Wendy Orville: The art of monotype

In her art, she creates the undeniably familiar forms of trees, clouds, reeds, water and pilings with near photorealistic accuracy — while also presenting these forms in a manner that makes them seem as if they were images torn from a lucid dream or some nearly-forgotten memory.

In her life, Wendy Orville is a monotype artist whose work has been featured at numerous galleries, including Bainbridge’s Roby King Gallery, Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, and Davidson Galleries in Seattle.

Monotype is done by rolling ink onto a transparent plate, then wiping away or adding ink to create an image. The plate is then rolled through a press, against a sheet of paper and thus the image is transferred. This process produces only one image as the ink becomes distorted — a result of the pressing process — thus each finished monotype print is a one-of-a-kind work of art.

Orville has been working in this medium for 25 years and uses the skills she has learned through trial and error to guide budding monotype artists in the finer points of the craft.

While she has always enjoyed teaching, Orville has not always been a monotype artist.

“My background is as a painter; I did not study printmaking,” Orville said.

Of all things, it would be an allergy that led Orville to begin her quarter-century long foray into printmaking. Orville discovered that she is allergic to the oil paints she used, which caused her to have persistent migraines. After a decade of battling the pain of working with oil paint, she’d finally had enough.

“I would get headaches that I couldn’t get rid of. They became more severe. It probably was even true when I was studying art as an undergraduate. I just ignored it and continued painting, and then by the time I was 30, I decided it was just too uncomfortable,” Orville said.

After a 10-year career as a painter, Orville took a printmaking class while living in Taos, New Mexico and immediately fell in love with monotype.

“I could have gone to acrylic paints or watercolor,” Orville said, illustrating her other options to continue working as a painter.

But the process of working in monotype appealed to the artist.

“I love the process of rolling out ink and wiping away, revealing an image by how much of the ink you take away.”

Orville said there are many similarities between painting and monotype printmaking.

“It’s very painterly and very intuitive, and I just felt like I could find my vision through monotype,” she said.

Later Orville moved to Washington, which is when she says she began to do more tonal work, using black and white. When asked if the move to Washington and the change of scenery had an influence on her decision to focus on more tonal work, Orville answered with an immediate and emphatic, “Absolutely!”

“I just felt like I could capture the light and air and atmosphere most directly through the tonal work,” she explained.

“I find it beautiful all year long. I find the grays and the mist and everything through the winter very evocative,” Orville added.

Orville demonstrated in her studio just how she goes about creating one of her prints.

“I roll out a gradated layer of black ink mixed with transparent ink. Then to create cloud forms, I’m taking cloths and just wiping away areas, sometimes with a sharp edge and sometimes in a really soft way. The clouds have infinite kinds of edges and moods and forms, so it appeals to the part of me that loves abstraction. I find it really meditative,” Orville said as she moved back and forth at her counter in a manner which suggested she could navigate her studio blindfolded.

Orville distributed several healthy globs of ink on a palette. The ink ranged in tone from black to gray to transparent, and the artist set to work, deftly mixing them as she saw fit.

“I feel like I can get the most luminosity this way and light is really the key passion for me,” Orville said of her choice to use the transparent ink.

That’s right, transparent ink is a thing. It’s also a very important thing for Orville’s prints.

In essence, it’s ink without any pigment – which, on the surface it seems like creating art with transparent ink is reminiscent of that adage about a tree falling in the woods and nobody being around to hear it – but transparent ink is, in fact, an essential element in the artist’s toolkit and one of the ways Orville builds different atmospheres by seamlessly blending the ink into the background of the paper.

As she worked, wiping away the ink to create an image of a cloud, she ruminated some more on the meditative qualities of working in monotype.

“It’s surprising, I feel like there’s something mysterious about wiping away to create an image. Then part of it is I don’t know exactly what I have until I print it. So it has to go through the press for me to really see what the image is. There’s a kind of delayed response, I can’t react to every moment as I’m working,” Orville said.

After finishing the image, she took the plate over to her press and lined it up against a piece of wetted paper and ran it through the massive roller.

She peeled away the paper and examined the image. The artist pointed out the places on the print where the image of a cloud was beginning to take shape. She conceded that because this was a rushed demonstration, it was likely not something that she would be willing to let leave her studio. The artist has certain specific standards for her work.

“[It must be] believable to me,” she said.

“Sometimes there can be too much ink or it’s clumsy. It just doesn’t feel like a compelling image. And then sometimes, I’m genuinely surprised and delighted by pieces coming together,” Orville said.

Orville said that when she’s teaching at her studio, she prefers to completely “neutralize” the workspace to allow her students to create their prints unhindered by the influence of her work, a trick that has been learned over an extensive career teaching art.

“I’ve taught throughout my time here in the Northwest,” Orville said.

“It’s really interesting to work with both kids and adults. I’ve been teaching mainly adults, but it’s a really nice way to introduce the medium to all different ages.

“Sometimes adults can be a little intimidated about trying a medium they haven’t tried, so we kind of sneak it in through kids as well. The kids are fearless; they’ll just lead the way and experiment and just play and invent. So that can be a very fun combination,” she said.