John McGowan - Printmaker

Original Prints from an Original Printmaker

Techniques


Jean Spencer introduced me to screen-printing in 1968 at Bulmershe College of Education. It was an immediate epiphany. We were working with paper cut stencils with a hinged screen on a plain bench, I felt a connection with the process. The department’s technician made me a small portable screen-printing ensemble, complete with home made squeegee and I haven’t stopped printing since.

These days, even though I have professionally manufactured and stretched screens and commercially manufactured squeegees, I still use a home made vacuum table and light box. The materials are now the best that I can afford: good heavyweight, mould-made papers and Lascaux acrylic pigments and bases.

 
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“Stenplex” screenprint: Still Life 1968

 
 
There are two methods of creating images for screen-printing: Autographic and Photographic. Both require a dense, light blocking positive image on a transparent sheet to create the photo-stencil on the screen.
The methods of image development have changed a lot over the years. My first print used a hand-cut stencil material called “Stenplex”, a two layer shellac film that was ironed onto the screen. By the early 1970s I was experimenting with direct photo stencils, in which the screens are coated and then exposed to a opaque image on a light box. I continue to use that stencil making technique.
 
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First photo screen print, c.1975

 
 
Autographic positives: Hand-made marks. Drawn, Painted, Printed, Scratched, Splattered, Resisted, Rubbed. Look at “West Street 2”; it has all of them.

The base, or substrate that I make marks on, is a transparent plastic sheet. This can have a smooth surface or have a grain to it. I use the latter for drawing work with soft crayon-like media. The mark making media that I use is wide-ranging but chinagraph pencils and rapidograph pens are favourite. Brushwork is conveyed using Lascaux tusches, of which there are quite a variety. These are a system of mark-making fluids used to draw/paint onto the transparent plastic. The inspiration to use these materials came from reading:
Screenprinting - The Complete Water-based System by Robert Adam & Carol Robertson ISBN-13: 978-0500284254 published 2003
See also: graalpress.wix.com and www.lascaux.ch
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I worked with Carol Robertson in 2003, on “West Street 1”, at the Graal Press in Roslin, which was definitely a game changing experience. Carol is the originator of the Lascaux Tusches and you should go to her website or the Lascaux website for more detailed information. But, in short, a variety of liquids can be used to create a huge range of marks and textures on the plastic substrate.

In addition, for large areas of flat colour, I use a masking film, which is red in colour, with two layers. I cut through the top red layer with a scalpel knife and remove it, what remains is exposed to a coated screen and prints. It will print whatever colour you pour onto the screen.
 
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“The Bells”, 4 colour screen print using colour separation 

Photographic positives: to print from a continuous tone colour or monochrome image it has to be translated into either dots or flat areas of tone. I have made photographic screenprints, via Photoshop, using the four-colour system, whereby an image is broken down into its constituent colour parts and then remixes the image from dots of Magenta, Cyan, Yellow and Black. All the work goes on in the computer.
I didn’t find it satisfying.
The second system I use is to make a the photographic image monochrome. The original image is scanned from the neg. Some work is done in Photoshop on colour balance and contrast. The image is converted to monochrome and adjusted again for contrast and brilliance. The trick is not to make the image too contrasty. I create a series of stepped greys based on a posterised image.
 

 
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The original image scanned from neg.
 
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The image is converted to monochrome.
 
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The series of images above illustrate the progress from colour image through monochrome to posterisation. Image is posterised into 4 tones.
 
 
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The posterised image acts as a guide. I return to the monochrome photographic image and use the threshold filter to create the different layers of tone, one at a time. Sometimes it is a simple matter of using the filter control sensitively to draw out the tonal information required for a layer of grey. On other occasions I select each area of the image with a marquee tool and pull out the required tonal contrast for a specific area and then go on the next section, until the whole image in converted into a black and white image. These are stored in the computer and then printed out onto transparent sheets of plastic. The darkest one prints the lightest tone, the lightest one prints the darkest tone.
 
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This First Stage of the print shows 3 grey tones printed in sequence over each other. The spectrum colours are then printed on top of these tones and are modified by them.
 
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These illustrations take the story of the print on from the tonal sequence. Click on the small image for a larger version.

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