding Blake, the printing process we define as "monotype" , almost disappeared. The interest in experimental wiping was revived only in the late 1860s when the young impressionists became interested in the creative use of inking. These printing experiments seem to have been influenced by early developments of photography with its black and white contrasts and interplay of positive and negative imagery.
Edgar Degas (1834-1917) was introduced to "printed drawings" as they called these works in those days, thanks to his friend Ludovic Lepic who enjoyed experimenting tonal wiping and who devised the retroussage method of wiping, a way of adding ink to previously wiped plates to produce much richer tones on the prints.
Degas worked and reworked his plates in a variety of ways, wiping color and adding more to the plate, using rags, fingers and brushes, or even adding finishing touches with pastel to enhance the colors.
Each print was a work of art in its own right.
By exhibiting his monotypes in the third Impressionist exhibition of 1877, severl artists became interested in this form of art, above all Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), a prolific printmaker who used traditional printmaking methods in unorthodox ways. Through experimentation and accidents he created a series of unique impressions, turning his imperfections to his advantage to create effects of light and texture.
Printmaking had finally acquired a different status as a result of the creative and spontaneous use of the media.
Vacherie le soir, c. 1890
Monotype in warm black on wove paper sheet
Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) worked independently developing his own unique technique called trace monotype. His method consisted of inking a sheet of paper, laying another sheet over it, and drawing on the back of fresh paper thus transferring the ink creating an image in a linear manner.
Paul Klee (1879-1940) experimented and mastered this method a few years later in his inventive drawings.
Several late nineteenth-century artists used this method extensively; Maurice Prendergast (1859-1924) who was influenced by Japanese prints, described his way of making monotypes to his student and friend Esther Williams, in a letter which was to instruct her: "Paint on copper in oils, wiping parts to be white. When the picture suits you, place Japanese paper on it and either press in a printing press or rub with a spoon till it pleases you. Sometimes the second or third plate is the best."
The writer Van Wyck Brooks related an account of Prendergast's procedure, explained to him by the artist's brother, Charles: "He could not afford a regular press and his quarters in Huntington Avenue were so cramped that he had no room for a work-bench. So he made his monotypes on the floor, using a large spoon to rub the back of the paper against the plate and thus transfer the paint from the plate to the paper. As he rubbed with the spoon, he would grow more and more excited, lifting up the paper at one of the corners to see what effect the paint was making. The clattering of the big spoon made a great noise on the floor; and soon he and Charles would hear the sound of a broomstick, pounding on the ceiling below. That meant the end of the day's work."
The French Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) produced hundreds of richly colored monotypes pressing the paper by hand or with a roller on a previously inked and painted metal plate. Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Chagall, Miro', Dubuffet, Matisse and many other contemporary artists produced hundreds of exceptional monotypes, too.
About Monoprints: click here to learn about how monoprints are made