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Screen Print - More Than Warhol & T-Shirts

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Screen Printing and being the Chosen One. I was recently asked how it was I came to print. It was an interesting question, though one I had not given much thought outside of getting from point A to point B: pattern to fabric. It was never an aspiration of mine to get into printing, but rather a necessity of solving a design problem. In the beginning of this journey to creating fabric, the plan was to license my work to large companies and I had designs that needed to be applied to some sort of product for presentation. As a result, the screen printing option more or less chose me. It would lend itself nicely to the bold but lyrical geometric patterns I create and be an easier medium to learn as I already had basic knowledge of it from school. It truly was a means to and end. I had A LOT of work to do and screen printing was an accessible way to get the job done. Things often evolve out of a need. However, when you are self taught, you have the freedom to break the rules because you don't know the rules....but there are holes to be filled. Screen printing has a rather long history, and one that goes far beyond printed t-shirts and Andy Warhol. Actually it goes far beyond what I can include in the blog but here are a few of the high lights.

Screen Print: In the beginning, the rudimentary elements of screen print consisted of a designed stencil cut into a sheet of paper or other material, laid down unto a surface where ink was then pushed through the stencil with a brush, transferring the design to the surface below. This basic method can be traced back to China's Song Dynasty 960-1270 AD. Over the next several centuries, neighboring Asian countries adapted and expanded upon those principles which held fashion until the early 19th century. It is said that early forms of European stencil printing can be traced back to 1500AD, interestingly, in the form of playing cards. Even more intriguing, just about every form of printing has its roots in the printing of playing cards. 

Screen Printing Evolves: The screen printing process that we are most familiar with today was invented in Germany and Scotland during the late 1800s. In 1907, an English printmaker by the name of Samuel Simon developed the process further by adhering the cut design stencil to a finely woven framed silk screen. Simon not only patented this method, he was also known for printing high end, custom wall papers and fine fabrics such as silks and linens. 

Perfecting the process: In 1910, three printers: Roy Beck, Charles Peter and Edward Owen's experimentation with photo reactive stencils revolutionized the future of commercial use of screen printing. Though the common use of photo reactive or photo-imaged stencils took some time to catch on, the safer and less toxic versions are what is used today. Around 1914, an American commercial artist, John Pilsworth joined forces with Beck, Peter and Owen creating and patenting a multi colour screen printing process from a single screen. It was called the Selectasine Method, which improved the printing process and growing demand of larger qualities of posters, destination boards and advertising signs. With a design studio located in San Francisco, they became the first commercial screen printers in the USA. (Example of vintage destination posters above.)

Art vs. Commercial design. There really is a difference. For much of the 20th Century, most screen printing techniques were 'trade secrets', confidential and protected by the print studio they came from. And, for the most part, screen printing had been mostly used for commercial purposes. By the time the 1930s rolled around, a group of artists formed the National Serigraphic Society to distinguish the artistic use of screen printing from the more commercial and industrial use of the technique. They coined the word 'serigraphy', a combination of the Latin word 'sericum' (silk) and Greek 'graphein' (to write or draw) to describe screen printing as an art form. 

Then along came Andy.  It wasn't until the 1960s that screen printing became main stream knowledge and an art form. Who doesn't think of Andy Warhol's vibrantly colored Marilyn Monroe and Campbell's soup prints when they hear the term 'screen print'? Screen print produces multiple bold, graphic images, all one of a kind. In Andy's words: 'It was all so simple, quick and chancy. I was thrilled with it.' I would definitely agree with screen print being 'chancy' as the end result can be effected by anything from the pressure of the pull (pulling the ink through the screen with a squeegee) to the climate and weather change. The actual print is 'simple and quick', but I would dispute the whole process being either of those descriptions. Then again, Andy had a master printer and assistants at his disposal. But I digress.......

Graphic screen printing is considered the most versatile of all printing processes. The basics of screen printing materials are common and readily available, often used in underground or subcultures. This non-professional, cultural design aesthetic has often lent itself to numerous movie posters, flyers, logos, record album covers, advertising and artwork everywhere. 

And T-Shirts. Don't forget the T-Shirts. The truth is, screen printing can produce multiple prints easily, but it's generally very slow to achieve. In 1960, Michael Vasilantone created a multicoloured, rotary garment screen printing machine that sped up the process. This particular machine was originally created to print logos and team information on bowling uniforms, but soon translated to printing t-shirts. And...with the explosion of printing t-shirts, Vasilantones rotary garment screen printing machine became the most utilized device in the industry. They say screen printing garments accounts for more than half the screen printing that takes place here in the U.S. No wonder t-shirts are the first thing to come to mind when one hears 'screen print'.

Rapture + Wright A wonderful textile duo in the UK who's work I absolutely love. This video shows the actual printing onto fabric process (minus the designing, the screen making and processing the fabric before and after print). But it is a perfect peek behind the scenes. Please keep in mind, this video has been sped up but actually took about two hours to print. Also note, yardage usually requires two people to print. This is a two colour design pattern. 

Hand printing on silk in Gloucestershire, UK This is a wonderful example of a multi-colour screen print process. It is a tedious process and one that requires a different screen for each colour. Beckford Silk are printers and dyers of silk fabrics in the UK since 1975. Dress silks, garments, scarves & ties in crepe-de-chine, satin, dupion etc.

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