What is silkscreen printing?

What is silkscreen printing?

An expert printmaker takes a break from crafting world class editions at Make-Ready to guide us through the fundamentals, foibles and speculative future of screen printing and serigraphy.

Kaius Owen

10 min read

paper sign reading 'CLEAN SCREENS' fixed to a metal bar in a silkscreen printing workshop

Avant Advisory is a series of guides made to demystify art and collecting. Tell us what you'd like to know.

What is silkscreen printing?

  • Silkscreen printing, or screen printing, is the process of passing ink through a taught mesh screen onto a substrate.

  • The screen is positioned over the substrate – be that a canvas, a T-shirt or a computer circuit. 

  • Blocked areas of mesh create a stencil. Only ‘open’ areas of mesh let ink pass through. 

  • Before an impression is made, the open areas of mesh are 'flooded' by passing a squeegee or flood bar across the screen.

  • Once flooded, a squeegee is pulled across the stencil with enough pressure to bring the screen into contact with the substrate.

  • As the mesh peels away from the substrate behind the squeegee, an impression is left behind. This impression is a silkscreen print.

Contrary to what you might assume, it is not the squeegee pushing ink through the screen that leaves an impression, it is actually the film of ink left behind as the flooded mesh peels away after making direct contact with the substrate. This simple process has not only been used to create modern masterpieces – from Robert Rauschenburg to Richard Hamilton – it has also sculpted the history of industry, fashion and design for over a thousand years.

A squeegee pulls glow in the dark green ink across a screen on a semi-automatic printing bench.

Free Speech by Ai Weiwei was printed in 11 separate layers.

When was silkscreen printing invented?

While it's true that innovative printmakers in Song Dynasty China made the world's first paper currency by passing ink through a mesh of human hair, silkscreen printing as we now know it is a 20th century endeavour – built on modern understandings of photography, fluid dynamics and photopolymers. In the wake of the squeegee, as the taught screen peels away from the substrate, a luxurious and consistent surface coating is left behind. This is what sets silkscreen prints apart. The first documented appearance of this specific process is a 1907 patent application submitted by Samuel Simon.

It is worth noting that contemporary screens are rarely made from silk. They are more commonly made from superfine plastic threads known, rather less catchily, as monofilament polyester. Early silk meshes were adapted from those used by bakers to sieve flower. Their synthetic counterparts – both finer and stronger – offer greater precision and consistency.

Silkscreen prints 600 years apart. By the time this currency was printed in the late 14th century, Chinese printers had been using silk mesh screens to create cash for several hundred years. Printed in 1967 as one of numerous iterations, Andy Warhol's seminal portrait of Marilyn Monroe ushered in a new era for the technique's modern form.

Serigraphy – what's the difference?

Silkscreen printing in fine art contexts is also referred to as serigraphy. The term was coined in the 1930s, prior to the popularisation of the medium by Warhol, by a group of artists who later formed the National Serigraph Society. The term comes from the Latin word 'sēricum' (silk) and the Greek word 'graphein' (to draw).

Stencils

Early screen stencils were made from carefully cut pieces of paper or fabric. In time, this evolved into the use of oil resistant materials painted directly onto the printing mesh, and finally into today’s photosensitive emulsion – used for the majority of contemporary printmaking.

Screens are coated with emulsion using troughs. When a coated screen is exposed to UV light, the emulsion become insoluble. If areas are blocked from the light during this process, they remain soluble – allowing the screen to be 'developed' by using running water to wash the soluble emulsion away. It is the combination of insoluble emulsion (which resists the flow of ink) and open mesh (which allows ink to flow) that makes up a stencil. The emulsion’s photosensitivity is key to the process. It allows for the precise exposure of an image onto a screen using a film positive or digital equivalent.

The ability to replicate details from a photograph as a stencil enabled Andy Warhol to print his iconic portraits of Marilyn Monroe. An already-recognisable image taken from a publicity photograph for the film Niagara, her likeness was transposed directly onto the canvas. The immediacy of the process and its capacity for repetition are what catapulted pop-art, and therefore silkscreen printing, into public consciousness. Andy Warhol and his contemporaries not only popularised but also legitimised the idea of silkscreen printing as a ‘fine art’ medium.

Colour matching begins for a silkscreen print based on Kwesi Botchway's painting, African Style.

One of 52 individual screens – exposed, washed and ready for printing.

