Andy Warhol Screenprints - The Process and History

Andy Warhol Screenprints – The Process and History

A Brief History of the Screenprinting Process:

The history of screenprinting dates back 1,000 years to China during the Song Dynasty. It was the successor of stenciling, which was invented over 40,000 years ago. Both methods are some of the earliest forms of artistic expression that have heavily influenced artistic innovation throughout the history of manmade art. While some stencils can be seen scrawled on the walls of European caves, stenciling was not introduced to Europe until the late 1700’s.

It wasn’t until the 1910’s that printers started experimenting with photo-reactive chemicals such as potassium, sodium or ammonium bichromate with glues and gelatin compounds. The evolution of screenprinting developed even further when three printers, Roy Beck, Charles Peter and Edward Owens introduced photo-image stencils. With their contribution, screenprinting became more of an art form and less of an industrial product.

For most of the twentieth century, screen-printing techniques were considered, “trade secrets” and were kept confidential. It wasn’t until the 1960s, with the help of Andy Warhol, that it became a more widely recognized art form.


Andy Warhol Screenprints:

When Warhol began to experiment with screenprinting in the 1960’s, the practice was not a widely used medium. It was a lengthy process that required an exorbitant amount of patience and a keen eye for detail. It was also not unanimously understood as an art form, due to the interference of a machine, which created skepticism by many whose traditional views of art required direct contact between the artist and his choice medium.

One of Warhol’s first silkscreened images was his Marilyn print, which he based off of a photograph from Monroe’s 1953 film, Niagra. This haunting, yet magnetic image of the star, who had recently committed suicide, was a choice subject for Warhol when he began screenprinting. Warhol quickly realized that he could produce art, in a systematic manner (like an assembly line of a factory), which gave rise to the production of his series or portfolios of prints.

His first published series was of none other than Marilyn Monroe. He used the efficiency of the screenprinting technique to his advantage and created multiple versions of the same image, using a variety of different color compositions. The production of this series served as the precedent and inspired Warhol to create a multitude of different portfolios, ranging in subject matter from soup cans to fictional characters in American pop culture. As Warhol once inquired, “Isn’t life a series of images that change as they repeat themselves?”, which so aptly reflects his philosophy of screenprinting and his often-employed style of repetition.


Material Used Throughout the Years:

The screenprinting process is a form of stenciling, in which a stencil is placed on top of a sheet and then ink is pushed through the stencil to create an image. From the silkscreen itself, to the type of paper and ink used, the evolution of silkscreening has involved a variety of different materials that have been traded out and improved.

At first, the screen was made of silk, hence the terminology “silkscreening”, but due to the expensive price of a valuable commodity like silk, the screen was replaced with a hybrid material made of nylon and polyester. While this modern material strays from the traditional practice of using silk, the use of these synthetic, inexpensive materials allows for the screen to last longer because it does not absorb ink resins and fats, and can be reclaimed after using with photo emulsion. This new synthetic material also allows for a sharper print than with the old method of using silk.

The choice of ink used depended on the intended composition of the final piece. When Warhol applied multiple colors, each color with its own screen. The application of the colors resulted in a layering effect, in which the color applied first was transposed with each of the following colors. Because of the durability of the silkscreen stencil made, Warhol was able to use it multiple times, creating a different color composition each time. This is how the different printed editions were generated.

The component on which the ink is transferred varies depending on the artist’s intentions. Warhol used many different types of materials to project his designs, from a wide variety of paper to canvases and plexiglass. Earlier in his career, he screenprinted on canvas, but immediately begun to experiment with different kinds of paper, due to the facility and speed in which silkscreen on paper were produced.

Below is a list of a few of the different types of paper Warhol used frequently:
(From the Catalogue Raisonne)

Arches: moldmade in France,100% cotton, neutral pH, watermarked

Arches Aquarelle: moldmade in France,100% cotton, Hot Pressed, Cold Pressed, and Rough, four deckles (sheets only), watermarked, chop marked

Beckett High White: machine-made in the US, 100% cotton

Lenox Museum Board: machine-made in the US, 100% cotton, neutral pH and buffered, Cold Pressed

Rives BFK: moldmade in France, 100% cotton, neutral pH, smooth, watermarked

Strathmore Bristol Series 500: machine-made in the US, 100% cotton, chop marked

Vellum: machine-made in the US, 100% sulfite

Warhol’s Printers:

The creation of a Warhol screenprint required two major components: Warhol’s creative genius and the printer to execute the idea. Warhol published many of his prints himself under the name Andy Warhol Enterprises, Inc., but he also employed various printing studios and individual printers as the demand for his work increased. The major printing studios and printers he used were Styria Studios Inc., Alexander Heinrici, and Rupert Jasen Smith, who did the majority of his printing. Other printers he used include Salvatore Silkscreen Co., who was responsible for Warhol’s soup cans, and Aetna Silkscreen Productions, who developed his Flowers series.

Styria Studios Inc. is a New York based publishing company who printed one of Warhol’s most infamous series, Mao, in 1972. Comprised of 10 prints, this became a controversial and iconic series of work for him and put Styria Studios on the map.

Alexander Heinrici who printed his Ladies and Gentlemen and Jagger series was one of Warhol’s most trusted silkscreeners and the first individual printer he went to after using industrial publishing companies like Salvatore Silkscreen Co. and Aeta Silkscreen Products Inc. Heinrichi also printed his Flowers (Hand Colored) portfolio and Paloma Picasso. Heinrici was Warhol’s primary printer from 1974 to 1976, when he began to publish his own prints under Andy Warhol Enterprises, Inc.

In 1977, Warhol decides to employ Rupert Jasen Smith as his printer for the Hammer and Sickle series. Warhol was so pleased with his work that he allowed him to place his printer’s stamp right next to his signature on all their works together and made Smith his master printmaker and art director, which would last until Warhol’s death in 1987. Some of the works featuring his stamp are his portraits of Princess Grace of Monaco, Ingrid Bergman, Mickey Mouse and Edward Kennedy as well as the following series: Reigning Queens, Endangered Species, and Shoes. Smith was such a well-known artist in his own right that contemporary artists Larry Rivers, Keith Haring, Kenny Scarf and Francesco Scavullo also feature his stamp on works. Many claim that Warhol would have never been able to maintain the extensive production of prints without Jasen-Smith’s help.


Comments are now closed for this article