How to make monoprints using gel plates

Mono-printing with gel plates

Printmaking is probably my favourite artform, although there are a couple of very close seconds. As I embark on a 12 month-long printmaking course, I plan to share some information on the techniques I enjoy using, how you can make use of these yourself and, hopefully, some guidance on how to get great results. However in advance of that, just for you, I am going to start with mono-printing using gel plates.

This form of printmaking is often seen as a technique used by crafters (if you follow me you will know my views on the ridiculous separation in some peoples’ minds between art and crafts). If you love to make work which spans arts and crafts, go on YouTube and watch some of the many videos available. You won’t be disappointed. Artists can create fabulous results with this incredible, flexible method and I would like to focus more on this side of printmaking.

Gel plates, like all printmaking equipment, aren’t cheap and obviously the larger the plate the higher the price. If you have never done anything like this before but want to try, I would suggest you buy a plate around 8 x 6 inches, which will cost you anything from £10-£35 depending on the manufacturer/product you opt for. You can make your own plates and there are a variety of different recipes out there to go for, but they crumble pretty quickly and generally need to be kept in a fridge to prevent them from going mouldy.

A commercial product is made from a polymer or plastic material which is stable and safe to use, clean and store without any possible health effects. This is a point which is really worth considering if you want to let children use home-made plates unless you are simply going to make a plate and throw it away at the end of the day, in which case you may as well just buy one.

Products to use

I have seen many crafters using inks, ink pads and alcohol inks. I haven’t tried these methods, but they can produce amazing results and if you have these products already then you may as well start out using them.

When I teach this method to children (I have had pupils as young a three using gel plates), I tend to use fairly cheap acrylic paint. The cheaper acrylic paints tend to be more fluid and therefore easy to apply to and move around the gel plate. There are some really good cheap paints you can use and sometimes because of their transparent quality, they can be great for layering. I will come to that.

If you are an artist looking to include printmaking into your artwork you will no doubt want to use quality products. If you already have fluid acrylics, then they are great to use. I have had success with both Golden Fluid Acrylics and Liquitex Professional Soft Body Acrylics or as I used here, Liquitex Interactive Acrylics, but I am sure there are other brands which are equally good, and it is best to stick with a product you know and understand.

Normal full bodied professional acrylics can also work a treat, but you will probably need to add print medium to them to slow down the drying time and to thin out the paint, particularly during hot weather. The paints I tend to use are Caligo Safe Wash Relief Inks by Cranfield. This product is a professional quality oil-based ink which is designed to work with block printing methods, e.g. wood blocks or lino blocks/plates. You can use this product with lino, gel, and acetate plates to produce your prints. 

All the paints above can be easily cleaned up using wet wipes. If you are part of the growing trend of people who no longer want to use wet wipe type products, soap and water will do a great job even with the Caligo Inks as they are made using vegetable oils. Just avoid allowing the paints to dry on the plate.

Once dry, acrylic paint can be difficult to remove although using gel plates does make it a little easier as the flexibility of the material makes it possible to bend the surface of the plate so that the dried paint will peel off.

One of the benefits of using gel plates (provided you clean them up well after use), is that you can place them over a drawing or photograph and apply the paint onto the plate over the image. Remember though that, as with most printmaking methods, when you print your image, it will be reversed, i.e. a mirror image. So, if you want to use text you will need to write it backwards.

Applying paint

You don’t need to use very much paint with gel plates. In fact, using too much will leave you with a blotchy finish which doesn’t look great. It is best to apply paint in a thin layer using a roller/brayer. However, don’t feel restricted to using a roller/brayer. You can use a pallet knife, a paint brush, sponge brush, pieces of sponge or even don a pair of plastic or rubber gloves and apply the paint with your fingers. You can use all manner of methods; your only restriction is your imagination. Just have fun!

Once the paint is applied you will need to work fast as a thin layer of paint will dry fairly quickly. If you are having trouble with this, System Three produce a print medium which works brilliantly well and is not particularly expensive. I am sure there are other manufacturers of print medium, I simply haven’t used any others. There are some amazing stencils you can press onto the plate to print. You can lay a sheet of paper onto the gel plate and draw on the paper to obtain an image. You can paint a picture for printing. The world is your oyster.

A wonderful method is to lay flowers or leaves onto the plate and, placing a sheet of paper over the plate, rub with your hand to pull the colour onto the paper. You can then remove the vegetation and take a second print from what has been left behind on the plate.

Do ensure though, particularly if using flora and fauna on your gel plate, that there is nothing sharp which will damage the plate as you won’t be able to repair it.

Allow the print to dry, which only takes a short time depending on the thickness of the paint layers you have applied to the plate. To get good results add at least another layer of pressed images and different colours. You will see that the pieces I made to illustrate this blog, have many, many layers to create interest. Once dry you can also draw over them, paint on them or cut them up and use them for collage projects.

Finally, the paper. It is easy to print on most papers, and even on fabric, using gel plates. If you are looking to make prints to include in mixed media paintings, using different paper types will increase the interest in your final work. So, try photocopy paper, printing paper, card, tissue, and even plastic bags. It is always advisable to apply a final fix to your finished artwork, and you may need to use a thin coat of spray varnish before using a final finish. You will need to experiment, particularly if you are using any kind of plastic, to ensure that a painted varnish or wax finish doesn’t move any of the printed imagery.

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