NEW YORK—Nestled away from the perpetual sound and fury of the city, a quiet kind of partying was going on in a historic brownstone in the heart of Greenwich Village. Artists chitchatted, talking shop, while the smooth hand cranking of a printing press went on all evening long.
At the Salmagundi Club‘s monthly Monotype Party, everyone makes unique prints by removing ink from a metal or plexiglass plate. It’s an inviting atmosphere attracting young and old, novices and famous artists.
“Monotype means one of a kind. It kind of levels the playing field,” said Robert W. Pillsbury, a painter/printmaker and president of the club.
The pool tables in the club’s lower gallery and bar were covered with black cloth to create space for the monotypes to dry, one after another. The tobacco-like smell of the French ink mixed with oil lingered in the air.
“We are all pool players and then Bob got us involved into making prints. I love it!” said Ed Brennan, past president and chairman of the board emeritus.
Retirees finally paying heed to their artistic calling, artists in their 20s visiting the city for the summer, renowned illustrators, and artists known for their work in other mediums joined in the mix of 25 people on July 12.
Cathy Prior from Richfield, Connecticut, drove to New York just for the Monotype Party. “This is like a community of kindred spirits. You have people from all walks of life, from all kinds of backgrounds,” she said.
Pillsbury gave a 15-minute demonstration for the newbies. “Get a nice even coating on the plate. You don’t want the ink to be too thick, because if there’s too much ink when you run your drawing through the press, your lines will squeeze and distort. And then it becomes like a Rorschach test,” he said.
After finishing his little landscape demo, he let out a, “Okay, so roll some ink, and let’s go!”
Meanwhile Art Cochrane, a man in a striped shirt at the far end of the gallery discretely hovered over his plate. His main medium is pastels. This was his third time at the party.
“It’s trial and error, I don’t have any training, but I want to play. I’m going to experiment tonight; we’ll see what happens,” said Cochrane, a retired nurse.
The charm of the monotype is how it defies the main advantage of other printmaking types, like etching or engraving. Instead of a permanently carved plate producing multiple prints, only one print is created from the monotype’s clean plate.
Among printmaking methods, the monotype is most painterly and more surprising than painting itself. The artist can never fully gauge how the paper will absorb the ink. That’s the fun of it—the exploration on the plate and the discovery on the paper.
The print can look quite different from how it initially looked on the plate. By default, the artist has to let go of any attachment to the result and enjoy the creative process.
“With monotype, you have to take away and rebuild it. It’s not something you can gloss over as easily,” said Betsy Arvidson, a printmaker who has shown her work in various collections internationally.
“Too many times I’ve worked too long on something and then the ink dries out and that’s heartbreaking. And then there are times when you think it isn’t that good but you print it anyway. After putting it through the press, pulling the blankets off, and then pulling the paper off the plate—it’s a whole ceremony—you look and then you gasp, ‘Oh, oh, this is wonderful!’ It’s very exciting,” Arvidson said.
She admitted it’s also a matter of persistence and getting rid of a lot of duds. “Most of the things you do may not be 100 percent what you want. You have to make friends with your piece. Deal with what you have there, and make it the best you can,” she added.
A retired art historian, Annie Shaver-Crandell was drawing a vineyard from a photo she took in France for nearly an hour, risking letting the ink dry too much.
“I will lose my margin probably in about half an hour,” she said. “It’s one of these things where you just have to be not too attached to the consequences.”
The Monotype Parties are rarely the same, except for a smaller group of regulars who help wet the paper, keep the press running smoothly, and give advice to newcomers.
One of the regulars, the artist and illustrator Patricia Wynne, who did all the illustrations for the newly renovated hall of mammals at the Museum of Natural History, among countless other projects, has been to the Monotype Party at least 20 times.
“When we started, most of us had never done it before. The learning curve was incredible. It was so interesting and everybody would ask everybody else, ‘What are you doing? How do you do that? Did you use this? What did you do there?’ And we all fed off of each other. It was a really great experience, and it continues.
“A lot of these people have never seen a press run through and have never seen a print in the making. It’s always magic, and they are always surprised it comes out backwards!” Wynne said smiling.
At the end of the evening, Cochrane stopped hovering over his plate and cheerfully showed his landscape monotype. “There it is!” he said. “I didn’t get those hills quite right. Anyway, the sky is a little bit more interesting than I thought it would be. It’s encouraging. I’m not totally pleased with it, but I see signs of hope.”
Bringing Back the Press
The Monotype Party tradition started at the Salmagundi in 1888, coming to a full stop when the club sold its press after the stock market crash of 1929.
Pillsbury had read in the archives of the club that members would have dinner, and after clearing the empty dinner plates from the table, would hand out metal plates for printing. They would print all night, pick the best one of the evening, and put it on display in the club.
“All of these were from that same process,” Pillsbury said, pointing all around the walls of the Salmagundi bar, where monotypes from the monthly parties are displayed.
Pillsbury decided to resurrect the creative fest about six years ago when he was vice president, before becoming Salmagundi’s 50th president three years ago. In a way, the Monotype Party never really stopped despite its 80-year hiatus.
“I’m always a believer of no accidents. I’m a printmaker and a painter and have the skills to be able to easily put this together. So we did a fundraiser and raised the money to buy the first press, a Charles Brand, from another organization that was closing down its program, and here we are,” Pillsbury said with a big smile.
One of the club members, Fran Romano, was moving to Florida and donated the second press to the club. He transported the press to the club in his wife’s pickup truck and put it back together again at Salmagundi.
The Monotype Party is such a favorite among Salmagundi members and non-members alike that the club will host an “All Day Monotype Madness!” party on Aug. 9 from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. The monotype mini-marathon is open to experienced printmakers and novices. And for hydration, the bar opens at noon.
A materials fee of $20 members/$30 non-members will be charged to cover the cost of paper, ink, plates, and so on. Call 212-255-7740 or email [email protected] to sign up.