Research Point: Printmakers who use Back-drawing

Research Point: Printmakers who use Back-drawing

Find some printmaking artists who use back drawing.  Examine how they use it and evaluate it. Does it work well? What can you learn from it?

I struggled to find anyone at first because printing is all new to me. I decided to have a look through some fellow students’ blogs to at least come up with some names and go from there. Funnily enough, once I found a way in, I began unearthing more artists by myself.

One of these was William Kentridge, a South African artist who makes monoprints, lino and wood block cuts and engraving, along with drawing and film making. He has a background in theatre sets which appears to have inspired his Pit series of monoprints. These entail images of three-sided set-like structures, (sets also known as pits apparently) with figures in a sort of tableau. Some of these appear to have back drawing and some not. However, the most striking series of monoprints which certainly seem to have copious amounts of back drawing is the Thinking Aloud series.  He doesn’t appear to have a website of his own, although is mentioned on many therefore I hope the image below is not infringing any copyright.

William Kentridge: Thinking Aloud, Limited Edition (with 3 Prints) , William KENTRIDGE, BREIDBACH, Angela - Rare & Contemporary Photography ...:

Thinking Aloud Monoprint by William Kentridge

The original monoprint appears to have been worked into in a progression of prints and developed further. This has produced a set of lively marks and become a tangle of scratchings and “thoughts” as the title implies. I think this puts across the message, culminates in illustrating the mass of thoughts a human brain produces yet keeps the base print image dominant. From this I can learn the freedom that this method and/or technique can give an artist yet still keep an anchor in the original.

Another artist, that although was mentioned by other students, I kept coming across in my searches was Paul Gauguin. I didn’t realise that he was known for his mono-types as well as his paintings, yet there seems to be many examples – I’m glad I’ve found some. The ones I found are mainly based on the Tahitian women.

Paul Gauguin, Crouching Tahitian woman, 1901 – 1902, traced monotype print. I think this artwork would go beautifully with Mid-Century.:

Paul Gauguin, Crouching Tahitian woman, 1901 – 1902, traced monotype print.

“Crouching Tahitian Woman” above is clearly back-drawn, with the outline defined and the dark tones of the shadows hatched. This may be considered a more traditional method and enhances the darkness of the shadows and adds some texture.

775px-Paul_Gauguin,_Eve_(The_Nightmare),_1899–1900_monotype.jpg (775×1023):

Eve (The Nightmare) 1899–1900 monotype by Paul Gauguin

“Eve (The Nightmare)” is a more complex example and works well to give the scene some menace. The colours are limited so the back drawing gives more definition to the subject and composition, assisting the viewer’s eye around the image. The back drawn marks work nicely with the softer monoprint textures to give variety of tone.

Some other artists I looked are Ann Symes and Pawel Kwiatkowksi of which examples can be viewed on my Pinterest board


Project 4: Textured and Combination Monoprints

27/04 – 01/05/16

Taking into account the opportunities for a different size and colour range in a single monoprint, this project allows you the freedom to create prints from your own subjects and imagination which combine two or more of the techniques you have already experienced.

Try to find four contrasting  subjects which will lend themselves to the different techniques… You can make several versions of the subject so that you have a selection to choose from before you send your work to your tutor.

Working through my ideas in my sketchbook helped clarify my subject’s potential for success and variety. This, together with sketches, notes and selection took a whole day and my process is detailed in my sketchbook – photos below:

Project 4 sketchbook and notes 1

Project 4 sketchbook and notes 1

Project 4 sketchbook and notes 2

Project 4 sketchbook and notes 2

Project 4 sketchbook and notes 3

Project 4 sketchbook and notes 3

Project 4 sketchbook and notes 4

Project 4 sketchbook and notes 4

As documented in my sketchbook, I finally decided to use the pot/vase/urn as the subject for my prints. Although a simple object, the creative treatment is unlimited.

Textured and Combination Monoprints – Still Life/Abstract

Printing plate and registration

Printing plate and registration


As I would need to make many layers of print for my experiments, I was keen to spend time on the registration of the prints to ensure success each time. The Monoprinting Handbook on the essential reading list suggests using graph paper, marking this for various paper sizes and placing the glass printing plate on top of this. I also marked the edges of the glass, as it can slide during the printing process, this ensures everything is returned to its right place before registering the paper again. This was all time-consuming but worth every second. Masking tape was also stuck beneath the plate at the top to secure the paper with each pull.



First print with back drawing - plate re-inked with yellow

First print with back drawing – plate re-inked with yellow



Beginning my first attempt, I tried some back drawing into yellow ink of rough leaf shapes. I was then going to use actual leaf masks to build up the texture, again in yellow.


