Screenprinting

The process:

  • History
  • Techniques
  • Further reading
  • History of Screen printing

    The process is not that old compared to better known processes such as etching but has been invented several times over around the world. Some of the earliest applications can be found in mediaeval Japan, but it appeared in Europe in the 18th century particularly in France for stencilling patterns on to fabric and objects like shoes.

    In the 19th century it remained a simple process using fabrics like organdy stretched over wooden frames as a means to hold stencils and their 'islands' in place during stencilling or printing. Only in the twentieth century did the process become mechanised, usually for printing flat posters or packaging and fabrics. It became widely used to print coloured wallpaper as a cheaper alternative to printing with wooden blocks.

    Not until the 1930's did the potential of screen printing come to the attention of artists, and even in the early 1950's it remained a crude and hand done process. Gradually though the industrial applications had grown and with them better machinery but more importantly much finer and thinner films oil based inks.

    In the 1960's many artists found its large scale and solid bright colours perfect for the ideas of the time particularly in Pop Art. Artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichenstein in the USA and Eduado Paolozzi and Joe Tilson in the UK made the technique familiar.

    Today it has become a very sophisticated process, utilising advanced fabrics and inks combined with computer technology. Often it is used as a substitute for many other processes such as offset litho. As a printing technique it can print on almost any surface whether it is paper, card, wood, glass, plastic, leather or any fabric. In the publishing world it is used as a means of reproducing watercolour often in limited editions though these cannot really be said to be true original prints.

    Original limited edition prints can be defined as being designed and executed in the process it was conceived for by the artist or under the direct control of the artist in signed limited numbers. At best the image and look of the print cannot be properly created in any other manner.


    Techniques

    Basically it is a stencil process using an open mesh fabric to hold in place the 'islands' of the stencil design through which inks are forced using a flexible blade of rubber or polyurethane called a squeegee. In the early days organie and silk were the fabrics in use, but more recently terylene, nylon and polyester are the norm. These fabrics have a very fine mesh invisible to the naked eye and yet may be 40% open hole through which the very thin film ink pass. The screen is stretched drum tight on strong wooden or metal frames and held in place on a screen printing press to ensure exact register of each colour on each successive printing.

    The best hand machines have vacuum beds through which air is sucked to hold the paper in place during the moment of printing and to prevent it attaching to the screen itself. Very fine detail can now be printed and many recent developments have ensured the process is capable of subtle gradations of tone.

    Essentially however each colour is applied separately and the resulting image is gradually built up with anything up to 65 printings. Further to this transparent colours and blends of several colours can be printed creating many more colour in the final image than are individually printed.

    I use all methods available to me from have painting stencil to sophisticated combinations of computer generated photographic stencil positives to achieve the stencils. Many are hand drawn on acetate in black ink and subsequently cut as stencils using ultra-violet light using specil fine light sensitive stencil film. It is a slow and painstaking process and many of the more complex prints take three or even four weeks to complete. Each print is run through the press by hand with a particular colour so that the entire edition is always printed, the last colour being applied to each print at the end. They are then checked numbered and signed before the edition is released. There are usually only 5% extra as artist's proofs.


    Further Reading

    There are many books on the market and in libraries on the subject. Many are very basic and do not go very far in exploring the techiniques. The few listed below are generally more helpful

  • The Thames and Hudson Manual of Screen Printing by Tim Mara 1979
  • Screenprinting: water-based techniques by Roni Henning, published by Watson- Guptill 1994
  • Ken Tyler Master Printer by Pat Gilmour, published by Hudson Hills Press 1986
  • The New Guide to Screenprinting by Brad Faine, published by Headline 1989 covers not only the basics but also advanced photo-screenprinting techniques.
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