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Printing in Art: Screenprinting

Written by: Leslie Taylor

Printing in Art: Screenprinting

What Is Screenprinting?

Screenprinting is an artistic form of printmaking that involves the use of ink to make designs on a silk fabric stretched across a mesh screen. Another word for screenprinting is a seriograph. The term has Greek origins. The prefix "serios", means silk, and the suffix, "graphos", means writing. Screenprinting first appeared in 9000 BCE in the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. The technique was used to create hieroglyphic paintings for Egyptian tombs. Greek artists also used screenprinting as a preliminary step for mosaic designs. Later, during the early 600s, Japanese stencilmakers used silk screens to support handmade stencils. Screenprinting didn't make it to Western countries until the 15th century. Originally, silk was the primary material for screenprinting. Since the mainstreaming of screenprinting in the 1930s and the 1960s in the United States, polyester has become the standard medium for the craft. Now, it's a niche activity that people can do even at home.

The Tools and Process

A screen printer transfers colors using the "pulling" process, in which ink is pushed through the stencil to the screen with a squeegee, and then imprinted on multiple sheets of paper. Screen printers start with an original image or photograph that they want to imitate. The artist chooses the color and mixes the inks to reach the exact, desired shade. Each color has its own stencil. Then, the stencils are attached to individual screens. A single image can have between six and 40 colors. Once the image has been transferred to every paper, the stencil is no longer needed.

Editions and Reproductions

When screenprinting is performed by the screen printer by hand and the stencil is carved by the artist, the resulting work is considered a fine art print and is quite valuable. When the technique is done solely by machines without any human interference, it's a reproduction of an existing image and is of negligible financial value. Fine art prints are valuable because they take months of time and effort. While a small print can be completed in one month, it can take up to four months to create a large print. Fine art prints are often limited editions. An edition represents the number of prints that are made at a specific time. Usually, the artist decides how many prints to include in each edition. No edition is the same as preceding or successive editions because the stencil is destroyed when each edition is finished. Buyers who want to identify a screenprint read the fraction at the bottom of the work. The numerator indicates which print it is, in order of signature. The denominator shows how many prints there were in the edition.

Influential Artists

Three of the most influential screenprinting artists were Andy Warhol, Ray Lichtenstein, and Peter Blake. All reached the zenith of their popularity during the 1960s, when screenprinting was trendy in the US and Britain. Andy Warhol is well-known for his Marilyn Monroe prints, which have become cultural icons and emblematic of the decade's zeitgeist. His style was to make stencils based on celebrity photographs or movie stills, then print them in lurid, neon colors.

Roy Lichtenstein riffed off of abstract expressionism. While he considered himself to be an expressionist artist, his Brushstroke series was a satirization of abstract expressionists' belief that the use of brushstrokes was an emotional exercise liberated from the commercialization of other art forms. Lichtenstein used a variety of subjects for his prints and depicted them in a comic strip style.

Peter Blake is famous for designing the Beatles' cover art for the 1976 album Sergeant Pepper. He experimented with different screenprinting media such as diamond dust. He no longer prints Beatles portrait art and has gravitated to making screenprinted collages.