Preparing the screen

First, pick the right mesh count. This refers to the number of apertures (or holes) in one square centimetre of screen. A higher mesh count (a denser mesh) reduces the flow of ink, increasing the capacity for fine detail. A lower mesh count, meanwhile, is useful for large flat deposits and metallics.

Before printing, screens are coated and left in a dark room to dry. This is to stop any unwanted exposure to UV light. Next, they are placed on the glass of an exposure unit with a film positive positioned between the screen and a UV light source. This process exposes the film positive onto the screen. Afterwards, the screen is rinsed in the washout booth. Areas that were blocked from light by the film positive are washed away to leave open mesh. Tape and screen fill are applied to perfect the stencil and prevent ink passing into unwanted areas.

Make-Ready

There are many ways to skin a cat, and there are many schools of thought in printmaking. A lot of Avant Arte editions are created in partnership with Make-Ready. From the humble beginnings of our founder's garage, Make-Ready is an upstart turned major player in the world of silkscreen printing, following in the footsteps of revered studios such as German printmakers Domberger by foregrounding precision and breaking ground with non-stop technical innovation.

The name Make-Ready refers to the setup of the printing press, creating the exact conditions required for a perfect run – a fitting name for a studio that prides itself on thorough preparation, meticulous process and a pristine finish. At Make-Ready we're unafraid to look towards screen printing’s roots in industry to advance our processes. Rather than make enemies of the future, we embrace developments in printmaking and combine them with tried and tested approaches. We've introduced UV-cured inks, semi-automatic printing benches and automatic dryers as the workshop continues to grow. It is the use of high tech equipment that enables printmakers to focus on the thing that matters. Printing. There are so many variables to consider when crafting a silkscreen print, and the capacity to control them is what ultimately expands our creative possibilities.

A screen welcomes visitors to the Make-Ready studio, housed in an innocuous North London warehouse.

Why so many layers?

Before printing begins, the reference work is digitally separated into component layers by an artworker. Far from a mechanical process with a predetermined outcome, there are a plethora of routes to take and choices to be made. The two main approaches to separation are spot colour and process colour.

Whichever route is taken, the precise alignment of each layer is essential. Every film is checked diligently against a key film to ensure that they are all exactly the same size. Registration marks printed at the corners of each film positive are exposed onto each screen. The marks are lined up precisely when each layer is printed. Accuracy is key for a sharp and well-resolved image.

Spot colour separation

Looking at Paul Insect's print Superglow, we can see that it is composed from a radiant array of individually printed colours. Many of these colours sit outside the achievable range of process colour. Spot colours are used when an image requires specific effects, particular vibrancy or isolated planes of colour. The colours tend to sit adjacent to one another with ink printed in solid blocks. Printmakers mix the inks by eye, layer by layer, according to the corresponding colours in the reference artwork. Superglow is a great representation of this process in it's classic form, with sharp-edged fluorescent solids and a diamond dust finish.

Sometimes you'll notice in the specification of a print that the number of colours and number of layers differ. This can be for a variety of reasons. Often layers are overprinted to refine tonality or achieve a desired level of solidity, or the same colour is printed through different mesh counts in different areas of the artwork. It is also possible that a colour was used to make a specific adjustment during proofing, and the successful print sequence was recreated for the edition to ensure an exact match.

Process colour (CMYK) separation

Process colour separation uses industry standard CMYK inks. This stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (the K originally referred to 'key'). Artworks picked for this type of printing are normally those that have continuous tone and photographic detail. Soft-edged separations offer a granulated approach, with overlaid layers of CMYK dots building the image tone by tone, allowing smooth transitions from delicate highlights to deep shadows. The colours become continuous, with distinctions disappearing into an overlapping sea of tiny dots.

Sometimes process colour prints will also incorporate spot colours. Pre-planned, or as adjustments and enhancements. The Aquarium by Szabolcs Bozo, for example, is made from a 12 layer process colour separation overprinted with twenty spot colours – adding pop, vivacity and widening the artwork's colour space with nautical blues and bubblegum pinks.

A printmaker updates the job sheet for a time-limited edition by Javier Calleja.

The screen used to apply varnish highlights to a print by Christian Rex van Minnen.

Spot colours are mixed bespoke to ensure a successful interpretation of the reference work. In this case, 'pearlescent solar gold' brings some sparkle to proceedings.

