Saturday was the day we had booked to learn all about screenprinting at Inkspot, an 'open studio' which I have been aware of (in its previous guise of Brighton Independent Printmakers) since I first came to Brighton 20 years ago. For one reason and another - mainly that I felt intimidated by the professional work coming out of it - I had never previously visited.
Indeed, I had no idea that tucked away in a peculiar U-shaped street between Hartington Road (the first street I ever lived on in Brighton) and the Bear Road cemetery, there is a very large and fading office block, now taken over by independent businesses and artists' studios. One of its larger ground-floor units makes a perfect home for Inkspot, providing enough room for an extensive collection of letterpress blocks, some old presses, all the proper screenprinting equipment, and a little functional screened-off area for hosing screens down at high pressure. And do you know, it wasn't intimidating at all once we'd set foot in there. On the contrary, I felt quite at home.
That was in no small part due to Jane Sampson, who runs the place, and her partner Andy, who is a professional printer, mainly of t-shirts. As Jane's expertise is mainly with paper printing, she'd asked Andy to be present because of the small differences in things like the density of the screens and the mixes of the inks made.
We began with (for me) the hardest part: sitting down and explaining our plans, and showing some of my designs. These are precious dreams, which could easily be shattered by harsh laughter or a discouraging word. And actually, it was quite interesting for me: a design I haven't been sure about from the beginning was met with polite noises; one that I have loved since it was only an idea in my head solicited an unprovoked "Oh, that's NICE!".
Something I found particularly interesting to discover was how common our situation is: Jane says she sees a lot of women our age (she particularly mentioned "when your youngest child is 8" as a turning point, so in that way, if in no other, we are rather ahead of the game), disillusioned with life and hoping to fit some more creativity in. Encouragingly, some of those women succeed. For me, the most significant of those she mentioned is Jane Foster, whose work I have admired for a long time. Thinking about Foster, she has such an incredible unity of style - which I think must be allied to her single-minded pursuit of retro Seventies fabrics, toys and furniture - and that is something which I am absolutely lacking as yet.
We also saw screens from a woman whose cushions appear in many of the shops we have, ourselves, identified as desirable outlets for our work. So, apparently, it can be done, and we were in the place where many have done it before.
Our aim was to learn about the processes of printing - my St Martins summer school had given me plenty of knowledge about the design phase, but was vague on what happens to designs once they leave your hands (and there seemed to be an expectation that they would be going into big industry). I was particularly keen to know how best to prepare a design for print, and we both wanted to understand the logistics so that when we are pricing up printing, we know exactly what we are asking for. It was especially lucky for us to meet Andy, since he could tell us just how much he'd charge for various types of service; we also have a digital printers' price list, so we can compare the two tariffs and the type of finish we'd achieve from each.
I really don't know where the time went. There are a lot of stages to screenprinting, particularly when you are looking at more than one colour, and I certainly learned a lesson about keeping each colour of a design on a separate Photoshop layer - we could have saved, I reckon, at least an hour of selecting, and expanding selections, and altering contrast and what have you. I also fully understood my tutor at St Martin's remark about my favourite design: "Too many colours!". Each colour means a new screen; it also means waiting for the ink to dry between each layer; thus, understandably, it means multiplication of costs.
We decided to print two designs, purely as a learning exercise, and we went for my fountain doodle, as it is one-colour and a simple shape, and the Brighton Stripe, as it contained several, but not too many, colours and had a repeat element.
First, the screens were covered in emulsion, and put to dry for 15 minutes or so in a large cabinet. Here's Marina spreading the emulsion from a trough, which gives a smooth finish:
Meanwhile, we were printing off the designs onto acetate: one copy for the single-colour fountain, and one for each colour of the stripe. When the screens were dry, the acetate was placed on top and exposed to ultra-violet light (I think; I was never a physicist, so sue me)...
...in a scary-looking unit surrounded by red curtains to protect you from burning your eyes or getting a bit of a sun tan by accident. Check out the retro control panel:
Once the design is 'baked' on, you wash the emulsion off with a pressure hose:
Note how we made Jane do all the hard work while I swanned around taking photos. We even made her do a coffee shop run for us later ;).
Another quick dry, and we were ready to print. I fancied a nice light blue, which Andy mixed with great precision on a kitchen scale - so that if we wanted the same colour again, we'd know the exact proportions required. The fabric was stuck, with spraymount, to card to keep it flat:
the screen was bolted into place:
and then the really exciting part began:
It took us a while to learn about 'flooding' the image and what angle to hold the squeegee at.
Once the screen was lifted, we saw our very first ever design - it was quite a stirring moment, even if it was only a test piece on a low-quality hanky we'd grabbed the day before during lunch time at the 99p shop.
The stripe was quite a bit more complex.
I should mention at this point that, as with so many you've read previously, this post could well have begun at half past midnight the night before, when Item was moaning and groaning about leg cramps and a large chunk of my night's sleep was stolen from me. And to be honest, by mid-afternoon, I was flagging. Thankfully Andy stepped forward and did a lot of what I am worst at: calculations and measurements to mark just where the screen had to go each time to allow us to print the repeat.
But, tired though I was, the moment we printed the second of the repeats, and I saw no gap between them, was a moment of great personal triumph for me! It was so fiddly, especially since the pattern came from an original sketch that I had drawn with never a thought of turning it into a design like this.
Unfortunately, we didn't have the time to do more than one colour, the Brighton council turquoise that all the seafront fences, lamp-posts and shelters are painted in - our maternal guilt at having left our children with our respective husbands on a weekend day was beginning to kick in... but at least we got the theory of overlaid colour.
Note too that this is smaller than we envisaged the final design - it was only a test piece, after all.
We have left all the stripe fabric there, with the inks still mixed and the screens earmarked so that they don't get recycled, and promised we'll go back really soon to try the other layers. And now, we have to work out the best model for ourselves: do we attempt to print small runs with our own hands, at first, in order to keep costs down? Or do we engage these charming professionals to do it for us, possibly at a lesser cost when you consider that they will be faster and better at it? If time is a cost - and for us, it has to be - the latter would seem to be the way to go.
In short, though, it was a fabulous day, the significance of which is still sinking in for me. We learned everything we needed to know, and I discovered a facility that I'd always known about and never bothered to explore - more fool me.
DID YOU KNOW that women do screenprinting and men do letterpress? A generalisation, but, according to Jane, widely true.