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Monotype and the art of surprise.

In many art forms, the finished work emerges only after going through many stages. Studies of master paintings show that many of the greatest take their final form only after traveling a great distance from the first sketch. It is difficult, however, to see the transient stages of the artistic process. One of the rare opportunities to see how artists develop their imagery is found in the art of monotype. Monotype is the process of inking a metal or plastic surface, and transferring the ink to paper, usually by running the paper and plate through a press.

Monotype is like painting in that an image can be painted on the plate. It differs from painting in that it offers the possibility of producing a series of related images from a single surface. After a first print is pulled from the ink surface, a residual image, called a ghost, remains. The ghost may be reinked or reworked to produce a variation of the previous image, or a further development of it.

Several master artists have used monotype or monotype-like processes in ways that reveal the development of their imagery. Rembrandt used a sequential process in his etchings to develop ideas for some of his major works. In his series of etchings, The Three Crosses, Rembrandt changed the inking to create a deeper light for his scene. In the fourth state of this print, Christ stands alone in the light while unbelievers are cast out into darkness. The high-contrast lighting gives a graphic intensity to the message of the work. An examination of Rembrandt's monotype process gives insight into the process he worked through in his paintings. The prints from each document the momentary states in the development of Rembrandt's deepest expression.

Degas' Cuisine

The full development of monotype as a medium culminated in the work of Edgar Degas. Degas is often classified as Post-Impressionist, yet his interest in monotype reveals a side of him at odds with the concept of Impressionism. Where Impressionism embraced direct response, Degas used monotype for experimentation; where Impressionism favored the light of the sun, Degas used monotype to work with a nocturnal light. Degas was so taken with his ventures into ink that he declared in 1892, "At last I shall be able to devote myself to black and white, which is my passion."

Degas used three distinct methods of inking the monotype plate. The first was to roll black ink onto the plate evenly, then subtract ink with a brush or rag to create the image. The second method was to draw with ink on a clean plate, exactly like drawing on paper. The third method was to combine and improvise every imaginable way of applying and manipulating ink - rolling, brushing, wiping, even using fingerprints.

Of these three methods, Degas gravitated toward the third, as it permitted the greatest range of possibilities. Degas called this third method his cuisine; a process of experimentation in the same sense that a chef tries out new ingredients and mixtures in the kitchen. When Degas worked on a monotype plate, he surrounded himself with inks, brushes, rags, solvents, a favorite paper, sponge and water. He worked rapidly, timing the inking of the plate to coincide with the wetting of the paper. He then reworked the image with pastels.

In the cuisine procedure, Degas used materials that were not quite possible to control, and deliberately so. In later landscapes, Degas allowed turpentine to thin and splatter the ink, pull a print, then rework the plate by allowing the turpentine to run freely again. An example of this procedure is Autumn Landscape. Working in this manner, Degas created landscapes that embodied his imagery at a deeper level than his initial sketches. The medium of monotype enabled him to create several versions of an image, from the literal to the deeply expressive.

In Search of Surprise

Three aspects of Degas' method contribute to the understanding of self-expression, and to the teaching of self-expression as a process of exploration. These aspects are the qualities of fluency, revision and reversal inherent in the monotype process.

Fluency. When beginning students paint on canvas, they often apply paint slowly, to one area at a time, covering the entire surface once. Students may not know that a first image without white space is only a basis for developing the finished image. They probably do not know that a painter like Rembrandt worked over a painting forty or fifty times. Students need some way of jumping into a fully painted image rather than slavishly covering white spaces.

The monotype process facilitates fluent painting because the surface is smooth and takes ink rapidly. The surface may be covered at the outset with rollers, as in Degas' first method, or the surface may be brushed, wiped and brushed again. There is no fear of making a mistake, because the plate may be wiped clean in a moment. Once students experience a fluent application of paint in monotype, they are more likely to work fluently on canvas.

Revision. The option of wiping the plate clean is one of the unique features of the monotype process. More commonly, however, the monotype artist wants to save something while building an image in layers, much like the painter who wipes down an image and then paints into it, as Rembrandt often did. With monotype, a layer of black ink may be wiped down with a rag and solvent to an atmosphere of subtle grays. Or the artist may choose to pull a print of the dark image, then work into the subtler tones remaining in the ghost. In a typical session, the artist may produce four or five images, ranging from the initial inking, to tones created by revision and addition.

Reversal. One of the moments of surprise in monotype comes when the artist realizes that a later image in a sequence is more satisfying than an earlier one. A second moment of surprise comes about because of reversal. As in most printmaking processes, the print pulled from the plate is the mirror image of what the artist has put down. Seeing the reversed image is always disorienting, and sometimes disappointing. But disorientation also aids vision, as it demands a fresh view of the arrangement of forms. Painters often use mirrors or turn the painting upside down to achieve a fresh view. With monotype, this kind of reorientation is inevitable. The reversed view helps students forget expectations, respond to surprises, and gain the habit of looking for positive surprises in all their work.

Monotype in School Curriculum

Monotype is an important medium for the student for the same reasons that it proved to be an important medium for Rembrandt and Degas. The monotype allows artists to explore freely, and to see the development of their expression in stages. The qualities of fluency, revision and reversal each contribute to the likelihood that the artist will be open to change and surprise, and be able to reach more deeply into the possibilities of self-expression.

The application of monotype to the school setting has been helped recently by the development of water-based inks that reduce expense and toxicity. Although the cuisine of Degas cannot be duplicated without oil-based inks and their solvents, a new and equally challenging palette can be developed from water-based inks and water-activated crayons. Painter Wayne Thiebaud is among the first to work with and exhibit a series of waterbased monotypes.

My experience in teaching monotype in the high school and teacher workshops has confirmed for me the value of monotype in facilitating an attitude of exploration in the process of self-expression. Some students will be satisfied with the clean first pull of an image from a carefully inked plate. More significant, however, is that the student can make mistakes, rework the image, and emerge with the unexpected. The monotype is an exciting way of creating a visual image, but more importantly, it is a means of understanding the spirit of exploration in the process of self-expression.

Dan Nadaner is Associate Professor, Department of Art, California State University, Fresno, California.
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Author:Nadaner, Dan
Publication:School Arts
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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