Making Monotypes With Process Colors

Bad Hair Day, by Gail Ayres, 2003, 8 x 8. The background color was removed by wiping away color from each of the plates

The four primaries of commercial printing—yellow, magenta, cyan, and black—can create vivid monotypes.

by Julia Ayres
February, 2004 Printed in the February Issue of American Artist magazine

Commercial printers use the colors yellow, magenta, cyan, and black to achieve multiple hues. In the same way, artists can use these primaries in monotypes, employing a separate plate for each color. The layers create lively monotypes of vibrant color.

The necessary materials include Akua Intaglio inks, which are water-based and readily lend themselves to process-color layering. These inks print on dry paper, making them easy to work with in a home studio, without a press. The other important item is paper; my preference is Arches 88. It is a soft, absorbent, waterleaf paper with a smooth surface. Since paper expands when wet, a dry surface is a huge advantage when printing layers of color in registration.
Clear transparent plastic serves as a printing plate. Polycarbonate plastic about 1/16" thick is the most durable material. It is readily available in plastic-supply houses, where one can often request plates cut to size. I bevel the edges by running a slightly open pair of scissors around the sides. The scissor blades easily scrape away the sharp edges.

Once the plate is ready, the first step is to draw guidelines for the image on the back of the plate with a permanent felt-tip pen. The ink remains in place when washed with water, but I can remove it later with rubbing alcohol. At this point, I write "wrong side" in a corner to ensure I am working on the correct side, because the image will print in reverse. If "wrong side" reads correctly while I work, I am on the wrong side.

I remove the intaglio ink from its jar with a spatula and work it until smooth on a flat surface such as a plastic plate. Then I roll a brayer in the ink until there is a soft swishing sound, indicating it is evenly loaded with color. Next, I roll the ink on the plate by letting the brayer do the work. (Heavy pressure on the brayer tends to pick up ink.)

After applying a thin layer of yellow (Hansa yellow PY74) ink evenly on the plate, I remove the yellow where I want the final image to be white, magenta, purple, or blue. Areas left are to be yellow, orange, green, or brown. I use rags, brushes, tissues, and cotton swabs to manipulate or lift color from the plate.

Tempered plate glass is a convenient flat printing bed for the next step. I place the plate ink side up in registration with the guidelines under the glass, then I lay the dry paper in registration on the inked plate. I hinge the paper on one side to the glass press bed with low-tack tape.

I use a monotype PinPress to press the paper and plate together. Before this tool was developed, I used to rub the plate and paper together with a wad of cloth, pot scrubber, back of a spoon, rolling pin, brayer, or a block-printing baren. The advantage of the PinPress is that it is highly machined and rolls with even pressure. I pull a print from the plate by simply turning it back on the tape hinges.

After the yellow print is pulled, I wipe the plate clean with a cloth and remove the last traces of color with drops of water. Next, I apply magenta (crimson red PR170) ink on the plate surface. I remove areas that are to be white, yellow, green, or blue, and leave color where I want orange, magenta, purple, and brown shades. Then I put this plate in registration on the glass print bed, and turn the paper on its hinges to cover the inked surface. Now I can print the magenta plate on top of the yellow print. I pull back the paper still hinged for the next plate.

That next plate is cyan (phthalocyanine blue PB15). I wipe cyan from the white, orange, yellow, and magenta areas and leave it for the green, purple, blue, and brown passages. I print the cyan plate on top of the yellow and magenta print.

By now the monotype may be complete. If an artist has used equal intensities of the three colors, a black has been produced in the process. My darks in this phase are usually hues of brown, however.

A black (lamp black PBLK7) plate dropped on the yellow, magenta, and cyan print makes a true four-color-process print. The black subdues, darkens, or brings out the vibrancy of the colors, and at times, it ties the image together. The black may also be a calligraphic, instead of tonal, ink. Using Akua Kolor monotype inks, sometimes I draw black ink lines with a needle-tipped applicator. There are also felt-tip tools available for drawing monotype inks on the plate. Consider incorporating black from another printing process, such as from block prints, etchings, or lithographs.

Each time a color is printed, a residue of ink is left that may be printed a second time. This print is known as a ghost, or cognate. The ghost colors often produce a pleasing softer print. Moist paper sometimes works best for the ghost print because it removes the color left on the plate more completely.

Engineering a ghost print on moist paper requires planning. The paper must maintain the same moisture through the entire process, which is accomplished by having all the plates ready to be printed in fast sequence or by covering the paper with plastic between printings.

Edgar Degas sometimes developed his monotype prints with pastel on top, often using ghost prints. When I closely examine Degas' work, it shows a minimal use of pastel. The pastel strokes enhance the image, but the image still maintains the integrity of the monotype. In my experimentation with pastel, I've found that just a few lines greatly enhance some passages. I've also learned that smudging color can modulate certain areas. Most often, I build color with close parallel lines or crosshatched strokes.

Rubber stamps are useful tools for developing plates. Press the stamps into the wet ink on the plate surface to remove color. Make your own stamps from Speedball Speedy Stamp blocks. The inked stamp is printed on the plate or on top of the print.

Cut stencils are another option. Thin paper or plastic sheets used by draftsmen are fine materials for this method. They block ink from the plate when rolling color over them. Clean stencils placed and left on the inked plate surface will keep ink from reaching the paper.

Found shapes, such as grass, leaves, or pressed flowers, also work as stencils. In addition, threads, laces, and washers have created some fine effects. These objects are best pressed into the inked surface and then removed before hand-pressure printing. If the material remains on the plate during printing, it may leave a halo around the edges. A blanket on top of the paper during the printing process often corrects this problem.

Four-process-color plates are useful in other contemporary printmaking techniques. David Jay Reed demonstrated printing one process color on top of the other at the recent Southern Graphics Conference held in Boston. He worked with four plates, one for each color. His color separations and transparent positives were made on his computer and printed on four separate transparent sheets. Then he exposed each transparency to a photosensitive plate and developed it as an etching plate.

Reed inked the four etching plates with Akua Intaglio inks. He printed the yellow plate first, followed by magenta, cyan, and black. He pointed out that this sequence of color is the most satisfactory method of printing. It was exciting to see the image develop with each drop of plate color.

There might be as many ways to use process colors as there are artists using them. At times, an artist reinvents the color wheel to achieve desired effects. I especially look forward to the special moments when new and exciting colors emerge—this is the real magic in using process colors.

Julia Ayres teaches printmaking workshops nationally with her daughter, Gail. Her book, Monotype: Mediums and Methods for Painterly Printmaking (Watson-Guptill Publications, New York, New York), was recently released in paperback. Contact her by E-mail at


Bat Person, 2002, monotype, 12 x 9. The darks fro mthe yellow, magental, and blue plate most often produce shades of brown. Equal intensities of each color would result in black.








Blue Iris, 2003, monotype, 12 x 9. Collection the artist. Ayres used all four process colors for this piece. She enhanced the image further with strokes of pastel.






We Will Rebuild, by David Jay Reed, 2003, monotype, 12 x 16. Collection Gail Ayres. The proof print is an excellent example of an intaglio four-color-process print.






Winged Horse, by Gail Ayres, 2003, monotype, 30 x 22. Collection the artist. This is a color-process image of three colors.






Dogwood Blossoms, 2002, monotype, 8 x 10. Collection the artist. First, I printed a paper plate lithograph to create the black line drawing, then I printed three color plates on top.