Last October I had the pleasure of taking a screen printing class with Steve Walters of Chicago’s Screwball Press. This is something like having a piano lesson from Chopin. After seven or eight hours in the Screwball studio, I had my first 11” x 17”, three color screen print: The Octophant. This unholy chimera was based on a sketchbook page (which also contained the source material for another print we’ve already discussed.) It was not a bad print. For a first try. But even before the ink was dry on it I was sure it could be done better, so it was inevitable that I’d have to revisit this pachycephalopod before long.
Some of the things I saw as shortcomings in the original Octophant:
- The octophant just seems kind of ambivalent. Something in the expression and motionless equilibrium of his position. Also I thought the trunktacles (you heard me) required a more convincing treatment.
- The line quality from my drawing had not translated to the black screen as I had expected. Too fine a line will often fail to make it to the paper and my drawing style is very fine-line-intensive.
- There is a dire need to find a better approach to filling the available space other than that scraggly oval frame which was a total afterthought.
- Being entirely new to the mixing of screen printing inks, and not having a lot of time to dither with the colors anyway, what I came out with was not really what I had had in mind going in. I’ve come to like them since, but I still can’t escape that they look like they’re taken directly from packaging for circus peanuts.
Research and Drawing
To address the issue of the octophant’s ambivalence required, primarily, looking at a lot of pictures of African Elephants. (Once more, the internet is the best visual research library ever.) Seeing a few hundred trunks on screen helped me get a much better idea of how they are moved and posed by actual animals, and made my imaginary (as far as you know) monster more convincing.
Also it required much more involved drawing. All the research doesn’t mean anything if it’s not applied. Because I did the whole thing with Photoshop and a Wacom tablet (as opposed to scanned pencils as with the previously mentioned squid) I had no excuse to not keep erasing and redrawing and erasing and reworking until I was happy with him. And I did. A lot. I don’t want to make a big deal out of it, but I drew the crap out of this octophant.
Note, please, the following improvements relative to previously listed weaknesses:
- This octophant now looks like he’s got somewhere to be rather than just floating there.
- Ok, the lines are still scratchy-hatchy, no question. I have to be me. But there are, I will point out a lot more of them. In all honesty, I was interested in finding out how the different layers and weights of line work were going to translate onto the actual silkscreen. Which lines would drop out completely and how much hatching would fill in completely? Since I’m still new to the whole process, this will be useful knowledge later.
- Replacing the sketchy oval from the first version with the ring eliminates an ill-considered element in favor of something visually much stronger that the subject can actually interact with. Also I have a new way to announce the name of my beast. A win all around.
Color and Separations
The old school way to cut color is with an exacto blade and rubylith. While doing so may make me nostalgic for working at the university newspaper twelve or thirteen years ago, my octophant is already fully digital, so it’s faster and more accurate to make my color plates in Photoshop.
I finally settled on four colors for this print. Leaving behind the circus colors for my creature I decided on a medium gray for the octophant’s body, a dullish red for the ring, a semi-transparent white for highlights and modelling (and the “Octophant!” title), and a dark gray for the actual drawing.
I toyed with the idea of using the grainy brown of the chipboard I was going to print on to be the octophant’s color, but I decided it would just look unfinished. I also played with doing an aquatic background color but omitted it as I felt it would be distracting, and I only like adding a screen if it’s really necessary.
So, taking that as read, here’s how the screens stacked up:
And here’s some things I’ve learned about this process having done it a few times now:
Even though it seems entirely mechanical, all kinds of variation is still introduced in every print. Even getting really good at registration (which I’m not saying I am) won’t stop some minor jitter in the alignment. Ink hitting paper can have quite a mind of its own. As illustrated at left, I kept getting odd breakup in the gray screen. I don’t know really if it’s something to do with the texture of the paper, the ink consistency or just inexperience but I actually kind of like it. So instead of “mistake” I’m calling it “sparkle” and as far as anyone knows I meant to do it that way. Also, there’s definitely some art in mixing ink and knowing how it will sit on paper. My gray looked good in the can, but was a couple shades darker on the paper from picking up the chipboard’s tone. Also the white was less, translucent than I was expecting it would be so I’ll have to work on that in the future. But I’m still very happy with the results. It wouldn’t really be much fun if I knew exactly what I was going to get to begin with, anyway. It all reinforces what I count as the one piece of wisdome I took out of three years of working in etching at school: it’s better to want what you get than to get what you want.
Of course the real last step in this process has to be shameless promotion, for which purpose I’ve built a whole new site at Octophant.us This is where I’ll be detailing (also selling) my ongoing screen printing efforts. So if you have any further interest you can have a look (here’s the finished product), sign up for the email list, or, y’know, buy something. No pressure.