DIY screen printing: LGC's complete 'how to' guide
August 21, 2018

Photo Credit: © 2021 Andy Warhol Foundation (Source)

If you've ever wondered where screen printing came from?
What equipment you need and how to do it yourself?
Here's your complete guide.
Get excited, get inspired and get creative.

Strap yourself in. If you've ever wondered how to do DIY screen printing – here's your complete guide.

It's going to…

Take you back through screen printing history:

Visit Neanderthal caves at the dawn of time.
Marvel at the technological innovations of 10th century China.
Get all industrial with Europe at the start of the 20th century.
Whisk you off to the heady days of the 1960s' counterculture agitprop art and the vibrant immediacy of its pop art.

Reveal DIY screen printing secrets:

Show you how to create your own wearable artwork.
Let you experience the sheer sexiness of screen printing from the privacy of your own home.
Point you in the direction of some of the best screen printing artists.
And share the places where you can find all the resources you need to perfect your screen printing technique.

This is your guide to perfect DIY screen printing.
Get excited, get inspired and get creative.

In the beginning, was the stencil

Screen printing has a long history – yet it only arrived in Europe fairly recently. This way of reproducing images using stencils to create short runs of prints is the distant relation of techniques used by cavemen who placed a stencil, in this case their hands, over a cave wall and laid colour over their cut out.

It was the Chinese, during the 10th century Song dynasty, who actually first applied ink to a mesh screen of silk and left it there in suspension – until it passed through to their chosen surface on the other side. They discovered that, by layering blocks of colour onto paper, fabric and even wood, vibrant images could be created. And then created again. And again. And again.

Yet, it was not until the late 18th century that screen printing emerged on European shores – and it was not until the early years of the 20th century that industrial developments in photo-reactive chemicals, and the application of this process to wallpaper manufacturers, that the screen truly became part of the scene.

Screen printing artists

It was in the pop frenzy of the 1960s that screen printing first broke down the doors of mainstream and counterculture art in the western world. We've put together a handy list of seven screen printing artists to inspire you. If you're looking for ideas right now, we won't be offended if you head over that way. Peter Blake, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol lead the roll call of those who used screen prints to redefine art – and it remains associated today with agitprop interventions.

DIY screen printing: how to create a screen-printed t-shirt at home

DIY screen printing begins at home.
The fact that anyone can screen print to make stunning banners, posters and statement t-shirts makes it such an awesome medium for those who want to make a stand.
But, political activism is not a requirement to screen print: anyone can do it – and we're going to show you just how easy it is to make and design your screen-printed t-shirt. From the comfort of your own home.

The basic technique behind screen printing is simple – and to help you get started there are DIY screen printing kits available containing everything you need.

Think back to those cavemen and their stencils: instead of cutting out shapes individually, you coat a screen in photo emulsion, then cut an image out using a bright light. Layer paints over this. And, that's it.

Here's everything you'll need to get creative:

  1. Screen and frame
  2. Photo emulsion and sensitizer
  3. Squeegee
  4. Silk screen fabric ink
  5. A 250 W light bulb
  6. Latex gloves
  7. T-shirt
  8. Small piece of cardboard
  9. Pitch-black room – closets work fine

Step #1

Create your image

A standard silhouette using Photoshop is a good way to kickstart your screen printing career: create a solid black image as it's only going to be used to block the light.
Print your image out onto transparency paper.

Step #2

Coat your screen in emulsion

Turn the lights down low and pull the curtains.
There are two parts to your emulsion: the sensitizer and the emulsion itself. Mix them and lay down your screen on an old piece of fabric or plastic.
Pour a little of your mixture onto the screen and spread it out with your squeegee, making sure the emulsion covers a slightly larger area than your image.
This area of the screen needs to be coated – so you can't see through it – in a thin, even layer.
Job is done: leave the screen to dry in a pitch-black room.

Step #3

Expose your image

Leave the light off as you re-enter your darkroom.
Lay down a black cloth – or a piece of blackboard – and place the screen and frame (screen-side down) on top of this.
Place the transparency printed with your image over the photo emulsion on the screen.
Tape this down with masking tape or, better still, lay a piece of glass over it.
Position your lamp with a bright bulb about a metre over the screen. Switch it on – with no other light in the room – and leave it for a quarter of an hour.
When you return there will be faint blue lines on the screen when you lift up the transparency. If there aren't you need to wait but take care: overexposure will make the image bleed.

Step #4

Clean the screen

Spray your screen down with cold water.
The section where your image is will start to flake off – keep going until you can see clearly through it.
Let the screen dry and then cover any exposed parts of the screen (where there's neither emulsion nor image) with tape.

Step #5

Let's print!

Lay your t-shirt out on a table and place a piece of cardboard inside it, underneath the area you want to be printed.
Place the screen over the t-shirt, positioning your design.
Pour a small amount of ink across the top of the screen and use your squeegee to make one smooth movement down, pressing all the time.
Run the squeegee up, down, left and right a couple of times to push the ink through. Lift the screen – and admire your work.
To help everything dry, you can turn the oven up high and pop the t-shirt in for about 30 seconds.

Step #6

Wash down

Screen printing ink dries quickly: wash the ink off the screen so you can use it again.
If you want to print a completely different image, you can use an emulsion remover to wipe the fabric clean.

Step #7

What's next?

Bumping up your designs to two or three colours…
Trying to print on paper, wood, glass…

Here are some more ideas to inspire you.

Seven inspirational screen printing artists

1. Steve Wilson

Born in London, Steven Wilson now runs his studio from his home in Brighton where he continually experiments with traditional and digital techniques and processes to fuel his varied and experimental work.

2. Ben Rider

The punk aesthetic of Ben Rider's work is perfectly suited to the agitprop medium of screen printing.

3. Andy Warhol

Warhol turned the factory aesthetic of screen printing into a highly lucrative art form in his Factory. In doing so he created some of the most iconic images of modern life.

4. Roy Lichtenstein

This is screen printing at scale. The sheer size of Lichtenstein's pop-art still manages here to somehow reduce the Oval office to a depthless parody of itself.

5. Mary Corita Kent

Sister Kent produced striking images combining words, letters and images from newspapers, using the dots and pixels that were until then, part of the commercial, rather than artistic, world.

6. Peter Blake

To call him the British Warhol would be a disservice to both, but Blake combines a similar obsession with pop culture with a commitment to screen printing.

7. Robert Rauschenberg

Rauschenberg combined oil and silkscreen on canvas in a series of paintings from the early 1960s that used images from current events gathered from magazines and newspapers to form a collage.

Screen printing resources

Drop into LGC if you'd like some advice on the materials you may need to screen print your way to stardom – or just quietly create your masterpieces.

Here's where you'll find all the materials you need online:

Here's a book we can highly recommend:

'Screen printing: the ultimate studio guide from sketchbook to squeegee' by the lovely crew at Print Club London.
Print Club is based in East London: this is where you can get serious about screen printing (alongside others who share your passion).

Happy printing and squeegeeing!

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Remember to share your creations, tagging @londongraphiccentre