Process: Screen Printing
S C R E E N P R I N T I N G - I’m in love! In fact I’m so much in love with it that I spent five years studying it. I love the process of it. It takes a while but when the final print looks perfect, the feeling that you have is amazing, you feel like you’ve won the lottery! Even sometimes when it’s not perfect I still appreciate it, as I am a huge fan of IMPERFECTIONS. Embrace the imperfections & little mistakes!
After doing a number of local markets in Shanghai, selling my hand screen-printed products, I didn’t realise that there were people, actually quite a number of people who didn’t know what screen-printing was. I’m glad I was super organised & made up some info sheets about it for people to read. So, I thought it was about time to write about how I make my stuff in the easiest way on my blog too.
The whole process starts off with the idea of what you want to print, you create your design, you have it finalised & then you need to prepare your screen.
STEP 1: Before choosing a screen you need to consider a few important things. You need a screen that is big enough for your design, what material you want to print on, fabric or paper, (as the mesh has different sizes) & how detailed your design is. Basically, the mesh is measured in threads per square inch/cm. For example, 120 would have less threads crossing over than say a 180 screen, therefore the gaps between the threads will be larger & so more ink would go through. So if your design is very intricate you'd want your screen mesh size be the higher number, otherwise the ink will bleed.
STEP 2: Once the screen is selected, it needs to be coated with an emulsion, which comes in various colours depending on different brands. It's IMPORTANT to work in a dark room away from the sunlight as the emulsion is light sensitive. If exposed to the sun, your image won't get exposed on to it. You need to think about this like a film roll from the old cameras, once you open the cover, the film is destroyed, so this works in a similar way. The emulsion is poured into these elongated beakers, tilted against the screen where a thin layer is spread out either on one or both sides of the mesh, making sure to collect any excess emulsion, otherwise it will take longer to dry & it will be too thick for the light to burn through & the image won't come out as well, if at all. Once coated you need to make sure the emulsion is completely dry.
STEP 3: Your design needs to be printed in black, as dark as possible on material such as acetate, tracing paper & I have also used normal white printing paper before & it has worked. Again, practice & experimenting helps to find a way that works for you. Place the design on the outer side of the screen & this is where you need to think how you want your design to come out, you'll need to reverse/mirror it. Use a little tape to stick the design to the screen but not too much as it will get exposed.
STEP 4: Once that's prepared, you are ready to take your screen to the Exposure Unit, which uses UV light. The unit below is hand made & constructed by one of my studio partners & of course you can get the industry built units too. Both do the same job. The air will be sucked out so there are no gaps between the screen & the UV light to make sure the art work is as crisp as possible. Once, the air has been sucked out, the UV light can be switched on & usually takes anywhere from 1-2 minutes, depending on the bulb strength & the manuals/recommendations given by the unit manufacturers. After the exposure, take your screen to the washroom, after removing the artwork sheet, & wet the screen. At this stage you can usually tell whether the exposure was a success or not. Leave the screen for a minute or so.
STEP 5: Wash your screen thoroughly. The dark areas of the artwork where the light wasn't shone on are not exposed & therefore the emulsion will dissolve & rinse off. Take your time here making sure the area you want to print is nice & clean & no residue of the emulsion is left on as it will show once you print. Use the light to help you see better. Let the screen dry completely, or use a hairdryer if in a hurry. But don't hold it too close as the silk screen will burn, I've learned it the hard way!
STEP 6: Choose the right size squeegee & mix the ink colours you want. Find big enough area for your screen & other things that you'll be using. Whatever facilities you have, whether it's just a table where you'll need to use weights to hold down the screen or you have a proper screen printing table. The main point here is to have the screen securely placed so it doesn't move. Choose your material/item that you want to print & align it with the screen. Place enough ink on the screen, it's better to have too much than too little, as it's super annoying when you run out of ink half way through a pull, a problem which will be difficult to correct at this point.
Hold the squeegee at 45 degree angle & pull the ink with a little pressure & quite fast. Sometimes one pull is ok & sometimes you will need more than one. All this depends on the ink & materials you're using, so experimenting first would be a great idea. Once you're done with printing, lift the screen carefully & see how the print came out. You could use the same screen for multiple prints or just once, it will all boil down to experimenting over a long time & see what works for you & what doesn't. Make sure to wash your screen & squeegee after use as you don't want the ink to dry on them as the ink will either won't come off or damage the equipment.
In the above example I only used one colour. However, my balloon print below, it has five different colours, that means five different screens. So there's quite a lot to consider when printing multiple coloured prints. A lot of fun but a lot of hard work, but of course all worth in the end when the print looks amazing!! I usually do a dance!
Go give screen printing a try! It's amazing!