Surface Design: Monoprinting, Patterns, and More

Learn surface design techniques for printing, stamping, and pattern design.

monoprinting

Playing with objects and printed layers will result in prints that range from soft and dreamy to bold and dramatic.

Photo courtesy Quarry Books

Content Tools

Courtney Cerruti’s Playing with Surface Design: Modern Techniques for Painting, Stamping, Printing and More (Quarry Books, 2015), is a practical resource that can teach you many creative styles of surface design. She provides detailed instructions on how to make creative art projects with techniques that can be used across all mediums. The following excerpts are from “Monoprinting: Gelatin;” “Study in Circles: Tea Towels;” and “Sand and Sea Notecards.”

Monoprinting: Gelatin

Monoprints are prints that are unique in their creation. Impressions or prints are made one at a time and often include more painterly methods of image making than other types of printmaking. You can make a print from almost any surface, creating an image by painting, rolling ink over collages, or by creating textures and impressions on the surface of a printing plate. Once you’ve created a painted or inked image, you press paper to the printing surface and pull a print.

There are many ways to make monoprints. My favorite way is using gelatin because the effect is unmistakable. Rolling ink on the slick surface of a slab of gelatin, laying objects into the wet paint, and pulling a print is magic every time. The unexpected beauty in every print incites an insatiable curiosity that can only be cured with an afternoon of printing.

What I love about gelatin is that the plate stays moist throughout the entire printing process. The effect leaves you with a print that is more watercolor-like than any other method. It is hard to reproduce that painterly effect using other materials. You can use a similar process to pull prints from a silicone plate, such as a Gelli plate, but it will result in bolder prints. The printing methods in this book will work well on other surfaces (including a Gelli plate), but I urge you to try the gelatin at least once. It is simply unexpected and beautiful, and how often can you use Jell-o as an art material?

Types of Printing Materials

Botanicals are ideal for creating texture and imagery. Vines, leaves, petals, and ferns can be combined to create images that are both bold and graphic or soft and feathery, depending on how you print them. Look for plant life that is fresh and flexible and without thorns or sharp edges. Chunky, woody, or dried items can gouge the surface of the gelatin causing skips and unprinted spots on your final prints.

Fibers, Feathers, and Fabric

String, yarn, and ropes can create fluid, organic lines as well as delicate details and texture. Fabrics with open or large weaves work well for creating texture and pattern. Feathers make a lovely print! As you print, a feather will change its shape and texture from the ink giving you varying results every time.

Foam, Plastic, and Paper Shapes

You can create your own shapes using cardstock or craft foam. Take a walk down the kids’ aisle of your local craft store and you’ll find dozens of geometric shapes and objects made from brightly colored foam. These foam shapes are an easy way to create graphic lines and patterns. You can also cut paper to create shapes that will leave a negative space in the printing. Do be careful when cutting sharp shapes in cardstock as they can dig into the gelatin surface.

You can also find textured sheets of foam in the kids’ crafting aisle. These sheets can be pressed onto the inked gelatin to create an even pattern of lines, dots, squiggles, and more. In addition to craft supplies, check out garage sales or dollar stores for plastic doilies, placemats, and other interesting textures.

Gelatin prints are easy and quick to make, and you can use most papers to pull a good-looking print. Using hot-press watercolor papers and printmaking papers will give you clean, saturated images. Using textured papers will result in more textured prints. You can also use copy paper to pull a print. The heavy-bodied papers will usually behave better and lay flat, but you can also weight prints made on inexpensive papers that tend to curl under a heavy stack of books once the prints are dry.

Inks

Water-based printing inks are ideal for printing on gelatin. Printing inks are heavier bodied than acrylic paints. They roll out nicely (the sound of rolling ink is amazing!) and give an even, consistent, saturated layer of color. Best of all, printing inks clean up easily with water. You might be tempted to use acrylic paints, but they are hard to roll evenly and apply to the gelatin surface. Gelatin creates a soft, slippery surface which results in watercoloresque prints. The combination of the wet surface of the gelatin and the thick ink will result in a soft layer of color. You can buy water-based printing inks in tubes or in pots. If you’re using inks in pots, an old credit card or palette knife is handy for applying ink.

Even though your printing surface might only be 9 x 12 inches (23 x 30.5 cm) you can still make larger prints. It’s helpful if the gelatin comes close to the top of your container to avoid crumpling your paper while printing. Don’t be afraid to try printing larger papers on a smaller printing surface.