First print with back drawing - leaves placed for textural natural masks

First print with back drawing – leaves placed for textural natural masks





At this point, I forgot to remove the leaves and use their impression, and instead, attempted to use them as a positive mask.  Whilst applying pressure, the fresh, green leaves bled into the paper and left unwanted leaf stains. I had to discard this paper and try again. Luckily, after preparing the new sheet of paper and removing the leaves, I noticed and remembered that I should be using the leaves’ impressions.



In the above gallery is the first pull on the fresh sheet of paper with the printing plate inked up with red and leaf masks placed ready for the next. To ensure that the leaves were pressed evenly into the ink, I laid a sheet of A3 newsprint over the plate and carefully applied pressure, revealing quite a nice print in itself. The next pull on the print paper revealed some lovely texture from the leaves in red over the yellow.


This was supposed to be the final piece, however, at the end I felt it didn’t have enough impact and I felt I had to experiment more with the shapes and printing paper.

Attempt 2 - beginning with pots rather than texture

Attempt 2 – beginning with pots rather than texture


This second attempt was going fairly well and then I noticed that the registration at the bottom of the image was going awry. I decided to abandon this and try again.


Following on from the second attempt - masks removed and a print taken

Following on from the second attempt – masks removed and a print taken

Although I did take another print with the masks removed which was really interesting, however, had begun with the brown, which I felt may dull any subsequent colours.


I did try overprinting with red and orange, however, I proved myself right regarding the colours.

Overprinted with some red and orange but would become muddy

Over-printed with some red and orange but would become muddy






My next thought was that I had omitted to try any other printing paper and had previously prepared an A2 sized piece of brown wrapping paper. It had been flattened under heavy books overnight as was from a roll, so it seemed a shame not to try it out.


Third real attempt at this project piece - A3 on A2 brown paper with some back drawing

Third real attempt at this project piece – A3 on A2 brown paper with some back drawing


Using the more matt side of the paper was interesting as it had a degree of absorbency and texture itself that the other papers didn’t. I have to admit to deepening the colours in the photo as it wasn’t showing up at all. The actual print is just a little less colour saturated but this is closer than the version that wasn’t enhanced. Rather than using any masked texture, I worked more back drawing into the image. Some, by drawing around the positive masks and some by inscribing patterns on the pots themselves eg trailing stems and leaves and geometric pattern. Again this was just not strong enough for the final project 4 piece, however attractive I found it.




I began the final version by taking a ghost print from the last inking of the brown paper print, with all masks removed. This worked surprisingly well, with the back-drawing coming out in reverse ie a white outline and included all the pattern I had drawn freehand. The colour was a pleasing mottled orange and this made a great start to this image. Unfortunately I was too carried away and forgot to photograph this clearly.


From all the experiments and previous attempts, many lessons were learnt. Some versions were pleasing but lacked boldness and strength. I tried to use bold and dark colour from the start, however, in a considered way. I think the final version has a good image, strength and balance of shapes, colour and tone. I do, however, prefer the first layout but felt I shouldn’t undo the good and begin again. I’m glad I did as this pushed me to increase my patience and consideration before ploughing on regardless.

Below are a few of the stepping stone prints taken:


Final Print for Project 4

Final Print for Project 4

It transpires that I totally misread the brief and I should have produced prints of four contrasting subjects not chosen just one from the four. Leaving myself just 2 days before the assignment was to be sent off to my tutor, after the initial panic, I decided to just get on with it. I had also not really considered the fourth subject so worked through ideas the previous evening to my marathon day of printing.

Textured and Combination Monoprints – Portrait

04 – 05/05/16

I decided to try to work on a portrait using the three primary colours to denote tones i.e. yellow for lights, red for mid-tones and blue for the darks, I could also use the white of the paper for the highlights which would be used sparingly as I would for a portrait painting. Using my sketchbook I drew the outlines and also the main planes of the face to give form. Using coloured pencils in the colours stated above I coloured the face, hair and hat as described. This seemed to work well in my sketchbook. To translate this in the print, I decided to paint onto the printing plate using a scaled up version of the portrait beneath the glass as a guide. Prior to this, I also took a tracing of the necessary lines as I was intended to back draw into the print to enhance the darkest shadows with black hatching.

