In the world of printmaking, monotypes stand alone. Unlike etchings, lithographs, screenprints or engravings, they exist not in editions but rather as unique works of art. Put simply, where an etching plate produces several identical works, a monotype substrate creates just one.
Described as a hybrid between printing and painting, monotypes have an alluring aura – sites of experimentation, they invite spontaneity in a way other printmaking methods avoid. From figurative artist Charles Blackman to abstractionist John Peart, the fruit of this method never looks the same. Discovered by accident and celebratory of accident, monotypes are serendipities for artists and collectors.
"For a man as meticulous as Degas, the monotype opened a door to spontaneity."
– Ariella Budwick in her review of MoMa's 'Edgar Degas: Strange Beauty', an exhibition of Degas's monotypes.
Degas's 'Three Ballet Dancers' (top), 'Forest in the Mountains' (left) and 'Heads of a Man and a Woman' (right) – three monotypes featured in 'Edgar Degas: Strange Beauty'. One reviewer called the monotype among the most radical of mediums, with each work professing an intimacy reminiscent of literature.
The Difference Between a Monotype and Monoprint
While often used interchangeably, there is a difference between monotypes and monoprints. A monotype is a single print pulled from a clean, unworked surface – that is, a plate that has not been etched or engraved in any way. The artist simply paints onto the plate then pulls their monotype.
A monoprint on the other hand, is a print that includes both a painted or drawn aspect and an already worked or textured surface. Think of an engraved linocut plate with washes of paint. If the artist goes to pull multiple editions from this plate, they will likely all differ because how paint interacts with paper is never uniform. The engraved design however, will remain constant.
Charles Blackman - 'Barbara' (c. 1953)
The Medium is the Message
Monotypes date back to the 15th century when Hercules Seghers who, without knowing the term for it, used printmaking to capture singular images. A century later, historian Samuel van Hoostraten called these happy accidents “printed painting”. Across subsequent generations, the most acclaimed artists came to the medium: Rembrandt, Degas, William Blake, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gaugain, Picasso, Jasper Johns and even Tracey Emin.
Charles Blackman - 'Barbara' (c. 1953)
All these Blackman monotypes are artisanally box framed using museum grade materials.
In 1950s Australia, a young Charles Blackman followed suit. Flushed with success from his Schoolgirl series, he was eager to, as his son Auguste put it, “push boundaries”. Enter the monotype. Having learned about ink and paper from his time at the Herald Sun Newspaper art department, his early monotypes represent some of his first forays in fine art printmaking.
Despite being only in his twenties, Charles already had a distinct visual language. A melding of the universal and personal, his characters were at once captivating and withheld, inspired by people from his real life. The two ‘Barbara’s depict his then wife and muse Barbara Blackman, who would later be immortalized as Alice in Charles’s Alice in Wonderland series. The other portraits are likely friends or self-portraits.
“His work progressed at an alarming rate. Always drawing, always trying new approaches.”
– Auguste Blackman on his father in the early 1950s.
There are visual qualities here that are native to the monotype - a transparency and spectrum of texture, reminiscent of the difference between a calloused palm and your inner arm - that are enriched by subject matter. Not only unique, early and emblematic of Blackman’s talent, these works are intimate portrayals of friends, lovers and the self.
Spontaneity Meets Process
Despite allowing more spontaneity than other printmaking methods, monotypes are still process driven. Between paper and paint after all, sits another step – the plate – which shifts the practice from pure freeform, to an exercise in trial and error.
In his monotypes, John Peart invites forth both serendipity and rhythm. Art historian Daniel Thomas once reflected on this, stating:
“Rhythm, resonance, echo, flow, continuity: Rhythm, resonance, echo, flow, continuity; the qualities of music are the qualities of Peart’s [work].”
They go beyond the paper’s edge, claiming space in the minds of all who view them.
Despite being psychological images, Peart’s monotypes recall landscapes. Thick thatching lines evoke shrubs, shimmering colours appear like light on water and plots of dark red against a pale wash remind one of an ant’s nests. In all, experimentation leads – a curiosity that is core what made Peart such a respected figure in Australian abstraction.
John Peart - 'Reflection XX' (1986)
He was featured in the landmark 1968 exhibition ‘The Field’, won the Wynne Prize in 1997 and the Sulman Prize in 2000, the same year he was finalist for the Archibald.
Rather than distinct bodies of work, the monotype exists more commonly in an artist’s oeuvre as a diversion – a way for them to experiment, hone their style and break new ground. This curious meeting of the technical and innovative courses through Blackman and Peart’s monotypes. They are off the beaten track; an adventure in their own right.
For collectors of important Australian art, prints or those seeking something genuinely new, these monotypes are the serendipities for you.