Materials

  • Unflavored gelatin: I use Knox brand. You’ll need four packets for each printing plate.
  • Cookie sheet or 9 x 12-inch (23 x 30.5 cm) baking dish: It is important to use a clean container without any residue.
  • Water-based printing inks: Start with a light, medium, and dark color to test various printing techniques. Yellow, red, and blue are a good choices, and the addition of black makes for high-contrast, dramatic prints.
  • Brayers: One dedicated for each color of ink.
  • Nonporous surface for rolling up inks: I use a rigid sheet of acrylic, but you could also use a clean cookie sheet, a metal counter, or a thick plate of glass.
  • Flat, textural objects for creating prints and patterns: Items such as paper doilies, dollar-store lace placemats, leaves, yarn, twine, feathers, petals, and cut paper shapes work well. Avoid items that have sharp, thick edges as they will cut into the gelatin and degrade the printing surface rapidly.

STEP 1   Make gelatin printing plate

For an average-size cookie sheet, make a batch of unflavored, color-free gelatin using four (2½ teaspoons, or 7 g) packets. Read the manufacturer’s directions on how to make the gelatin; it’s usually a 1:1 ratio of packet of gelatin to 2 cups (470 ml) of water.

Pour the gelatin into the cookie sheet or baking dish, and transfer to the fridge. If the lip of your cookie sheet is shallow or the gelatin is very close to the rim of your dish, place the empty sheet into the refrigerator FIRST then pour in the gelatin. I’ve dumped entire trays of gelatin into the back of the fridge and onto the floor!

When stirring or pouring the gelatin, if you create a lot of bubbles, use a plain sheet of copy paper and gently drag it across the surface to pull the bubbles to the edge of the tray. Allow the gelatin to harden for about an hour—then it’s ready to use for printing.

STEP 2   Set up your printing area

Squeeze a 3-inch (7.6 cm) line of ink onto your ink-rolling station. You can mix colors directly on your inking surface. Using a credit card, mix colors by working the ink back and forth, scooping it up and squeegeeing across in a 3-inch (7.6 cm) line until the colors are thoroughly mixed. You can repeat this for all the colors you plan to print with, or use the colors straight out of the tube as-is. If your printing surface only allows for you to roll up one color at a time, start with the lightest color then clean up using your credit card, water, and a paper towel.

Once all your colors are laid out, you’ll want to spread the ink evenly for printing. Using your brayer, roll the ink down from your 3-inch (7.6 cm) line. It feels natural to just roll the brayer back and forth, but you actually want to pick the brayer up and let it spin every time you get to the bottom of the line of ink you just pulled. This will allow the ink to distribute evenly.

STEP 3   Applying ink to gelatin

Once your brayer is nicely inked, roll a layer of ink onto the gelatin surface. I usually start with my lightest color and print dozens of pages in the first color. Roll the brayer back and forth until you see color appear on the plate. The ink will not be as saturated on the gelatin as it is on the ink surface. Sometimes you’ll need to make several passes with the brayer to get a good coat of ink, especially if you’re using the gelatin plate for the first time.

STEP 4   Placing objects

This is the fun part—now you get to compose your image! Using the materials you’ve gathered, place the objects onto the gelatin plate. Lightly place objects onto the surface of the gelatin. You don’t need to press them; you’ll do that when you pull the print. Once you place something down, don’t lift it up again because it’s already made an impression in the ink. Start with smaller, textured or overall patterns initially. Doilies, fabric, or nets (the ones oranges or onions are packaged in) work well for this initial layer.

STEP 5   Pulling first & Second prints

With all your objects in place, carefully lay a sheet of paper. Gently press the entire paper being careful to press around all your objects. The larger the objects the more space there is between the paper and the inked surface, this gap will leave white spaces that won’t print if you don’t press evenly. Thoroughly press the paper so you get a clean and clear impression. Carefully pull back your paper to reveal your first print!

The first print will be bold and bright with negative space where your objects were. Carefully remove the objects and pull your second print with a fresh sheet of paper, again making sure to press lightly. The second print will be soft and full of subtle texture. Second prints often look like fossils, especially when working with botanicals.

After every pulling of a print you’ll need to re-ink the surface of your gelatin.

It works best to pull numerous prints in this first color run. Go ahead and print, re-inking after your first and second printing, until you’ve used up all of your rolled ink or when you’re ready to play with a new color. You’ll notice that pulling a print also cleans the surface of the gelatin. If you’re working with paper that is smaller than your plate, you can use extra sheets of paper to pull up the additional color that was left behind.

Use a single sheet of paper to pull up all the unused ink, placing paper in sections over the surface of the gelatin until all of the ink is removed. I love the way these pages create edges, stripes, or little vignette frames on a page that can be used for additional printing, collage, or even as a matte to frame a photograph.

STEP 6  Switching colors

To switch ink colors, simply roll out a new color on the gelatin. If you are using a small ink-rolling surface, you can change out your colors by cleaning the ink up with water and a paper towel. Rinse and dry your brayer thoroughly before rolling up a new color.

For the second pass at printing, switch to a new color ink. Repeat pulling first and second prints with this new color, printing on top of all the pages you printed in the first print run. The more contrast you have between print runs, the bolder your prints will be. Prints that are too soft and feathery can be livened by using printing objects that have beautiful and large shapes (such as leaves). Pump up the contrast even further by printing a final layer with an indigo or black ink.

