What the Ink Knows or What Is Monotype? 

The Takach etching press sits sleek and shining in the garage, like a beautifully engineered sports car. There’s a big wheel, and I steer the press into places not marked on any map.

But I don’t use the press for etching, and the 1921 garage isn’t a garage anymore.

I use the press to make monotypes, and the garage is a studio patched with plywood, ceiling to floor. I like it. French doors open onto the garden, a skylight is cut into its crumbling shingles, and one small but very pretty window, inserted recently into its north side, offers a rectangular-framed view of a small grape arbor.

Monotype is a painterly way of making prints. One applies etching ink to a matrix — I use plexiglass — with a roller, called in printmaking a brayer. The inked plate is set on the bed of the press, paper is carefully set on top of the plate (although I can be sloppy about this), and the felt blankets of the press are folded down over the whole operation. The wheel (of fortune, really) is turned, the heavy platen applies pressure onto the paper and plate, and the press bed moves.

In monotype, the resulting print is an original work of art because, unlike etching, lithography, and silkscreen, only one print is possible: there is no repeating it. If the plate still has enough ink on it, one may print it again, making a “ghost.” It is truly a ghost of the first print, not a replica.

The artist can play around with both these prints in many ways — but they cannot be reproduced.

I mean, these days a monotype could be scanned and digitally replicated, but this is not ethical and would subvert the process. No self-respecting printmaker would do it. A monotype is considered a “one-off” work of art.

There’s a lot of freedom playing with ink on thin plastic: many ways to apply it, many ways of moving it around, of adding and subtracting. I’ve used oil-based inks and water-based inks of numerous manufacture, and then discovered Charbonnel’s oil-based inks and that was it. I dream about its smooth texture, those stunning colors.

But the reason I love monotype is that it’s a process open to chance. Every day I can learn from it about the properties of the ink, and the surface of the plexi, and the chemicals I use to thin ink, or not, and the pressure settings of the press, and so on, but in the end, serendipity is always my printing partner.

That’s why monotype is called a “painterly” process. One’s skills (or lack of them) aren’t in control, and for that I’m grateful.

Recently someone asked me why I didn’t learn how to etch. The idea of scratching all those marks on metal horrifies me. Monotype is movement in the moment. This appeals to me, especially as someone who has spent thirty years writing — the equivalent of making tiny scratches on a copper plate.

Writing, at least the way I practice it, is a futile exercise in attaining perfection.

Monotype, now, is freedom.

And that silky French ink always knows something I don’t.