Screens are one of the most popular and versatile ways to transfer an image onto a surface. They’re also one of the simplest ways to duplicate designs or patterns that are too detailed to cut as an open stencil. You can screen print directly onto clay slabs to use for handbuilding, in slump or hump molds, or for making a clay print. You can also screen onto a plaster bat to make monoprints, if you want to combine printing processes. As a bonus, the very same screen you used on clay can also print on paper or fabrics if you want to explore non-clay surfaces. Screening really does open up a whole world of creative possibilities. For artists who enjoy drawing or painting, using Speedball drawing fluid and screen block is a great way to create images that benefit aesthetically from having a fluid line quality. This particular process is also a great introduction to screen printing if this technique is new for you. The drawing fluid acts as a mask and resists the screen filler (applied later) so it only hardens in the open screen. The principle is a lot like using wax resist to mask off areas on a pot where you don’t want glaze to be. Since you directly paint the drawing fluid into the screen, it maintains the fresh look of a sketch, gesture drawing, or line drawing. The variety in the image is created through using different types and sizes of brushes to take advantage of line width and quality.
Creating an image on the screen is simple and direct:
- Paint drawing fluid wherever you want color to go through the screen.
- Allow the drawing fluid to fully dry.
- Spread a coat of screen filler over the image on the same side of the screen that the drawing fluid was applied.
- Allow the screen filler to fully dry.
- Rinse the screen with water to remove the drawing fluid.
Creating an Image for the Screen
Images or designs for your screen can be hand drawn or created with digital software. The image or design doesn’t reverse itself when printed, so what you see is what you get when screen printing on your chosen surface. My process is to first make a line drawing with graphite pencils on drawing paper. I use a 2B or an F graphite pencil, because it’s dark enough to see through the screen when it’s time to trace it and won’t smear. If you prefer to draw with lighter pencils, you can always draw over top of the lighter lines with a permanent marker to make the finished drawing darker. Images created digitally have strong black lines when printed and can be clearly seen through the screen to trace.
Prepping a Screen
The size of the image dictates the size of the screen needed. Maintain a 1–2-inch border of open screen for smaller screens and 2–3-inch border for screens that are 18×24 inches or larger. Apply painter’s tape to both sides of the frame. This creates the border needed around the image and also protects the frame. Apply tape around the perimeter of the screen side of the frame. The tape is partially on the frame and extends out onto the screen, creating the image border (1). You can choose just to make the border or tape the whole screen. Either approach is fine. Turn the screen over and apply the tape to the inside corners (see 8). Half the tape is on the frame and half is on the screen. This prevents screen filler from being pushed under the frame when printing.
Tracing the Image on the Screen.
Position your screen fabric-side down, with your image centered in the frame. This is also the orientation when printing, so the way the image looks now is how it will look when screened. Use a dull 2B or F graphite pencil to follow the lines of your image to trace the drawing onto your screen (2). Caution: Use a dull pencil to trace so you don’t tear the screen fabric with a sharp-pointed tip.
Applying Drawing Fluid
Place the screen fabric-side up to apply the drawing fluid. If it’s fabric-side down, the fluid will go through and stick to the table surface. Thoroughly mix the drawing fluid before using—it separates when stored and will be thinner at the top of the container.
Select a brush that’s appropriate for the type of line you want to create. I usually use #1, #3, and #6 round-tipped brushes for line work and a flat-tip or fan brush for large areas. Load the brush so that a small amount of drawing fluid accumulates at the tip, but is not sagging off the end (3). An even coat where the blue color is strong and easy to see is what you want. If applied too thickly, the dried drawing fluid will be higher relief in the thicker areas, which makes for an inconsistent surface to pull screen filler over. This can cause areas to not be coated properly if the squeegee doesn’t have consistent contact when pulled across the screen. The layer of drawing fluid needs to be thick enough to resist the screen filler.
Rest your hand on the edge of the frame and start painting the blue drawing fluid onto the screen fabric over your pencil drawing. Tip: Place a smooth piece of wood across the frame if your hand needs to rest in the middle of the screen (4). Resting your hand on the screen fabric will stretch it slightly, making it less taut, which affects the clarity of a printed image. Once the line work is done, work on filling in the larger sections. When the image is complete, leave the screen in a level, horizontal position to dry.
