March 17, 2015
Photo Emulsion: Taking the Plunge
Written by Chris Jones
In week three, screenprinting class got really interesting. It was at this point that instructor Meggan Winsley introduced us to photo emulsion and exposure, which allowed us to capture photographic quality images without drawing or tracing.
The process is complicated and the equipment is costly, which is another reason Open Studio classes are so brilliant — without them I’d never have access to such sophisticated printing methods.
But lets begin at the beginning, starting with image selection and prep. Meggan encouraged us to choose high contrast images that would work well with just two or three colours. The printing method allows for more colour options but Meggan encouraged us to keep it simple, to walk before we ran.
Using Photoshop, I reduced my image to a grey layer and a coloured layer, then Meggan showed me how to add a half-tone or dot matrix to the image that would allow it to be captured on the photo emulsion.
Choosing the dot size has a big impact on how the final image reads. I chose a tighter pattern which ultimately appeared more photographic, while my classmate, Andrea Rodriguez, chose a larger dot that gave her composition, below, a pop-art feel, à la Roy Lichtenstein.
Andrea blew up an old photo of her grandmother then embellished it with a hand-drawn collar and a square of solid blue to contrast the red portrait. Meggan pointed out that achieving even colour coverage with a solid shape is actually a lot tougher than it looks, requiring steady ink application.
And even though drawing is not necessary for the photo emulsion technique, an artistic sensibility is definitely required. Once again, I found my finished work a bit disappointing but my classmates wowed us with their designs.
Joana Patrasc hand-painted her image, above, then projected the finished work onto the photo emulsion. Doing so gives the advantage of being able to reproduce the image in various colours, on a variety of papers. Joanna got an especially good result printing with white ink on black paper, contrary to the standard approach in which the naked paper provides the white space.
Once the composition is planned and prepped in Photoshop, the dirty work begins. Although the images can be output on transparent film to skip a step, Meggan wanted us to kick it old school by slathering our bond paper outputs with cooking oil, which rendered them more or less transparent. It’s a greasy, sloppy step, one I didn’t especially enjoy, but Meggan wanted us to understand that this is something we could do at home with a minimum of special equipment.
Next, Meggan demonstrated how to coat our screens with the viscous emulsion fluid. We left them to dry in the dark and were then ready to tackle the massive glass photo bed in the exposure room.
Meggan showed us how to arrange our images between our screens and the glass and then how to lock it all down with the big rubber cover. The penultimate step is to create a vacuum by sucking all the air out from between the glass and the rubber using a carefully placed air hose. Finally, Andrea and I wheeled the big light projector into place, set the timer appropriate for our respective jobs and exited the room so the magic could happen.
The last step before printing is to wash out the screen with enough pressure to reveal the projected photo but not so much as to wash away the unexposed emulsion. Meggan’s expertise was invaluable to each of us as at this delicate, make-or-break stage.
After all these learning opportunities, the actual printing was a walk in the park, essentially the same process we’d applied to each of our previous projects.
Colour and composition gaffes took a bite out of my overall satisfaction with the project, but my missteps only served to bolster my enthusiasm for the next project. Unlike my classmates, I’m not a professionally-employed designer or full-time art student so for me the exercise really is about the journey, not the destination. I’m already thinking about retaking the class now that I’ve had a good taste of what screenprinting at Open Studio has to offer. The sky and my own imagination really are the limit.