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September, 2006

Painterly Prints: Monotypes from a Gelatin Plate
by Amanda Gordon

Gelatin print, by Amanda Gordon
Gelatin print, by Amanda Gordon.

When I first learned about gelatin printmaking, I had recently finished graduate school and was looking for a low-tech, non-toxic form of printmaking that I could do in my small apartment. Making monotypes (one-of-a-kind prints) using unflavored, edible gelatin as a printing surface was the perfect solution. This versatile process requires no press and uses water-soluble inks, such as water-based block printing or monotype inks, and paints, such as gouache, tempera, and watercolor. Now that I am pregnant and nontoxic materials are a "must," I especially appreciate this fun and flexible process.

While results of gelatin monotypes can mimic a variety of printmaking techniques, the gelatin possesses its own unique characteristics, lending itself to extensive experimentation.
by Amanda Gordon by Amanda Gordon
Gelatin prints, by Amanda Gordon.

First, to create the gelatin plate, you will need two tablespoons of unflavored gelatin for each cup of water and a container—either a shallow baking tin with ropes of non-drying modeling clay around the interior edge or a plexiglass sheet with edges built up with clay. Tins are easy to transport if you need to do so and they generally don't have leaks, but they leave indentations on the bottom side of the gelatin. The plexiglass will yield gelatin with two flat, workable sides, but you must check very carefully for leaks in your clay dams before pouring the hot gelatin. Unflavored gelatin is available in small packets at grocery stores and is sold in bulk as a dietary supplement by health food suppliers. You will be using a higher concentration of gelatin than the package instructions indicate to make the plate firm and resilient. The consistency will be more like "Knox blox" or "Jello jigglers." Plan to make a plate that is about 1⁄2" thick.

Boil half the water you will need and keep the other half cool. Slowly stir the gelatin powder into the cool water, being careful that the gelatin doesn't clump. Then, slowly stir the gelatin solution into the hot water until it is dissolved. Pour the solution into your container, which should be on a level surface. Sweep out any bubbles with paper scraps. Generally, the gelatin will harden without being refrigerated, but its life will be extended if you refrigerate it, and if you are working without air conditioning in the hot summer, refrigeration is necessary. The gelatin will be firm and ready to use in a few hours. Remove the clay edges. If your gelatin is in a tin pan, remove it and place it on a flat, non-absorbent surface, such as plexiglass. The gelatin plate can be cleaned with a damp paper towel between prints. It can last 3 to 5 days, but will eventually need to be thrown away. Never put gelatin down the drain, or it will clog the pipes.
by Amanda 			Gordon by Amanda Gordon
Gelatin prints, by Amanda Gordon.

Many of the techniques used in traditional monotypes are possible using gelatin as the printing surface. Ink can be applied to the gelatin in a positive manner, using brushes and brayers to develop the image. The image can also be developed in a negative manner, rolling up the plate and removing the unwanted ink for a "white line" image. One great advantage of using a gelatin plate, rather than plexiglass or metal, is that ink can be transferred fairly evenly with very little pressure. Simply place a dry sheet of paper on top of the inked plate and run your hand over the back to ensure full contact. The gelatin seems to have a natural suction to it, and ink transfers quickly and easily.

Gelatin is an excellent material for transferring textures from found materials, and a high level of detail can be captured. First, roll up the plate with ink. The ink should contrast with your paper in order to bring out the most detail, so avoid light colored inks if you are printing on white paper. On the inked plate, place relatively flat objects with interesting textures, such as feathers, leaves, or lace. Blot excess ink with newsprint using light pressure, or print to achieve a silhouette image. Then, remove the found materials, leaving their imprint in the ink. The texture will appear in your monotype.
by Amanda Gordon by Amanda Gordon
Gelatin prints, by Amanda Gordon.

The gelatin plate can even be used for a variation on intaglio printing. Create a drypoint image using an etching needle to scratch a design into a plexiglass plate. Ink the plate and wipe it in the intaglio method, cleaning the surface of the plate while forcing ink into the grooves. Place the freshly wiped drypoint plate face down on the gelatin to transfer the ink. Remove the plexiglass, and the image will be on the gelatin, ready to print. Because you transfer the ink to gelatin before finally printing it on paper, the final image will have the same orientation as your original design in the plexiglass, rather than a mirror image. While the gelatin "intaglio" process is less direct than a traditional drypoint, the method allows you to get a fine line image when working without a press.

Some of the most interesting results come from overprinting, layering multiple techniques in a single print. Masking tape or a makeshift wood frame can mark registration. Often, I will begin with a ghost print, using leftover ink on the plate from a previous print, or a flat application of color, making layering a part of the image from the beginning. As the image develops and some areas become complete, they can be blocked out with a homemade stencil of heavy cardstock or mylar, and you can continue developing your image on the uncovered areas of the plate. Stencils can also be used to develop the design elements in your print. You can cut your own stencil shapes, or even incorporate store-bought stencils into your prints.

Similarly, as you finish working with part of the plate, you can cut away unwanted areas using an X-acto knife or a disposable plastic knife. Gelatin can even be used as a material for relief printing, cutting away unwanted areas to develop the design. Gelatin is faster and easier to cut than wood or linoleum, but once it is cut, it must be handled carefully, and it won't stand up to editioning.
Gelatin print, by Amanda Gordon
Gelatin print, by Amanda Gordon.

Gelatin monotypes are so versatile that they can resemble traditional printmaking techniques, but what makes the process really exciting are the surprises that come with using such an unusual material. The gelatin gets slippery with ink, resulting in painterly, fluid-looking prints, rather than very precise ones. Also, as you continue to work with the gelatin, it starts to give off moisture, which mixes in with the inks, adding fluidity and translucency. While the plate can be cleaned and used several times, it will eventually start to break down. After much use, it can crack, crumble, and develop texture, all of which will appear in your prints. These irregularities that appear in your prints, will hopefully add surprise and interest, and possibly push your imagery into a new, unexpected direction. The gelatin monotype process is best approached with a spirit of experimentation: challenge yourself to be as flexible as the material and enjoy!

For more information on gelatin printmaking, check out Nancy Marcuewicz's book Making Monotypes Using a Gelatin Plate, which has wonderful illustrations and step-by-step instructions on these and other techniques. Also please email the author at with any questions or to receive information on her upcoming gelatin monotype workshops.

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