Screenprinting Technique Screenprinting is a variety of stencil printing. A gauze screen, fixed tautly on to a rectangular wooden frame, is laid directly on top of a sheet of paper. Printing ink is spread over the upper side of the mesh and forced through it with a squeegee (a rubber blade) so that the ink transfers to the paper on the other side. The material of the screen is usually silk (Americans call the process sitkscreen or occasionally serigraphy), but can be cotton, nylon or a metal mesh.

The design is applied to the screen in various ways. The earliest technique was simply to cut out a masking stencil of paper and attach it to the underside of the screen; another simple device is to paint out areas of the screen with a liquid that sets and blocks the holes in the mesh; but there are numerous other ways of masking that can be used to produce different effects. One important development is the use of photo-stencils, which allow the artist to incorporate photo- graphic images into the print. The screen is coated with bichromated gelatine and placed in contact with a photographic negative or diapositive. Light is then shone through the transparency on to the gelatine, which hardens under exposure but remains soft where protected by the black areas of the transparency. When the exposure is completed, the soft areas can be washed away with warm water, leaving the hard exposed gelatine to act as a stencil.

Artists' screenprints have almost always been printed in colour. Since a single screen cannot easily be inked in more than one colour, this is usually done by successive printings, using a different screen for each colour. A screenprint can usually be distinguished from a lithograph (the process most similar to it) by the wove pattern of the screen which is impressed into the surface of the ink.. Compared with other printing processes, it is relatively crude, since the mesh of the screen does not allow much fineness in drawing. This has been overcome to some extent by using photo-stencils, which break down images photo- graphically by means of a half-tone screen into gradations of tone. On the other hand, screenprinting deposits a much thicker charge of ink on to the paper than other methods, and this produces a richer impasto and a more vivid range of colour.

Historical The origins of screenprinting are lost in the unexplored murk of the history of commercial printing. Stencils have been used from ancient times for lettering and for labelling objects, but the technique of attaching them to a gauze mesh seems to have been developed in Japan and brought from there to Western Europe in the late nineteenth century. It was rapidly adopted for use in advertising, packaging and labelling and machines were patented for high-speed printing through stencils. The photo-stencil process came into use around 1916.

Given such humble origins and the relative crudity of the images it can produce, it is not surprising that artists did not immediately think of exploiting screenpnnting for their own purposes. The earliest attempts appear to have been made in America in the Depression of the 1930s largely because of the cheapness and ease of the process; the best known prints of the following years are by Ben Shahn and by Jackson Pollock, who made a few around 1951. But collectors and dealers were even more prejudiced against it than many artists, and it was not until the 1960s that the prejudices began to break down with the realization that some of the best modern prints were screenprints. This change of attitude has not yet found an historian, but one of the most important stages in it was the founding by Christopher Prater of the Kelpra Studio in London.

A project by the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1962 to commission screenprints from many of the leading British artists succeeded beyond all expectation, and fired the enthusiasm of, most notably, Eduardo Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton and an American expatriate, R. B. Kitaj. A parallel development in America introduced the process to many of the leading Pop artists, including Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg have in fact extended its use by printing screenprint elements on to canvas as the basis for many paintings. Two possibilities of screenprinting in particular have appealed to many artists. The fact that it can print flat, unmodulated and sharply defined areas of colour has attracted hard-edged abstractionists; even more important is the possibility of incorporating photo- graphic imagery, which has proved ideally suited to the Pop artists' and others' preoccupation with the psychological and aesthetic aspects of standard commercial or political imagery. By using screenprinting, itself a commercial medium, they have managed to capture the rawness of effect of the original imagery while at the same time manipulating the viewer's responses by putting it into a fine art context. But printmakers striving for autographic qualities find that the medium has little to offer them. The success of screenprinting has been only one aspect of the remarkable development and popularity of printmaking since the end of the Second World War, and it may be worth considering some of the factors which lie behind this.

The traditional connoisseur's approach to prints collapsed with the market in 1929, and took with it his accumulative zeal and prejudices about states and other minutiae. The Post-War print has been purchased by a wider non- specialist clientele primarily for room decoration, and has therefore been larger and more highly coloured than its predecessors. This has opened up new fields and made prints more interesting for the painter. But all this was true in the 1950s; the special importance of prints in the 1960s was due to the fact that the medium was taken up by the best painters of the period, and, as is almost invariably true, it is the best painter who is the best printmaker. The reason why printmaking then became of such interest to artists lies in the reaction of the 1960s against the overwhelming success of Abstract Expressionism. To escape from its personalized gestures, artists introduced a wide range of figurative subject-matter, and a new preoccupation with process and the way in which the medium imposes its discipline on the subject. In this exploration the lithograph or screenprint is quite as significant as a medium as the painting. In consequence printmaking, as a category of artistic production, has been elevated to a status and importance in the more general history of art which it has only rarely attained before.


Antony Griffiths
British Museum Publications Limited