What is a Monotype

The distinction between monotypes and monoprints
and the process of creating these works on paper

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The difference between monotypes and monoprints frequently baffles art buyers and sellers alike! Therefore, a description of that difference is useful at the outset.

A monoprint is one of a series—therefore, not wholly unique. A monoprint begins with an etched plate, a serigraph, lithograph or collograph. This underlying image remains the same and is common to each print in a given series. Other means of adding pigment or design are then employed to make each print in the series slightly different. The series of monoprints has a limited number of prints and each is numbered.

A monotype is one of a kind, a unique piece of artwork. It is the simplest form of printmaking, requiring only pigments, a surface on which to apply them, paper and some form of press. Frank Howell, the late Santa Fe artist who became an expert with the medium of monotypes, most clearly describes the process:

Monotypes are pulled impressions that were drawn or painted on a metal or plexiglass plate. The images are created through applications of ink that are rolled, brushed, daubed or otherwise applied and manipulated and then, with the material, usually paper, that is to accept an impression, are "pulled" with the use of a press.

Monotypes are inherently unique because only one or two impressions may be pulled before the ink is used up. Although there may be a second impression, it is quite different from the first in that most of the ink was lifted from the plate in its first pass through the press. The second impression, called a ghost or cognate, is much lighter or thinner and is more of a suggestion of the first. Each pulled impression may be considered a finished work or it may be further enhanced by the application of additional drawing or color.

. . . recent experimentations in the use of inks mixed with various viscosities of oil, applied in multiple layers on the same plate prior to printing have produced complex and exciting impressions. When technically well-executed, monotypes created in this manner are distinctly monotypes in their incredible fidelity to the artist's manipulations of ink, but have a remarkable transparent and "layered" quality that is not otherwise achievable.

— from Frank Howell, Monotypes

In order to better understand the process of making monotypes, we experienced an all-day session with master printer Ricardo Ximenes at El Cerro Graphics in Los Lunas and accomplished painter/novice monotypist Betty Sabo.

Betty Sabo
Betty Sabo
creating the image
with palette knife
on the coated plate

For Betty Sabo's monotype, the plexiglass plate was first coated with an oil-based ink. (The color chosen was a blue which is loved and frequently used by Betty in her oil paintings . . . it is now known as "Betty" blue at El Cerro! For Betty, it was a friendly base from which to start.) Over the smooth blue coat of ink, she began to create a Sabo painting using specially formulated thick inks. While Betty applied the inks with brushes and a palette knife, the monotype artist can use any tool to transfer pigment to plate . . . sponges, scrapers, fingers, cloth, toothbrushes, etc. As Ximenes encouraged a fairly swift pace in applying the paints, Betty noted that the monotype process can be dangerous for an artist with a big ego.

"It could end up as a piece of slop!" Since Betty Sabo is a "texturist" in her oil paintings, there was a danger that she might apply too much ink and create the "slop" she feared! The eloquence, humor and exquisite craft of "Mister Master" Ximenes help prevent just such disasters. But a good printer not only guides around pitfalls, he also helps the artist take fullest advantage of the possibilities of this versatile medium.

The speed with which the monotype artist must work can be nerve-wracking for a meticulous perfectionist such as Betty. It is, by its very nature, a spontaneous, unencumbering process of creating an image on a plate. While an oil painting of similar size could take Betty two weeks to complete, this monotype, for good or ill, would be completed in about 2 hours.

Ric Ximenes
"Mister Master"
Ric Ximenes
adjusting pressure on
the press.
Sabo Monotype
Betty Sabo's finished monotype

The "spontaneity" of the monotype process may be misleading, for discipline, knowledge and artistry are prerequisites. As Ximenes reminds anyone who might be tempted to dismiss monotypes as "quick and easy," the time required to make a monotype is the combined years of experience and knowledge of artist and printer . . . plus 2 hours. All of the techniques and elements of making monotypes--the amount of pressure from the press, types of inks and oils used, how they are applied, etc—require not luck, but tremendous skill, and make the result unique to this process.

As it turned out, Betty Sabo's skill as an artist outweighed her inexperience as a monotypist. The monotype was a success!

As a final note: collectors should be aware of the relative intrinsic worth of the contemporary works on paper loosely grouped as graphics: commercially produced posters which are photographically or mechanically printed are lowest in value; next in increasing value are the "original prints" such as silk screens/serigraphs, lithographs, etchings, collographs; next are the monoprints, each is part of a series but has unique elements; and of highest value, because each is unique, is the monotype. In terms of cost, the monotype fills the gap between lower-priced multiple prints and higher-priced original paintings on paper or canvas.

Special thanks to Betty Sabo, the late Frank Howell and Ricardo Ximenes.

By Pamela Michaelis, founder of The Collector's Guide and former host of “Gallery News” radio show on KHFM 95.5 remote, classical radio in Albuquerque.

Photographs courtesy of El Cerro Graphics, Los Lunas, New Mexico.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to the Albuquerque Metro Area - Volume 5

Related Pages

Contemporary Lithography article
Fine-art Etchings and Engravings article
Glossary of Prints and Original Graphics Terms article
Reproduction or Print — What's the Difference? article

Digital Fine Art article
The Tamarind Institute Goes Global article
Tamarind: A Dynamic Past — A Promising Future article
Works on / of Paper article

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