I tried back drawing into the painted plate colours, however, this did not have much if any definition. I was concerned that if I covered the entire plate with black ink, that it would muddy the other colours and ruin the print. By wiping out the lightest areas of the plate, I was hoping to avoid this. The result, unfortunately, was not overly strong anyway. Looking at this print retrospectively, I feel that had I used the black over the entire the plate, I may have avoided the overly “Simpsonesque” appearance, and the black mottled ink would have given a more rugged image of the sitter. In the end, it looks like he is wearing some dodgy red spectacles and has severe jaundice! Again, had I had more time I would have learnt from this and adjusted my approach.

Project 4 - Portrait - painted plate and back drawing

Project 4 – Portrait – painted plate and back drawing


Textured and Combination Monoprints – Life Study

Project 4 sketchbook and notes 1

Project 4 sketchbook and notes 1


Luckily I had put a lot of effort into the preparatory work in my sketchbook and thought over many ways of working this through. I had initially thought of working just in black and white, with inking the plate, pulling out the highlights and working into it with back drawing. However, when I came to it, I decided to back draw from the outset and if necessary, then add painting to the plate for the next pull.



The first print taken with the back drawn figure was a nice loose drawing, however, there was nowhere really to go with it. Therefore, I decided to wipe out the plate to just show the darks and print that. This came out very nicely and I was encourage enough to ink the plate with yellow and draw back into the print. The drawing did not show up but the contrast of the black and yellow was very effective. I repeated the wiping out with red ink for the darks, this was very faint. As back drawing would not have worked here, I decided to define the red further by painting on the plate. This is quite nice but has lost a lot of the spontaneity of the earlier layers.  I worked into it a bit more and took another print but it didn’t improve it overall. It’s the outlining I don’t like although it didn’t really look that strong on the plate. I do however, like the hair and the hand has come out well

Whilst the red ink was still wet, I tried an over-print of the first back drawn pull – although again it didn’t really add anything. Looking at these two prints, I really struggled as to which one to select for assignment. The colour print sort of works but looks too contrived and there is no sense of the model’s environment other than the steps. The first one, however, has much more feeling and the model is integrated into the space much better. In the end I selected the colour print, purely because we were asked to produce a print of two or more combined methods, otherwise, it would have been the other one.

Project 4 Life Study Contender for Final

Project 4 Life Study Contender for Final

Project 4 Life Study Final

Project 4 Life Study Final


Textured and Combination Monoprints – Landscape

Project 4 sketchbook and notes 3

Project 4 sketchbook and notes 3

The last one of my marathon day! Again, I had done a lot of preparatory work for this and had decided to use a painting plate for the main landscape and a mask for the focal point of the tree. I had also mulled over tearing some handmade paper to use to mask the sky from the land, the layers of hedges and the pathway. This worked quite well, with the easily frayed edges of the paper giving a soft, organic edge. I tried to incorporate all the tricks of composition with a vanishing point, aerial perspective, rule of thirds with texture. Some worked well, some not so. The aerial perspective is really at the mercy of the printing process, with all that entails i.e., consistency of ink, drying times and paper absorbency. not to mention my embryonic skill level.

With the foreground, I felt that texture of the grass and stony path were important and so employed some natural and man-made masks to assist. I also played around with the sky a little, using a cotton bud and my fingers to add clouds with some purple/grey shadows. These worked quite nicely, but disappeared behind the tree in the end. The trickiest part was the tree itself, it would have been easier to use a negative mask but with all the criss-crossing branches, there would not have been a complete stencil. Mulling this over, whilst walking the dog, (along the very spot I was using for my subject), I thought the only way I could this would be to draw around a positive mask, transfer that to the printing plate using fresh paper and wipe out all of the negative shapes. This could then be printed onto the landscape print. This I did, with a little back drawing for texture. However, this was not as defined as I wanted. I then returned to the plate and painted into the tree, adding finer branches and twigs and the long shadows in a dark blue. When the paper was registered, I again worked quickly and loosely into the bark and branches.


This took a lot of careful thinking and planning before execution. I was really aware that it was now nearly 8pm and it had been an 11 hour day and that I was really tired. I had scrupulously checked my hands were clean before touching the paper and cleaned down edges all day.

On lifting the last pull of the landscape print, a big smile crossed my face – briefly! I’d not noticed the over-painting at the top edges and a few strokes of black ink had printed! I was so disappointed as, if this had not happened, I would have been thrilled with the result. (You have to bear in mind, I’m new at this so easily pleased!)

Project 4 Landscape - final print

Project 4 Landscape – final print

The photo is a little dark due to fading light.


Lessons Learnt

  • Once you’ve got the registration cracked, the creativity can flow
  • Clean down all edges – the one time you don’t will be the one that you can’t repeat
  • Read the brief properly
  • Prepare your work station properly makes for efficiency and speed

Project 3: Back-drawing



Another variation is back-drawing. This is where a design is impressed on the back of the paper, often with a pencil, after it has been laid over an inked printing plate. The result is a soft drawing where it is possible to achieve a considerable amount of detail.

