Create Your Own Tarot Images with Monoprinting
Tarot’s history and that of printmaking are intricately linked. Playing cards were introduced into Europe in the late 14th century around the same time Guttenberg introduced the printing press. The earliest Marseilles style decks were reproduced from woodcuts. Some authors have argued that early printmakers were unaware of the symbolic implications of tarots. I disagree. Harold Bayley’s 1912 study The Lost Language of Symbolism (available in reissue from Dover Publications) explores paper watermarks and printers’ chopmarks. Any tarot enthusiast perusing that exhaustive study will recognize many of these symbols are incorporated into both historic and modern tarots. As members of professional guilds, it seems likely that printers would have been at least acquainted what these symbols meant. In many cases they themselves created them.
As a traditional printmaker, I want to keep the tradition of printmaking and tarot alive. For many the prospect of hand-printing one’s own tarots seems daunting. To practice traditional printmaking one needs education and access to a printmaking studio with expensive equipment, inks and chemicals. However, there are many printmaking techniques that one can do at home with inexpensive supplies and no printmaking proficiency.
I want to introduce you to gelatin monoprinting. It is termed monoprint because each print will be unique, even though it is wrought from the same matrix and materials. A monotype stands as a one of a kind print. There are not multiples made during the print run. With a little planning you can produce long print runs. In this article, I will explain some basic techniques, and examine how I used this technique to produce editions for The Hanged Man and the Devil.
First, lets start with your printmaking support, the gelatin plate. You have two options, buy a synthetic one such as a Gelli Arts Gel Printing Plate, or make one yourself.
Each has advantages. A synthetic plate has a long life, is easily portable, and requires no prep time. They come in a variety of sizes and cost between 12 and 65 dollars. Homemade plates can be any size you wish and can be cut to odd shapes. They record fine organic details such as vein patterns in leaves or insect wings better than their synthetic counterpart. They can break during use, and have a life of roughly 4 to 7 days and must be refrigerated between uses.
To make one, all you need is unflavored gelatin, a tray, pie-tin or deep cookie sheet and water. Mix the gelatin with a small amount of cold water. The amount should be at a ratio of double the amount of gelatin to water recommended. For instance, if instructions indicate one packet to one cup of water, use two per cup. Determine the amount of water you will need by filling your tray so that the water is roughly one half inch high. Measure the amount. Once you have mixed the gelatin and water, add it to the rest of the water in a pot, stir gently and heat until it just starts to boil. Remove from heat. Rest for a minute and add the mix to the tray. Refrigerate until the gelatin is firm and you are ready to start printing. (Most people remove the plate from the tray, but this is only necessary if it is too awkward to work around the tray’s constraint.)
Additionally, you will need:
Textural objects such as textured papers, fabric, meshes, plants, feathers etc. to make your impressions.
A waterbased paint or ink (In both examples I used inexpensive craft paints that you can pick up in most craft stores. They work fine. As your practice expands, you may wish to use professional grade acrylic paints and inks. The only reason for doing so initially is for metallic colors and solid blacks. Less expensive ones simply do not print in this media very clearly. Also Cranfield-Caligo Safewash Relief inks render fine organic details on synthetic better than others.)
Paper. For practice standard typing or construction paper will suffice. However, if you intend to exhibit or sell your work, please use an archival grade paper. You will find different papers give unique results. Experiment.
A brayer, some foam sponges, some brushes, and perhaps a barren.
A spray bottle filled with water and some paper towels.
Set up your working area.
Setting Up Your Work Area
1. Position your gelatin support. I like to place a drawing under it for positioning objects. If your printing paper is bigger than a plate also put a sheet of newsprint under the plate with four cross-hair registration marks.
2. Organize objects you will imprint.
3. Set up your printing inks/paints. An advantage of this technique is that it is easy to experiment with different colors on the different layers on the print. One rule is that you do not want to mix complimentary colors on the same layer as they will mix and give you a muddy brown.
4. Have a water spritzer, your brayer and paper towels handy.
Place a small amount of paint on the plate. I usually dab a couple drops of retarder on the plate and spread it across the surface with a damp paper towel first.
Brayer your paints (you may use more than one) across the surface until you have a translucent film. Using too much paint gives you a muddy image and oversaturates your paper.
Place your objects on the plate and gently impress them. You have the option to leave flat objects such as textured papers, leaves or netting on the plate when printing. (You can remove the object and then make a second impression or print.) You may use a paper stencil to block out areas from printing.
Remove unwanted objects and place the paper on the plate. Smooth it with your hand or barren. When all of the paper is in contact with the plate and pull your impression.
Spray water on the plate and wipe off excess paint/ink with a paper towel and get ready for your next impression.
For the Hanged Man I pulled the print with a single impression. I inked the plate (homemade gelatin) and placed plants across it. I removed the plants and impressed an old lino block of the hanged man figure inked with a dark gold block printing ink. The gelatin plate broke after the first impression. The break occurred at precisely the correct position for the pole from which the figure is suspended, so I joined the two pieces of the broken matrix together, and the edges of the lino block left just the right impression for the two supports. The process went very quickly, and I was able to pull more than twenty-five prints.
In the second part of this article, Eric K. Lerner will explore using a variation of this technique to create a monoprint series, Fifteen faces of the Devil.