House Portraits

Saturday 13 May 2017

How is a screen print made?

Since I started printmaking (only a year and a half ago), I’ve explained to lots of people how screen prints are made. Having come across quite a few people who don’t know what they are, who can blame them for not seeing why they should pay more for a screen print over a digital print?

The super short version (in my case) is… they are handmade, limited edition, printed using archival inks and (usually) on acid free paper, so they are safe from discolouring or fading. I do like to experiment by printing on coloured/recycled papers too - these are not acid free and can discolour if placed in the sun, for example, so I price these prints much lower to reflect that. Whether on acid-free paper or not, a screen print should be looked after… You might be pushing your luck if you hang it above a radiator or in a damp room, for example, and a professional framer would use an acid free mount inside your frame, too.

Experimenting at printing on coloured paper

The digital prints I sell are printed on high quality, heavy weight board and are digitally press printed. You will get lots of joy out of them and they are a perfect choice if you want some purse friendly art to make your walls look beautiful! A screen print, however, would be more of a special purchase. Not only will it’s quality last for a lifetime, but it will be limited edition. Only so many have been made the same. It might be printed again in a different colour or variation, or brought out as a subsequent edition and marked clearly that it’s from an additional run. 

See the bottom left corner, usually, where the print is individually numbered out of how many prints were made. So if your print is marked 3/20, that means that only 20 were made of that variation. Prints can be numbered from 1/1 (a single print) to numbers in their hundreds or thousands. So the lower the out-of number, the more valuable it might be… especially if the artist makes it big! I keep my print runs short for now - I currently have no editions that are larger than twenty. Things can go wrong, too, so there is a number of prints that aren’t included in the edition because they’re not good enough.

An example of a print, numbered in the bottom left corner
(my signature goes over on the bottom right).

As well as its long lasting quality and limited edition; each print has, of course, been made by hand and has involved much more of the artists time and attention than you might realise… which leads me on to the juicy stuff… how a screen print is made! 

There is some labour and a lot of love that goes into a screen print. First of all we need the facilities. I make my prints at West Yorkshire Print Workshop in Mirfield. I choose a screen first - I hire it for the session, which means transferring my design to it first and then removing it at the end of the session. 

I coat the screen with a light sensitive fluid called Azocol, using a trough and a pulling action. You have to wear rubber gloves because it can be harmful to the skin, get the lid back on the tub as quick as you can so it’s not damaged by the light, then get the screen into the drying cupboard quick sharp before it’s exposed to too much light. Then you wait for about half an hour while it dries and you eat a sandwich or prepare your artwork.  

The first stage - the coated screen drying

Once the Azocol has dried, it’s then time to transfer the artwork to the screen, using a transparent overlay. There are different ways to create the overlay, but the way that suits my work best is to scan my drawings in and then print them on to transparent film. The screen is placed inside a large UV light exposure unit, with the artwork overlay underneath. A lid is closed and a vacuum is used to hold everything in place, while the screen is exposed to the UV light for a set amount of time. 

My artwork on acetate, ready to transfer to the screen
The screen inside the light exposure unit, note the vacuum action!

Once the screen is taken out of the exposure unit, it is then washed. The areas that were blocked from the UV light will wash away from the mesh, leaving a stencil behind, ready to print from. It needs to dry first, so time for another sandwich or cutting paper/mixing ink. Once the screen is dry, it’s ready to print from, hooray! 

Block colour stencil transferred to the silk screen
Linework layer on a separate screen (I printed both layers on different days)

The screen gets clamped into a frame to keep everything in the same place throughout printing. Paper is held in place using a vacuum bed. I mix my ink with a medium that will help it push through the mesh without drying too quick and then use a squeegee to push the ink through the screen on to the paper. This is the bit that feels amazing! 

The screen clamped in place

Multicolour squeegee action!
I swear not all my prints are in pink!

Using the squeegee to push the shiny, rolling pile of ink downwards feels lovely and it’s then so exciting to lift up the frame and screen to see how the print has come out. There can be some troubleshooting along the way, as they don’t always come out perfect. You have to work quick, so that the ink doesn’t dry into the mesh and block the stencil. It is meditative and I always have a moment when I think, ‘I haven’t been thinking about anything else since I got here!’ and my mind feels very clear. It’s a lovely, therapeutic process.

Lifting the screen to reveal the result

Happy prints, drying on the racks
After that comes the sad bit… cleaning the screen. Wearing rubber gloves and goggles, the screen has to be coated with a chemical called Pregasol and left to sit for a few minutes, while the pretty picture starts to fade. It feels like on Mary Poppins when it starts raining and the chalk picture land gets ruined. 

Sad screen about to be washed
Printing in the summer = sweaty brow.
I haven't been wearing these the whole time...
just for the Pregasol.

The screen is sprayed clean with a pressure washer, which removes all traces of Azocol (the chemical we used at the beginning) and the design. If you have your own screens and want to keep the design on for next time, you can just wash the paint off. I don’t have my own screens yet, but hopefully this year I will be getting some and that will save me some time.

Well, I’ve written a right proper essay. If you’re still reading, thankyou! I hope you learnt something and feel a bit more knowledgable next time you’re looking round a print fair.

For further geeking out, here are some links I’ve found helpful in the past… and of course, you can check out my range of both digital and screen prints here.

A good little explanation of acid-free paper:

Quick tips on signing prints:

Some further explanation of different print edition initials: