A TECHNIQUE DRIVEN Blog dedicated to mastery of surface design techniques. First we dye, overdye, paint, stitch, resist, tie, fold, silk screen, stamp, thermofax, batik, bejewel, stretch, shrink, sprinkle, Smooch, fuse, slice, dice, AND then we set it on fire using a variety of heat tools.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

March into Deconstructed Screen Printing

Deconstructed screen printing

 First let me tell you that I am NO where near an expert just a beginner learning about surface design. I basically only “think” I know what the experts in the field are trying to explain to me. I DO know how various experiments I have tried have worked and I am willing to share them. I will start in the beginning with what I THINK I know. I will also include little side bits of info that I think are relevant marked with an asterisk(*) I will also try to answer all question in the comment box so everyone can see the answers (yeah, I was wondering that myself).
What exactly does deconstructed screen printing mean? To me, it means that I have constructed a screen with dyes applied in a textual way which I have allowed to dry onto the screen. Then I used a wetting agent to deconstruct the work (in dried dye) that I made, depositing the reconstituted dyes onto a substrate, which in this tutorial is cotton*.
            * you can use any plant based fabric. You can also use silk that has NOT been prepared in advance with soda ash by adding soda ash to the print paste – see below. Silk does not like soda ash so limit exposure to it by using it in the print paste not a soak.
First I want to talk about “printpaste”. Print paste is agar from seaweed  which is also used in processed food and totally non-toxic. This is a link to the directions from the company that I buy my supplies from. MY directions are a bit different. I call them (my shortcuts) the quick and dirty approach. I use only THICH SH. You get more bang for your buck. If you want regular viscosity print paste simply use less THICK SH.
  • My directions for print paste:
  • In a kitchen blender that you use ONLY for your art materials mix 2 tablespoons of THICK SH with one quart of cool/coldwater. I use no other chemicals just water.
*My water is from a deep aquifer and is filtered through a very expensive water filter which removes all chemicals and minerals. Use a Brita if you don’t have a water filter.
Blend on high speed. Look for a used blender at Goodwill or any second hand shop. You’ll thank me. Trust me when I tell you this is the BEST way to mix it.
  • Second best way is with a kitchen whisk.
  • It takes about an hour for the print paste to “set-up”.
  • Print paste will last longer than the time it will take you to use it up (over 6 months in the refrigerator). ALSO thickened dye will last a LONG time. I've used mine months later. Keep refrigerated.
A few ways to use print paste.
  • Use it to mix with powdered MX dye to create thickened dye.
  • Use it “as is” to wet a constructed screen on cotton that has been pre-soaked in soda ash.
  • Use it mixed with soda ash (powdered) to deconstruct a screen onto cotton* that has NOT been prepared with soda ash ahead of time.
  • I will also discuss another use for print paste later which is a discovery/experiment done by Judith.

Soda Ash* – three ways

  • Make a gallon of soda ash (one gallon of filtered water with one cup of soda ash). I use no other chemicals because my water is very soft (mineral free). If you have hard water you might want to add Calgon water softener per instruction on container.
  • Print paste with soda ash added is 1 cup of print paste with one Tablespoon of soda ash. Don’t ever skimp on the soda ash*.
  • Preparing the cloth ahead of time. Soak your fabric in a gallon of soda ash/water 5 minutes and either wring out or spin. A spinner will help you recover MUCH more of the soda ash water and helps your fabric line dry faster. DO NOT ever put soda soaked fabric in a dryer – LINE DRY. Fold when dry and keep where air circulates (not a plastic bag)
*Picture this. Soda ash is the catcher’s mitt and dye molecules are the balls. Don’t let those expensive dye molecules fly around without a bunch of catcher’s mitts to grab them. Err on the side of caution. Soda ash is cheap.
                                                                   My Spinner

