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Silkscreen Printing

Eva Pietzcker
Eva Pietzcker

The technique of screen printing became a very popular printing method in the 20th century, in the commercial sector as well as in the sector of artist printmaking.

Silkscreens in the Arts of the the 20th Century

The screen, a fine fabric which is stretched into a frame, is left uncovered in the areas which are going to be printed, whereas the areas which will not be printed are sealed. Printing is done with a squeegee, which is used to squeeze the ink through the fine meshes of the screen onto paper or other materials.

Compared to other printmaking techniques, the advantage of screen printing is the low costs, even for huge sizes. It is possible to create shiny, transparent and opaque colours. And it is possible to print on many different materials. This made silkscreen a very attractive new medium for many artists.

The term of 'serigraphy' for screen printing in artist printmaking and the English name "silkscreen" refer to the originally used fabric of silk (Greek seri = silk), which is substituted by synthetic fabrics as nylon or polyester nowadays.

History of the Silkscreen

Screen printing is based on the technique of using stencils, which is one of the oldest techniques of artist expression. In the prehistorical cave paintings, images of stencilled hands have been found, the contours of which were sprayed on the wall with the help of blowpipes.

In the first centuries, wooden stencils of letters and decorative elements were used in the Mediterranean countries. In the 15th and 16th century the professions of the stencil cutter and printer emerged, who were colouring the playing cards and saint images, which were printed with woodblock.

In China and Japan, the use of stencil was popular for decorating cloth. The Japanese improved this technique, and their use of fabric dyeing stencils, called katagami, was very similar to the screen printing technique of today.

In the 17th century, paper stencils were already known - their fine motifs were held in place with hairs or silk threads. Later, these stencils were improved by using two layers of oiled mulberry paper. Between these, a net made from the finest threads was pasted, which itself was fixed to a cardboard or wooden frame.

A starch containing mixture was brushed onto fabric through this construction, which is very similar to the screen of today's screen printing. While dyeing the fabric, the printed areas stayed free of colour. So this technique was used for a similar purpose as the technique of batik.

In the 19th century, after the Japanese isolation ended in the year 1853, Japanese textiles were shown at World Fairs and caused a lot of admiration. Soon after that craftsmen in England and France began to use screens made of silk with stencils from impregnated paper for printing on fabric.

In 1907, Samuel Simon from England took out a patent for this technique.
In England and the USA, people were trying to improve it. In the beginning, screen printing was used for the decoration of fabrics and lettering signs, later for printing on paper as well.

As an artist medium, screen printing was used for the first time in the USA, where since the 1930ies screen prints were shown at exhibitions and got more and more appreciation in the art market. In Europe, screen printing was used by artists after the second world war only.

The collaboration between the printer Poldi Domberger and the painter Willi Baumeister gave a strong impulse to the German screen printing. In France, artists were already working with a technique called "pochoir", using stencils for colouring prints or reproducing gouaches. Henri Matisse printed his edition "Jazz" in 1947 in pochoir.

From there, it was only one step to the new technique of screen printing. In the 1960s, screen printing became very popular internationally through the works of the Pop artists. They turned mass reproduction and the influence of the mass media into an subject for art and found the perfect medium for expression in screen printing, which was used in advertising art, too.

Because screen printing was the preferred medium of the Op artists, too, it became the predominant printmaking technique in the 1960s and 1970s. Important artists of that time were Harry Sternberg, Roy Liechtenstein, Andy Warhol, Robert Indiana, Nicholas Krushenik, Victor Vasarely, Josef Albers, R.B.Kitaj, Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Hamilton and many others.

Today, screen printing is an international, popular printmaking technique.

Technique of Silkscreen Printing

Since during printing, the ink is pressed through the meshes of the screen, before printing the screen has to be prepared by sealing the areas which should not be printed. This can be done by manual covering or by the use of a photomechanical process.

The easiest way of sealing the screen is to attach stencils from papers or foils to it. Another manual way is to draw on the screen with a liquid screen filler, which seals the screen after hardening. There are many other manual ways of preparing the screen, and some of them are very experimental.

However, the most common way is the photomechanical transfer of positive films. For that, an even layer of a photo sensitive emulsion is applied to the screen. After drying, the screen, covered by the prepared film, is exposed to UV light, which hardens the photo sensitive layer.

The parts of the screen which were covered by the film - and thus were not exposed to the UV light - do not harden and can be washed out with water. The exposed areas, however, do harden and so close the meshes of the screen.

A stencil for this purpose can be made manually by painting and drawing with opaque inks on transparent paper or foil. It can also be a photocopy, or it can be printed out with the help of a computer.

For each colour, one screen has to be prepared. Grey tones can be printed by printing one screen for every tone or using a stencil with a raster.

Originally, oil-based inks were used, but today also water-based inks are available which are less toxic. With partial overprinting of transparent inks it is possible to produce a surprising lot of colours with just a few screens (i. e. with six inks 63 colours can be produced).

For printing, the screen is fixed to a table using hinges. The paper is placed underneath it. Ink is poured onto the lower edge of the screen and spread over it to the upper edge. This way the open areas of the screen are filled with ink.

The ink is then pressed through the meshes of the screen by pulling a squeegee over it. Every time, the screen has to be covered with ink again, and a new paper has to be placed under the screen. The humid prints need some time for drying, depending on the ink used.

Miriam Zegrer, October 2004
Edited by Dieter Wanczura