Workshop: The Painterly Print

Top: Bruno Leti, No. 6 from Intonaco Series, 2015, oil monotype (unique), 76 x 56 cm.
A page from the original article published in Imprint Autumn 1997, Volume 32 Number 1.

‘The monotype surface, although flat and relatively smooth, fully records an active and varied manipulation of pigment that precedes transfer to paper, in reverse. This transfer of a fresh painting or drawing is meant to yield just one (‘mono’) print (‘type’). Therefore, they are unique images rather than multiples. So, strictly speaking, they are neither paintings, drawings or prints!’

The following article was written by Bruno Leti and published in the Autumn 1997 issue of Imprint Vol. 32 No. 1.

Monotypes are printed paintings or printed drawings; they resemble no other prints, be they engraved, carved, etched, lithographed or computer-generated. The monotype surface, although flat and relatively smooth, fully records an active and varied manipulation of pigment that precedes transfer to paper, in reverse. This transfer of a fresh painting or drawing is meant to yield just one (‘mono’) print (‘type’). Therefore, they are unique images rather than multiples. So, strictly speaking, they are neither paintings, drawings or prints!

As a painter–printmaker, the monotype satisfies both my urges to paint and print. There is no preparation of a matrix and little if any technique to speak about. Having pulled scores of editions in various mediums over the past thirty years, it is a wonderfully freeing experience not to cut, etch, engrave or chemically treat a plate to resolve an image. With ‘monotyping’ a sequence of images can be attained immediately in the procedure to resolution.

The monotype first came to my notice in high school art rooms in the fifties. I remember a young enthusiastic art teacher and artist, Barry Gange, who, with the help of art students, made a crude etching press from a mangle. He demonstrated to us the many possibilities of attaining an image by pressing one surface against another surface. These early, unique, rough images had a lot of charm and immediacy which inspired my imagination. But it was not until I began to travel in the mid sixties that I first saw monotypes made by Degas in Paris, and those made by Picasso in Barcelona. They beauty and freshness of these prints remained ‘impressed’ in my mind for a long time. Some years later in the United States, I also saw monotypes made by Milton Avery and those by Richard Diebenkorn which reinforced the idea that this medium had great potential.

It seemed to me from the start that making monotypes was another way of making paintings. The ‘push’ and ‘pull’ of creating an image with oil paints and printing ink was an exciting alternative to directly painting on canvas or board. There were obvious limitations of course: you could not apply paint too thickly or it would ‘squash’ under pressure and the image would be reversed after the pressing. However, because I prepared monotypes on the back of discarded etching plates, I was quite comfortable with painting on a hard surface not unlike the Masonite I used in the early days.

Historically, the monotype technique goes back to the mid-1640s, to painter–etchers such as Rembrandt in Amsterdam, and Giovanni Castiglione, a lesser-known Italian from Genoa. It was probably Castiglione who began to manipulate printing ink on copperplates so as to print a continuous tone, analogous to an ink watercolour wash. Both artists were deeply involved with the texture of paint, making hundreds of painterly drawings using brushes or other drawing tools that produced a broad stroke. In their prints, both artists sought tonal effects through the use of drypoint burr, and by utilising accidental or intentional granular biting. The only true printmaking practice available at that time that produced a continuous tone was mezzotint, then still in its early days. Neither artist attempted this method, but instead painted with printing ink on the surfaces of copper plates. Rembrandt left ink ‘smeared’ on selected areas of his etched plates but it was Castiglione who actually made drawings into thick ink spread on a smooth copper plate which produced the first true monotype.

One of my favourite artists, the poet William Blake, developed a method of transferring his handwriting and drawing in monotype onto copper plates, etching these in relief, and printed from the surface of the plate. This evolved from his explorations of printing book illustrations in colour. The first complete book he produced in this method was Songs of Innocence. Blake used the monotype combined with hand-painting and colouring.

From the end of the eighteenth century, when William Black executed his highly original ‘printed drawings’ until nearly the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the art of the monotype largely lapsed into disuse.

Around the 1860s, there was a resurgence of the technique by the painter–printmakers Adolphe Appian and Ludovic Lepic in France. They were interested in the dramatic effects of light and dark and the rich tonalities that could be obtained by wiping and brushing ink over an etched matrix, which provided a linear quality with tonal effects. However, it was left to Edgar Degas, probably the greatest exponent of the monotype in the nineteenth century, to add another dimension which made the technique more viable and important by experimenting with wiping, brushing and often retouching the finished works with pastels. It was a time when Degas was seeking a release from the tradition of precise linear draftsmanship. This new freedom to manipulate paint and printing ink resulted in a different aesthetic, more akin to the Impressionist ideal. Other artists such as Pissarro, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Mary Cassatt, and the American painter-printmaker Whistler, made monotypes near the turn of the century and into the twentieth century.

The modern monotype has attracted artists from Degas to Gauguin to Munch to the German Expressionists. The craftsman-like approach to printmaking by the Bauhaus teachers also encouraged students to experiment with monotypes. Picasso, Rouault and Matisse produced monotypes during their time and when Dada and Surrealism emerged in Europe, the acceptance of any material at hand as a potential ingredient of art cleared the way for many artists such as Dubuffet, Tobey, Ernst and Klee to extend mixed media processes in conjunction with monotype. Frottage, ink-blots and other transfer or pressed methods were incorporated.

The appeal of Oriental art and calligraphy with its scribbles, strokes, drips and smears is seen clearly in the work of Gottlieb, Motherwell, Jasper Johns, Sam Francis and Miro. Their love of free lines and natural textures so much in evidence in their paintings also appears in their monotypes. Today, print workshops around the world have taken an active interest in the monotype, aided by master printers, technical inventions and ongoing experimentation.

It has been said that most artist–printmakers discover the mysteries of monotypes on their own, working along with other mediums and through trial and error. I have found the right balance and comfort zone for me, with an emphasis on the direct and the forthright which requires that a picture’s surface, its pigment, and the presence of the artist be immediately felt. Monotype is a painter’s medium. It was born of a painter’s imagination and restlessness and is a perfect tool for improvisation and realisation.

REFERENCES

Adhemar, J. 1975, Degas, The Complete Etchings, Lithographs, and Monotypes, Viking Press, New York.

Brown, K. 1992, Ink, Paper, Metal, Wood, Crown Point Press, San Fransisco.

Grishin, S. 1994, Bruno Leti’s Monotypes, Transart, Melbourne.

Plows, P. 1988, Collaboration in Monotype, University of Washington Press.

Reed, S. & Ives, C. 1980, Monotypes from 17th Century to the 20th Century Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

NOTE

A monotype is made from a ‘pure’ painted image on a smooth surface (e.g. copper, zinc, perspex, etc.), which is then pressed onto paper to yield one unique impression. A monoprint matrix has some fixed elements together with unique, hand-painted areas on its surface which can be somewhat replicated when painting.

Bruno Leti was recently awarded the Print Award in the 2016 Swan Hill Print and Drawing Acquisitive Awards for his monotype No. 6 from the Intonaco Series (pictured at top).