A love letter in ten layers

This summer, while exhibiting and other activities were suspended, I set myself a challenging project to develop my screenprinting skills.
As I couldn’t go to our lovely Southbank Printmakers Gallery, or anywhere in central London for a while, I chose my favourite view of Blackfriars Bridge and Gabriel’s wharf as my subject. I have worked around this area at various points in my life and it is very close to my heart. The thrill of crossing Hungerford Bridge and walking up to Gabriel’s Wharf and Tate Modern never fades.

I know how much printmakers love a process, and gallery visitors often like to know how an image is created, so here I am showing a little of how I sometimes work with studio sketches and Photoshop studies to develop a complex screenprint…
You can find a brief description of the basic screenprinting process in a Printmaker Profile blog I wrote for Southbank Printmakers.

The river at twilight

I usually work from a group of key images. This was taken at my favourite time of day – when the sky is still blue but the lights are beginning to come on. Filmmakers call this the magic hour - there is a very special quality to the light.

Studio sketches

I then spend a while making sketches to find a composition and tonal values, and colour studies to think about how the image might break down into the individual print layers.
It isn’t always this complex, but I decided to see how painterly I could make a screenprint. I like playing with the viewer’s perception. It turned out to be even more of a challenge than anticipated. I knew it would require very accurate registration (lining up) of all the layers, but that can take a bit of time, and meanwhile the ink is drying on the screen (and can ruin the mesh) , particularly when the image involves lots of small areas of colour. Throw in a hot summer in a small home studio with no air conditioning....

photoshop sketch and map

Then I create the full size image in Photoshop to design the stencils for the individual colour layers. I gather the elements I need from various photographs (not necessarily all from the actual location), and also photos and scans of previous work, collage bits and pieces - anything which will suggest the sort of effect I will be after in the actual print layer. This gives me a digital ‘map’ to help me line up the image on the screen bed – this is printed in black and white for better visibility under the yellow screen mesh.
As I work on the digital sketch, I establish which elements of the image each colour layer will contain. In an image of many layers, this evolves as the print progresses as I have to react to the actual result produced in the studio each time. You can never predict precisely how the inks will interact.

The layers are printed out in turn from the PC as black stencils on transparent acetate. In the studio, the printing screen is coated in a light sensitive emulsion. The stencil is placed on top and exposed using a powerful light. The black areas keep the emulsion soft and these areas wash away with water, leaving a clear, positive image area for the ink to be pushed through with a squeegee onto the printing paper.
With water based inks, you need to work from light to dark ideally, so the yellow highlights were the first layer to be printed.

Yellow stencil and print layer

Here is the stencil, and the layer printed out on the edition paper. In a small studio, every available surface is used as a print rack!

The first layer is relatively straightforward. From here on in, every subsequent layer is registered with this first layer. I photographed the yellow layer, inserted it into the Photoshop sketch, corrected it for size and then locked that layer in position so that all the other layers could be aligned with it.

At this point, I realised what I had let myself in for, and went away for week.

Blue sky layer

The next layer was the warm blue in the sky. Often this sort of layer can be painted by hand in black paint or ink on an acetate stencil, without the computer being involved, but because I needed the yellow highlights to remain uncovered, I had to paint the sky with rollers on paper, then photograph this, insert it into the Photoshop sketch and ‘cut out’ the holes for the highlights before printing out the stencil.

Then it is simply a question of repeating the process for eight more layers. Towards the end, as accidents happen, and the edition size shrinks a little, the stakes feel quite high and a certain amount of nerve is required.

Tower stencil

This layer was probably the most challenging layer in terms of registration, as the tower with its reflections of the cloudy sky was divided between three colour layers. I have to keep reminding myself to breathe while registering and printing something like this. Developing the screen also requires a very gentle approach as the fine details can easily be lost.

Eventually, the edition was complete, and the print can now be seen in the vibrant new autumn hang at Southbank Printmakers

I hope you can come along to see it.