Drawing Basics: Hard Edges, Bold Colors

Riveter by Harry Sternberg, screenprint drawingScreenprints can have subtle colors and edges, but the most stimulating examples are bold and crisp, as a selection from the Print Research Foundation, in Stamford, Connecticut, shows.

by Bob Bahr

The Hitchhiker by Robert Gwathmey, screenprint drawing
The Hitchhiker
by Robert Gwathmey, 1937–1943,
screenprint, 16¾ x 13?.
All artwork this article
collection Reba and Dave Williams.

It earned popularity for its affordability and enjoyed critical favor for its bold imagery, but screenprinting’s inherent limitations make it a bit of an acquired taste for collectors and a labor of love for artists. Art-making is famously free, but there are rules in screenprinting—especially if the artist wants to maximize the medium’s strengths. The screenprinter must find the life and excitement hiding in flat planes of solid color. But artists experimenting with screenprinting soon find out that what the medium lacks in flexibility it gains in accuracy and marvelous simplicity.

The first patent that mentioned the common tools of screenprinting was granted in 1887 to Charles Nelson Jones, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, according to research by artist Elinor Noteboom. In England in 1907 Samuel Simon filed a similar patent for the screenprinting process. His method was to stretch silk over a frame and block out all areas that weren’t to receive ink using a starch or glue stopout—a variation on a stenciling method long in use in Japan. Then, he would place the screen over the surface to be painted and rub pigment through the tiny holes in between the silk fibers with a big bristle brush. It seems unlikely that either Jones or Simon received money for their “inventions” as the concept spread.

While the basic process remained unchanged over the next 40 years, advances in technology allowed screenprinting to become more cost-effective in the next decade, which attracted the attention of marketers in the United States. The brush gave way to the less wasteful squeegee. Faster-drying inks were invented, and films were developed to more easily and accurately mask out the stenciled areas. Then, the Great Depression descended upon the country and screenprinting got a boost in two ways: The Works Progress Administration (WPA) spread the gospel of screenprinting in 1938 by starting the Silk Screen Unit of the Graphic Section of the New York City WPA Art Project, which developed new techniques, offered workshops, and published how-to manuals. And working artists found that screenprints allowed them to create artwork at a cost they could afford and sell it at a price cash-strapped collectors could manage—a crucial consideration at the time.

Mountain Monster by Bernard Joseph Steffen, screenprint drawing
Mountain Monster
by Bernard Joseph Steffen, 1945,
screenprint, 11 x 17½.
Riveter by Harry Sternberg, screenprint drawing Winning the Battle of Production by Hugo Gellert, screenprint drawing
by Harry Sternberg, 1935,
screenprint, 11 x 11½.
Winning the Battle
of Production

by Hugo Gellert, 1943, screenprint,
15¼ x 13?.


Early screenprints often leaned toward the decorative and pedestrian and lacked a certain finesse in dealing with the basics of drawing, as shown in Leopold Krumel’s Swans, and that, combined with screenprinting’s use in advertisements and other marketing initiatives, earned it a degree of scorn in the fine-arts community. Around 1937, a group of artists were planning a show of screenprints and decided to change the name of the medium in an effort to shake its commercial-art connotations. They approached critic and curator Carl Zigrosser with the problem and Zigrosser asked for a day to think of a new name, according to a conversation the noted print collector Reba White Williams had with artist Harry Sternberg. The next day Zigrosser suggested serigraph, from the latin seri (silk) and graph (write/draw). With a new name, government money, artists who were believers, and the attractive affordability of the medium, screenprints—or serigraphs—were ready for their time in the spotlight.

Sternberg’s Riveter, a key item in the collection of Reba and Dave Williams, which is housed in Stamford’s Print Research Foundation, is a good representative of the screenprint’s emergence. The subject matter is classic WPA—a can-do blue-collar worker bravely riveting, high above the city streets. The use of several overlapping colors and the tonal variations imply that Sternberg was trying to be painterly with the print. (The next wave of artists focused more on exploiting screenprint’s natural traits.) Depictions of working-class Americans were a favorite subject in WPA art; farmers, ironworkers, and train conductors toil and strive in these government-funded screenprints. Artists receiving subsidies from the U.S. government theoretically could draw and paint anything they liked, but the sentiment among artists was to focus on the common man’s hard work and productivity—with a tinge of politics. Ben Shahn’s Prenatal Clinic is an example from the liberal side of the aisle, as the viewer has a hard time answering the “Do I Deserve Prenatal Care?” question on the poster with anything other than an affirmative. Racial integration and equality is advocated in James Miekle Guy’s Workers, in which black and white not only join hands but seem to share limbs. Hugo Gellert’s red-white-and-blue Winning the Battle of Production is overtly propagandistic and patriotic, with a whiff of socialism. If the messages in these and other works were bold, the colors were too. Artists could easily present their images in saturated colors in screenprints, resulting in arresting oranges and reds, as in Leonard Pytlak’s fiery Untitled (Foundry), in which ironworkers tame an inferno as a normal part of their workday.

