Monoprinting (by Patricia Shaer)

Monotype “printing” has long fascinated me. Recently, I started experimenting with the process using textile paints and acrylics on fabric, various stabilizers, and unusual papers.

Going back many years to the remnants of an art appreciation course, I remembered the name but was unsure of the technique and what the final piece would look like. Then, we visited the Tara Museum in Chicago where there are several Maurice Prendergast Monoprints. I was in love! To me, the images captured my attention and imagination with the spontaneity and the flow. Little did I know that art historians use similar terms to describe the success of the method.

Researching this topic, I came up with the following history. Before throwing out some “what ifs…,” I found the following excerpts which tell the tale more succinctly than I would have. (And why reinvent the wheel, so to speak.)

First, some definitions:

According to what I learned, a monoprint is a halfway stage between painting and printmaking. Color, in some medium such as watercolor paints in my case, is applied to a non-porus surface. Paper is placed atop the surface. A brayer, could be a spoon, your hand, a tall glass, whatever, goes over the back of the paper and voila! there’s an interesting image on the front of the paper. Usually, only one detailed image can be captured. (Hence the name monoprint.)

The Original Print Gallery (Dublin Ireland) says, “The process is simple: the artist paints, rubs, or wipes the design directly onto a plate, using a fairly slow drying paint or ink. The image must be printed before the ink dries. Printing may be by press or by hand, and as the name monotype implies, one can usually get only one strong impression. The effect must be guessed right from the start; there will be no trial proofs or different states unless the design is redrawn for a second impression. This term is used to refer to any print made in one version and incapable of being repeated. A monoprint cannot be editioned.”

Second, this brief history – courtesy of

Most early singular prints were monoprints, rather than monotypes. An early Dutch landscape artist, Hercules Seghers (1589 -1638) experimented with monoprints, but Benedetto Castiglione (1616-1670) … “is believed to have created the first monotype by applying a heavy film of black or brown ink onto an etching plate, drawing his white lines with a blunt stick. To create tonal areas he used his fingers, rugs and brushes. The plate was then printed using a press, just like we do today.”

monocastiglione.jpgBenedetto Castiglione

It was more 150 years before William Blake started making use of monotypes as a medium. He became “one of the most important artists to work with monotypes. He painted with egg tempera onto millboard which rendered a textural and granular quality of the prints which were sometimes retouched with pen and brush.”

monoblake.jpg William Blake, Pity. Color monotype 1795

Blake was alone in his use of monotypes and it wasn’t until the impressionists (circa 1860) came along that “creative use of inking” and “experimental wiping” became popular among artists.

“Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) … develop[ed] his own unique technique called trace monotype. His method consists of inking a sheet of paper, laying another sheet over it, and drawing on the fresh paper which received the ink in a linear manner.

monogauguin1.jpgPaul Gauguin. The Pony, c. 1902 – sheet: .327 x .597 m
gouache monotype touched with gum or varnish on laid paper.

“Maurice Prendergast (1859-1924) … described his way of making monotypes …
‘Paint on copper in oils, wiping parts to be white. When picture suits you, place on it Japanese paper and either press in a 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, told 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.'”

monoprenderg.jpgMaurice Prendergast, Circus Band – ca. 1895 color monotype with pencil additions

Pierre Bonnard, Pablo Picasso, Degas (check out the backgrounds on his ballerinas), Chagall, Miro, Dubuffet, Matisse, Paul Klee, and many others produced hundreds of monotypes.

“The beauty of the monotype medium is its spontaneity and its combination of printmaking, painting, and drawing mediums.”

It amazes me to realize that many of these famous works started with such a simple technique.

Today, we who are textile or fabric or quilt artists are adapting the technique from paper to fabric. An easy example to view is in the latest issue of Quilting Arts Magazine (April/May 2007, Issue 26) pg. 51. Frances Holliday Alford’s “Monoprint 2.” Look beyond the black quilting lines to see the array of colors and the texture produced through monoprinting. What fun!

Here are a couple of Alford’s monoprints. This first one is a work in progress. As Alford says, “a monoprint on fabric which has not been overpainted, quilted, or otherwise altered.”


Her second is finished:

Frances Alford said, “This has the name “Monoprint 1” but maybe I ought to change that before it
goes down in history that way. It is 8.5×11

Alford continued, “This piece was made using a mono print gelatin plate. I used paints and
markers to further embellish the surface. The use of free motion machine
quilting gives the piece the extra life developed by multiple colors of thread and
the quilted texture itself. Maybe I should call it Lab Specimen.”

That brings me to the “what ifs.” I dabble on a 2’x3’ piece of Plexiglas. My “what ifs” begin with cotton (colored and white), silks, unusual papers, stabilizers of various sorts, including fusible. What if… I use screening atop the glas, apply medium and then print from both the screen and the colors remaining on the Plexiglas? What if… I apply another water-soluble media? What if… I attempt a second image on a more sheer fabric or paper? Once I start, however, there’s no end in sight. I just grab whatever’s handy and keep at it. Yes, my reactions are akin to those of Prendergast picking up those corners.

