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Screen Printing as an Artist Medium

Screen printing, also called serigraphy, means printing by squeezing ink through the meshes of a fine fabric, which is stretched over a frame, thus producing even layers of ink. While some areas of this so-called screen are blocked by the use of various techniques, only the open areas are printed. This allows creating a wide range of forms and effects by cutting, painting and using a technique of photo transfer.

While screen printing is and was mainly used commercially, it is a printmaking technique which offers artists numerous creative options without necessarily affording huge equipment. The advantages are the option to print on various materials besides paper, the fact that screen printing is quick and comparably cheap, even when working in huge sizes, the easy way to reproduce photographs or outprints, and the fact that the print does not appear side-inverted.

The term "silkscreen" comes from the times when the fabric used for screenprinting was made from silk. Today screens are made from polyester mainly.

Screen print, New York 1995

History

The use of stencils is one of the oldest creative techniques. Already in prehistoric caves, images of hands can be found which were created by blowing pigment over hands with blowtubes. In China and Japan, stencils were used for decorating textiles already around the 6th century or even earlier. In Europe, woodblock prints were handcoloured by the use of stencils during the middle age.

Still the problem remained that stencils did only allow using the inner parts of cut areas when keeping "bars". A first solution to solve this problem was the Japanese development of fixing two-layered paper stencils with hairs or silk threads in a paper frame, called the technique of katazome, in the 17/18th century. Rice paste was pressed through the stencils' open areas, which in dry state during dyeing prevented the covered areas from absorbing dye.

After Japans opening in 1853, this technique was presented in the Western world and caused global admiration. Probably without being influenced from this, screen printing with fabric from silk and cut paper stencils was already practiced in France for textile printing. The first patent for a screen printing technique was awarded in England in 1907. While in the beginning, the ink was pressed through the screen's meshes with a brush, around the turn of the century the squeegee became the preferred tool for printing.

In the aftermath, the technique of screen printing was enhanced in the USA, till the involvement of a photo-sensitive emulsion. The young printmaking technique was used mainly for commercial purposes like advertising. In the 1930ies, artists in the USA started to use screen printing as an artist medium. In these times, the term "serigraphy" was used to define screen prints done by artists. In the 60ies, screen printing had a prime: with its vicinity to the advertising aesthetics, the intense colours and the option to reproduce photographs it was the prefect medium in Pop Art.

 

Screen print (grey, blue, purple, green) with drypoint intaglio (red, yellow), Berlin 1995

Technique

Screens are frames holding fine fabric, in earlier times from silk, today mainly from Polyester. Screens with from wooden and metal frames are available, but screens can also be built easily (from wood by gluing pieces or from wooden or plastic plates by sawing out the inner area) and be covered with screen printing fabric.

Screen printing fabric is available in various grades of fineness, depending on the material which will be printed on and the motif.

Printing is done with a squeegee, a rubber ledge with a wooden or metal handle. Squeegees are available in various grades, with soft squeegees being used for simple forms and hard squeegees for fine and detailed images.

For simple screen printing, every sturdy table works as a working area. During printing, the screen has to be fixed on the table to allow tilting it. Metal screens are fixed with special screen printing hinges; wooden screens can be fixed with ordinary hinges. Small and light screens can be fixed with tape.

For perfectly even printing results a vacuum table is useful which prevents the paper from sticking to the screen after the printing. A vacuum table can be build easily from an air-proof box with wholes in the printing area and a vacuum cleaner or pump for exhausting the air.

Printing process

Before printing, the paper is positioned under the screen and the position marked to guarantee that all papers are positioned on the same spot during printing.
For printing, the ink is poured on the screens front edge and spread with the squeegee to the rear of the screen, thus filling the screens meshes evenly with ink. By pulling the squeegee over the screen, the ink is pressed through the screens open areas onto the paper.

My first screen print, South Korea 1994


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