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The healthy screenprinter.


The stencil could be the oldest two-dimensional imaging device of humankind. Without too great a strain on credibility, one could imagine a connection between phenomenon such as footprints and shadows, and the stencilled handprints found in European caverns. From the first inklings of human consciousness a special fascination must have attended these expressions--a primal awareness we can feel even now, despite our high-tech, fast-food society.

If we imagine for a moment the effect of shadows dancing in torchlight deep in a limestone cave, it isn't hard to visualize early peoples' attempts to "capture" these phantasms with some graphic means. The very repetition of handprints, for instance, must have conveyed a sense of control over, or at least communion with, the spirit world.

Silkscreening, or serigraphy, is merely the evolved result of the stencil principle, not very far removed from placing colored mud over a hand pressed against a rock wall. Its recent acceptance as a valid art form belies its long developmental history. Screenprinted things surround us, from bumper stickers to limited edition graphics to printed electronic circuitry to slogans on T-shirts. Thousands of people earn their living in this industry.

The hazards

It is the peak of irony, then, that the practice of screenprinting holds such a negative public image. It has been banned outright at some schools, or relegated to isolated make-do facilities. In general, it is often thought of as noxious and unhealthy. People who work in or near screenprinting operations may report light-headedness, skin rashes, nausea, breathing problems, or worse. Others seem to engage the process with apparent impunity. Experience indicates that quite a high variability exists in individuals' levels of tolerance to many materials. We have had to discover our own personal chemical vulnerabilities the hard way, which is often very hard indeed. Birth defects, malignancies, chemical dependency and more have been linked with many materials used in the arts.

Health science has shown many of these materials to be certifiably dangerous, and has strongly implicated others in health problems. To complicate matters even more, it seems that one's genetic makeup, state of mind or living style may also affect his/her susceptibility to damage by some materials. We lack conclusive evidence in many places, but we are nonetheless starting to get a good sense of the big picture. OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) now watches over a major portion of our educational and industrial institutions. To some, this seems a godsend; to others it may appear as an intrusive nuisance. At all events, it is here to stay, and its impact is very great -- and growing.

Solvents -- liquids which dissolve things -- are a particularly worrisome class of materials. Some, such as strong acids and alkalines, may attack us in immediate and ambiguous ways; other solvents do their work more insidiously, over time. As we use a substance which effectively answers our practical or creative problems, we may be disinclined to acknowledge that a hazard exists; or, even if we recognize its risks, we may tend to rationalize that our bodies can accommodate it in controlled amounts. The most familiar example of this syndrome in our culture is probably alcohol. Some "hold their liquor" better than others we say. However, it is now known that all petroleum solvents, alcohols and aromatic hydrocarbon liquids are narcotic, which means they depress the central nervous system and are toxic. No doubt some of us withstand contact with certain of these better than other people, but long-term exposure leads to a downgrading of bodily systems, including those which normally defend us from a host of other ailments.

The silkscreen process (silk is little used these days, but the term survives generically) depends on the fact that some materials dissolve in one fluid but not another. Oil-based ink calls for water-soluble stencil products, rather obviously. The prime difficulty which has haunted efforts to develop a good professional-quality line of aqueous screenprinting products has been making a blockout agent (liquid or film) which doesn't require strong, unhealthy chemicals to remove it. The other main obstacle to such developments has been the long-standing preference by many artists for the incisive, crisp precision with solvent-based screenprint systems: paper stays flat, inks have high opacity and a smooth pristine finish, for instance. Thus, there has been little serious demand by professionals for something which heretofore they may have thought of as too toy-like or unsophisticated for the committed artist and his/her market. I confess that this was my own attitude not long ago.

An Alternative

Because incarnate examples are often better than abstract argument, I propose to tell you how I came to change my mind. I am a self-taught serigrapher, having been obliged to figure out how it was done when asked to teach it years ago in a small Australian college. My other printmaking background made serigraphy relatively easy to grasp after a little trial and error, and I was pleased to find that it was most congenial to my particular way of working and visualizing. It was also a wonderful teaching vehicle. I have continued to practice and teach screenprinting ever since, often combining it with lithography and intaglio in my own work.

My initial experiments with silkscreening coincided with a general world-wide resurgence of interest in printmaking, which added to my excitement and interest. We were all quite oblivious to any attendant health risks, although we did know of people with low tolerance to the materials, who seemed simply constitutionally incapable of handling them, having to content themselves with media such as acrylics or watercolor. Those of us who continued to silkscreen learned to limit our exposure time. We found that any dizziness or irritation would subside after a few hours. Such minor problems seemed a small price to pay for the tremendous scope of the medium, which seemed to open doors in all directions.

