Screen Printing 101
Learn about the process behind making a silkscreen print in this illustrated guide.
Screen printing is a popular form of printmaking that is prominent in the art market. It is also referred to as silk screening, which harks back to the original method of creating screens using silk. These days, most screens are made using a polyester fabric. The basic idea behind a screen print is that one is creating a stencil, which is used to create prints. There are various ways to create the stencil, but most Fine Art seen in museums and galleries is created using a photo emulsion process.
The screen is prepared by applying a photo emulsion. The image you will be using must be turned into a high-contrast image printed on a transparency. Then, it is placed on a light box under the prepared screen. The amount of time the screen is exposed to light depends on the kind of photo emulsion used as well as the type of bulb used in the light box. Once it is done, the screen is removed from the light box. The photo emulsion that was exposed to light has hardened, while the areas blocked by the image are still soft. Using a water hose, the unexposed emulsion is washed off and the screen is left to dry. Once the screen is prepared, it is ready to be used for printing.
The use of screen printing first became popular during the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the United States during the 1930s,1 when the United States government hired American artists, like Riva Helfond (American, 1910–2002) and Harry Gottlieb (American, 1895–1992), to develop public works projects. Under the WPA, the Silk Screen Unit was developed to promote this method of art making as accessible to anyone for any purpose. Another artist involved in promoting screen printing was Rockwell Kent (American, 1882–1971). In an introduction for Silk Screen Stenciling as a Fine Art, Kent writes, “The democratization of art implies such changes in art forms and, doubtless, in art’s content as will make art loved and understood by many rather than by merely few…”2
During the mid-20th century, screen printing was an art technique that was well on its way to popularity, and was used to give voice to political issues in the United States as well as abroad.During the 1960s, artists such as Roy Lichtenstein (American, 1923–1997) and Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987) contributed to the second wave of screen printing as an art-making process. The commercial technique was combined with mass media as the subject matter and grew into Pop Art. As Warhol’s work expanded, he created the company Factory Additions to print and publish his own work. Since the days of Pop Art, Contemporary artists continue to use screen printing as a medium to create mass quantities of artwork.
1 Lincoln Cushing, “Meshed Histories: The Influence of Screen Printing on Social Movements,” American Institute of Graphic Arts, May 26, 2009. Accessed December 4 2013, http://www.aiga.org/meshed-histories-the-influence-of-screen-printing-on-social-movements/.
2 Rockwell Kent, “Introduction,” Silk Screen Stenciling as a Fine Art (McGraw-Hill Book Company Inc., 1942), Docs Populi. Accessed December 4, 2013, http://www.docspopuli.org/articles/Rockwell-WPA.html.
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