1.2 Positive and negative masked monoprints

The purpose of this exercise is to explore the use of paper masks in making monoprints.

Keywords from the brief:

  • A design that works well in both a positive and negative shape
  • Make one careful drawing or collage, exact size, form which you will be able to make a template
  • Make a positive print
  • Take a ghost print
  • Remove the mask and take a third print
  • Make a negative print using a contrasting ink

Research point

Look at Matisse’s blue nudes and see what you can learn from them. What makes them so powerful? Is it the simplicity, the composition, the cut-out quality? Find other artist’s work who work in this way and compare them to Matisse and to what you are doing.

To help me answer these questions I went to see the Matisse in the Studio exhibition in the Royal Academy which featured numerous cutouts including Forms Plate IX (1943-44)

Form Plate Matisse
Forms, White Torso, and Blue Torso (Jazz), Henri Matisse, stencil on paper 1943, ww.henri-matisse.net

As well as seeing the finished pieces first hand, the exhibition was curated to give an insight into the influences and ideas that Matisse picked up and developed throughout his life.

The thing that struck me most from the exhibition was how he constantly explored, reworked, redrew, simplified and experimented with the subjects that interested him. He was incredibly inventive in combining pattern, texture and colour and a master of composition.

At some point in his career he became interested in African art, and the exhibition has a small collection of African masks and sculpted figures and it was possible to directly correlate their simple freedom and inventiveness with his own paintings and sculptures.

Forms Plate IX was displayed next to a classical Roman torso from the first or second century which was part of Matisse’s personal collection. The similarity and influence was surprising and clear.

Forms Plate IX is a stenciled monoprint. The print is two-colour, and is a cobalt blue overprinted with a cream, so the cobalt blue can still be seen under the translucent cream. The blue is very even and intense but the edges are not 100% clean; I think this was caused when the plate was lifted from the paper.

The print consists of a positive and negative style image, set side-by-side, although the shapes are not quite reflections of one another.

The torso shapes are essential, sculptural, minimal representations of a torso. The power of the image is the beauty, balance and simplicity of the shapes, the intensity of the colour  and interplay of the positive/negative representations, (something I used in my own prints (reference A2 positive and negative prints (reversed)).

The Blue Nudes are a series of four seated female nudes and are among Matisse’s final body of work. They are created from gouache painted paper cut-outs stuck to paper mounted on canvas.

Like Forms Plate IX, the power of the images is in the striking simplicity of the image and the stark contrast of the positive and negative shapes.

The question also asked to research other artists that work in this way.

I found it difficult to find other artists using positive and negative masked monoprints or even ‘painting by scissors’ which is how Matisse described this way of working.

The key difference between Matisse and the others artists I could find using similar techniques is the subject matter. Matisse’s work is always based on figures and objects from life. Even though these are sometimes simplified and stylised to the point of abstraction, they have the ‘real world’ as a starting point.

All the other artist’s work that I could reference is abstract, and uses the technique for it’s own sake i.e. the combinations of vivid colour, strong form and composition often incorporating other techniques to add texture, to create a specific effect.

What I did

Building on the ideas and sketches from the first project, I decided to develop the teapot image and use this as the basis for the positive and negative masked monoprints.


  • I created line art by reducing one of the pen-and-ink sketched to an outline using Adobe Illustrator.
  • The positive and negative masks were cut from A3 photocopy paper (reference lesson below regarding paper weight).
  • I used a thin perspex sheet as the printing plate.
  • I did the printing at Kew Studio in an 8-hour booking using the larger of the two presses.
  • Materials:
    • Intaglio printing inks (oil based)
    • Extender
    • Copper plate oil
    • ‘Standard’ A2 cartridge paper (usually used for proofing)
  • I followed the standard studio processes for preparing the space, setting up the press, cutting and preparing the paper, mixing and thinning inks etc.
  • The complete printing time (including two colour variations for Project 3), took the full 8-hours.

The prints:

Lessons from the print session

Registration was really tricky

  • Photocopy paper was too light for masking accurately. Intricate designs crease and don’t position easily and it’s not really possible to re-position without damaging the mask. I ended up using more masks than I had pre-prepared which wasted time in the print room.


  • Use heavier paper for creating masks.
  • Prepare plenty of spares.
  • Silk screen printing would have been a much better more controllable stencil solution to achieve the same result.

Quality of ink coverage

  • Even relatively small areas of flat colour (first print), printed unevenly with some texture caused when the plate is lifted from the paper.
  • Taking a ghost print resulted in a more even colour albeit without the colour intensity.


  • I could have experimented by thinning the ink to see if this made any difference to the way the ink transferred to the paper but didn’t think of it at the time.
  • I quite like the texture of the ghost print, so exploit this in future prints
  • Silk screen printing would have been a better solution because it’s possible to achieve large areas of dense flat colour using this approach. Interestingly, the ink used in silkscreen printing is much thinner than what I’ve been using for monoprinting.

Handling large paper

  • Printing at A2 size accurately is difficult and requires planning. All the equipment needs to be scaled up; water tray, blotters, registration template, use of larger press etc.
  • Handling damp floppy heavy paper is difficult and it’s harder to register accurately.


  • Plan carefully and take additional time to think things through slowly and carefully.
  • An extra pair of hands would help.


Does your image work well in both positive and negative forms?

I think it works in positive and negative forms although my slight preference is in positive form although overall I think the image (either positive or negative) is strong enough to stand alone. I thought having the two side-by-side would add another layer of interest.

Using two and more colours plus other techniques such as back drawing should bring the image to life.

What went well

  • I learned alot about registration and using masks at a fairly large scale (up to A2) on a printing press.
  • Using Illustrator to create a stencil from a pen and ink drawing worked well and gave a good indication of what the final results would look like.

What I would do differently/better

  • For prints requiring just stenciled flat colour, silk screen printing would have been a better technical solution.
  • The creative possibilities of monoprinting were not exploited by this exercise.
%d bloggers like this: