A monoprint is a form of printmaking in which an image is made from a smooth surface or ‘plate’ coated in printing ink such as a sheet of glass or metal. In contrast with other printing techniques, only one final image is made, making the technique closer to drawing or painting than other print processes. The term ‘monoprint’ and ‘monotype’ are often used interchangeably to reference the same process, although some prefer to use the term ‘monoprint’ to refer to a series of similar works, while a ‘monotype’ is a one-off.
The History of Monoprint
Dutch sixteenth-century painter and printmaker Hercules Seghers was one of the first artists to experiment with creating unique, singular prints from a single etching plate rather than a series of numbered editions. His richly complex landscape prints were often made with different inks and papers, or reworked into with hand-drawn elements. Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn also explored techniques that were similar to monoprints with his etching plates, swiping away or adding in passages of ink to individual images to make each one unique.
Italian Baroque painter of the seventeenth century Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione began similar etching techniques to Rembrandt, which he later developed into the monoprint technique, drawing images directly onto an unetched, inked up plate with fingers, rags and brushes and pressing paper to the surface to produce an impression. Castiglione’s process took a while to catch on, partly because it was limited to a singular image unlike other, more prolific printmaking techniques, and also because of its reliance on accidents and experimentation.
Romanticist William Blake first experimented with oil and tempera monoprints in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, painting his designs onto a metal sheet and pressing damp paper onto it to transfer the design. Then he would retouch areas of the image by hand in ink and watercolour. Nineteenth-century artist Maurice Prendergast also adopted similar techniques, describing the process in a letter to a student, '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.'
Modern and Contemporary Monoprints
Impressionists of the nineteenth century embraced various creative approaches to monoprints, enjoying the painterly possibilities of the medium. Many, including Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro, saw in these printing techniques a link to early photography, with the same process of conceal and reveal, and an interplay of positive and negative imagery. French Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin developed his own unique technique, which he called trace monotype. He would begin with inking a sheet of paper, then lay another sheet over it, and draw on the back of the fresh paper so it would pick up the ink beneath, before flipping it over to reveal the final work.
Various European Modernist artists in the following decades embraced the free, expressive language of monoprints, including Paul Klee, who enjoyed the linear possibilities of the technique, and Pierre Bonnard, who produced hundreds of coloured monoprints by pressing paper by hand or with a roller onto a painted metal plate. Others who adopted the technique include Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Joan Miro, Jean Dubuffet and Henri Matisse. In Scotland, Robert Adams experimented with combining various printmaking techniques together to merge the textural possibilities of each together, as seen in his Untitled (Standing Abstract Figure), 1949, which combines lithography and monoprint processes. British artist Prunella Clough also embraced mono-printing as one of various printmaking techniques in her repertoire. More recently, British artist Tracey Emin is one of the most well-known artists to embrace the monoprint for its crude, raw immediacy, documenting sometimes deeply painful personal experiences with a scratchy language that is closer to handwriting, as seen in her ‘Family Suite’ series from 1994.