The Innovation of an Art Form: A History of Screen Printing - Part 2
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The Innovation of an Art Form: A History of Screen Printing - Part 2

Stenciling and how it turned into screen printing as we know it today...the rest of the story.

By Guido Lengwiler, Author, A History of Screen Printing - How an Art Evolved into an Industry;

Part 2

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  • Screen printing was a hybrid process that provided both graphic and manufacturing advantages over other methods, and was perfect for the times.

    "This method is now used very little"
    Starting in the 1930s, printers and sign or poster painters had an ever-increasing range of inks, stencil products and printing equipment to choose from. Articles and books provided detailed information about the process. Despite all its vigilance, Selectasine was not able to protect its patent in the long run. Demands for compliance went unheeded - why should anyone pay license fees for a printing technique that was common knowledge? Bert Zahn described the "single screen" process in detail in 1930, and just eight years later the industry writer Jacob Israel Biegeleisen observed that the once revolutionary process had rapidly lost its relevance because screen printing technology had changed. Although the relief-type color application characteristic of the Selectasine process had once been in favor, people now preferred applying thin layers of color, which consumed less ink and dried faster.

    With the advent of ready-made hand-cut stencil films, the single screen process finally became obsolete, and was replaced by the multiple screen technique: Now an individual screen was made for each printing color, and the colors were printed side by side. Selectasine had to reorient itself within the growing screen printing market, and therefore became a provider of screen printing supplies.

    Vitachrome Company, Los Angeles
    In 1916, Young & McCallister, an important letterpress printer located in Los Angeles, adopted the Selectasine process and set up a separate department for graphic screen printing work, which was given the name Vitachrome. Like Velvetone, it was among the first licensees of the Selectasine patent. John Pilsworth first made Young & McCallister aware of the process; despite any personal differences, he was still supportive of it. Vitachrome became an independent company in 1926, and today it is probably the oldest active screen printer in the world. Along with Velvetone and Selectasine, Vitachrome was one of the pioneering firms in graphic screen printing.

    Young & McCallister, "The First Fine Printer of Los Angeles"
    The printing house began life in 1912 as a partnership between Frederick Arthur Young (1875-1949) and Albert Bruce McCallister (1881-1945). Young was born in Wakefield, England. He became a letterpress printer and emigrated to America in 1907, starting a small printing house in Los Angeles. McCallister, born in South Dakota, began doing odd jobs at a newspaper printing company after school when he was just 10 years old, and over time, he acquired considerable expertise as a printer.

    Tonge Art Company, Los Angeles
    In 1918, the artist Gilbert Tonge joined the Velvetone Poster Company. "He was an excellent artist and designer and had a number of accounts, such as The Gunes Cigar Co., etc.," Brant recalled. "Tonge had done some work for us before so we knew him well and so we were glad to get him to share our miseries. He loved to sell rather than do artwork for which he was best fitted. His jobs were never very profitable because he would forget such extra items as die cutting easels, shipping costs, etc., but it all helped." Tonge left the company in 1922 and founded his own screen printing shop in the same year, Tonge Art Company, specializing in elaborate, high-quality art reproductions.

    He first became acquainted with the paintings of Fred Grayson Sayre (1879-1939), one of the most important early California Impressionists, at an exhibition in San Francisco in 1922. In his gouache paintings, Sayre often applied paint in several layers, using tiny brush strokes. Tonge became fascinated with the idea of reproducing these works by the screen process, still in gouache and with comparable color composition, and he suggested as much to Sayre. This would lead to years of collaboration between the two. Tonge reproduced seven of Sayre's works in gouache in as many as 30 colors. Between his use of the screen printing process and the large number of colors, Tonge achieved an unparalleled level of quality. For almost a decade, Tonge's prints were referred to not as silk screen prints, but as "Sayrographs," which gives some idea of the uniqueness of the resulting products. He rightly considered himself the "originator of the art replica." Three decades would pass before this technique was refined by GŁnter Dietz (1919-1995) in Germany; in 1964 Dietz began using photographic images of the paintings in order to create color separations, and sometimes printed in up to 180 colors.

    Vanton Company, Los Angeles
    At some point before 1928, Tonge and the art publisher John Henry Van Patten started the Vanton Company in Los Angeles, which absorbed the existing Tonge Art Company. The name was derived from the first syllables of the founders' names.

    Although the Vanton Company also made traditional advertising items like displays, posters, signs, calendars and decals, its primary business was printing oil painting replicas. Six works by the Californian artists Edgar Payne, Duncan Gleason, David Stirling and Tonge himself were reproduced in oils in up to 50 colors. The Vanton Company did not use the Selectasine single screen process, but rather created one screen for each color printed (multiple screen process). About 2000 copies per original could be produced in a period of three months. The substrate was either plain cardboard or canvas-covered cardboard, with the latter bringing a higher price. Both types were sold ready framed. The large number of colors, use of oil paints on canvas, and heavy color application resulted in replicas that looked like originals. They could even fool experts: Until just a few years ago, Tonge replicas were being mistakenly auctioned as the artists' original work - for tens of thousands of dollars.

    Moving Through the 20th Century
    Screen printing got its foothold in Canada and Australia after World War I and in England in the mid-1920s, but it took longer to reach the European continent.

    The Selectasine process made its way from England to Zurich in 1926, with the direct involvement of the painter Hans Caspar Ulrich. With support from the Swiss bolting cloth manufacturers, he became deeply involved in learning the process and spent several months studying it in the United States. While there, he had contact with the leading screen printing firms of the day. His observations - several notebooks full of handwritten comments and drawings - give us unprecedented insight into the early years of the process, and complement the records left by the American pioneers.

