Monotype Printing without a Press

monotype print of a woman in profile

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How to Print a Monotype without a Press

Monotype printmaking is the “painterly print” option. This printmaking process is accessible to everyone, and it doesn’t require sharp tools, carving lines into hard material, or using a printing press.

At its most basic, monotype prints are made by manipulating pigment into shapes on a smooth, flat surface, and then pressing printmaking paper onto the wet pigments to transfer the image from the plate to the paper.

You might ask why not just paint directly on the paper? You can do that, and it’ll be a marvelous painting. But I urge you to give monotype printmaking a try because the magic happens in the kiss between the plate and the paper. Read on…

Pulling a monotype print from a smooth, copper plate.

The Magic is in the Kiss of Pressure

Roll ink onto a smooth plate made from plexiglass, a sheet of metal, drafting film, Yupo paper, tin foil, plastic snipped from a produce container, a Gelli plate, or glass from a photo frame.

The magic will happen in the marks you make in the ink, and the way values and edges between boundaries in your design will all renovate during the transfer from plate to paper.

The pressure of pushing printmaking paper into the wet pigment – and the resulting compression marks, rubbed movement, and paper textures from that kiss of pressure will be a surprise every time you pull a new monotype.

You never know what you’ll get, and the reveal, as you pull the paper off the plate is thrilling. Pay attention to your heart-rate – because it will increase as you peel your paper from the plate to see what you’ve made.

Using a spoon and a pencil to combine two variations of ink transfer on a drawing transfer monotype print. (You can see the step-by-step photos of this print process over here.)

Training to Loosen Up Your Art

The surprise reveal of a monotype print has great lessons for all artists too. Especially if you suffer from white-knuckled attempts to control your art till it looks suffocated.

Making monotype prints will reward a controlled artist’s eyes with surprises you can’t foresee. The beauty that blossoms naturally from compressed pigments – without the donation of the artist’s noodling – are a wonder. The alluvial blooms of ink on paper will encourage you to lighten up. Loosen up. Don’t squeeze so hard. Quit trying to make a masterpiece.

Focus instead on fluffing your sense of wonder at what a little ink will do after you roll it onto a plate, manipulate it into a shape, and then press it into a good paper.

ink, a brayer, a sheet of plexiglass and some tools to make a monotype print
You can make a mountain of monotype prints with very basic tools: printmaking ink, a sheet of plexiglass, a brayer, a spoon, some tools to make marks in the ink, and printmaking paper. (Rubber gloves when handling ink is always a good idea, and a metal cork-backed ruler helps to tear the paper down to smaller sizes so you’ll get more from each sheet.)
This is my favorite baren. I’ve tried a bunch of them, and this one fits against my palm, does a great job on a print, and it’s made from a very old and wise tree by woodworker Ian Whyte in the UK. (Have a look at his wood-goods in his Etsy Shop.) If you don’t have a baren use a metal or a wooden spoon.
There are Teflon coated barens available for hand transfer printmaking, but I find them too soft, and too broad, which disperses the pressure across the width of the whole surface.
pulling a monotype print of a couple from a sheet of plexiglass
Pulling another monotype print, from a sheet of plexiglass, after transferring it to printmaking paper with my trusty wooden baren. (You can see more about this monotype in this post over here.)

When You’re Ready to Print

After you’ve manipulated your ink into a shape and design you’d like to see on paper, you’re ready to print.

Lay your printmaking paper gently onto the plate, centered so you’ll have an even margin of white space around the monotype. Lay one hand on the paper to hold it firmly in place on the plate, and with the other hand, begin rubbing the back of the paper with a spoon, or baren or some other pressure-inducing item.

Hold your paper in place (no moving at all) and begin rubbing the back of the paper, so it makes contact with all your precious mark-making in the ink.
This simple tool – a rubber brayer – will give you a nice, even, thin coat of ink on the surface of your plate. By starting with a smooth, even coat of unmarred ink, your marks in the pigment have a chance to stand out and shine as the center of attention in your prints. And as you work, your brayer will act as your eraser too, like this.
dark field monotype
Rolling printmaking ink out on a smooth plexiglass plate (like this one). The brayer will give you a nice, thin, smooth, even coat of ink to start your monotype print.
Pulling a super fast, painterly dark field monotype print using leftover ink…

Making a Monotype on the Fly

One of the things to keep in mind related to printing a monotype like the ones in this post is to Keep it Simple. If you think of the set up and supplies as all sorts of complicated and messy, you’ll talk yourself out of getting started.

