The Serigraph

A Brief Description

A serigraph is an original fine art silkscreen print, or should be. Think of the process as glorified stencil printing. By a variety of techniques the artist creates a separate image for each color to be printed, then makes a separate stencil from each of those images either directly onto a screen or adheres each stencil to a screen. The “screen” is a rectangular frame over which a mesh fabric (originally silk) has been stretched. Each color is printed by pulling a squeegee with specially-formulated ink over the screen. The ink passes through the open portions of the stencil onto the fine art paper underneath. The sheet of paper is then picked up and laid on printing racks to dry. The prints may then be unracked and the next color printed. Because a serigraph is a true original, the only thing that limits its value is the reputation of the artist. At Christie’s art auctions in New York, serigraphs have sold for six figure prices. Serigraphs have been accepted into prestigious art museum collections.

A Short Early History

Screen Printing (also referred to as silk screen printing, silk screening, screen process printing, serigraphy) is a unique method of transferring or printing graphic images, and is considered by many to be the one of the oldest methods of printing. It was first used by the Chinese and the Japanese to decorate clothing, reproduce artwork, and publish posters with the latest words of wisdom of the emperor. Over 1000 years ago it was discovered that woven silk stretched on a wood frame, with a stencil image attached to the bottom with glue, could be used to reproduce the same image over and over on different materials by forcing ink or paints through the opening in the stencil. That’s screenprinting!

A Longer History

The earliest examples of stencil printing are found among Paleolithic cave paintings dating from periods variously described as early as 30,000 BC to 9,000 BC. In the ancient world stencils had such diverse applications as the decoration of the Egyptian tombs, the design outlines of Greek mosaics and, in classical Rome, in the lettering painted on wooden boards, publicizing attractions at the Games. The early Fiji Islanders made stencils by cutting perforations in banana leaves and applying vegetable dyes through these openings onto bark cloth. During the period of the six dynasties of China (AD 221 – 618) stencils were extensively used in the mass production of images of Buddha.

Various cultures greatly refined the process. One major difficulty was that isolated parts of a design, such as the center of the letter “O”, had to be supported. The Japanese devised a way of holding the parts of a stencil in place by means of a network of human hair, later replaced by threads of silk. During the Middle Ages, conquests and crusades spread the art of stenciling though Europe. By the sixteenth century, stenciling was used in conjunction with woodblock and brush painting for religious pictures and illuminated manuscripts. These art pieces were sold at shrines to those who gathered there at pilgrimages.

Experimental work using silk cloth as a screen for completely supporting the stencil was done in Germany and France around 1870 and was then carried on in England where a silk screen process patent was granted in 1907. In 1914, a multicolor method was developed in San Francisco. This improved version of silkscreen printing spread rapidly as a commercial printing method and is still widely utilized for this purpose. In parallel, in the 1920’s and 1930’s the1926 Silkscreen Graphic Business silkscreen process was taken up energetically by a group of young painters in the United States. They worked directly on silk, as the French Post-Impressionists had worked on the lithographic stone. They exhibited their prints in fine art galleries in New York and elsewhere. They were the first artists to take the medium seriously, and to claim for it a position alongside lithography.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA), a program of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930’s and early 1940’s, was designed to put people to work during the Great Depression. The WPA employed many silkscreen/serigraph artists to create posters for purposes of health and safety education, the promotion of government projects, and support for the armed forces during the Second World War.

The term serigraph is credited to Carl Zigrosser, Curator of Prints at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, when he first used it in the late 1930’s for an exhibition of silkscreen prints at the Weyhe Gallery in New York. He designated a serigraph (from the Greek, sericos, silk, and graphos, writing) as an original silkscreen print created by the artist from the artist’s own design, for which the artist created the stencils used in the printing process. This distinguishes, or should distinguish, the serigraph from either commercial or reproductive uses of the process. It may be that WPA silkscreen artist Tony Velonis thought of the term “serigraphy” and passed it on to Zigrosser to promote because of Zigrosser’s greater influence.

The serigraph, or silkscreen print as original fine art, gained wide acceptance with both collectors and galleries during the 1960s when artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Robert Rauschenberg began creating major works in the medium.

In recent years the term serigraph has also been appropriated for reproductions, produced by the silkscreen process, of paintings. This inaccurate use of the term makes more difficult the collector’s job of distinguishing between original art prints and reproductions.

Credits

Much of the material for this discussion was obtained from the following sources:
Screen Printing: Design and Technique, Nicholas Bristow, 1990
The Complete Guide to Screenprinting, Brad Faine, 1989
Practical Screen Printing, Stephen Russ, 1969
The Complete Book of Silkscreen Printing Production, J.I. Biegeleisen, 1963
Silk Screen Techniques, J.I. Biegeleisen and Max Arthur Cohn, 1942