The Art of Screen Printing

Image: Marilyn Monroe, harborgraphics.infoFrom the delicate and empyrean portraits of the Song Dynasty to Andy Warhol’s meretricious and iconic portrait of Marilyn Monroe, screen printing is a striking and beautiful art with a rich and variegated history. Furthermore it is relatively accessible, so if you are looking to try your hand at a new craft then give screen printing a go and create your own iconic images.

In the beginning

A versatile and utilitarian process that can be achieved with basic and rudimentary materials, it is not surprising that the technique can be traced back to 960 AD China. The influence of this striking and effective art form would soon spread throughout Asia eventually making its way to western countries in the 1700s (following in the footsteps of Tea). The process was revolutionised in the early 1900s and in 1962 screen printing was given a 20th century pop-cultural makeover when Andy Warhol added his famous screen print to the many immortalisations of Marilyn Monroe.

Old Chinese print

What is it and how does it work?

In its most basic form screen printing is the process of printing an ink based image onto material (including canvas) using a screen, mesh, ink, a stencil and a squeegee. Companies using screen printing on a large scale will use big, specially-designed machines for effective printing en masse, but for your small-scale home use the process is relatively simple.

Sounds great! When can I start and what should I do?

You can start right away, but start small. Think cushion covers, tea towels or T-Shirts. You should begin by making a stencil for your image, and remember that the quality will need to be good – this is the image you will see in print. Then you will need to purchase some specialist screen printing ink (available on-line or from most art and crafts shops) and a mesh screen – or alternatively you could make your own screen by stretching and stapling mesh onto an old wooden canvas frame (if you have any unused cheap blank canvasses or old shop bought canvasses that you are planning on throwing out this would be ideal – and cheaper). Make sure the mesh is as tight as possible or you could end up with a badly distorted image. For a relatively cheap price you can purchase a squeegee from an arts and craft shop. This is the instrument you will use to pass the ink across the mesh, but if you have a flat, square piece of plastic or Perspex with a smooth, firm edge this could work just as well.

Now to apply the ink

Screen printingApply masking tape around the edges of the underside of your screen. This should be the side touching the fabric, because when you lay your stencil on top there should be no mesh visible around the edges. Position the stencil on the fabric and place the screen over it, but make sure the stencil (which shouldn’t be fixed to the fabric) does not move. The quantity of ink you will need to use will vary depending on the size of the stencil or the density of the material you are using. For a relatively small image on a cotton T-shirt or tea towel the amount of ink you use should fit in the palm of your hand (but please don’t measure it with your actual hand!) Place the ink at the top edge of the screen and use one hand to secure the screen. Then use the other hand to drag the ink (with the squeegee) at a slight angle across the mesh.

When you start your little screen printing enterprise make sure you stock up on a good quantity of cheap fabric – there will be a lot of trial and error involved. It is an easy craft to take up, but perfecting it may take a little longer. However perfecting these basics will give you a solid base to start experimenting with more complicated and sophisticated methods. Persevere with it though because the rewards will be worth it; unique, haute couture items that no one else will have – and you will never have to buy another Christmas or birthday present again.

Vicky Dean works alongside, a screen-printing studio in Suffolk. She is an avid arts and crafts lover and enjoys painting with watercolours, making greetings cards and sewing with vintage fabrics!