1.1 Your first monoprints

The purpose of this project was to introduce the basic monotype technique and the feel of the process.

Keywords from the brief:

  • Make patterns of colour
  • Experiment with different brush marks
  • Do not consciously try to make representational drawings
  • Further experiments: Extend your range by adding more colours and using a brush in a different way
  • Painted monoprint from life: Find two contrasting objects
  • In your sketchbook, make a quick drawing or two
  • Explore a variety of themes to include still life, figures, landscapes and so on.

Initial experiments

My initial experiments were carried out in Kew Print Studios using an A3 perspex sheet as the printing plate, Intaglio oil based inks with extender and plate oil for thinning, and the large studio printing press.

The prints were made on Snowdon cartridge paper which are the standard paper used in the studio for proofing.

I took a range of paint brushes, sponges and scrapers to experiment with. I painted the first one-colour print and didn’t think about composition and just had fun making different marks.

As well as taking a first print, I also took a ghost print that formed the basis to the two-colour print.

Painted monoprint from life

I visited the Matisse in the Studio exhibition in the Royal Academy and loved his still life drawings and paintings. What struck me most was how he used colour and pattern around the central still life object to create focus in his paintings. I also liked his preparatory pen and ink sketches where he repeated and refined the drawing of the same object to reduce the number of marks to the very essence of the object.

The still life I chose was deliberately simple; a teapot and teacup with a simple but striking star pattern, and an empty glass vase with a twisted flute pattern. This gave me interesting shapes, colours and surfaces to work with.

I started by doing a few drawings in my sketchbook.

Large sketchbook 01

Large sketchbook 02

I used an A2 piece of thin Perspex for the printing plate and had three Intaglio etching inks and as many paint brushes, sponges and other mark making tools that I could lay my hands on, taking lessons from the first exercise.

I did the printing in a single session (7-hours) at Kew Print Studios where I could work with the larger printing press and plenty of space. I took the still life objects with me and used a combination of drawing from life and texture and composition from my sketchbook images.

The first print is two colour and printed on A1 Bread & Butter proofing paper. Paints were used direct from the tube and mixed with copper plate oil and Extender to get a good and workable consistency.

Following a technique, I’d seen used on YouTube, I used a roller to apply an even application of ink across the whole plate. I then worked back into the plate, removing and adding paint as I went.

I wasn’t precious about the image making process and just went with it, enjoying using paintbrushes, rags, kitchen roll and decorating brushes to create the image.

After about an hour I created my first print.

Teapots & mask 01
Teapot and glass vase, painted monoprint, A2 size

I liked the result, particularly the texture in the Burnt Sienna where I’d applied white spirits to the paint. This reminded me of Spit Bite in etching; an effect I love but have never tried. Overall I felt like I’d taken off too much of the ink and had therefore lost some impact.

Further painted prints

I experimented with a number of different topics and formats.

Portrait – bubonic plague mask

I wanted to see how a portrait type image would render using monoprint, and I used sketches of masks as reference.

This time I wanted to limit the use of colour to try and add drama and atmosphere.

This type of mask was used by plague doctors during the bubonic plague. This is a subject area that I am interested in exploring further, and is good material for printing.

I don’t think the print works but the experience of working with the ink and printing at this size was useful.

Crow, combining text and image

The next print I made was inspired by a short book by Max Porter called Grief is the thing with feathers. It’s about bereavement and the process of coming to terms with the loss of a family member. In it he uses the metaphor of a crow for the sadness and blackness of the feelings associated with loss of someone you’re close to.

I also wanted to experiment with combining text with an image. For this I tried using a mask and manipulating paint directly on the plate.

I worked out a number of different ideas in my sketchbooks.

Large sketchbook 03
Pen & ink and painted sketches 2 x A3 pages

I created two prints.

I may develop this idea in future exercises where it would be nice to add more layer and narrative to the image, perhaps using masks and backdrawing.

Norfolk landscapes

My parents live in Norfolk and it’s a landscape I love and have used as subject matter in Illustration 1.

The images were based on some sketches I’d done in the past although I was really more interested in the the texture and feel of the way the ink was working on the plate rather than being representational of a particular place. These prints were made at home so I didn’t have the benefit of a printing press.

I don’t think any of the landscape images in this series of prints work particularly well, probably because they are from memory rather than from life or direct reference.

Research point – Monoprints by Degas

Take a look at monoprints by Degas. How have these been achieved?

To answer this question I visited Degas: A passion for perfection at The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. The exhibition was a retrospective of his work that included several monoprints and etchings.

I’ve selected a couple of monoprints that seem fairly typical of how Degas used monoprints, the the subjects he preferred.

The images were made by directly painting on a plate, usually single colour, sometimes overpainted with pastel or gouache. I wasn’t clear how these had been printed; it didn’t look they’d been through a press because there was no impression of the plate in the paper, which is what I’d expect to see. Typical subjects included ballet dancers, landscapes and intimate social groups.

The paper was a velum colour.

How successful are they? 

The thing that struck me about his monoprints is the incredible range and inventiveness of mark making. Many of the prints are of subjects with hard lighting/stage lighting, such as the bathing models. I was surprised at how small most of the prints are.

I love these prints. They are beautifully observed and have a strong sense of place and mood. They are created using a wide range of brush marks, scratches and rag marks. The thickness of the ink varies across an image; from opaque to translucent.

Take a close look at one or two of his prints, print them out and annotate them. What can you learn from his prints?

Here are some of the learnings I noted from the exhibition:

  • The medium can generate a wide range of expressive textures and marks
  • For certain types of subject, this is an excellent medium
  • It provides a technique to render large areas of tone and deep blacks that are not achievable in etching
  • Unlike painting, monoprinting is as much about removing pigment and adding replacing ink
  • It’s possible to work on top of a monoprint using other media such as gouache or pastels


What went well

  • Having a print studio with printing press, solvents and lots of space to space to work was brilliant.
  • This was the first time I’d printed using the larger of the two Kew Print Studio presses at an A2 printing plate size.
  • I think the second crow image works well, and is a subject I will develop and explore further. The nature of the medium tends to lend itself to simple, emotionally ‘dark’ images and subject matter.
  • There is something beautiful about the quality of a painted monoprint. It somehow emphasises blocks of colour, texture and line in a way which a painting on canvas or paper wouldn’t do.

What I would do differently/better

  • Be prepared –really do the thinking first and know the work and work through what needs to be achieved and how. I felt like the teapot print, where I’d thought through inspiration, colour, and drawn the subject several times from different points of view in different mediums worked much better than the crow print. I was prepared, focused and knew what I wanted to achieve. The crow print was still work in progress was not really developed enough to commit to a print.
  • I felt like I was fighting the medium all the time. The ink is very thick and not easy to work with. I will try adding more copper plate oil to see if that makes the ink more workable
  • The Intaglio drypoint black ink is disappointing. The only way to get an intense colour is to paint it on thick. This prints ok but does take a few hours to dry
  • Making a negative stencil for medium sized lettering didn’t work. The stencil (cut from heaving tracing paper) curled and wouldn’t lie flat.
  • The positive lettering stencil on crow print 1 worked well because I applied it to inked plate, so it stuck in place.
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