Upon taking my present teaching position, I was charged with re-establishing screenprinting in the art department. A large, costly ventilation system was installed. This helped greatly, but did not alleviate all of our health problems. Students were disinclined to wander around working in respirators, looking like so many Darth Vaders; rubber gloves quickly wore out and weren't replaced; people preferred to work at times other than the scheduled class; and communication was difficult because the ventilation fans were noisy. We experimented with water-based inks, but stayed with the "old" oil-based system.

Our break came two years ago when I was visiting an art school in a nearby city and was shown some recent experimental serigraphs using water-based materials. The results were certainly sophisticated, and appeared to use all the effects and means associated with solvent-based procedures. It looked very promising, but no nearby suppliers cared to stock the kind and volume of inventory we might require, particularly of a product largely untried in the area's marketplace. One distributor finally agreed to furnish us with a starter set of materials, and indicated willingness to stock gallon sizes if we could give assurances of stock turnover within a reasonable time.

A brief description of the materials may be helpful. The screen filler (liquid blockout) is thinned with water, but when dry can only be removed from screens using certain household detergents or trisodium phosphates. (TSP is a fairly strong alkaline material, but odorless and quite safe; rubber gloves are recommended, as it is a strong degreasing agent.) Cleanup after printing is a breeze: simply scrape the excess ink back into its jar and hose the screen off; the ink comes off, the stencil remains until TSP is applied. For those who like the traditional tusche/glue (or litho crayon/glue) method for achieving direct, autographic imagery, this also can be done with the new materials. The familiar photofilms and knife-cut hydro films are incompatible with the new system, but the same sorts of imagery can nonetheless be had (using direct-emulsion light-sensitive material applied to the screen and exposed in contact either with a photo-transparency positive of a knife-cut masking film such as rubylith.)

The competitiveness of the marketplace ought to bring about further product improvement and cheaper prices. The cost of the new method is comparable with that of the solvent-based approach (inks are somewhat more expensive, but no solvents are needed). In general, sturdier kinds of paper are called for by the aqueous inks to compensate for the tendency for water to curl the stock. However, I have seen effective and beautiful work on thin Oriental paper. As ever, each person needs to experiment to find the most appropriate surface for his/her work.

As a teacher I have noticed some extra benefits of the new process. With the studio a more pleasant physical environment in which to work, attendance is more regular and communications have improved considerably. The students seem to be more open to and interested in one another as a class. My job is easier and clearer--less remedial instruction is needed for persons who missed certain important presentations, for instance. Also, with cleanup easier and faster, students tend to get more work done in a given time, and therefore gain more experience in the medium.

Some of the working differences between the solvent and water-based systems are: the inks for the latter are less opaque; one needs to take a little extra care with color registration due to a tendency for paper to expand slightly with wet acrylic ink; the ink consistency is rather more like heavy yogurt than thick syrup. Also, the work is of dubious durability when placed out-of-doors in wet weather.

People who have used screenprinting for other sorts of work, as posters or broadsheets, find that this can be done just as easily with the new method, although very lightweight stock may tend to wrinkle with broad areas of application. In sum, considerations of health and safety (no more flammable materials to store) seem to outweigh other concerns--people are always more important than things.

I know that certain other schools around the country have also started to use water-based screenprinting processes. This appears to be a trend paralleling other public health issues, such as no-smoking areas in public places, opposition to toxic roadside spraying and hazardous waste disposal. The implications in these matters are too far-reaching for them to be mere fads. I expect this new, safer medium to become the prevailing method of screenprinting used in our educational institutions. It could be that we are about to experience a substantial media revolution of sorts -- led by artists themselves, who are the real seekers in this situation. I hope that many more teachers, artists and graphics professionals will give the new system a try, and will be able to judge it based on its own properties and potential, rather than as a mere substitute for something else. After all, one's curiosity is driven by what one does not yet know. This, for many of us, is the very essence of education and of art.

PHOTO : Colonade (collograph/screenprint), Kenneth Paul.

PHOTO : Screenprint by Jeff Stuhr.

PHOTO : Lambs and Yams, water-based screenprint by Kelly Chapman.

PHOTO : Oregon Bach Festival, Susie Methre.

Kenneth Paul is associate Professor of Art, University of Oregon, Eugene.
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Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Printmaking
Author:Paul, Kenneth
Publication:School Arts
Date:Nov 1, 1989
Previous Article:High relief block printing.
Next Article:Water-based screenprinting.

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