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Behind the print: Maureen Sweeney on monoprints

Updated: Sep 22, 2021

Maureen’s vibrant prints draw on her experience as a painter and her fascination with the world around her. She uses monoprinting, screenprinting and mixed media to create expressive landscapes inspired by her travels. As she prepares for her featured artist show, she explains why she loves monoprints and how to make them – and you can even try it at home.

Part of Maureen's featured artist show at Greenwich Printmakers, showing her "Evening Light on the Thames" monoprint (bottom right)

What is a monoprint?

A monoprint is made by manipulating ink or paint on a surface and then taking a one-off print on paper from that surface. It’s very versatile. You can paint on a glass sheet, you can use a silkscreen or you can paint on a metal plate and put it through an etching press.

What do you like about making monoprints?

"Facing the White Cliffs of Dover", monoprint with pastel by Maureen Sweeney

I love monoprints. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You can end up with much more than you’re expecting or a total mess. You can mess around, change and adapt, add more to the surface, use the ghost print [a print made after a first print has been taken, so it is paler as there’s less ink on the surface], scratch into the inks or the plate. As long as your paper is registered properly, you can keep working into it. You’re given back a lot by the process, it’s very generous. And it always has that element of surprise. You don’t get that with painting, where you can see every brush stroke. It’s why I love print, really - it’s unexpected. Of course it can go terribly wrong and be frustrating as well.

I’m a painter as well and a large amount of my prints have elements of painting. Monoprinting is quite close to painting, but the inks or oil paints interact in a different way with the paper.

How do you make your monoprints?

You can make them in three ways. If I’m using a glass sheet, I use oil paint or printmaker’s ink. Register where the corners of the paper go – just lightly firm the paper over the glass with your hands. Then remove it and paint on to the glass sheet. Don’t put too much on or it will splodge (although that can be quite nice sometimes). Replace the paper and, using a polished pebble, a roller or a bamboo baren, systemically rub the back of the paper all over. Lift the edge of the paper tentatively and check what the pick-up of the ink or paint has been like. Then you can put it back down if you think you need to rub the paper a bit more. That method doesn’t give you a complete pick-up, but that can be quite lovely, almost like lithography. You can paint back into the ghost image on the glass and keep going.

You’re given back a lot by the process, it’s very generous. And it always has that element of surprise.

If you use a silkscreen, you have a screen with paper underneath it. Register the paper in case you want to keep working on it, and make sure the screen isn’t touching the paper. You can paint on the screen with inks or acrylic paint with mixing medium. Lower the screen on to the paper and use a squeegee to pull down. Don’t make it too heavy. Screenprint is more tolerant than the other two processes – you can really load the brush with paint and the more vigorously you paint, the better the image will be.

The last way is to use etching plates. Traditionally you use the back of old plates, but you can buy new ones if you want. Make sure the plate and the paper are registered on the press bed with masking tape or drawing the corners on formica or acetate so you can go back to it. Paint on to the plate with etching ink, put it face up on the press, and put the paper on top. Roll it through the press. With this method, you can scratch back into the ink, as I have with "Evening Light on the Thames", or even scratch into the plate itself.

"Road to the Moors", screenprint with watercolour by Maureen Sweeney

You often use other mediums with your prints as well.

Yes, you can add different mediums. The "White Cliffs of Dover" print is monoprint with pastel added to it. I’ve also been going through old sketchbooks, enlarging the sketches and transferring them to screens, and making line screenprints from them, which I colour with watercolours. "Road to the Sea" and "Road to the Moors" are both made in this way.

Part of Maureen's featured artist show at Greenwich Printmakers

You’ve also made a series of prints about graffiti. How did that come about?

There’s an area under the National Theatre on the South Bank in London that has been adapted for cycling and skateboarding and the graffiti artists moved in too. It’s like another theatre under the National Theatre. Everyone watches the cyclists and skateboarders doing tricks to see what will happen, and it’s all against this backdrop of graffiti. I’m in awe of their physical ability – cycling, jumping, interacting. I really like it, it’s like another performance is going on. I've done some prints of it and I have another one in mind I want to do. These are screenprints, working from photos I’ve taken. I take lots of photos when I go past.

Screenprint of graffiti inspired by the area under the National Theatre
"Southbank Graffiti", screenprint by Maureen Sweeney

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on a part monoprint, part screenprint in memory of someone close to me. I saw an image on TV of someone in water coming up, and I thought I just had to use that idea.

I’m also going to be doing some Japanese woodcuts with my teaching group because we’re going to see the Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum. I run a group teaching what they call “kitchen sink printing” because it’s stuff you can do at home. You don’t necessarily need all this expensive equipment, there are prints you can make without that.

Maureen’s featured artist exhibition runs from September 20-October 10, and her vibrant prints are available at the gallery all year round. For more information, visit her artist’s page.

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