Screen Printing: Definition, History, Artwork, Process

What is Screen Printing?

Screen printing is a stencil-like printmaking technique developed in China and Japan many centuries ago. Screen printing, also known as serigraphy or silkscreen, only gained mainstream popularity as an artistic technique in the 1960s. To create a screen print, an image is exposed onto a screen coated in photo-emulsion, which is light sensitive. Inks are then pressed through the unblocked areas of the screen and printed onto a surface such as paper. Screen prints are recognized for their bold colors, precise lines and flat appearance.

Notable Screen Print Artwork

Edward Ruscha, Standard Station, 1966, Museum of Modern Art, New York. ​​
Edward Ruscha, Standard Station, 1966, Museum of Modern Art, New York. ​​


Roy Lichtenstein, Brushstroke, 1965, Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Roy Lichtenstein, Brushstroke, 1965, Museum of Modern Art, New York.


Andy Warhol's Tomato Soup - For Sale on Artsy
Andy Warhol, Tomato from Campbell’s Soup I, 1968, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.*&offset=0&rpp=20&pos=9


Andy Warhol | Marilyn Diptych, 1962. Acrylic paint, silkscre… | Flickr
Andy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych, 1962, Tate Modern, London.


Roy Lichtenstein. Sweet Dreams, Baby! from 11 Pop Artists, Volume III. 1965, published 1966 | MoMA
Roy Lichtenstein, Sweet Dreams, Baby! From 11 Pop Artists, Volume III, 1965, Museum of Modern Art, New York.


Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band top image
Sir Peter Blake RA, Jann Haworth, Michael Cooper, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Album cover), 1967, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.


Obama Hope Poster — Shepard Fairey (2008) | by Mac Scott | FGD1 The Archive | Medium
Shepard Fairey, Hope, 2008, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago.


69-63 | a passion for the possible |
Sister Mary Corita Kent, A Passion for the Possible, 1969, Corita Art Center, Los Angeles.


Louise Bourgeois, Untitled, 2002, Museum of Modern Art, New York. 
Louise Bourgeois, Untitled, 2002, Museum of Modern Art, New York.


Peter Blake Love Me Do 200ppi .jpg
Sir Peter Blake RA, Love Me Do, 2004, Walton Fine Arts, London.

History of Screen Printing

Screen printing is a centuries-old printmaking process that dates back to Imperial China, between 960-1279 AD. Silk mesh or bolting cloth was originally used as the “silk screen” through which inks would be transferred. This stenciling technique was originally used in China to print designs onto textiles and garments, but it can also be traced back to Ancient Egypt. Silkscreen later emerged in Japan during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Though its exact origins are uncertain, silkscreen was a more accessible method of printmaking than lithography, as it did not require a printing press.

In the late 18th century, the silk screen method was introduced in Europe but did not become very popular until much later due to the scarcity of silk mesh in Western Europe at the time. French textile producers also used the silkscreen technique to print on fabric, pushing inks through silk stencils with thick and stiff-bristle paint brushes. The squeegee that most printmakers now use to pull screen prints by hand would not be adopted until the early 1900s.

Around 1910, a group of printmakers began to experiment with photo-sensitive chemicals and stencil-like printed impressions. They produced what were called “photo-reactive stencils” and “photo-imaged stencils.” Though this method took a while to gain popularity, photo screen printing was later adopted for commercial use. The affordability of screen printing materials and its versatility made it a common choice for many commercial industries, including the advertising industry. Screen printing was even used during World War I to print advertising materials, such as banners and posters, labels and flags.

In the 1930s, a group of artists known as the Federal Art Project began to create screen printed graphics as part of their artistic practices. They coined the term “serigraphy,” another name for screen printing that served to distinguish its use as an artistic process from the existing commercial use. The Federal Art Project later formed the National Serigraph Society, whose mission was to elevate serigraphy as a fine art medium.

Screen Printing and the Pop Art Movement

In the 1960s, screen printing became one of the preferred artistic techniques for the Pop Art movement. American artists and screen printers such as Andy Warhol and Sister Mary Korita Kent are among the most notable artists working with screen printing during this period. Both of these artists valued screen printing for its potential to make art more accessible to the masses. Fine art was typically expensive and was kept in museums and institutions where access to the general public was limited. Screen printing became a technique that allowed artists to quickly reproduce their work and sell or otherwise distribute it easily.

While screen printing was originally done on paper, artists such as Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg experimented with screen printing on canvas. Some of today’s most recognizable artworks are Pop Art screen prints, including Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych from 1962. The iconic screen print consists of 50 images of actress Marilyn Monroe repeated in a grid-like sequence on a giant canvas. Screen printing was used to render some areas of the artwork and color was added to the left side of the piece using acrylic paint.

