_Making Art


I've had lots of people ask how my art is made, what the process is, or simply "what does screen printing mean?" I'll try to answer that on this page. Screen printing (also known as silk screening, or seri-graph) is a process in which a separate printing "screen" is made for each color. The colors are then hand pressed through the fine woven mesh onto a substrate. In my case 100% cotton rag paper. The colors are applied one at a time until the final process is complete. Below, I will walk you step-by-step through through the creation of my art.


The Concept

I often start a new piece by walking around the city, with camera in hand, looking for something inspiring, or iconic, that I can transform into a bold expression. Not everything lends itself equally to screen printing, and what might make for a great photograph is too busy, or finely detailed, or has too many colors to work well as a screen print. I look for contrast and a strong play of light and shadows (this can be difficult to find in Seattle's often overcast climate). I find that man-made subjects, such as buildings, skylines, boats, or other objects lend themselves to the rigor of simplification that screen printing demands. Much more so than images of nature do. But that doesn't mean that nature images are out. Landscapes and vistas work better than do mid-range compositions. Surprisingly close-ups, and details work as well.


Transforming the Real World

With some photographs in hand, I can start the process of taking the vision in my head and making it real. Using Photoshop, I posterize the photo into as few colors as possible, while maintaining the qualities of the image that I want to portray. This is not as straight forward as it may seem, as Photoshop works with a purely mathematical eye, not an aesthetic one. For example, the aspect of the photograph that I really want to bring forward may be a different color from the rest of the scene, but the computer doesn't think it's significant because, percentage wise, it constitutes less of the image than other colors. So I keep upping the number of colors until I can represent the subject as I want. Often this is in the 20-30 color range - far too many to screen print. So I start the long process of deciding which colors are too similar to other colors, or are not important to the piece, and can be replaced by others. My goal is to reduce the number of colors to less than 8, though that's not always possible (the piece Ferry and Olympics, for example, has 10 different colors). What I end up with is an image that looks no longer like the original photograph, but not yet the piece of art that I imagined.

I now have a simplified pallet of colors. Using a Wacom tablet and stylus, I start drawing over the image, emphasizing some aspects, and diminishing others. The effect is different from piece to piece, but I look to create a hand drawn expression of the real world, using shapes with smooth, clean edges, not the pixilated look that Photoshop left me with.

Now is the time that I look at the colors the final piece will use. I hand mix my own inks to the Pantone matching system, so I use that model when choosing the colors I want to use. This can take several hours, as a small change in one color can have a dramatic effect on the mood of the piece. Often the exact color I am looking for isn't available in the Pantone pallet, so choosing one that is may mean reselecting others with which I was already happy, in order to keep the proper balance. Once I have all the colors selected, I finally have an image on the computer that represents what I want from the piece.


Separating the Colors and Trapping

As I mentioned in the beginning, screen printing requires that a separate screen be made for each color. It's also necessary to allow for slight shifting of the screen and paper during the printing process. If I simply took the composite image and separated the colors onto different screens, any misalignment, however slight, during the printing process would allow the color of the paper to show through between the printed colors. This mis-registration would ruin the effect I am trying to create. To get around the inevitable issues with registration, I have to create screens that slightly overlap each other as the ink is put on the paper. This is called trapping. The basic rule-of-thumb is that lighter colors are allowed to extend under darker colors, as the darker inks will hide the overlap. Each pair of inks must be examined separately to determine which is the more dominant, and therefore, which should extend under which. For a 4-color print there are 6 pairings to consider, but this goes up exponentially as more colors are used in the print. A 6 color print has 15 potential pairs, an 8 color print has 27, and a 10 color print has a whopping 44 different combinations of 2 colors. Once I know which colors will go under which, I can create a separate image for each color, and slightly enlarge each where necessary. Depending on how large an area the particular ink covers, I like to use a trap value of 1 to 3 points (a point is 1/72 of an inch) . The last thing to be done at this stage is to add a registration mark (I use a + sign) to the four corners of the image, about 1.5 inches away from the image, in exactly the same place on each color.