Back drawn design on the reverse of the printed paper - A4 print on A3 cartridge paper

Back drawn design on the reverse of the printed paper – A4 print on A3 cartridge paper



I decided to create a positive and negative masked two colour print of the palm tree. I then lifted the paper, cleaned and re-inked the plate with black ink. Re-registering the paper I then used a positive mask to draw round the shape of the tree and then added smaller palms in silhouette to give an impression of distance as a back drawing.







Two coloured, positive and negative masked print with back drawing in black ink

Two coloured, positive and negative masked print with back drawing in black ink


The result of the back drawing showed a light print of the black ink in places. The outline of the tree was strong although, the silhouettes were a little subdued. I did not notice straight away, however, that the large palm tree back drawing was the reverse of the print. I had forgotten that the positive mask I drew around should have been turned over to match the print. Although, I must say, in retrospect I quite like the balance it gives the shape on the finished print. This is something to be aware of and remember if this method is repeated. It was a happy accident in this case though.





Palm tree and smaller trees - back drawing

Palm tree and smaller trees – back drawing


I tried again just using a fresh sheet of paper and black ink on the plate. The larger tree was again drawn from the outline of the positive mask, with a little detail added to the leaves and trunk. The smaller trees were drawn free hand with a few birds in flight for good measure. I kept this as a simple line drawing to see what the effect of the single ink colour would be.






Monochrome monoprint of back drawing palm trees

Monochrome monoprint of back drawing palm trees


I quite like this result as there is some random texture from the solidly inked plate that softens the outline made with a sharp pencil. I decided to leave this as is – less is more this time.








Back-drawing from Life

Now you are familiar with the back-drawing technique, try working on the spot by taking a prepared plate with you.

As it was, yet again, pouring with rain outside (not to mention sleet and hail stones) I decided to work from inside looking out of the French doors in to the garden. My apple tree must be the most drawn tree ever!

Back drawing from life - view from the French doors

Back drawing from life – view from the French doors


Going freehand with this one, I thought I would use textural marks as well as outline drawn in pencil.








Back drawn view from my window 1

Back drawn view from my window 1


Very disappointed when I lifted the paper! I admit I got a little carried away with the inks on this one. I tried to place the ink colours roughly in position all in one go. Consequently there is a gap in the middle and the free rollering has made it difficult to see the drawing. I’ll put that one down to experience!






Back drawing from life number two

Back drawing from life number two



In my second attempt, I moved the view along a little bit to the other side of the apple tree which was slightly less chaotic, yet still had some interesting textures.






Back drawn view from my window 2

Back drawn view from my window 2


This time I decided to follow the advice in the brief ie working with lighter inks first. I inked the printing plate with yellow, laid the print paper down and drew the previous design onto the paper. Unfortunately, I didn’t take a photo of this stage. It did work but was a little indistinct because of the colour. I wiped the plate and laid down some red. I re-registered the paper and traced over the original drawing for the foreground objects. Lifting the print, I thought it was worth re-drawing everything with varying pressures. This worked really nicely and I like the way the main objects are strong and the background is more faint as it should be. I also like the areas where unintentional pressure on the red ink has given the impression of extra foliage and leaves on the tree.



Back drawn view from my window 3 - loose drawing on A3 newsprint

Back drawn view from my window 3 – loose drawing on A3 newsprint



I thought I would try again on different paper from white cartridge and made a looser drawing on newsprint to see what the thinner paper would produce.







Back drawn view from my window 3 - A3 newsprint

Back drawn view from my window 3 – A3 newsprint




I actually re-used the print plate from the previous back drawing but replaced the print paper with the newsprint. The yellow ink has been lost in the previous print so just the red has printed. It is difficult to see in the photograph but in reality the previous back drawing may just be seen. With re-using the plate and using the thinner paper, the line is much finer and less deep in colour.





What is the quality of the line you have printed? 

As noted above.

Can you think of ways in which this method might be used for sketching or making spontaneous drawings?

I would think that this may be great as an under-drawing or painting to continue to be worked into – particular with pastel, either oil or chalk. I understand that Degas used a similar method as a base for many of his pastel paintings. I’m not sure I would necessarily think of this first to make spontaneous drawings due to the preparation required, however, it may be a great way of taking an image further into the unexpected.

Try another print of this type without re-inking your printing plate. Did you notice any change in the quality of the line?

See last print above.