Screen Printing

Keith Haring lithograph, Andy Mouse Plate, 1986 via Wiki Images

Feature image: Keith Haring lithograph, Andy Mouse Plate, 1986 via Wiki Images

Screen Printing in Art

Screen printing is a widely debated topic in art. One of the most extensive critiques of screen printing is that it promotes a higher commercialization of art through the means of being able to reproduce an image onto a variety of surfaces. However, this critique needs to consider the technique behind the method and how artists have adapted screen printing to create clever, critical, and iconic imagery. This method is beloved by artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Keith Haring, and Barbara Krueger. Each of these artists took the technique and put their flair behind it, pushing the limits of what screen-printed art could look like and convey. 

With the emergence of the Pop Art movement in the late 1950s, screen printing began to take off as a more authentic form of producing art. However, the technique for this method actually started back in China during the Song Dynasty; it took off globally many centuries later. Europeans began experimenting with screen printing in the 19th century when colonization and industrialization offered more straightforward access to the silk needed for screen printing. 

Keith Haring, Stop Aids, 1989 via Wiki Art
Keith Haring, Stop Aids, 1989 via Wiki Art

In 1907, the first patent for screen printing was made. Englishman Samuel Simon’s version of screen printing featured large swatches of bolting fabric stretched across a wooden frame like a canvas. A design would then be blocked out on the fabric, and ink or paint would be pushed through the negative space, not blocked out by the stencil, almost like a more advanced stamp. With the invention of photography, the light-reactive chemicals utilized to create photos were also experimented with for screen printing. Different shades and values could be applied to the screen and then chemically transferred to the desired surface with the light.

Today’s screen printing most closely resembles the 1907 patent from Samuel Simon. A fabric with a fine mesh consistency (such as silk or polyester) will be stretched out over a frame; this is the screen. The desired image or art would then be drawn out onto the screen, and screen-printed art uses negative space to form shapes and textures. After the stencil is applied to the screen, it makes it so ink and paint can’t pass through these stencil spaces. So when you push your paint or ink through the screen, you get the inverse of the image on the other side. It's simple enough, right?

If a design features multiple colors or needs layers in the design, two stencils will be used. Each one is specifically designed with just a part of the final piece. Paint or ink is often pushed through the screen with a squeegee or roller brush, and once done, these stencils can, in theory, be used over and over again. Perhaps this is why screen printing became a true industry in the 1920s when it would be used to mass produce commercialized products like ad flyers or billboards. 

Barbara Kruger Untitled 1990 Kemper Art museum
Barbara Kruger, Untitled, 1990, Kemper Art museum

The ability to mass-produce a message was also heavily utilized in the 1960s by protesters for Civil Rights and the Vietnam War. Protesters could quickly produce signs and canvases bearing their messages, often with a political cartoon or art piece attached. This widespread use of screen printing in the 1960s coincided with the development of pop art, resulting in a technique and art movement match made in heaven. 

Screen printing has a few benefits that entice artists; the ability to control the layers of texture and color opens many pathways for artists to experiment with. Plus, most screen printing designs have a certain simplicity. This isn’t to say that screen-printed art is simple by any means; it is just that the simplicity of the design aligns with the visions some artists have for their personal artistic voice. Plus, with some practice, you can alter the printed image based on the amount of pressure you use to push the pigment through. 

Andy Warhol, one of the pioneers of this technique within pop art, displays this in his piece, Marilyn Diptych. The image of Marilyn Monroe is slowly distorted through the use of pushing more and more ink onto the canvas. Eventually, the Hollywood star’s demise is shown through the fading of her image. This fascinating narrative quality is achieved through the manipulation of screen printing. Warhol picked up screen printing in 1962, he would have photographs appropriated from pop culture, other artists, or other media be printed onto screens. Then, back at his studio, he would be able to mass produce the image to his liking. Warhol told Art News in 1962 that he painted this way because he wanted “to be a machine.”

Marilyn Diptych, Andy Warhol 1962 via Wikiimages
Marilyn Diptych, Andy Warhol 1962 via Wiki Images

Warhol was not the only artist to adopt this technique, another famous name who used screen printing was Keith Haring. Haring’s expressive and daring line work seemed to be an ideal style for screen printing. He could layer his designs over and over or reprint them as much as he pleased. Haring used this technique as part of mass-producing art to raise awareness for things such as the AIDS epidemic. Barbara Krueger used screen printing to share her feminist message in art. Screen printing was a sensible technique for Kruger, who would occasionally pull images from pop culture to critique or use a feminist lens. For Kruger, screen printing allowed her to bring her message to the masses and create a plethora of art to back her up. 

Roy Lichtenstein was less outward in his screen printing compared to Kruger and Haring. His screen-printed works still fall within the realm of pop art, as they mimic comic books and the Sunday Paper funny section. But with this, he also employed the idea of how he could distort these images or layer the color and texture in his work to evoke different feelings and interpretations. 

roy-lichtenstein-industry-and rhe arts 1969 via Sotheby_s
Roy Lichtenstein, Industry and the Arts, 1969 via Sotheby's

If you haven’t caught on by now, screen printing is favored by many artists because it allows them to take images from the world around them and distort them to fit their own view of the image. While many artists are hailed for this interpretive use of the technique, it does bring along with it the critique that the mass production of art diminishes any real value of the piece. At the same time, there is arguably a fine line between artistic interpretation, capitalistic advocacy, and the intent used for screen printing matters. 

untitled-i-shop-therefore-i-am-1987 Barbara Kruger wikiart
Barbara Kreuger, I Shop Therefore I Am, 1987 via WikiArt

Andy Warhol has received the most critique around his selection of images for his art, with many arguing it can’t be art if Warhol is not designing the image himself. But when we go back to the quote where he says he wants to feel like a machine, it brings a new perspective to the madness. One could argue that Warhol has become so disillusioned by the state of the art that mass production and original creation seem to have the same value. Barbara Kruger’s use of popular images reassessed viewers' perspectives of popular media or advertisements. It’s almost like she’s taking the viewer’s hand and bringing them into her way of seeing the world around her. It’s difficult to say that pop art is a proponent of the invasion of capitalism into artistic production when so many artists use this technique to critique that exact thing. 

Keith Haring once said, "Art is for everybody." His statement encapsulates the democratizing power of screen printing. There’s a reason artists such as Warhol and Haring have retained so much popularity in modern culture today. The abundant amount of their art made it so they were hard to ignore. In museums all over the country, from Cincinnati to Chicago to Los Angeles, pieces from the screenprinters are on constant display. Allowing artists to produce multiple copies of their work makes art more accessible to the public and aids in spreading their message wider and further. Screen printing's mass production capability does not diminish the artwork's value but amplifies its impact and reach. 

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