Here are some tips to make your monotype printing time most worthwhile:

  • Using your printmaking plate as a guide, pre-tear your paper down. (I like to leave 1/2 to 1 inch of paper around the plate.) Have a stack of paper ready to go. You’ll use the same printmaking plate over and over again (hopefully, for years) for monotypes, so none of your pre-torn paper will be wasted.
  • Print plenty of reference images from your photos in black and white, at about the same size as your printmaking plate.
  • Set a pile of mark-making items out: cotton swabs, a pencil eraser, a ruler, pastel stomps, paper towels, stiff paintbrushes, etc.
  • If you need a little boost in the category of drawing, slide your reference photo under your plexiglass plate, and use a water-soluble crayon to trace your reference image onto the plate, and then roll your ink nice and thin over your drawing. You should be able to see your drawing as a guide underneath the ink.
  • When you make a monotype, work *fast*. Don’t fiddle around with accuracy, or lots of little details. The pressure of the paper on the ink will likely obliterate them. Go fast, and make 4 to 8 monotypes in one sitting.
  • Even if each of your monotypes comes out wonky (like mine did below) you can have a party with them later by adding colored pencil.
Pushing inks around, super fast, with no attention to the details, beyond general shapes and lights and darks. Wonky figure, but fear not! Colored pencil to the rescue!
While applying colored pencil to the monotype print, I left areas where the ink relayed acceptable values and mark-making, and focused my layering of color on areas that required adjustment or details.
Sibling Prattle – 6×5 monotype print with colored pencil (Available in my Etsy Shop)
Did you ever try standing on a monotype print to transfer it from plate to paper? In this photo, I transferred a drypoint with my body weight. (More on printing with the stomp method over here.)
a pasta machine used as a printing press
You can also print a monotype with a pasta maker. Have you followed the printmaking shenanigans over on Robin Ezra and Annie Day’s Printmaking Sisters blog?
pulling a monotype print
Another drawing transfer (also called trace monotype) print, on textured paper, printed from an inked sheet of drafting mylar used as a printing plate. (More details on this process can be found here.)

Small Craft Press Alternatives

Many printmakers wish they had a press to make collagraphs. If you work small, and you’re looking for alternatives to the size and expense of a traditional press, I hope you know about all the ingenious press “hacks” happening in the print world with embossing machines.

Have a look at this excellent little printmaking demo (below) by printmaker Robin Ezra of Printmaking Sisters. You can see more informative demos on the Vimeo page where she and her sister Annie Day share printmaking hacks. The little Sunlit embosser she’s using (below) can be found here on Amazon.

Robin Ezra demonstrates printing an intaglio print with the Sunlit Embosser (<—-see it on Amazon here.) This can be used to print drypoint, etchings, monotypes and collagraphs.
This is another brand of embossing machine that’s also popular with printmakers – The Size Big Shot Plus (<—available here.)

Make a Monotype Print

I hope you’ll dive in and give monotype printmaking a twirl.

Here is a playlist of demo videos on my YouTube channel with monotype print tips, tricks, and supplies listed with links in each video’s Show More section.

If you have any questions, leave them here in the comments or over on YouTube. Q&A about art-making always helps the folks who come after you, when they read through the comments.

Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you in the next post!


P.S. Watch Dan Tirels make monotype portraits without a press, ink, or a brayer, using recycled chip bags, a rag, and oil paint.

Art Quote

We have eyes, and we’re looking at stuff all the time, all day long. And I just think that whatever our eyes touch should be beautiful, tasteful, appealing, and important.

Eric Carle
a cat asking the question: Are You Missing Your Art Supplies?
Visit this free online mini-course – Six Tips to Paint More

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4 thoughts on “Monotype Printing without a Press”

  1. Jeanine Robb

    Hey Belinda, you are just so inspiring! I had forgotten about my Big Shot as being a nice little printing press. In fact, I had written an article for Cloth Paper Scissors magazine back in the day for the Sept/Oct 2013 issue entitled “Watercolor Monoprinting. Turn a die-cut machine into a printing press.” It’s so fun re-purposing equipment on hand for new art activity! Anyway, I so enjoy your newsletter. Thanks for your continuous generous sharing of techniques! See you on IG 🙂

    1. Hi Jeanine! I had no idea you were a print-hacker! But I shouldn’t be surprised one bit! Is the article you wrote still available online? Is there a link to it? I’d love to read it and share it with other folks looking for tips and tricks to make prints more affordably and in a smaller format.

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