monotypes and etching
A monotype is a single print created by applying ink to a flat plate such as a plexiglass sheet and drawing, scratching, wiping, brushing in an additive or subtractive technique to create the image. The plate is then placed on a press such as an etching press to transfer the ink to paper. An impression can also be made simply by hand,
Monotypes are often created by inking an entire surface and then, using brushes, rags and other tools to remove ink creating areas of light from a solid area of opaque colour. A monotype impression is usually unique. A second, lighter impression from the painted printing plate can sometimes be made, though it will be a lot lighter and generally inferior in quality. This is called a “ghost print.”
Ink can be rolled, brushed, dabbed, sprayed, etc. onto the plate in combinations of colours and in layers. Sometimes several superimposed layers may be printed from a series of plates creating especially rich surfaces and colours.
The combination of subtractive and additive methods lends a special richness to monotype. The subtractive method means removing ink from the inked plate. The additive process means adding ink in other colours onto the plate.
The process amounts to making a painting on the plate and transferring it to paper. Generally a press is used to give the best results but the transfer may also be made by applying pressure from the back of the paper by hand using a baren (a rubbing tool used in Japanese woodblock printmaking). A press gives a more complete transfer of ink so is generally preferable.
Monotypes are especially suited to painters. They have particular techniques quite unlike other print processes such as etching, lithography or screen printing since these require perhaps more disciplined and strict adherence to sequential steps toward the finished print. Improvisation, experimentation and expression become the name of the game. It is a rewarding adventure.
An etching is a print made from a metal plate that has been “etched”, sometimes termed “bitten”, with acid or other chemical mordants. A polished sheet of copper, zinc or steel is used, each having different qualities.
A thin acid-resistant wax ground is laid on the metal surface. Lines are drawn with a needle exposing the metal surface, then the plate is placed in an acid bath. The longer the length of time in the bath the wider the line becomes. A combination of shorter and longer times may be achieved by “stopping out” lines with an acid-resistant varnish at intervals resulting in a variety of line depths and widths.
There are numerous ways to create a surface for etching. Melted resin dust makes a fine acid resistant texture that can be etched to make tonal variations from lightest to darkest values. This is called “aquatint”. Other ways of applying the ground or varnish can be used to create textures.
More recently, due to environmental and health concerns, mordants have been developed as safer substitutes for the acids traditionally used in etching. Copper can be etched with ferric chloride and zinc with copper sulphate and salt. The etch given by these chemicals is slightly different from their acid counterpart. Water-based inks have also appeared to substitute for the traditional oil-based ones.
Printing the etched plate
To print the plate the wax ground and varnish are removed, ink is rubbed into the lines and carefully wiped from the surface. The plate is placed on the press bed and dampened paper is laid over it. The whole ensemble is rolled through the press. Felt blankets help to even out the pressure of the press roller and ensure that the paper is forced into the marks on the plate. The print is then peeled from the plate. Numbered editions of prints are achieved by repeating the process for each subsequent print.
Though etching was traditionally a monochrome process it has become a versatile medium for colour prints. In a process called “registration” several plates may be printed over each other to make multi-coloured prints. Multiple colours may also be applied to a single plate (å la poupée).
The richness of etchings derives in great part from the immense pressure that is required to make the ink transfer. In this process ink undergoes extreme compression resulting in very dense pigmented colour. The surface beauty of etchings is incomparable, especially so when compared, say, to the contemporary taste for digital print.
The medium is versatile and expressive. Contemporary printmaking, for example, incorporates photographic imagery (through photosensitive plates that are exposed to sunlight to harden the ground); huge etchings can be made utilising large-scale presses; aquatint surfaces can be created with various alternative acid-resistant materials; stunning relief surfaces can be achieved with deeply etched "open bite" plates. There are many types of paper available to artists. Usually a heavier, pure cotton rag paper takes the best impression.
Collecting prints can be a rewarding experience. Great price deals may be found while paintings can be beyond one’s means. Artist's prints are not lesser works than paintings. They have great potential for expression and demand refined technical expertise. Then, they do not have to be displayed framed on a wall. Something permanently displayed may be forgotten or ignored over time. The ideal way to view prints in my opinion is to store them in a flat file or portfolio interleaved with tissue and brought out from time to time for enjoyment and study. Opening the drawer or portfolio can be a special occasion. Also, the scale of prints provides an intimate experience something akin to that of a valued book. Happy collecting!
Copyright © Christopher Castle 2021