“Say, it’s only a paper moon
Sailing over a cardboard sea”
-A Paper Moon, Billy Rose/ E.Y.Harburg/Harold Arlen
Color is an integral component of all art. We regularly talk of “color” when describing sounds in music, for example.
But in talking color in art, we often forget the two colors that are not considered colors at all: black and white. Managing black and white in ink on paper composition is at the very core of composing good prints.
For one thing, there is the subtractive nature of light in printmaking. As with any sort of color involving pigment, the addition of the pigment subtracts various wavelengths of light from those being reflected back to the eye. Unlike additive color such as projected light, where addition of more color eventually results in bright white, in subtractive color, you tend toward black. And in the thin applications of ink under pressure inherent in printmaking, it’s not possible to completely cover most inks. The most white space, and thus light, you will ever see in a print is in the blank piece of paper you tear before printing anything. Everything thing you do from then on only reduces the amount of light in your composition.
It’s also true to a certain extent, of watercolor, though many water colorists can cover with Chinese white ink, or gouache in their paintings to bring back the white areas. There is a very nice show of Charles Burchfield pictures at the Denver Art Museum now where you can find wonderful examples of that. Print makers can certainly add opaque water media such as acrylic paint or even pastel to a print, making it a hand colored print, but in its essence as something run through a press and thus presented as something graphic and in some way repeatable (monotypes are not strictly repeatable, though a ghost can be made, which has very unique advantages in itself, explained here). So white is a valuable visual resource in the print room. And in managing the sorts of positive/negative relationships that bold graphics and dynamic compositions often depend on, it is indispensable.
Its material opposite and spiritual twin is black. While both can evoke a void or an infinity, and each bring definition to shape, as in chiaroscuro, only black can be physically applied in a pure state in printing. And it cannot be taken away. White is just the opposite, and thus becomes almost sculptural. It is fun to work with white inks, but even “opaque” white does not cover nearly as well as black. The best example of this is in scratchboard-style composing such as seen in the monotypes of Castiglione, their inventor, who recently had a show at the DAM.
It thus becomes very important in monotype printmaking to be “present”. One must have a good sense of where the light in a given composition is “coming from” and where it is going. Transitions from white to black and from positive to negative space create compositional movement and intrigue. This is true in any medium, of course, but in print media it cannot be corrected, and must be planned for. A monotype can be layered with great subtlety, tones shifting almost miraculously into hues as complex as many oil paintings, but the white slips away with each run as relentlessly as melting snow. It’s true whether the composition is abstract or realistic, hard-edged or gestural, baroque or minimal.
So having a sense of balance and proportion is vital, even if balance is accomplished with one shining burst of light in the darkness. In the most poetic sense, the two need each other, as the Bible, and artists from Rembrandt to Escher to Motherwell remind us. Because that bit of light may be where your viewer’s eyes enter your picture. And the finest pin prick may be where they move after that, and how they are led through your composition, searching and constellating as with stars on a dark night. Eyes bring light to the synapses, and their movement is analogous to interest and engagement in the viewer. Grays and blacks can be compelling and dynamic, and a dark composition can create real mystery but there is a danger of busy-ness or a visual claustrophobia when there is too much of a grayness in a print, and if there is real depth or motion in your monotype, a bright graphic electricity, the chances are that the white is shining through somewhere like a big paper moon.