Saturday, October 15, 2016

Demo | Pastel Monoprint as Underpainting

By Michael Chesley Johnson

Prints offer many possibilities for the painter. The print can be considered a road map to guide the application of color. A print with solid darks can add strength to the design of the finished work. Color used in a print can enhance a painting in much the same way as an underpainting. Finally, having several copies of a print allows you to try a variety of solutions for a finished work—all starting from the same point but with the potential to arrive at very different places.

A monoprint can be one of a series of prints pulled from a carved block. With each pull, a different color, medium or way of applying the medium may be used. Although each type of print is unique, they share in common the carved design.

One method of creating a monoprint is to brush onto a carved block many colors of ink and to pull a colored print that serves as an underpainting for pastel. The beauty of this method is, if you like your design, you can wipe the block clean, apply different colors and then pull a print that’ll have the same design but a different color harmony. Once pastel is applied, each print will yield a unique finished painting.

Find two pastel monotype demonstrations by Michael Chesley Johnson in the December 2016 issue of Pastel Journal, available now in print and as a digital download.

Pastel Monoprint as Underpainting Demo


Speedball Deluxe Block Printing Kit:
Water-soluble block printing inks, black (3500), ink extender (3449), red (3401), blue (3402), yellow (3405)
Inking plate
Lino handle and cutters (#1, #2, #3, #5, #6)
4-inch soft rubber brayer
Speedball Speedy Carve 6½x11-inch block
Silver Brush Grand Prix No. 4 natural bristle flat brush
Dick Blick domestic etching paper
Unison “Landscape” set of 36 pastels


pastel monoprint demo 1 by Michael Chesley Johnson | pastel monoprint

1. Following a photo reference, I use a 2B graphite pencil to outline the simple shapes of sky, mountain, field and snow on a Speedball Speedy Carve block.


pastel monoprint demo 2 by Michael Chesley Johnson | pastel monoprint

2. I want to keep the sky and snow areas white so I can later apply tints in pastel without any of the dulling that might occur by layering against a darker ink. To do this, I use my widest cutting tool to carve out these areas. I make sure to carve deeply enough to remove ridges so they won’t pick up ink.


pastel monoprint demo 3 by Michael Chesley Johnson | pastel monoprint

3. Within some of my large, uncut shapes, there will be some smaller shapes that have the same value as the surrounding larger shapes. So I can remember where these smaller shapes are, I use a felt-tip permanent marker to outline them. Next, I use my narrowest tool to cut a groove over these outlines, just in case the permanent marker proves less than permanent.


pastel monoprint demo 4 by Michael Chesley Johnson | pastel monoprint

4. Before pulling color prints, I first need to pull a test print in black to make sure I don’t need to carve out more areas. In an ink tray, I spread out water-soluble black ink evenly with a brayer.


pastel monoprint demo 5 by Michael Chesley Johnson | pastel monoprint

5. Next, I roll the brayer over my block, taking care to spread the ink evenly and thinly.


pastel monoprint demo 6 by Michael Chesley Johnson | pastel monoprint

6. I gently lay a sheet of etching paper over the block and rub the back of it thoroughly with a wooden spoon, applying firm, even pressure to make sure the paper picks up the ink. Etching paper (or the equivalent, printmaking paper) must be used because this paper doesn’t buckle when wetted. Rather than a spoon, I also could have used a brayer, as I do in a later step. A baren is another type of tool that can be used in this step.


pastel monoprint demo 7 by Michael Chesley Johnson | pastel monoprint

7. I check my inking job by carefully peeling away the paper to make sure the ink has taken. If it hasn’t, I can lay it gently back in place and make another pass with the spoon.


pastel monoprint demo 8 by Michael Chesley Johnson | pastel monoprint

8. Here is the test print next to the block. The print, of course, shows a reverse image of the original block.


pastel monoprint demo 9 by Michael Chesley Johnson | pastel monoprint

9. Now I move to color. For this, rather than a brayer, I use a synthetic bristle flat. I mix colors on a sheet of palette paper to approximate what I see in my photo. I use red and blue for the shadow areas, yellow and red for the sunlit ones. I use an ink extender plus a little water to make the ink thin enough to brush on. (If a more transparent color is needed, I can use more extender.)


pastel monoprint demo 9a by Michael Chesley Johnson | pastel monoprint

10. Here is the block, fully inked.


pastel monoprint demo 9b by Michael Chesley Johnson | pastel monoprint

11. I lay a fresh sheet of etching paper on the block and use a clean brayer to apply pressure. (I could have used the spoon instead.) I pull several prints this way, cleaning the block between each pull and varying the color mixtures. In some of the later prints, I let the brush strokes show through or wipe away passages with a paper towel, lightening areas. In this image, you can see the variety of colors and effects I achieved with each print. Because each print is different because of color and ink application but shares the same carved design, these are considered monoprints.


pastel monoprint demo 9c by Michael Chesley Johnson | pastel monoprint

12. I decide to use this print for my pastel painting. Although any of the prints could be used, I choose this one because it comes closest to my vision of what the finished painting might look like. It has more muted, natural colors and feels more like the scene as I remember it when taking the reference photo.


pastel monoprint demo 9d by Michael Chesley Johnson | pastel monoprint

13. To start, I use water with a small brush to very gently work over the white, uninked outlines of the major shapes. These had been a guide when inking, but they would be a distraction when painting. I also don’t want them to stand out in the finished work.


pastel monoprint demo 9da by Michael Chesley Johnson | pastel monoprint

14. One needs to remember that the printed image will be the reverse of what’s on the block and in the reference photo. To help with the next step, I took my photo and reversed it for viewing on my tablet while painting. This helps avoid the mental gymnastics of transferring left and right while painting.


pastel monoprint demo 9e by Michael Chesley Johnson | pastel monoprint

15. Moving to pastel, I start with the sky, darkening it a little with blue, which I modify with a cool green.


pastel monoprint demo 9f by Michael Chesley Johnson | pastel monoprint

16. I continue with the sunlit shapes, applying light, warmer colors to them: distant rock face, sunlit passages on nearby rocks, grassy foreground. For the sunlit snow, I apply my lightest tint of cool yellow.


pastel monoprint demo 9g by Michael Chesley Johnson | pastel monoprint

17. I apply my first layer to the dark areas: blues, greens and browns. As I work these initial layers, I use a very light touch so as to not cover up the ink. I want the print to guide me for value, and I also want some of the brushwork evident in the print to remain. This is the finished first layer of pastel. By the way, I discovered that the etching paper had enough tooth after printing for applying several layers of pastel without using fixative.


pastel monoprint demo 9h by Michael Chesley Johnson | pastel monoprint

18. Next, I take my darkest brown pastel and punch in my dark accents.


pastel monoprint demo 9i by Michael Chesley Johnson | pastel monoprint

19. Here is the painting after the addition of dark accents.


Snowy Canyon (colored ink monoprint followed by pastel, 6½x9) by Michael Chesley Johnson | pastel monoprint

Snowy Canyon (colored ink monoprint followed by pastel, 6½x9) by Michael Chesley Johnson

To finish, I continue with the next layers, making adjustments here and there, especially focusing on creating a sense of space and depth. Again, I try to leave some of the initial print showing through.


Michael Chesley Johnson is a longtime writer for Pastel Journal, popular workshop instructor and author of the new book, Outdoor Study to Studio: Take Your Plein Air Paintings to the Next Level (2015). His five art instruction videos are available at


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