History of screen printing

The basic principle behind screen printing process, which is forcing paint or dye through a stencil to create a design, was already known in ancient times in different parts of the world. Early Polynesian Island natives, for example, by cutting shapes into banana leaves were able to transfer stenciled designs onto a bark cloth. Early forms of stenciling were also found in the caves of Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain.

The art of stenciling was brought to perfection by Japanese. In 1644 Japanese Yuzensai Miyasaki-San has adapted stencil painting process to print patterns on kimonos, in order to circumvent the ban on wearing hand painted kimonos by disadvantaged social strata in Japan. This process was further improved by Zisukeo Hirose (1822-1890), who invented a template called katagami. A paper cut design was applied on a mesh made of human or animal hair which was stretched on a wooden frame. This became a “prototype” of the screen printing process as we know it today and both Japanese are considered to be screen printing pioneers.

Katagami Stencil

Japanese katagami stencil

In the late 18th century screen printing was largey introduced from Asia to Western Europe, but did not gain common acceptance or use there until silk mesh was more available for trade from the East.

The very first European patent in the field of screen printing was reported by an Englishman Samuel Simon in 1907. His process used silk fabric as a printing screen, which is why screen printing is sometimes referred to as silk screenining or serigraphy (from the Latin word seri, which means silk and the Greek word graphikos meaning able to write). A few years after Simons’ patent, in 1914, John Pilsworth of San Francisco, pantented a multicolor screen printing process.

In the early 1910s several printers were experimenting with photo-reactive chemicals for creating screen printing stencils. Photo-imaged stencils were eventually introduced by Roy Beck, Charles Peter and Edwar Owens, who created chromic acid salt sensitized screen printing emulsion. Nowadays much safer and less toxic sensitizers are used, but the invention proved to be revolutionary.

During the First World War in America screen printing took off as an industrial printing process used for flags, banners and posters. Around 1930′s the screen printing came to the attention of artists as a cheap and repetitive medium for expressing their ideas. In 1960′s screen printing was particularly popular in Pop Art. Artist such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein in the USA, or Eduado Paolozzi and Joe Tilson in the UK made the technique familiar.

Turquoise Marylin

Turquoise Marylin - famous multicolor serigraphy by Andy Warhol

Today, screen printing is popular both in fine arts and in commercial printing, where it is commonly used to print images on posters, t-shirts, CDs or DVDs, glass, ceramics, leather and almost any other kind of surface.

Even though screen printing has become a pretty sophisticated process, utilising advanced materials and machines often combined with computer technology, it’s principle has remained unchanged since Samuel Simon’s 1907 patent.

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