Adventures are unique and intimate events, designed to offer our TEDx community unparalleled, behind-the scenes access to the people and places that make the local area so dynamic.
Learning To Screen Print At Magnetic North
I approached the most recent TEDxConcordiaUPortland (now known as TEDxMtHood) Adventure on learning how to screen print from the perspective not just of a person who would be writing a story about it, but also of a person who is interested in picking up the craft in earnest.
I’ve been experimenting with illustration for the past couple of years, but have gone only so far as using an inkjet printer to print out my illustrations. This Adventure changed that. Designer Phillip Stewart, a member of Magnetic North, a collective of graphic designers in Portland, walked us through the process of screen printing—a more DIY version of creating printed art.
Phillip showed us a few different screen printing methods, but the method we spent the most time on was the photo emulsion method. Rather than keeping to ourselves the techniques we learned from Phillip, we decided to share the process with an even broader audience than the dozen workshop attendees. So here you go, internet. Enjoy.
How to Screen Print Using the Photo Emulsion Method
Step 1: Print a transparency of your art (two copies for good measure).
Phillip did this before we arrived. The key here is to print the transparency so that the black portions cover any place you DO want ink to show up on the final print.
Step 2: Apply emulsion to your screen, then let it dry.
The “screen” in screen printing is a finely woven mesh attached tightly to a frame (so finely and tightly that to the eye it appears to be a thin plastic). Think of the screen as a porous sheet. Once we get to the step where we apply ink, that ink will push through the pores that are open and land on our printing surface. Ink won’t make it through the pores that are closed. In this step we use photo emulsion (a pink gooey liquid in our case) to block every single pore. Apply that emulsion to the screen, then let it dry.
Step 3: Expose the screen to light, with your transparency in between your screen and the light source.
Even though we let the emulsion dry in the last step, we can harden it even more by exposing it to light. But since hardening the emulsion means clogging those pores for good, we only want to harden those areas that don’t contain our art. To achieve that, we put our transparency in between our screen and the light source. This prevents light from hitting the portions of our screen where our art is. So wherever there is black on our transparency, the photo emulsion in that region doesn’t harden.
Timing is important here. You want to keep the light on long enough to harden the emulsion that’s exposed, but not so long that it seeps through and starts hitting the spots we’re trying to keep covered. With each new emulsion you use, it might take some trial and error to get the timing right based on your own individual lighting setup. This was the first time Phillip had used this particular emulsion brand, and you’ll see that some tweaking of the exposure time was still necessary.
Step 4: Spray screen with water.
Once the screen has been exposed to light, you rinse it with water—using even a pressure washer if you’ve got one! This will wash away the emulsion that wasn’t exposed to light, thereby opening those pores. It was at this step that we realized our timing with exposure was off—some parts that WERE exposed started washing away. A tiny bit of that might be good because it will add character to the print, but you don’t want it to be so pervasive that it distorts your art. It was great for us attendees to see that happen, because as newbies we would likely run into that same issue when we go try this on our own (after grabbing, for example, the awesome starter kits at diyprintshop.com that Phillip let us know about).
Step 5: Attach screen to press and set up registration marks that indicate where to place your printing surface.
Our screen is now ready. In this step we set up the space where we’ll be using that screen to make prints. The surface on which the art will be printed lies flat on a table, with the screen attached to a lever system that allows the screen to lie right on top of the printing surface (aka substrate) for when we apply ink, and to be pulled up after applying ink to remove the inked substrate and replace it with a blank one. Before applying ink, you line up the substrate so that the art makes it in the portion of the substrate that you want. By adding tape marks to the table, you’ll know exactly where to place each piece of paper before adding ink.
Step 6: Apply the ink!
This part takes some practice too. You add a line of ink across the top of the screen, pull down once with the squeegee without any downward pressure—just to spread the ink across the screen. Then you pull through again at about a 30 degree angle with lots of downward pressure so that you push the ink through the open pores and onto the paper. Not enough pressure and you’ll miss some spots.
Step 7: Bust out some prints.
Move that print aside to dry, load up another, then follow Step 6. Keep repeating until you’ve got as many prints as you like! Once you’ve got the technique down for applying ink with the right amount of pressure, you can bust out lots of prints in a short period of time, adding more ink to the top of the screen whenever necessary.
Yes, this process is much more involved than plugging your computer into a printer and pressing a button. But that’s the beauty in it. Your own two hands are involved in the production of each print, and that’s a good feeling. It was a blast for us to see this process and experience it first-hand. Special thanks to Phillip for the wonderful tutorial! Here’s hoping more people use these techniques to spread their own ideas in this unique way.
Doug Neill is an illustrator, writer, and teacher who became involved with TEDxConcordiaUPortland because of a tweet. After a last-minute contribution to the 2013 event, he decided to join the planning team for 2014. He draws things, writes stories, and helps prep speakers to give a memorable performance on event day