Process – How Screenprinting Works
As important as the meaning behind our brand, our designs, and our philosophy is — we want to take some time to tell you a little bit about our process!
You’ve probably heard of screenprinting before. Images of massive amounts of colorful t-shirts made for a kid’s sports team, a concert, or a streetwear clothing brand come to mind. But the process of screenprinting is so much more than that!
With a unique and long history, screenprinting is just one of many forms of printmaking that are fighting to remain relevant while machines continue to automate more and more aspects of our lives.
Here at Relativity it’s important to us that our wallpaper is screenprinted by real people — trained artisans — who love their craft.
As screenprinters ourselves, we all at Relativity know how special it feels to work the steps and find yourself at the seriously gratifying moment of seeing your design go from ink, through a screen, and onto a surface — materializing right before your eyes.
It’s hard work. It’s badass. It’s got a lot of steps involved.
The easiest way to explain the entire process is that you’re basically making a stencil. A really complicated, highly efficient and durable stencil.
Step 1: Make a Design
A design can come from anywhere and can be made by hand or on the computer. To learn more about Erin’s inspirations check out our article HERE
Let’s say you want to print a smiley face, so you draw one on a piece of paper. Then you’d scan it into the computer, and turn it into a vector in Adobe Illustrator. You’re going to take that vector file, make the lines black, and then print it out onto a film.
A film is basically a clear or semi-transparent piece of plastic or paper that will create a negative in your screen.
Once you’ve got your design printed on a film, you’ve got to prepare your screen.
Step 2: Preparing your Screen
A screen can be made of a wooden or aluminum frame with a very fine mesh stretched over it.
That mesh matters because it is what makes this process printmaking and not painting. If this was painting you could just glob any amount of ink onto a surface and call it art. But printmaking at it’s technical best is about the even distribution of ink across a surface.
So now you’ve got a film and a mesh covered screen. Clearly what we need is chemicals!
The next step is to take your screen and coat it with emulsion — which is basically just light sensitive chemical goo — and let it dry in a dark room.
What happens next is the complicated part where all of your pieces come together to create that basic idea of a stencil.
You take your film and sandwich it between your emulsion coated screen and a powerful light table. They’re held tightly in place and the light turns on and does what we call burning a screen.
Here’s the little bit of science involved in this process. It’s all about the way light reacts with chemicals and opacity.
So let’s go back to the smiley face example. Smiley is made of simple thick black lines with a blank background. Sandwiched against the emulsion coated screen and a light table ready to go. When the light table turns on, it will expose the screen. This basically means that all of the blank background around smiley will allow that light to pass through it and hit the emulsion, hardening it. The actual smiley itself, the thick black lines, will not allow the light to pass through them, leaving that part of the emulsion soft. After you finish burning the screen, you take it and rinse it out — this is where it all makes sense.
Because the black lines of the smiley stopped their part of the emulsion on the screen from being hardened — they just wash out. Leaving behind open mesh in the shape of the thick lines of the smiley. It’s quite simply a stencil!
Step 3: Printing your Design
You’ve done all the hard work, you’ve got your burned screen aka your fancy stencil ready to print a million smiley faces.
Now comes the fun part — choices!
You get to decide what materials you want to print on, whether that’s fabric, paper, vinyl, wood, etc.
You also get to decide what colors to print your design — so your smiley face could be black, yellow, blue anything you want!
Once you decide what materials and colors you want, you’ll set up your space to print.
You’ll place you screen on top of your material, for Relativity that would be our very long, beautiful rolls of blank wallpaper, and then pour ink onto the screen, and pull it through the open part of the mesh aka the thick lines of your smiley face.
This is where that negative turns into a positive.
And then BOOM, you’ve got a smiley face printed on paper, and the best part is you can do it again and again and again EXACTLY the same.
That’s one of the most beautiful parts of the screenprinting process, is the ease it gives to creating repeating patterns. It’s very efficient, clean, and crisp — all while maintaining the meaningful act of making things by hand.
Over at our factory printers work with semi- automated presses that help them print enormously long rolls of wallpaper quickly.
From my mind, to a computer, to a screen, to a skilled printer, to the wallpaper, and then into your space — it’s an amazing process from start to finish.