Applying Screen Filler
Thoroughly mix the screen filler before using because it also separates a little from being unused. I like to do a dry practice pull with the squeegee to assure the blade covers all the areas where I need the filler pulled over the screen. I use a Speedball graphic squeegee held at a 45° angle. I also wear protective gloves so the screen filler won’t stain my hands.
Pour a bead of the stirred screen filler on the same side of the screen that you applied the drawing fluid. The screen filler should be poured onto the painter’s tape (5). If poured onto the screen instead, it will soak through and drip on the surface below. Place the squeegee blade behind the screen filler and pull it in a smooth, brisk motion across the screen to create an even coat (6). Multiple coats aren’t recommended unless your first coat is too thin. Let the screen dry horizontally and the screen filler harden for about an hour. If you rush this part, the unhardened areas will rinse out in the next step.
Removing the Drawing Fluid
To remove the drawing fluid and open up the design on the screen, run cool water over the screen, concentrating on areas where the drawing fluid was applied. It may take a few minutes for the water to dissolve the drawing fluid, so be patient. Once it starts to rinse out, turn the screen over and wash it out from that side as well. After 3 to 4 minutes of rinsing with cool water, if there are some stubborn areas of drawing fluid left on the screen, use a soft nylon brush to lightly drag over those areas (7). Hold the screen up to the light to see if all the blue drawing fluid has been removed. Once it is all rinsed away, let the screen air dry, then it is ready to use.
Test Printing the Screen
First, test print the new screen with Amaco black LUG 1 underglaze on drawing paper or newsprint using a sponge or a squeegee. Pour the underglaze into a shallow tray and let the water evaporate until it’s the consistency of icing. Add just a little Speedball Acrylic Transparent Base to bring it to the smooth consistency of honey. I use Mudtools Workhorse sponges because they load the underglaze really well and print nicely with their smooth surfaces. Load one end of the sponge so the underglaze is absorbed in the sponge and not physically sitting on its surface. Gently rub the sponge in a circular motion over the areas you want to print (8). Don’t press too hard or the color will bleed under the screen. When the screen is printed, slowly pull it back to reveal the printed image. You can also do the test print using a squeegee if that is what you will be using normally. Test printing helps you figure out the correct pressure and underglaze thickness to print the best image for your project. Make as many proofs as you need to feel confident with printing the screen. Use a damp sponge to wipe the screen clean between printings.
Printing on Plaster and Pouring a Monoprint
This screen can be directly printed onto a plaster bat (9, 10) allowing you to make a full-color monoprint with the screened line image. Print underglaze onto the plaster bat using a sponge, just like you did with test prints on paper. Once the image is screened on the plaster, I use a combination of Amaco underglazes and Speedball underglazes to color in the image (11).
Place a 1-inch-tall clay dam around the image, then pour 1/2-inch of casting slip over the plaster. The slip will pull the underglazes from the plaster bat. Once the cast slab stiffens to soft-slab consistency, remove the clay dam and pull the clay print from the bat. You can use the slab as a clay print (12), drop it in a slump mold, or use it for slab construction.
Removing Screen Filler
You can reclaim the screen to use again for a new image by removing the screen filler. Pour Speedball Speed Clean solution over both sides of the screen and let it sit in the sink or wash-out tub for a few minutes. This gives the solution time to break down the screen filler. Put a little water on the screen and use a soft nylon brush to scrub the screen. You can use a little water while scrubbing and be sure to do both sides. As the filler starts to break down, run water over the screen as you continue to scrub. You may need to do this a second time if any filler is left after the first attempt. The longer the filler is in the screen, the more difficult it can be to remove. You should be able to completely clean the screen of all filler if done in 4 to 6 weeks after the filler was applied.
To learn more, check out Fundamentals of Screen Printing On Clay with Paul Andrew Wandless available from Ceramic Arts Network (https://mycan.ceramicartsnetwork.org/s/product-details?id=a1B3u000009ugnjEAA) or read his article (one of many), Making a Clay Monotype, from the July/August 2017 issue of Pottery Making Illustrated (https://ceramicartsnetwork.org/pottery-making-illustrated/pottery-making-illustrated-article/Making-a-Clay-Monotype).
Paul Andrew Wandless is an artist, author, educator, and curator currently living and working in Chicago, Illinois. He has authored the books Image Transfer On Clay and 500 Prints on Clay, and co-authored Alternative Kilns & Firing Techniques. He currently serves on the Board of Trustees for Penland School of Crafts. You can learn more at www.studio3artcompany.com.