Silk-Screen Printing

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON DEMAND > Materials and Techniques >

Silk-screening is a printing method used by artists and professional printers. The process is closely related to ordinary stenciling.

Artists' fine-art prints made by the silk-screen process are called serigraphs. Serigraphs are made by forcing ink through a tightly stretched silk screen. Parts of the screen—the areas that will not be printed—are coated with a sealer, such as shellac, to prevent ink from passing through. The screen therefore acts as a stencil. In making serigraphs of many colors, printers need a stencil for each color.

No one knows how old the stencil is. The idea is so simple that historians believe stencils may have been used thousands of years ago. The silk-screen stencil is believed to have been invented in Asia as long ago as A.D. 500. By the 1600's, silk-screen printing was a highly developed art in China and Japan. It spread gradually to Europe. Samuel Simon, of England, received the first patent for silk-screen stencil printing in 1907.

Preparation of the Silk Screen

To make a silk screen, the artist builds a wooden frame that is a little larger than the prints that will be made. A piece of fine silk is stretched tightly over the frame and nailed to the sides. For a long time silk was the only fabric with a weave small enough for the process. But today screens made of nylon, cotton, or steel wire are also used. The covered frame is hinged to a base or table, silk side down. The screen is then ready to be used over and over again.

There are several ways to make the silk screen into a stencil. In the simplest method, the artist makes a drawing on the screen. Then, using shellac or glue, the artist paints around the design. The area to be printed is left uncoated. Another way is to paint the design on the screen with lithographic tusche (a grease-based ink), then cover the entire screen with glue. After the glue coating dries, kerosene is wiped over the surface of the screen removing the tusche from the places where the artist has drawn. Many other techniques can be used. The only requirement is that the shapes to be printed must remain uncoated.

Printing the Serigraph

After the sealer dries, the silk screen is a stencil, ready to be used for printing. A piece of paper is placed under the screen. A creamy opaque or transparent ink is placed on the border along one side of the screen. With a squeegee--a square-edged strip of hard rubber attached to a handle—the ink is spread across the screen so that it penetrates the unsealed areas. This procedure may be repeated for as many prints as are needed. If prints of many colors are wanted, a different screen is usually prepared for each color.

The Uses of Silk-Screen Printing

Many artists make serigraphs, and the silk-screen process is as popular for making prints as are the more traditional techniques, such as woodblock printing, etching, and lithography. Silk-screen printing is a splendid technique for printing bold posters and signs. Commercial printers often use the technique for printing advertisements because silk-screening is much less expensive than most other printing methods.

In recent years, the silk screen has been used more and more by manufacturers, fashion designers, and commercial artists. Toys, bottles, glasses, and wallpaper can be decorated with serigraph designs. Silk-screened fabrics are a popular choice for draperies.

Reviewed by John Sparks
Maryland Institute, College of Art


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