A Brief History of Screenprinting

Screen printing is one of our popular activities here at WNYBAC. We even offered a CMYK Screenprint workshop yesterday in our studio! Some of our board members, apprentices and volunteers are very skilled at screen printing, and you can see that with all the different totes and t-shirts we have on sale in our store. We are going to have a look at how far screenprinting has come and how it became such a staple in the art of printing.

A Screenprinting Press

Screenprinting originated in China during the Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD) as a way of transferring designs onto fabrics. Japan was one of the first Asian countries to start make recognizable forms of screenprinting. The Japanese used simple stenciling techniques to create imagery on fabric. Stencils were originally cut out of paper and the mesh they used was woven from human hair. Ink was forced through the mesh onto the fabric with stiff brushes.

The art form made its way to Europe in the 18th Century but did not immediately become largely accepted. France began using silk screens to print on to fabric earlier in the 17th Century, although they still used stiff brushes to push it through the mesh. But it eventually led to the practice of stretching silk over a frame to support the stencils. And in the 19th Century when silk mesh was more available to be traded from Asia, it proved to be a profitable outlet for the medium. It grew in traction and popularity around Europe.

Using a squeegee on the silk screen

In the early 1900s, squeegees were formed and used as a way of pulling ink through the screen mesh. Roy Beck, Charles Peter and Edward Owens are credited with revolutionizing the commercial screen printing industry by their introduction of photo-imaged stencils to screenprinting. 

The screenprinting process was initially used to print interesting colors and patterns on wall paper and fabrics and then it was by advertisers for campaigns. Eventually artists and commercial printers have adopted it as a new way of reproducing their works on different materials such as t-shirts, DVDs, glass, paper, metal and wood. 

A group of artists in the 1938 formed the National Serigraph Society, which included artists such as Max Arthur Cohn and Anthony Velonis. This society coined the term Serigraphy (a term meaning “seri” silk in Latin and “graphein” to draw in Greek) as a way to differentiate their own artistic application of screen printing on to paper from the industrial, commercial use of the process.

The famous Marilyn Monroe screen print by Andy Warhol.

By the 1960’s Pop Artists such as Peter Blake, Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg used screen printing, mostly serigraphy, as an important element of their art. This led to its popularity as a medium for creating contemporary artworks. Any Warhol’s 1962 Marilyn Diptich is one of his most famous silk prints.

American entrepreneur, artist and inventor Michael Vasilantone created, developed, used, and sold a rotatable multi-color garment screen printing machine in 1960. His patented creation resulted in a boom in printed T-shirts and made his garment screen printing machine became so popular, it now makes up for over half of the screen printing activity in the United States.

Another popular form of screenprinting which we also use here at WNYBAC, is the CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black ‘key’) method. It is widely known as graphic screenprinting and is used for making larger prints for things like posters. 

The Printers’ National Environmental Assistance Center said about the practice of screenprinting;

“Screenprinting is arguably the most versatile of all printing processes. Since rudimentary screenprinting materials are so affordable and readily available, it has been used frequently in underground settings and subcultures, and the non-professional look of such DIY culture screenprints have become a significant cultural aesthetic seen on movie posters, record album covers, flyers, shirts, commercial fonts in advertising, in artwork and elsewhere.”

Gadzookians making Customary Screenprinted T-shirts

Screenprinting has such a rich and interesting history and it is cool to know that some of the world’s most famous artworks were made from this method too! Make sure to check our website for any upcoming screenprinting workshops or come into our store and buy some of our artists screenprinted works!

Check out the Screenprints in our Store!!!

We would like to take this opportunity to thank our funders listed below, for providing support to WNYBAC's ongoing programs taking place throughout Western New York:

NYSCA M & T Art 4 Moore Zenger Group Evans Bank Community Foundation Baird Foundation
Cameron Jane Wendt Foundation StoryGrowing