Screen Printing

Printing onto material like T’shirts, hats, wind cheaters and even coffee cups is done with Screen printing.

Screen printing, or serigraphy, is a print process invented in the early 20th century that uses a set of screens of porous fabric to apply colour in patterns on materials ranging from fine art papers to tee shirts. The screens themselves were originally made of silk, hence the name “silk-screening.”

Today, screen printing comprises a small proportion of all printing; and almost half of printers using the process use it on clothing. The other major uses of the technique are for posters because of its simplicity, and art prints because it can be manipulated to express subtle detail. Crafter’s utilise it as an art process, and art teachers use it to teach basic printing and colour techniques. Although Andy Warhol is probably the most familiar artist to use serigraphy as a medium, others like Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, Chagall and Roy Lichtenstein have used serigraphy.

At its simplest, screen printing consists of applying an emulsion to the surface of a woven fabric in a “reverse-image” of the print to be made. A screen is prepared for each colour (cyan, magenta, yellow and black), covered in different patterns. Each screen is then laid over the medium and ink is drawn across it with a broad squeegee, laying down successive layers of primary colour. The print is finished with the “key” screen and black ink, which adds depth and definition to the processed colours. Large-run presses arrange screens on cylinders so that the process moves more quickly, but hobbyists and other limited-use presses are simply a succession of flat screens, some laid in succession or with a frame that can be reloaded for each colour.

Screens can be created using stencils, emulsion (a wax-like substance that is painted onto the screen) or by printing photographs, photocopies or inkjet prints on acetate, which is then reversed using light-sensitive emulsion bonds and ultraviolet light. Screens can be cleaned and re-used; indeed, they reproduce accurately for only a specific number of impressions and are seldom kept beyond that point.

Each color “lays down” in the proportions it will be present in the finished print and each succeeding colour alters some of the colour that preceded it, forming secondary colours, pastels and hues according to the intensity of application by each screen and the key colour. Home photo-printers work much the same way with inkjets, laying down three primary colours and finishing with black.

Serigraphs can be soft and subtle or brilliantly coloured. They can be flat and brash like Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup series or full of life and detail like Toulouse-Lautrec’s Paris posters; the character of the finished print is entirely dependent on the screen artist.

Painters or printers often make their own screens, painting colour onto each screen then applying emulsion over it. The emulsion dries on the fabric but cannot form a bond through the paint. When the screen is washed, the paint and excess emulsion are removed, leaving an exact “separation,” or representation of one colour, just as the artist intended it.

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