Screenprinting: Christmas Presents

Ever since voluntarily (and happily) becoming unemployed in August of last year, I have been totally broke. But I still wanted to make some kick-ass Christmas presents. I've already written on one example. This is the story of me using all of the people I know in California to help me make two presents for Andrew.

I had a couple ideas. I wanted to make him a t-shirt using an image he had me draw last year, of a bunny holding a drumstick. At the time, he insisted that if he ever got a tattoo, it would be of a bunny holding a drumstick, and that I should draw it for him, just in case. Of course, he's never going to get a tattoo, but I knew he really liked the drawing and figured putting it on a shirt would ultimately be more useful.

I also know that Andrew really likes Carl Sagan, and thinks that the Gold Record project is incredible (which it is). So, since he had just moved and didn't yet have much large wall art, I decided to make a poster of the Gold Record as well. So, while I was in San Francisco, I stopped by Thrift Town, which I visit whenever I can because I miss getting all my shoes there, and picked out the biggest, goldest, most awesome frame I could find. The one I got came with a really cool print in it, a fine line drawing with watercolor washes of this monster scene of humans doing a wide variety of constructive and creative things, like building a boat or practicing ballet or attending the opera or sitting in an office. I went to Thrift Town just looking for a frame, but I ended up using this print as well. It was thematically appropriate.

Obviously screen printing was the best method for both of these projects. Screen printing is the best way to make t-shirts, and I didn't have the capabilities to have a large printer posted any other way (plus screen printing looks way better than some stupid laser printer or something). And, my best friend Zella's boyfriend Dewey has a screen printing-equipped studio in Sacramento. So I started by blowing up each design in Photoshop, then printing out sections on my mom's inkjet, then taping them together to reform the designs.

The Gold Record was more difficult than the bunny. Since the only image of the Gold Record is the relatively low resolution one on the NASA website, I had to do a lot of painful selecting on Photoshop to get a clean black and white stencil image large enough to print 22" in diameter.

Once I had the large images, I had to transfer them to acetate in order to burn the screens. For the bunny, this was easy; I wanted to end up with a simple line drawing, so all I had to do was trace my printout onto acetate with an opaque pen.

For the Gold Record, again, the process was more difficult. Because the positive area of the image was so large, it made no sense to color it with a pen. I considered making a cut-out stencil, but because there are islands areas (unconnected from the rest of the positive image) this wouldn't work either. Dewey ended up having some Rubylith, basically a clear acetate base with a thin red or amber emulsion coating. I'd never heard of it or used it before, but it's great. You can trace your image with an exacto and peel off the emulsion, but still have an intact singe sheet as a base. The emulsion is clear enough to see through, but the right color that it completely blocks the light on the light table when you burn a screen.

Once I'd finished cutting out the details on the Gold Record stencil, I cut the entire thing into a perfect circle. Then I gave Zella a haircut, and we tried to dye her hair with cooked and mashed beets, which didn't end up working out, but looked really gross and cool during the process.

Before burning the screens, we had to stretch them (this part actually happened way at the beginning, before I made the stencils, but anyway). Dewey didn't have any screens as large as I wanted, so he very kindly made some frames and I bought some screen material and we proceeded to make our own.

After stretching the screens, Dewey coated them with emulsion. They took a really long time to set (during which I made the stencils). When they finally hardened (it was really cold and wet in Sacramento last December) we put them up on the light table and burned each screen.

I've only ever screen printed in the school studios before, so this whole process was pretty novel to me. I was incredibly impressed by Dewey's set up and the things he managed to do in a relatively small, not-fancy place. At school we have dry rooms with box fans and chilled emulsion and fancy tubs and sprayers and stuff. Dewey has a used light table and a garden hose, and he manages to accomplish the exact same thing (if it did take a little longer, being as we were at the mercy of the weather). This is a lesson I'm learning in regards to filmmaking as well, and a very useful one considering I'll be graduating in less than two months and won't have access to fancy school equipment after that.

After we burned the screens we sprayed them out and left them to dry.

Next came making the actual prints. We tested the bunny one quite a bit before actually printing the shirt I had picked up. There were some difficulties with the cleanliness of the image, but we managed to get out every bit of emulsion that wasn't supposed to be there, and cover up the places where it was supposed to be, but wasn't.

For the Gold Record print, we ran a couple on blank, dark blue paper before printing the actual image. We printed directly over the poster that had come with the frame I picked out. It had a wonderful effect: the gold ink is about %50 transparent, so it created this big glistening shape that is easily distinguishable from the complicated background, (and recognizable as the Gold Record, if you're familiar with it) but it's still possible to look up close and see the original image.

But the task was not finished! I drove Dewey and Zella back home, and then sped back to San Francisco to accompany my mother to a taping of Retro Night, a weekly show on KOFY TV, a local San Francisco television station. We hosted the It Takes a Thief episode.

After a similarly nostalgic meal, my mother left the city and my little sister Jojo and I went to stay at the house of a family friend family, Marian and Bob and their son Aidan, who helped Jojo and I re-frame the Gold Record print and wrap each present.

You can see a clearer picture of the finished and framed Gold Record print in the photo at the top of this post. That's Andrew, pretending he's not so, so thankful and amazed to receive such nice presents.

Thanks Anne, Zella, Dewey, Dewey's family, Jojo, Marian, Bob, and Aiden! You guys are the best.

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