Silkscreen Process

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Silkscreen! Not just for T-Shirts!

First, let me give you the other names it can go by: silk-screen, screen printing, serigraphy, and serigraph printing. A lot of different names for the process of using a mesh screen and stencils of different sorts to transfer ink to its final destination. Which, at least some of the times, is t-shirts, but can really be just about anything you can press your screen to that will accept the ink. And in my case, it’s paper.

Screen printing starts with (what else?) a screen! Mine is made from a wooden frame and a piece of polyester mesh. The mesh is how the process got its name, as it was originally made from finely-woven silk. In my work, I use one single screen for all of my work. My set-up is fairly simple, and includes: one screen, one base board that is larger than the screen, a pair of hinges, tracing paper (the kind that comes in a roll), cutting blades, and a whole lot of masking tape.

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As with any printmaking process, I need to start with an image. Unlike linocut, I don’t have to worry about flipping the image, so I draw it out and start figuring out what colors I want to use. One of the interesting things about screen printing is not only do you have an unlimited variety of colors to choose from, but you also have the option of opaque inks or transparent! And differing levels of transparency, as well, as there are clear ink additives that will take your opaque ink and start to make it more see-through. Layering the transparent inks over other inks will give you even more varieties in color, and can change depending on the order you print things in. Sound complicated? It sometimes can be, but pre-planning helps to sort everything out.

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Mixing ink can be considered an art in itself, and one that really requires time in the studio to explain first-hand, as a few pictures aren’t going to do it justice. Some people like to plan their print out meticulously, and pre-mix all of their inks before they ever even prep their first stencil. Some people like to mix each color as they go. I admit that I’m somewhere in the middle. Pre-mixing does allow you to do what I’ll call cross-mixing, which is taking a little bit of every color and mixing it into the others, just enough to harmonize across your entire palette of colors. One of my professors taught us how to do that, and it works especially well for me if I’m working on a more subtle piece. But sometimes I’m not quite that ahead of the game. One thing I do have to decide before printing is what order I’m going to print the colors in. Depending on what the image is, and especially if I’m using transparent inks to create additional colors, I need to know that order before I can start even my first stencil. Once I’ve planned that out, then I can begin.

The way I was taught to screen print uses a tracing paper stencil. It’s a far less exact process than others that use vinyl sheets that cling to your screen, or materials that can be painted on the mesh, or the light-sensitive chemical compounds that basically develop a photo right on your screen. I may use those in the future, but for now it’s tracing paper for me.

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This is where I start to use a LOT of masking tape. My design gets taped to the board and I figure out how your paper is going to line up with the image, marking that on my board as well. There are special paper holders that can be used for this, but I’ve found that for my own purposes, a good line drawn on a piece of masking tape for the edge of my paper works just fine. I cut a piece of tracing paper almost the size of the board off the roll, and tape the four corners down, pulling as tight as possible. And then, I cut the first color by removing the tracing paper in all of the areas that I want the ink to show. Sharp craft blades are a must at this point (I sometimes use two or three in a single print, depending on how many colors I have), as is a steady hand. This is not what you want to do if you’ve had too many cups of coffee that day. It is delicate work, and a slip or mistake at this point could require throwing away the entire stencil and starting over. Not so bad if you’re doing a small, simple print, but a beast to deal with if you’re working on something larger and more complicated.

One of the quirks about this type of stencil is that you can’t print islands in the middle of white space, as the tracing paper needs to remain in one piece. So, for instance, you can’t have a ring of un-inked space with ink on the outside and ink in the middle – there needs to be a bridge to link the two areas together.

(Yes, there are ways around this. I’ve made it work a time or two. They involve highly secret processes. Therefore, much like magicians sharing their tricks, I will not share them in detail here.)

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Once the stencil is cut, I carefully slide a piece of scrap/test paper under the stencil and lower the screen. It is time for the ink that has been waiting so patiently. I spread a line near the top of the screen, being certain to keep it above any of the stencil cut-outs. How much ink really depends on how large of a print area I have. I usually start with a line about the thickness of my first finger. Then, using my squeegee and holding it at about a 45-degree angle to your screen, I pull the ink toward me, forcing it through the open parts of the stencil and scooping at the end of the pull to return the extra to the top of the screen. On the first pull, the tracing paper gets taped to the edges of the screen and the entire thing lifted up to remove the paper below. Then it’s a matter of aligning each paper of your addition and repeating the process.

New colors equal new stencils equal another round of aligning and pulling the prints. The process of being certain each color lines up correctly on your page is called registration, and it’s tricky business. Sometimes it doesn’t work at all and you get halos of blank paper around your colors. Sometimes you overlap too much. Sometimes it comes out (just like baby bear) just right.

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The number of colors of ink indicates how many stencils are going to be needed. I had a print once that was a larger edition and had 13 different colors of ink. It was by far the most labor intensive piece I’ve done to date, but so satisfying once it was complete!