Swans by Leopold Krumel, screenprint drawing
by Leopold Krumel, 1927,
9¾ x 13½.

Pytlak’s soft edges and organic textures were a step backward from the trend toward crisp lines. “To my mind, the best screenprints are hard-edged,” says Dave Williams. “I absolutely agree that one can judge art by how well it utilizes the medium.” Robert Gwathmey’s The Hitchhiker, another standout from the Williamses’ collection, is a good example of the medium used well—the colors are clean and bold, the edges are sharp, and fine lines and details are skillfully used. The image is dated 1937–1943, but the print seems to point beyond even that large window—the act of hitchhiking suggests the hard-luck life of the Depression, and the vibrant colors and the highway motif suggest the optimism and car-culture of the 1950s. The sky in The Hitchhiker is uniformly, brazenly blue, and Gwathmey was content to block in many of the print’s colors. But in other areas he uses two colors to indicate tone and slightly model the form, as in the hitchhiker’s pants and hair and in the left foreground dirt.

Haying by Bernard Joseph Steffen, screenprint drawing
by Bernard Joseph Steffen,
1946, screenprint, 10? x 8.

From the beginning, fine-art screenprinters sought texture and experimented in their mark-making, often mimicking brushstrokes. Consider the half-dozen or more mark-making techniques and textures in Hananiah Harari’s City Signs. Many artists reined in this exploration and settled down into clean, nearly iconic imagery, but that only allowed the use of texture and tone to seem a bit daring. Nearly 10 years later, Dorr Bothwell explored Surrealism and texture in The Juggler and evidently employed some other stenciling techniques as well, judging from the lacelike patterns and what looks like coin faces that seem reproduced in the screenprint.

Untitled (Foundry) by Leonard Pytlak, screenprint drawing The Juggler by Dorr Bothwell, screenprint drawing
Untitled (Foundry)
by Leonard Pytlak, 1946–1947,
screenprint, 15½ x 12½.
The Juggler
by Dorr Bothwell, 1947,
screenprint, 19 x 14.
City Signs by Hananiah Harari, screenprint drawing Overseas Highway by Ralston Crawford, screenprint drawing
City Signs
by Hananiah Harari, 1938,
screenprint, 18 x 12.
Overseas Highway
by Ralston Crawford,
1950, screenprint,
10 x 15¾.
Prelude in Red by Steve Wheeler, screenprint drawing Three Trees and a Low Sky by Guy Maccoy, screenprint drawing
Prelude in Red
by Steve Wheeler, 1947,
photo screenprint, 8½ x 11.
Three Trees and a Low Sky
by Guy Maccoy, 1943,
screenprint, 11 x 14 3/16.

The precision the medium allowed promoted detail. Guy Maccoy took full advantage of screenprinting’s ability to render small, precise marks in his Three Trees and a Low Sky—the artist drew individual blades of grass in his effort to create a complex, rich scene—even if the horse seems pasted into the composition in a very illustrative way. Steve Wheeler, for one, took it further in Prelude in Red, fully leveraging the medium’s sharp edges, fine details, and saturated colors in a complex composition that suggests Mesoamerican art. Wheeler’s precision and geometric shapes foreshadow the coming of Op Art in the mid-1960s. But first came Warhol.

Workers by James Miekle Guy, screenprint drawing
by James Miekle Guy, ca. 1940,
screenprint, 21 x 13?.

Prosperity arrived in America in the 1950s, and screenprinting’s thriftiness became less crucial. Abstract Expressionism was in vogue, ushering in an appreciation for art that eschewed the representational and embraced huge canvases. Screenprinting’s popularity declined; tellingly, the National Serigraph Society disbanded in 1962. But the reputation of commercialism that screenprinters once fought to dispel ended up serving the medium well; suddenly the old stigma attached to screenprinting became its draw. Andy Warhol’s screenprints of Marilyn Monroe, Mao, Elvis Presley, Campbell’s soup cans, and other pop-culture icons in the mid-1960s put the technique back on center stage—and back into the arms of commercialism. Warhol contemporaries Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein used it with much success; their graphical images were well suited to screenprinting. Meanwhile, technology progressed further. Nylon, introduced in the 1940s, replaced silk as the screen. The photo-emulsion process—in which a photograph or other opaque design placed over a screen coated with light-sensitive chemicals creates the stencil—became the new standard. The medium was proving ever more useful—screenprinting emerged as the predominant way to place an image on any consumer product. Further, the process allowed circuit boards to be cheaply made, ushering in the computer age.

Prenatal Clinic by Ben Shahn, screenprint drawing
Prenatal Clinic
by Ben Shahn, 1941,
screenprint, 14 x 21¾.

Pop Art ended up having a shorter shelf life than a can of soup, and artists backed away from screenprinting. Certain open-minded artists, such as Ed Ruscha, had found good use for the medium’s crisp lines and straightforward way of presenting an image, but screenprinting seems stagnant once again. Most likely, the cycle will continue and the medium’s fortunes will improve in a few years—as soon as there’s another discovery of how this deceptively inflexible process can make art like no other medium.

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