Creating the Screens

Now that the colors are separated and trapped, it's time to create the actual screens. The first step is to print out the separate layers as black ink onto clear film. These film positives will be used for exposing the screens. The screens are fine nylon mesh stretched onto aluminum frames. The mesh is classified by the number of threads per inch - more threads allows for more definition, but also requires thinner inks to get through the openings. Screen mesh is available from under 100 tpi to over 400. I use 280 mesh which allows for plenty of detail, but still allows for ink that has enough body to it that it won't drip.

To get the image onto the screen, first a screen is coated with a light sensitive photo-emulison. This has to be done under conditions free from UV light, so is prepared in a darkroom with a yellow safety light. Once coated, the screens are left to dry over night, again in a dark room. The now dry screens are ready to have the images transfered onto them. The film positive is positioned onto a light table, and a screen placed over it, carefully aligned, so that the images are always in a similar location on each screen. The screen is weighed down, and ultraviolet lights (similar to tanning bed lights) are turned on beneath the image. Where the black image is on the film, no light is allowed to strike the emulsion, everywhere else it is. After being exposed, the screen is taken to a wash-out booth where it is sprayed with water under pressure. All the places that the UV light was allowed to hit the emulsion, the emulsion has hardened, and isn't effected by the water. Everywhere else (the image area) the emulsion is washed away leaving that part of the screen clean for the ink to pass through.


Mixing the Ink and Printing the First Color

I mix all of my inks by hand, using a clear acrylic binder base, and water based pigments. I consult a formula for each of the Pantone colors I've chosen, to determine how much pigment to add to the base (often in amounts so small that I add it using an eyedropper and count the individual drops)

The screen is then mounted to the press and a piece of printing paper placed on the pallet, making sure the screen is square to, and centered on the paper. The edges of the screen are all taped off, so that the ink doesn't leak through, and the ink poured/scooped onto the screen.

I take a first pass with a large squeegee to flood the screen with ink. Then a second pass is taken, pressing down hard to push the ink through the mesh and onto the paper. For this first print I have left the registration marks open, so that there are now + signs on all four corners of the print. These will be used on subsequent passes to precisely align each new color to the previous ones. The paper is removed from the pallet, and the registration marks are covered up so that they won't print on the rest of the prints. This makes the first print unique amoung the run, as it is the only one to have these marks.

Now the actual printing begins. One by one, pieces of printing paper are positioned against the alignment bar on the press, the screen lowered, and ink squeegeed through the mesh. All of the intended copies are printed with the first color, and set in a drying rack to dry.


Additional Colors

The print that has the registration marks is placed back on the pallet, and the second screen is attached to the press. The registration marks in the screen are precisely aligned with the marks printed on the proof, and the screen is locked into place. The color for this screen is mixed and printed onto each sheet of paper. And so it goes; the process repeates for each color, one by one until all of the screens have been printed onto all of the sheets of paper.


Limited Edition

The prints are all limited editions, and the screens erased after the final print. I aim to have 100 prints for each piece, but often will lose several during the process due to shifting paper, bad alignment, or occasionally using the wrong color ink for the wrong screen (yes, this has happened). To anticipate this I start out with more prints than I want for the set, trying to anticipate how many I'll lose based on how difficult the design is to register, and how many colors there are (more colors means more opportunities for things to go wrong). I own 5 screens, so if I lose too many in the first few colors, I can always reprint them to get the number back where I want it. But if the piece has more than 5 colors in it, I need to start erasing (reclaiming) the screens to create new ones before I've made a single complete print. This is the point of no return. This is why a few of my prints are in editions of less than 100.

All told a run of 100 prints of a 6 color design takes about 25-30 hours, from conception to completion.


I hope this explaination has helped you better understand what screen printing is, and therefore better appreciate the art behind the art. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions.