What do pop artists, snowboarders, punks in the 1970s and Chinese innovators working while Europe struggled with the Middle Ages have in common? The answer may surprise you.
It is screen printing, the art of using mesh designs to transfer images onto different items. From its development in the tenth century to today, screen printing has been capturing our imaginations and our attention thanks to its ease of use and strong visual impact.
The history of screen printing
Screen printing appeared in the Song Dynasty in China (960-1279 AD), a dynasty that saw innovations like the first use of gunpowder, government-issued banknotes and the use of a compass to determine true north. From there, it spread to other Asian countries, and for most of the next 600 years, screen printing stayed in Asia. By the 1800s, however, the process changed enough that it became profitable enough to trade with Western Europe. Still, only the wealthiest could afford such luxury.
In the 1910s, Roy Beck, Charles Peter and Edward Owens experimented with photosensitive chemicals to create blocked stencils faster and cheaper than ever before, revolutionising the screen printing process. Suddenly, lots more people could actually create stencils, making screen printing more widespread.
In the 1950s and 1960s, it rose to prominence as a favourite medium for artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. And because it was so cheap and easy to do, it became a primary printing technique for various subcultures throughout the last century.
Mimeograph- screen printing machine 1909:
The process of screen printing
How easy is the process? In essence, it’s as simple as creating a screen and using that to put ink on something. But the actual process is a little more complex. Here is a quick step by step guide on the process:
- The first thing to do is create the stencil screen.
- The artist starts by drawing a design on a clear sheet.
- Then the artist will stretch a fine meshed fabric over a frame, taping the edges to prevent leaks.
- A thin layer of photosensitive emulsion is added to the screen in a darkened room, and they place the design sheet over the screen.
- This will be exposed to a bright light to harden the emulsion that is not covered by the design. The screen is then washed of the unhardened emulsion and is ready for printing.
With the hard part over, the artist is ready to create the print.
- The screen is fixed into place with clamps, and paper or fabric is placed underneath.
- They then pull a thin layer of ink over the stencil. This causes the ink to fill the mesh spaces that don’t have the hardened emulsion in.
- The blade is passed back over the design, which pushes the mesh onto the paper or fabric, creating the print.
For the print to have multiple colours, the artist has to make a stencil screen for each colour and repeat the printing process, allowing the print to dry in between layers.
The appeal of screen printing
With its grand history and versatility, screen printing has a timeless appeal. This is because it is easy to do, but it also creates bold graphic prints that really stand out. Depending on the size of the mesh, designs can have a rough, textured appearance, and colours can be blended and combined in countless striking ways.
Best of all, it is an endlessly adaptable artform. Because it starts with the artist’s own design, it can be as simple, complex, realistic or abstract as the artist desires. Artists can use inks that are metallic, that are filled with glitter or that crack or puff up as they dry, creating all sorts of cool textures and effects. Screen printing can be done on everything from clothes and posters to balloons and snowboards, making it possible to customise all sorts of products or create all kinds of artwork. This versatility has seen screen printing go from aristocrats to the art gallery and to the streets, but only artists’ imaginations and ambitions will limit where it can go from here.
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