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Tim Mara, Self Portrait with Contour Gauge, 1981
Tim Mara Artist's Alphabet

T: Techniques > Silkscreen

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Brief History of the Technique:

Also known as screen-printing or in America serigraphy, it is among the newest of the graphic arts, and has one of the shortest histories as a fine art medium. Nevertheless, the origin of the technique is still quite obscure, although there is little doubt that it owes much to the ancient and simple stencil methods, such as those used by the Chinese and Japanese from 500 A.D. onwards, and it was in these Countries where stencil based printing techniques were developed, originally for the production of textiles and cloth based original artworks.

Stenciling techniques probably reached the Western World through the journeys of the 13th and 14th Century explorers such as Marco Polo along with the many other new ideas, which were flooding Europe at that time. Then stenciling would still only be a relatively crude method at best and could only be used for the most simple shapes and bold patterns due to the drawbacks in the process such as the fact that images could only be produced if the cut shapes remained attached to and supported by the stencil matrix itself.

The silkscreen technique really began to develop with the introduction of floating ‘island’ stencils, which were kept in place by strands of human hair thus allowing free shapes to be printed of almost unlimited complexity. These hand made stencils supported by various strands of human hair were placed on the surface of the stencil matrix (at intervals of about 5mm). An identical stencil was then placed on top, sealing the hairs firmly in position, and the combined stencils were then varnished and flattened forming the first direct precursor of what we understand as the modern screen. Colour was then dabbed through the open areas with a stiff brush, yielding continuous patterns unimpeded by the thin threads and reproducing only the basic shapes of the stencils.

The brush was later replaced by a rubber squeegee as the preferred tool for transferring paint or ink onto the printing surface. This speeded up the application and produced a more even layer of ink. There are no exact dates as to the introduction of this tool but it is known that by the early 20th Century it was in common usage and that the technique had become popular throughout Europe especially in England and France as early as the mid 1800’s.

By the 1920’s the first automatic screen printing press had been invented, and the application of the technique was in widespread commercial use. Many Artists thought it was too crude and simple to be used seriously as a fine art technique, and it was not until the 1930’s when Artists in America had been trained in it’s techniques as part of the ‘Works Progress Administration (WPA) Silk Screen Project’ under the direction and influence of the Artist, Anthony Velonis that it was given any serious artistic consideration.

The invention in the late 1920’s and development of a shellac based stencil material by Louis D’Autremont in Daytona Ohio, USA which could be accurately and intricately cut with a knife further enhanced its appeal amongst Artists as they could now produce more elaborate and involved work. This was one of several inventions and developments in commercial technologies which would increase interest in the medium another notably important one being the introduction of photo sensitive stencil materials by Joseph Vlano which helped the process develop photo mechanical imaging techniques and in doing so keep pace with developments in other print processes.

By the 1960’s the work of the WPA and the National Serigraph Society had been exhibited extensively all over the world, including considerable works by Velonis himself and Artists of merit such as Marcel Duchamp, Ben Shahn and Guy Maccey. This encouraged Artists in Europe and especially in England to adopt the technique where major works were created by Eduardo Paolozzi and R.B Kitaj who worked with the influential master silkscreen publisher Chris Pater at Kelpra Graphics, and later Advanced Graphics in London.

Screen printing was ideal for the aesthetic movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s with the ‘Pop’, ‘Op’ and ‘minimal’ art movements all proving to have great empathy with the medium due to it’s indirect, manufactured, hard edged boldness, all inherent characteristics of the technique.

Interest in the medium since what is often seen as it’s 60’s/70’s heyday has continued right through to the present day with Artists exploring its usage in a myriad of different ways from the hand drawn to the elaborately photographic

Description of the Technique

As mentioned in its history silkscreen is a variation of a stencil process. In stenciling a shape (often cut from paper) is recreated on another surface by dabbing ink or paint through the cut out space.

In silkscreen, fabric (originally silk, now more commonly nylon or polyester) is stretched tightly on a rigid frame, which becomes a screen or support for the stencil. This fabric is made by weaving which produces a sequence of small holes throughout its surface, it is these, which will allow the ink or paint to pass through it and create an image.

A stencil must first be made and attached to the surface of the screen (these can be numerous different things, glue, varnish, paper, a photo sensitive coating or emulsion or a specially produced film which are adhered to the screen). The stencil allows and controls the area through which the ink and paint has free passage through the material, and can produce either a negative or positive image.

Screen inks and paint can be solvent or water based and are often made highly viscous so they will not flow through the screen un-assisted. They are forced through the screen by using a brush or more successfully a rubber or plastic squeegee that is pulled across the surface of the fabric transferring the image through the screen onto the given substrate below.

Silkscreen can be used to print on any flat surface, including, paper, fabric, canvas, wood, metals glass and plastic.

Tim’s use of the Technique

Tim was particularly interested in the automated nature of photographic screen printing which had a logic in its procedure which appealed to his sense of ordered directorship and the effective realisation of his intellectual thought process in visual terms. He was interested in the fact that the technique is capable of creating bold areas of flat colours and also extremely intricate and detailed imagery. He often applied a mechanical pattern such as a half tone to create the appearance of form, translating the image into dots of different sizes or by altering the gradiation of a photographic tone by varying exposure times into a series of notably distinct tones (lighter to darker), which produced the illusion of describing an image in 3D.

His early silk screens were often made of several over-printings using as many as seventy individual colours. The background colours were printed using hand cut stencils often made from paper. This method involved tracing the shape of each colour area onto a thin sheet of paper (from an original photomontage guide). The shapes were then carefully cut out and the paper was attached to the underside of the screen mesh ready for printing. This technique was incredibly labour intensive and problematic, as it is relatively crude and has a habit of slightly moving making registration difficult. It is further complicated by the motion of the squeegee which can sometimes accidentally pull the stencils completely away from the mesh altogether. Tim compensated for this by retouching the prints by hand.

Once the final background colours had been printed a photo positive stencil or stencils depending on the number of colours needed was then placed over them adding definition, description and details, and making sense of the composition involved by photographic representational imagery. Each one of these prints would take up to three months to produce.

Later, Tim began to develop other silkscreen techniques such as posterisation and four colour separation processes as can be seen in the print above. He also used the technique in combination with other mediums and on various substrates, such as canvas.

(If you wish to try and make your own basic silkscreen print see section ‘W’ for an instructive workshop).

On the right hand side of the print is both a photo etching and a blind embossing these are both variations of Intaglio printing techniques.

| Go back to 'Techniques main page' | Move on to 'Intaglio' |

© Text: Mark Hampson / Images: Belinda Mara
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