You can do any number of print runs, switching colors each time. I often will do one or two colors and then if I’m still needing more punch, finish with a darker layer of ink for the final print run.

After a while your gelatin surface will start to degrade. This will happen sooner if you use sharp or rigid objects that cut into the surface of your gelatin. Any place you get a cut or mar will result in an un-inked and, therefore, unprinted space in your final print; I call these “skips.” Eventually little chunks of gelatin may start to pull up as you roll ink. You can keep printing away and be creative with your composition and layering prints. The great thing about this happening is now you can be even more experimental and adventurous. Feel free to start layering on heavy or even spiky objects to see how they’ll print—things such as keys, bike gears, chain, or thick plants can make really awesome images and now is the time to use them!

STEP 7   Clean up

Thoroughly clean the brayers with water and allow them to dry before storing them. Excess ink on the printing surface can be scraped up with a credit card and any residue washed away with water and a paper towel. Sometimes you can pull the slab of gelatin out from its container in one motion. Feel free to use your fingers and really dig into the gelatin and scoop it out (This will really delight your inner child!).

The nature of this printing process uses very little ink—your prints will be dry almost immediately after they are pulled. You can stack prints and weight them after your print session if any of your pages are warped or curled.

Troubleshooting

If ink isn’t sticking to gelatin when working on a fresh plate or a plate you’ve been using for a while you may feel like ink isn’t sticking to the surface of the gelatin. You can use a spray bottle of water to lightly wet the surface and pull a clean print to refresh the plate. The rolled ink may start to dry on the ink-rolling surface. If you already have an ample amount of ink, then refresh what you have with a light spray of water. Incorporate the ink and water by rerolling the brayer, and then try re-inking the surface of the gelatin plate.

Study in Circles: Tea Towels

Soft circles and dots in primary colors add the perfect pattern to any cotton tea towel. A set of these make a great gift and pair perfectly with a favorite recipe or cookbook.

Materials

  • Yellow Owl Workshop ink pads or fabric-safe ink pads
  • Bubble Wrap
  • Cotton tea towels
  • Iron

STEP 1

Using Bubble Wrap allows you to create a pattern of circles with soft edges. The cotton tea towels further add to the soft and subtle beauty of this print. Try playing with color combinations or overlapping prints for a variation. Change the pattern within the Bubble Wrap by selectively popping bubbles.

STEP 2

Tap the inkpad over the surface of the Bubble Wrap until well inked. This may require two passes.

STEP 3

Carefully place the Bubble Wrap face down into the blank tea towel and press. I like to print right to the edge, so you may want to work on newsprint or other  protected surface.

STEP 4

Repeat steps one and two to create a continuous print. Play with alignment, leaving blank space or popping bubbles for various effects.

STEP 5

For permanence and washability, heat-set the ink per the manufacturer's instructions. When done printing, rinse the Bubble Wrap of any ink residue and save for future projects.

Note: When changing ink colors, make sure to rinse and thoroughly dry the Bubble Wrap before re-inking.

Using ink pads and Bubble Wrap creates quick, lovely monoprints. Printing on paper will yield bolder, brighter prints while printing on fabric results in softer prints. Using Bubble Wrap creates structure by limiting the motif to circles or dots to create your patterns, allowing you to focus on color choice, material, and placement. Bubble Wrap monoprints have clean, finished designs, but they are also great for creating backgrounds for other printing and collage work.

Sand and Sea Notecards

Using just two bands of colors, these simple painted marks evoke a landscape almost immediately. Paint something in just a few minutes without even breaking out the palette and brushes.

Materials

  • Set of flat notecards and coordinating envelopes (I’m using White and Pool from Paper Source in an A7 size)
  • Acrylic paint in two sea colors (indigo blue and aqua green) and one sand color (blush)
  • Credit card

STEP 1

Dip the credit card into the sand-color paint on one side of the edge of the credit card.

Dip the other side into the sea-color paint. Be sure the paint covers the entire edge of the card. Otherwise, you’ll have a white strip down the middle of the pattern.

STEP 2

With the credit card loaded with paint, gently press and drag the credit card down one-quarter to one-third of the edge of the notecard. If you didn’t load up the credit card with enough paint, don’t worry. Just reload and go over your painted edge. Play with how saturated the color is and how the pattern is created by varying the amount of paint and the amount of pressure you impose when you drag the card down the side of the notecard.

STEP 3

Repeat steps 1 and 2 for each card. You can use two or three colors at once, or switch up how you pair your paints. The notecards will be ready to use in minutes because acrylic dries quickly and you are applying a thin coat of paint.


Reprinted with permission from Playing with Surface Design: Modern Techniques for Painting, Stamping, Printing, and More by Courtney Cerruti and published by Quarry Books, 2015.