What Is Silk Screen Printing? 5 Things You Need to Know

Do you like wearing graphic tees? Have you ever thought about making your own? Stick with us as we explore the wonders of silk screen printing and the processes behind it! We’ll discuss five things about silk screen printing that you need to know — what is silk screen printing all about, the history of silk screen printing, the types of silk screen printing, the materials used for silk screen printing, and the processes involved in doing this printmaking technique.

What Is Silk Screen Printing?

So what is silk screen printing exactly? Silk screen printing (also called screen printing and serigraph printing) involves the use of a mesh and a stencil. The mesh is used to transfer ink onto an underlying layer while an impermeable stencil blocks the flow of ink — creating an image in the process.

A blade or squeegee facilitates the movement of the ink through the open mesh apertures. A reverse stroke causes the screen to make contact with the substrate and transfers the ink from the mesh apertures to the underlying layer.

Because of its capacity to reproduce the same design over and over, silk screen printing is used mainly for printing graphic designs on t-shirts, textiles, fabrics, canvas tote bags, caps, and other porous materials. Silk was originally used for the mesh or screen (thus the name “silk screen”) but has since evolved to the more popular and economical use of polyester and synthetic threads. There are different types of mesh in various sizes with each determining the look and outcome of the finished design.

example f screen printed poster

History of Silk Screen Printing

What is silk screen printing in terms of its origins? Silk screen printing has been around for centuries and is considered one of the oldest techniques in printmaking.

Origins

The first recognizable form of silk screen printing appeared during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) in China. Other Asian countries followed suit, with Japan creating newer and more complex methods of the printmaking technique. Silk screen printing was only introduced to Western Europe during the late 18th century but wasn’t widely accepted until silk became more available for trade.

Discovery of Sensitized Emulsions

In 1910, a group of printers experimented with photo-reactive chemicals. Roy Beck, Charles Peter, and Edward Owens were engaged in studying and experimenting with chromic acid salt-sensitized emulsions for photo-reactive stencils. Their efforts revolutionized the commercial printing industry with the introduction of these photo-imaged stencils.

To date, the commercial screen printing industry makes use of safer and less toxic sensitizers. There now exists a larger selection of pre-sensitized and user-mixed sensitized emulsion chemicals to choose from in creating photo-reactive stencils.

Serigraphy as an Artistic Application

By the 1930s, a group of artists would coin “Serigraphy” as an artistic application of silk screen printing to set it apart from industrial methods of the printmaking technique. Serigraphy was derived from the Latin word, sēricum (silk) and the Greek word, graphein (meaning to write or draw).

What is silk screen printing in modern times as compared to its roots? Silk screen printing now is definitely more affordable and relatively easier to produce. With the onset of affordable and readily available screen printing materials, silk screen printing has become a popular printing method. Silk screen printing has been applied to create movie posters, record album covers, flyers, t-shirts, and other commercial artworks.

Noted Artists Who Have Used Silk Screen PrintingWarhol's Campell's Soup screen print

From the 1960s up to the present, notable artworks have been created from silk screen printing. Andy Warhol is especially well-known for popularizing screen printing as an artistic technique. Other artists who made use of screen printing on canvas for their creative endeavors include Arthur Okamura, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, and Harry Gottlieb.

Types of Silk Screen Printing Methods

What is silk screen printing when it comes to the methods being used? There are several types of silk screen printing methods that are being currently utilized both for personal and commercial purposes.

Spot Color Printing

Spot color printing is perhaps the most affordable and cost-effective method when it comes to silk screen printing. Spot color printing can be used for printing images with 1-4 colors without needing to make adjustments to the ink. Depending on the ink and mesh count used, the results produce dynamic spots and thicker layers of color. Spot color printing is ideal for printing graphic and solid logos with no gradients.

Half-Tone Printing

In order to achieve half-tones, one or several colors need to be printed in gradients. One-color designs are made to appear in two or more shades. For a single color, the range of tones may vary from a very fine halftone to a solid spot color. The half-tone effect is achieved by the use of discrete dots which create the illusion of continuous lines and shapes. This method works for those who want to print photo-like images or images with varying shades and tones, albeit using only one color of ink.

Duotone Printing

Duotone printing is the process of combining two halftones for the same image which is then printed with two colors. This creates the illusion of a full-color print while only utilizing two colors of ink. A sepia effect is a good example of duotone printing.

4-Color Process or CMYK Printing

Because of its complexity, CMYK printing is recommended to be used only in automatic presses. Consistency and optimum results can only be achieved if an automatic press is used. A full-color image is broken down into four constituent colors: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black. When combined, these four colors recreate the full range of tones and colors of the original image.

Simulated Process Printing

This is a combination of CMYK printing and spot color printing. This method can also be done by printing spot colors with half-tone colors to come up with the colors of the original image. However, just like the 4-color process, this method can be costly and complicated to use because it requires complex artworks and several screens.

screen print works leaning against wall

Materials Used for Silk Screen Printing

Silk screen printing involves the use of these essential materials:

Mesh or Screen

A mesh made of synthetic polymer (e.g. nylon) is stretched over a frame to create the screen. The frame can be made of wood or aluminum. The mesh must be mounted under tension in order for it to become effective. For designs that require more delicate details, a finer mesh with smaller aperture is used.

Emulsion

The emulsion is a thick and photosensitive liquid substance which is used to create stencils on a mesh or screen. When exposed to light, the emulsion toughens and becomes an impenetrable barrier on the surface of the screen. These blocked off parts will appear as “open spaces” between the printed parts to form the image.

Inks

Inks that are used for silk screen printing are more viscous and may be oil-based or water-based. There are several types of inks currently being used for silk screen printing which include:

1. Plastisol

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Plastisol is a suspension of PVC particles often referred to as a plasticizer which increases flexibility. Plastisol provides great image clarity on garments and is known to be thick, versatile, and durable. However, this type of ink gives the appearance and feel of plastic on the printed surface.

2. Discharge Inks

Discharge inks are used to lighten the existing dyes in a garment. The Zinc Formaldehyde Sulfoxylate activates the dye in fabric to discharge it. Discharge inks are available in clear or colored form.

3. Water-Based Inks

Water-based inks penetrate fabrics better compared to plastisol. They are semi-transparent and usually require custom color matching in order to achieve a uniform look. Water-based inks are used to achieve a softer effect on the image. However, this type of ink may also take longer to dry.

Squeegee

A squeegee is an essential tool in the silk screen printing process because it’s responsible for flooding the screen, pushing and pulling the ink, and helping transfer the design from the stencil to the substrate. A squeegee durometer indicates the hardness of the squeegee blade — a more detailed print requires a higher mesh count thus, it also needs a higher durometer squeegee.

The lower the durometer, the thicker the amount of ink will be deposited. A squeegee contains a printing edge which allows the user to manipulate the ink. Speed, pressure, and angle are very important when it comes to handling the squeegee as they can affect the results of the printed material.

Conclusion

Now that you know the essentials, you can take the next step towards creating your own design and purchasing the materials you need for the printing process. With a little practice, you can make designs that you’ll enjoy and maybe even start up a business that will make you some extra money! Whether for fun or profit, your screen printing endeavors will be part of a craft with a long, worldwide history.

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