Thursday, February 3, 2011

Silkscreen printing and chemigrams

Turnbull, Venetian Window Grille, silkscreen, 2010

There are various ways to apply varnish (or hard resists) to photographic paper to make chemigrams. One of the methods used by Pierre Cordier in his pioneering chemigram experiments dating back to the 1950s was to use the printmaking technique of silkscreening. If you're not a printmaking aficionado, you might best recognize silkscreen as the medium made popular by Andy Warhol, Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi and other luminaries of the British and American Pop art movement of the 1950s and 60s. Basically, ink is pushed or squeegeed through a motif or design photographically or mechanically applied to a fine mesh screen. The ink only comes through the screen and onto your paper where there is an open area of the design. Such a technique should in theory allow any kind of fluid medium to be pushed through a screened design...and so last fall, as Doug Collins and I worked our way through various ways of applying varnish to photographic paper, we decided that I should use some of the screens I'd made for a series of small prints (like the one above) to make chemigrams. The print above was made with three separate screened images, corresponding to each color in the print. I decided to use the image that I printed in black--the most linear of the three "layers"--as a way of applying varnish to photographic paper. I used Golden's matte acrylic varnish and diluted it about 1:1 with mineral spirits, applied a small amount to my screen and pulled a squeegee over it, thus transferring varnish to paper. What did it look like once I processed the resultant chemigram, you are by now asking breathlessly.

Turnbull, Venetian Window 1, chemigram, 2010

The screened varnish created the black areas you see on the print above. Interestingly, there wasn't much difference between the silkscreened ink lines and the black lines in the chemigram created by the action of developer as it slowly (or not so slowly) seeped under the very thin ribbons of varnish and lifted it from the paper. (The background tones in this chemigram were created by dipping the paper first in developer for c. 2 seconds, then fixer for 2 seconds, then back into developer for the first 3-minute "cycle" [as per Pierre Cordier's original instructions].) However, a second print made in the exact same manner yielded a completely different result:

Turnbull, Venetian Window II, chemigram, 2010

The second chemigram displays many of the standard characteristics of the form: Mackie lines, fragmentation, abstraction, etc. It's easy enough to describe the differences between the two prints but much less easy to explain why they occurred. Although the diluted varnish was screened onto both prints at the same time, perhaps the deposit of varnish differed in weight or thickness, or perhaps the second print was processed when the varnish was not quite dry. It seems to have the characteristics of chemigrams made with "soft" resists like honey, syrup, Vaseline or soft glue. At any rate, I did not dip this print into developer and fixer before the first long developer bath, which explains the lack of colors but not necessarily the fluid final appearance.

The potential lesson here: screenprinting is yet another way to apply resists to chemigrams but the variables still seem nearly infinite and perhaps require very careful monitoring and note-taking during the process. And aesthetically, I'm not sure either of these prints are all that interesting; perhaps what makes a good silkscreen design does not necessarily make a good chemigram.


  1. It's a true pleasure to read about silkscreened chemigrams and their issues. That third one (Venetian #2) is actually quite nice, because it violates the rigidity of the screen process, sort of smushes it. And you're right, the reasons need to be elaborated, and aren't always obvious. BTW, what screen mesh are you using?

  2. I think that was a 140-line screen...

  3. wow! very beautiful. doesn't look like a window grille at all!