I’d love to see the results of other’s attempts at this very simple technique. Do you have some “what ifs?”

10 Responses to “Monoprinting (by Patricia Shaer)”

  1. 1 jessica van hoogstraten December 3, 2007 at 10:51 pm

    im 17 yrs old im in art right now researching mono printing and found urs and i have to say i love it soo much…..ive got some mono’s myself using string and paint and spots of colours and calling it lifes path, because u dont know where it takes u, uve inspired me to take it a further step and create a more coloureful out there look….. you surly have insprired me and others writing these comments too.

  2. 2 sandyw April 15, 2007 at 2:24 pm

    I took a class on monoprints from an painting artist and after a while she let me work on fabric using her wonderful wool press. She was amazed at how it worked on the fabric.

    It is a great resource for one of a kind.


  3. 3 clairan April 7, 2007 at 2:16 pm

    I also love the freedom of monoprinting. I took ann Johnson’s course as well, and did 30 “grid” prints using a grout smoother.

    A nice bonus is to use a large piece of fabric over the work surface at the end of a session. It’s amazing what you can get from the clean-up effort!

  4. 4 Beth April 7, 2007 at 1:37 pm

    Loved the article about monoprinting and many of the other articles on the blog. I spent a week last summer with Ann Johnson in a class on monoprinting with thickened Procion dyes and chose to work for most of the time just in black and white using different media for the surface on which to extract the prints. It was a totally freeing experience and I made over a hundred different images just using a popsicle stick, a broken paintbrush and caps from the dye containers. I sincerely didn’t think I had it in me. What a wonderful way to have more control over dye painting yet still have some surprises along the way.

  5. 5 June April 6, 2007 at 8:34 am

    On my morning walk today, I mulled over the processes we go through to “build” our art. I was thinking about how quilted art pieces are built as contrasted with how painted pieces are built.

    Paintings begin by working within a frame (the 2’x3′ stretched canvas or whatever), and the painter decides how to proceed by composing within the already set limits of the “frame.” Particular kinds of painting call for particular modes of proceeding — landscapes start at the furthest point (usually the sky); portraits begin by getting the basic proportions correctly set inside the frame, and so forth.

    Monotypes, it seems to me, are built somewhat closer more like a painting than they are like conventional art quilts. That is to say, they start with the limits of the frame, the 2 x 3′ piece of glass, and then add elements to that.

    With other forms of the art quilt, though, the building doesn’t depend on outside limits. Most quilt artists start with an “item” — a piece of cloth, a block, an image, and build around it, building it up and out. This means that quilt artists are not confined to a predetermined size or shape — if the composition is off on one side, they can simply add more to the other make it balance.

    Collage in art quilts and abstract painting seem to have some image and compositional questions in common, but even there, the auditioning of fabrics and shapes as well as the undefined edge makes the process very different.

    I was thinking about this because of Frances’ monotype. Once she has the basic print laid down, she is more restricted in her on-going composition and design activities. Not as restricted as painters, I suppose, but more so than quilters who build piece by piece, block by block. But the restrictions (and the lack of absolute control over what happens when you print the monotype) can add a kind of freshness to the process that the laborious building up, block by block, applique by applique, lacks.

    I was also thinking of this because I dyed-painted a bunch of stuff that failed miserably, so I cut out some of the pieces and am using them to collage (or assemble by fusing) on an indeterminate background. It’s a bit of a relief from painting — to be given the freedom from the limits of the canvas and to be able to audition before making final decisions. On the other hand, I miss the immediacy and underlying excitement and challenge of laying down paint within the tight confines of the edge.

    Do you suppose that monotypes are the halfway point that can give both the control of quilting and the excitement of painting?

    • 6 Cheryl July 18, 2010 at 7:05 am

      Intriguing idea June – that monotypes are a halfway point that give both the control of quilting and the excitement of painting. Yes maybe, and when we think ‘outside the box’ when quilting, there is an extreme excitement when I let go of any preconcieved squarish look of quilting and go off ‘painting’ with my sewing machine, bits of cloth and wild threads and top it off with all sorts of embellishments. I look forward to playing with gelatin monoprinting. It will be a fun adventure!

      Patricia, thanks for the most interesting article. It helps me to see and feel the whole monoprint idea from historical and current perspectives.

      Frances Alford suggested your site. Thanks to Frances too!

  6. 7 maggie April 5, 2007 at 6:15 pm

    thanks for the great article, patricia, and the great resources, too. i am working on monoprinting for my distance program at the opus school of textile arts. your information added to my growing list of monoprint works to study.


  7. 8 Kathy Sands April 5, 2007 at 4:08 am

    Great information! I have an abstract piece I monoprinted “twice”. First with dishwashing gel in a discharge pattern and then with paint for a positive pattern. I like the effects of that. But mine is not near as detailed as what those guys did.

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