    The outbreak of World War II caused a dramatic decline in the advertising industry, which often threatened the survival of the printing houses. They faced additional difficulties in the form of government rationing programs, which affected even common items like paper and cardboard, and the loss of trained workers to the draft. The sharp decline in indoor and outdoor advertising and lettering work is attested to by the size of the journal Signs of the Times during the war years: Throughout the 1930s and up to America's entry into the war in 1941, issue length was 100 to 110 pages, but in 1942 this dropped to 80 pages, and then to an average of 60 pages in 1943. The last two years of the war saw an increase to 80 pages or more.

    For the screen printing industry, this slump in the advertising sector was offset by an increase in government work, which included propaganda posters and various military applications, ranging from maps to marking aircraft and other equipment. "The importance of screen process printing to many manufacturers can best be demonstrated by the extensive development and use of it in this wartime period. To all of us in the process field this is obvious, as we are working on orders that seem quite divorced from the advertising field, for which we know the method was originally developed."

    Sign shops were set up not just in America but also in the Pacific, Africa and Europe, so that military equipment and other material could be marked or printed on site. Members of the Australian military were also trained in screen printing, which was used for marking equipment and printing maps, charts and catalogs.

    Stencil Making
    Stencil making represents just a small part of the overall production process today, but in the first few decades of the 20th century it was one of the biggest jobs. Creating stencils by hand required intricate drawing or cutting work, and photographic stencils often involved numerous steps, from preparing one's own photo emulsion to post-hardening of the exposed screens. Thanks to modern materials, good printing results that once required years of professional experience can now be achieved by laymen, sometimes after just a one-day training course. "It used to take a stencil maker a day to make a screen that is now cut in 30 minutes," Bert Zahn recalled in 1950. That made it all the more painful to lose a screen, perhaps because the stencil pieces failed to adhere properly or the mesh ripped. At that time there were many more potential sources of trouble during stencil production than there are today. Nevertheless, even with the rudimentary tools at hand, it was possible to achieve results that come up to modern standards of quality.

    Profilm, "a tremendous boost for the process"
    In May 1929, Louis Francis D'Autremont (1891-1982) filed a patent for his duplex stencil paper, which simplified stencil production significantly. It was sold under the trade name of Profilm. Its two layers were a transparent paper backing and a stencil layer consisting of shellac. The Profilm was laid over the image to be printed and the design was cut into the shellac layer without cutting through the backing, which left all the elements of the stencil in place and in register. After the printing areas had been removed and the shellac layer ironed onto the screen, the backing was peeled away. It was possible to achieve good results even with cheap organdy screens because of the sharp edges and absence of sawtoothing. D'Autremont described the advantages of his invention: "The principal feature of this material is that it is transparent and can be placed over the most colorful design and all colors plainly distinguished through it. This, of course, simplifies the operation of cutting and registration when working on a number of colors. After using, the screen can be cleaned very quickly and another stencil film placed thereon. Thus the most colorful member of the printing crafts, the paint process, is coming rapidly to the front and proving to be an equal, if not an improvement, over lithographing and printing on certain classes of work."?

    Profilm was manufactured by Daneman Art Works in Dayton, Ohio (owned by D'Autremont's business partner, Alfred Daneman), and it sold extremely well. In July 1929 Daneman published the first screen-printed advertising supplement in Signs of the Times: "A New Way to Make Silk Screen Stencils! Revolutionary! Speed! Economy!" it proclaimed. The professional community immediately recognized the importance of this invention. Hiett called it "the first most important step for the advancement of screen process." Zahn concurred: "No method in the making of screens has so revolutionized this branch of the silk screen field as the Profilm method. From crude irregular ragged stencils Profilm has lifted it to a point where it produces sharp distinct plates that when properly handled and made, reproductions are produced that are impossible with any other known method. Overnight the process industry was aware that it had a place in the reproductive arts field."

    Guido Lengwiler is a teacher of screen printing at the Schule fuer Gestaltung Bern und Biel, Switzerland (Bern and Biel School of Design). He was elected to the Academy of Screen and Digital Printing Technologies (ASDPT) in 2009 for his work on the History of Screen Printing.

    About the book project:
    With support from the Academy of Screen and Digital Printing Technologies and industry, this valuable historical document was able to be produced in book form. Christoph Tobler, CEO of Sefar Holding AG, has been involved with the project for nearly a decade. He and his company have played a vital role in making this book a reality. The late Richard Eisenbeiss and his son R. David, president of the KIWO group (Kissel & Wolf) and the Ulano Corporation, have also provided their ardent support for many years. Eisenbess brought a binder with a working manuscript to the annual ASDPT luncheon in 2008, where members were so impressed with the research Guido had conducted, and the stunning photos he had collected, they began the long process of gathering sponsors in order to edit, translate, design and print the 496 page book in both its native German and in English. SGIA, Proell, Nazdar, M&R, Ryonet, Printcolor, Serico, Vitachrome Graphics, Grunig, Newman Roller Frames, Fimor, RH Solutions, Edition Domberger, and individual ASDPT members all contributed to publish the book.

    The published English version will be distributed by ST Publications, and the German through Niggli Publications. The book is available for purchase now. For further information, contact Andy MacDougall, ASDPT at: andy@tmiscreenprinting.com

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, September/October 2013 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2013 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (www.sgia.org). All Rights Reserved.

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