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Four Alternative Silkscreen Techniques

October 15, 2011

A woman interested in natural, environmental and sustainable methods of making art asked me what alternatives there were to the typical liquid plastic and Diazo dye photo-emulsion coating used in making silkscreens.  One concern was the health impact of and the strong smell of the light reactive photo-emulsion.  This set me to racking my brain and going through my books on printmaking techniques.

Here are four alternative silkscreen techniques:

1. PAPER STENCIL – This was recommended in The Encyclopedia of Printmaking Techniques by Judy Martin.  I decided to try this myself and made a paper stencil with a basic stencil font.  I just used average weight, duel use computer printer / photocopy paper.  (The book used newsprint.)  The idea is that the wetness of the silkscreen ink holds the paper stencil in place with surface tension and that this is a very low cost method of printing.   

spraypaint stencil prints

RESULTS – Early prints came out with a lot of bleed through and bleeding around the edges.  A few prints in the middle of the run came out better, but the edges were still a problem.  The paper stencil rapidly loses surface strength; time is running out the moment you start to use it.  It may be worthwhile to experiment with glossy or coated papers.  Thicker paper could be a problem as it could catch on the edge of the squeegee.  I can’t say I recommend paper stencils at all.

2. SHELF LINER STENCIL – For all the time and effort you will put into cutting a paper stencil, you are better off with a roll of self-adhesive plastic shelf liner.  These are sold at hardware stores, big box stores and home centers.  Art supply stores may also have a similar plastic film, sometimes clear, with an adhesive back.  I like shelf liner because it is low-cost, plentiful, cuts well with a razor or X-Acto knife, holds well while printing and comes off of a silkscreen mesh very well.   I draw on it with permanent markers, use prints taped to it or transfer drawings onto it with carbon paper.

RESULTS – As long as you get the stencil stuck on the mesh smoothly and lined up how you want it, you can’t go wrong with this method.  It can be as intricate or as simple as you want.  An advantage of shelf-liner stencils versus photo-emulsion is that you can use the same screen over and over again very quickly.  As soon as you pull off the stencil and the tape around its edges, wash the ink off and dry the screen, you are ready to place the next stencil on it and continue working.   I have reclaimed screens by removing photo-emulsion and that is much more labor intensive.

3. CRAYONS / OIL-STICK / CRAY PAS – I find this method to easy to do and kind of fun.  The lines have a soft, loose quality; ink can go through any grainy texture in the lines.  Press hard to use the crayon or oil-stick to clog the silkscreen, filling in the spaces you want blocked.  Use a light touch with the squeegee so you do not rub out the material blocking the screen.


Crayon resist drawing of tobacco plants, 110 mesh silkscreen

Abstract crayon resist silkscreen, sheer gold metallic ink on green paper, 110 mesh silkscreen

RESULTS – This is a fast and easy way to make a silkscreen image, but it is fragile so you will not get many prints from doing this method.  They will have a very distinctive look.  Use mineral spirits to scrub the crayon, oil-stick or cray pas from the screen, a scrub brush with some scouring powder and dish liquid will help de-grease your screen, a strong blast from a pressure washer is a good finish.

4. TUSCHE AND GUM ARABIC – I did not have time to try this method, the pages below are from The Encyclopedia of Printmaking Techniques by Judy Martin and describe the whole process.  I will say a few things based on my experience with the materials.  Basically, with this process you draw with the Tusche ink, coat the screen with the Gum Arabic, let the gum dry, then free your Tusche ink lines with a rag soaked in mineral spirits.  Then you print with that screen film when it is dry.  This works because Tusche ink is soluble in mineral spirits but the Gum Arabic is water soluble.

Tusche ink and lithographic crayon lend themselves to a hand-drawn quality; it is very hard to get sharp edges with these.  They would be good for prints with a painterly quality and I like how the example has texture from spattering the Tusche ink with a toothbrush.  Gum Arabic is water soluble but hardens when dry; it is sticky, sticky stuff.  If you start printing, intend to get all of the prints done for that layer done in that printmaking session; your ink will re-hydrate the Gum Arabic to some degree.  You would need to work to get the Gum Arabic off the silkscreen.  I would soak it in warm water with dish liquid, peel and scrub off the film, try a sponge and some scouring powder to de-grease the screen, and ultimately I would want to blast the screen with a pressure washer.  (Pressure washers get everything off an old silkscreen, often even the stains and haze from old ink embedded in the fibers of the screen mesh are removed.  A 160 PSI power washer worked miracles in my school’s print studio.)

CONCLUSION –  Photo-emulsion is not the only way of working but it is the most technically advanced.  The nature of its chemistry does have its advantages. It is a coating which forms a thin sheet of plastic and the images burned into it can have a high level of detail.  It works very well with text, photographic and digital art.  A finished silkscreen coated and burned with photo-emulsion can be washed and used repeatedly, allowing you to print the image on the screen indefinitely.  The emulsion can be dissolved with the solvents specifically made to remove it and the screen can be used again and again.  It is not the most cost-effective or environmental method of silkscreen printmaking, but it is prolific because of these advantages.


Categories: Printmaking, Uncategorized
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