By Thom Wright Dec 2020
After about ten years of learning to draw the figure, and after seven years of learning the “monotype” printmaking process, I challenged myself in 2002 to do a series of figurative based monotypes. It is a particular challenge in that each work is a single, multi-colored monotype that is made in a couple of hours, with all the layers assembled and printed at one time.
My theme came from a human interest article in the “Calendar” section of the L A Times, about a semi-famous Hollywood producer and his wife of twenty-something-years marriage having a break up. There was a single photograph with the article of the couple sitting together in their back yard in a braided hammock hung between two large oak trees; their body language with each facing a little away from the other said much about their feelings and incipient alienation. Personally, I have not had that experience, but like it says in the movies, “In movies we vicariously experience dramas outside of our own world”. That photo, I decided, would be my starting point and inspiration for a series of monotypes.
My approach to making monotypes usually relies on including cutout shapes, using all kinds of materials, such as cutouts from paper, manilla folders, flowers, leaves, cloth, plastic sheets, string, and anything flat enough to be inked and added to a printing plate and be rolled all-together through my printing press. Cutouts contribute to the two-dimensional flatness of the design as well. So although I also do direct-drawing on the plate and the additive materials, there is a rather simple, straight-ahead process of rolling and brushing inks additively, and of modifying edges, lines, and areas with scrapers, brushes, cotton swabs, and the like for subtractive techniques. For example, by rolling a single color of ink onto a paper cutout (stencil) or rolling onto the plate inside the mask, and it can then be further modified with additive and subtractive (erasing) techniques to make a more expressive element.
With this introduction, I continue with presenting this series of monotypes with a short description of the composition for each. The discussion of three monotypes provides insight into the variations of composition with the same theme.
In the image above, printed on a light-brown colored paper, I show two red-orange figures seated apart on a hammock, with each facing away slightly, but leaning towards each other. Their shared color connects the two and stands out against the soft greens, blue-greens and browns of the background. He has his arms and hands together in a gesture of isolation, while she has a dark, hidden face, with one arm touching him and the other lying on her leg. Even though there are some drawing lines and softening textures on their bodies, there is a readable tension between them. And with these minimal detail figures, less is more.
On either side of the central pair, there are their duplicates (zeitgeists) in opposite tones and textures, like alter-ego shadows of themselves looking on to this scene. Notice too how the patterned textures in the hammock, trees above and low garden walls below complement the line drawing in the figures.
The duplicate figures are copies with almost the same posture, but now with darker values and more masking textures that express separation. Overall, there is a simple and balanced composition, with a light entry path leading to the two central figures from the bottom. The upper background is kept simple, diffuse and with more organic textures that repeat the patterns for movement
For the sake of simplicity and unity, I constructed low retaining walls for these outer figures to sit on. It also functions as visual forces pushing the two central figures together, which increases the tension at the center. So not much is being verbally expressed, but the visual forces and body language tell the story. And by these simple but effective constructions, the mysterious “dialogue” is gesturally conveyed.
In the second monotype shown above, the same color scheme and light-brown paper are used, but with more figures and a different design. The central figures are made using stencils, while the outer figures are made using masks. In a way, the additional figures express additional states of both their togetherness and separation, and suggest a fading of the central figures’ relationship. It also serves visually to make a strong, horizontal rhythm of shapes across the central area. These outer figures have less line drawing as well that somewhat occludes their meaning.
The central figures now are seated on a rectilinear grid rather than on a hammock. The grid becomes the key to the more rectilinear red-orange shape below on the left side and moving to the center. Behind the figures there is a diagonal grid of lines suggesting a fence, and made with a plastic-bag material that is used in packaging oranges. Notice too that on the right side the grid lays over middle values of blue-green and creates a light-valued pattern, while on the left side the grid lies over a light-valued area which was then ink-rolled with the blue-green to make a dark-patterned grid. The two side areas then have a figure/ground ambiguity and approach a similarity and unity of the two side areas. Just below the outer figures on both sides, the blue-green ground has been wiped away with brushy strokes to provide another patterning and a left/right similarity of light horizontal areas.
In the upper section of the scene, the trees are more textured and make a converging set of diagonals leading to the central figures. Abstractly, the trees are dynamic movements and are pointing to the central figures. The lower part of the composition is more stable with static shapes, so the diagonals gain more emphasis.
In my third monotype shown above, which actually is the first one of the series, there are three pairs of figures – The central couple who stand out with the most drawing marks, the red and black figures on opposite sides, and the outer figures that are barely viewable. The central couple are seated again on a rectilinear black grid that extends behind and partially into the tree behind them. The figures collectively have duplicates acting as before with the heightened drama of the set.
It is interesting how the four central figures relate to each other, with similar body positions, but radically different colors. The red female is on the opposite side of the lower green ground shape that horizontally moves to the central base. The green and blue ground shapes complement the red and orange figures. The upper area is now a brushy sky to contrast with the browns of the tree trunks and the abstract diagonal brown pattern in the center area. Their striking dynamic patterns stand in contrast to the stationary seated figures, and they suggest more turmoil than meets the eye in this scene.
In summary, these three monotypes offer a variety of compositions with variations that all contribute nuances to the theme of the central figures and their dilemma of their future. To learn more about how the construction of the scene amplifies the meaning of the work, I would recommend exploring Rembrandt’s many Biblical line drawings, a true master’s touch.