In particular, Warhol’s work was filled with meaning and intention beyond the subject matter he conveyed. Screen printing, once only a commercial process, complemented Warhol’s appropriation of pop culture imagery and his own professional background in commercial art. Advertising was a major source of inspiration for Warhol and his contemporaries, including Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, who often challenged how people and things were portrayed in advertising and the idea of consumerism. Celebrities such as The Beatles, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Elizabeth Taylor were often portrayed because of their larger-than-life celebrity status.

While the Pop Art movement is largely credited for bringing screen printing into mainstream popularity, other art movements in the 1960s and 1970s, such as Fluxus, used screen printing to emphasize their anti-art sentiments. Screen printing became a popular medium for many artistic subcultures and can now be found anywhere from custom apparel like band t-shirts and movie posters to contemporary textiles and fine art.

Contemporary Screen Printing for Consumer Use

Screen printing on canvas has been used throughout art history. Many contemporary artists and artisans, from amateurs to professionals, still choose to screen print their work on canvas products such as unprimed gallery canvases and canvas tote bags. Affordable consumer photo prints on paper, canvas, or even glass and metal, are often screen printed and combined with other modern forms of printing such as inkjet and offset printing.

While digital printing is a popular choice for consumer printing, screen printing is still used by many print shops as a high quality alternative. Screen printing can even be used for creating texture and can be combined with other printing processes. Print shop clients and customers can benefit from the versatility of screen printing, as updated printing technology allows for printing on several materials, including canvas and metal, using various types of inks such as water based inks and plastisol inks.

Screen printing is still widely used for mass-printing graphics, product packaging and advertising material. Many of the objects we use on a daily basis have screen printed logos, names, slogans or details like icons on them. Advancements in screen printing technology make it possible to print on clothing garments, signs, car parts, cell phone and other personal electronics, business material, sports equipment, machines and even medical devices.

How Does Screen Printing Work?

First, a screen is set up by stretching a piece of durable polyester mesh over or within an aluminum or wooden frame. The frame itself is usually made from lightweight material so that it is easy to lift. Since repetitive lifting is a significant part of the screen printing process, a lightweight and durable frame is very important.

Next, a design is rendered onto the usually yellow mesh using a transparent overlay, photo-emulsion and a UV exposure process. Emulsion, which is usually green, is spread evenly across the mesh and left to dry. The emulsion is liquid and will fill the tiny holes in the mesh. A transparent overlay page containing a design is placed onto the screen, emulsion side up, and then exposed to UV light for a short period of time. The UV light hardens the emulsion in areas where a design is not present. The emulsion covered by the design will be washed away in the next step of the process.

Washing the screen after UV exposure is important as it will help develop the design. Clean and clear areas of mesh will allow ink to pass through, capturing line and detail. This works much like a cut-out paper stencil, where areas that were cut away will allow a liquid medium, such as inks, to pass through.

Before inking, the outer edges of the mesh closest to the frame are lined with tape to prevent ink from leaking beyond the design area. Paper, fabric or another substrate is then placed under the screen. The word “substrate” is used to refer to the surface, usually paper, a fabric garment, metal or other material, that will be printed.

Once the screen is prepared, ink is dispensed on the top edge of the screen and dragged down, over the design, using a rubber squeegee. As the printer drags the squeegee, ink will seep through the areas free of emulsion and transfer to the substrate beneath the screen.

Screen printing was originally done on a flat surface in order to create a complete printed image on the substrate. Now, many automated screen printing techniques can achieve a high level of detail and quality prints on all kinds of irregularly shaped objects.

The ink can then be dragged back up to the top of the screen and the screen lifted to reveal the first layer of a screen print or the final product. Separate screens are needed to achieve a multi-layer screen print. Alternatively, large screens can also have multiple designs exposed onto them. The unused designs can be blocked off using tape while another is being printed.

Once the printing process is complete, screens are washed thoroughly to avoid ink and emulsion residue sitting in the holes. Screen prints are left to dry for a few hours to avoid smudging any ink.


Biegeleisen, Jacob Israel. The complete book of silk screen printing production. Courier Corporation, 2012.

Notable Screen Print Artists

  • Andy Warhol, 1928-1987, American
  • Roy Lichtenstein, 1923-1997, American
  • Sister Mary Corita Kent
  • Peter Blake, b. 1932, English
  • Bridget Riley, b. 1931, English
  • Gerhard Richter, b. 1932, German
  • Edward Ruscha, b. 1937, American
  • Louise Bourgeois, 1911-2010, French-American

Related Terms

  • Woodblock Printing
  • Intaglio
  • Etching
  • Mezzotint
  • Relief Printing
  • Aquatint
  • Lithography
  • Japonisme
  • Dadaism
  • Surrealism
  • Modernism
  • Mixed Media
  • Pop Art