White gold leaf is applied by hand to the surface of a silkscreen print by Ai Weiwei. The intricate design it adheres to? A screen printed layer of glue.

Proofing with precision

For the team at Make-Ready a job-sheet is crucial. This document tracks all of the information at the proofing stage, and is invaluable for the precise replication of this process for the final edition. A printmaker will methodically print each layer, recording the parameters as they go – ink mixes, mesh count, print pressure and challenges they face along the way. For a 30-layer print this can take weeks, perfecting two or three layers each day. The process adds texture and physical depth to the artwork as layers of printed ink create a raised surface on top of the substrate. This adds to the material quality of the screen print and, like rings in a tree, represent the time taken to create it.

Then, we do it all again. That’s right, once the proof is reviewed, adjusted and the artist is satisfied it’s time to print the edition. This will be a near exact replica of the proof, often a little sharper, and is all achieved thanks to the trusty job sheet!

Diamond dust veils the subject of a silkscreen print by anonymous street artist, Paul Insect.

Phosphorescent ink allows a nighttime cityscape by Keita Morimoto to glow in the dark.

Varnish highlights on a silkscreen print by Christian Rex van Minnen help embossed details jump off the paper.

Finishing flourishes

The inks used in silkscreen printing vary greatly – from water based pigments to UV-cured polymers – and it isn’t only coloured ink that can be passed through a screen. Sometimes artists want to add extra flare to their prints by incorporating special layers such as metal leaf, phosphorescent ink, glitter or diamond dust. To achieve these finishes, glues and varnishes are printed through low mesh count screens. The prints are then hand-finished one by one, with adornments applied carefully to the glued or varnished zones.

The future of silkscreen printing

With the advent of high quality digital printers, you might assume that there would have been a decline in silkscreen printing. In reality, it's more prevalent than ever – both in high-tech industry and in the arts. Screen printing’s strength lies in its adaptability, and in its ability to print on anything from gallery walls to medical equipment. Although it is an industry in its own right, it is perhaps best understood as a technology utilised by many others.

In the art world, digital printing, far from acting in opposition to the screen, has become an opportunity for experiment and innovation. Hybrid prints meld digitally-rendered artworks with silkscreen finishes. The singular clarity provided by state-of-the-art inkjet printers pairs well with the versatility afforded by the screen, enabling the addition of special layers and vibrant overprints.

However far technology advances, we'll likely keep coming back to the silkscreen. A process of continual renewal and reinvention. Yet, the longevity of the screen printing stretches beyond its technical application and into something more elusive. Ineffable, even. Make-Ready founder Tom Murphy says that screen printing often feels like a “struggle against entropy” – teetering on a tightrope between chaos and order. Serigraphy is a process of opposition. An opportunity for precision, for finesse, but also one for drama. An arena of possibility.

In a world of the increasingly intangible, it is no surprise to see a newfound lust for the material. Silkscreen printing swims in the same current as analogue photography and the resurgence of vinyl. It represents a juncture between tactile and digital, past and future. Whatever happens next, screen printing is coming along for the ride.

In March 2023 Ai Weiwei visited Make-Ready for a closer look at the processes involved in creating a trio of limited edition prints to accompany his landmark exhibition at the Design Museum in London. Hear his reflections on the profundities of printmaking and its lineage within his own practice in the accompanying film, Printing Power.

Inspired to collect some silkscreen prints? You're in the right place. Discover available and upcoming editions on Avant Arte.

Glossary

Substrate · The surface being printed on. Most often, paper.

Fluid dynamics · The scientific study of how liquids and gases flow.

Photopolymers · Plastics that change their properties when exposed to light. Also known as light-activated resins.

Squeegee · A rubber blade that is used to bring the mesh of a printing screen into contact with a substrate.

Serigraphy · An alternative name for silkscreen printing coined in the 1930s.

Photosensitive emulsion · A light sensitive liquid that becomes insoluble under the influence of actinic UV (ultraviolet) light.

Film positive · Clear polyester film printed with pure black ink. In the context of screen printing, usually with an isolated layer of an artwork.

Screen fill · A water soluble solution used to block pinholes in an exposed screen before printing.

Mesh count · The core attribute of a printing screen, measured by the number of apertures in a square centimetre.

Reference work · The original artwork used as the basis for a silkscreen print.

Registration marks · Small crosshairs used during printing to ensure perfect alignment between subsequent layers.





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