Setting up/Constructing your screens

I am VERY fortunate and have a large space in my kitchen to set up my printing table which is 4’ X 8’. Yes, it is a ½ sheet of plywood covered with carpet foam (stiff) and synthetic felt. I cover the entire thing with an ugly old flannel sheet which is absorbent and washable. I am mentioning this because I set up about 6 screens to “do” a 45” wide piece of cotton 8 feet long. You will need to arrange a spot to deconstruct. You might want to get a sheet of ½” plywood 2’ X 4’ and cover with batting and muslin like I made hereto be my ironing surface. This is very handy because being 48” wide gives me room for a 45” wide piece of fabric. Just a suggestion. However you DO need a printing surface. Prepare as many screens as you think you can handle.
Making the thickened dyes: My thickened dye is dark and I like it that way. Try it my way first. There is nothing as disappointing as “light” pastel prints. If you are afraid the dye is too dark you can add the dye to some clear print paste right in the well before you print. This is an example of the flexibility of dark dyes.
Recipe: 1 cup print paste with one teaspoon of dye powder.(use a mask when handling dye powder)  
*An added note. I try to use just enough and not too much dye to construct the screens. If you do use too much dye, make sure to get all the remaining dye out of wells or the dye will drip onto the screens below while drying. Drops and spots of dye can add interest to prints but know that they will act as resists until they start to break down and become interesting. I will try to point this out later on when we look at actual prints. Remember, there are NO mistakes, just interesting lessons.
                                                  outside/bottom of screen - faces fabric
                                      Inside of screen - where you place and squeegee the dye
 Something I bought to take to my first art quilting class with Pamela Allen, a life changing experience.
 It was a padded ironing board on one side and a cutting mat on the other. Very convenient.
 I slip it inside a bin bag and presto, it becomes a padded surface for prepping my screens
Place somewhat flat objects between the drop cloth and the face (bottom) of the screen. You will be looking at the inside of the screen. Suggestions are wrinkled plastic sheeting, vegetable bags, stings or yarns, flowers, leaves, grasses. You want the objects relatively flat.  This string turned out to be too hard and made blobs of dye on the screen. I was supposed to place a piece of soda soaked cotton on top of the plastic bin bag to catch dye. I remembered on screen #2.
                                        Screen holding objects in place before first pull with dye

Place one, two or three colors in the well of your screen and pull the dye over the screen. When you feel you have the screen covered well with dye do a very firm pull leaving an even but NOT THICK layer of dye on the screen. First pull with these two colors. All I had in the refrigerator was a drop of orange, a drop of red, some yellow and some dark navy. Thought I'd use these up before making more.
                                         Screen is covered without excess dye in screen
                                                  Marks made by dimensional objects
                           Lift screen off surface and remove any objects that are stuck to the screen.
 As you can see I forgot to put down a piece of pre-treated fabric to catch the dye. I did add the cloth for the second to sixth screens.
    The sun was a bit bright but you CAN see the variations in the amount of dye on the screen created by the objects.     
                                                      Orange and blue #1 and #2 have big blobs
       I removed the string because it was catching and holding too much dye. Screen below is my fave so far
                            You can really see the dimensionality of the dye on these two screens

                                       "Printing" on the catch cloth, blotting the vegetable bag
 I have now finished wiping all the utensils I used on the cloth as well as wiping up all spills. The clean up cloth usually turns out great. Below it is folded and in a bag for batching.
Place the screens on a flat surface and use jar lids as spacers between screens *(optional).
Allow to dry – very dry.  I need to go get my spacers and these will be dry in the morning. Did I mention Maine is VERY dry? I stack them 3 X 3 and slide them under my counter which have  legs.
I started out today with 6 dried screens. I set up 2 tables side by side. The tables are 30" X 6' so the 4' X 8' table hangs one foot off each end and is wider than the two tables together.
                                             Tables stored behind door
                                                   Set up with not much moving around room
                                             With print table on top.
 With opened bin bags covering table. I found this was the easiest way to fold up the fabric to batch which you will see at the end of the printing session.

 Table with pre-treated fabric tightly T-pinned to the table
I was almost out of print paste so I made 2 quarts (2000ml). That's 2 T.Thick SH /1 quart (1000ml) water.
                                                 Thick SH in 1 lb. bag with blender
I keep the lid on at all times to keep mold spores out. Print paste lasts a long time (over 6 months) but when it goes bad there is no question. It smells like rotting seaweed. REFRIGERATE IT.
 The dark heavy deposits of dye will act as a resist. The lighter and see through area will be where the color melts (deconstructs) easiest and is then deposited on the cloth. As the screen is pulled over and over, more dye dissolves leaving larger areas with dye on the cloth and smaller areas of resist. That is due to the break down of the dried dye and it's deposition on the fabric.
                                        Initial wetting with a thick layer of clear print paste

                               First few pulls. Lots of white because not much dye has broken down yet. From this picture you can really start to understand how the thickest dye that hasn't dissolved (deconstructed) yet acts as a resist.
                                               After 4 pulls (prints)
One of the cool things that I experiemented with was to make 4 prints, then turn the screen up-side-down and print again over the four prints. If you look at the fabric with 2 prints above, that would mean I would turn the screen so that the red part of the screen was now on top and the blue on the bottom. This was my attempt to get rid of all the white.
 These are the four blocks above with one print and one reverse print. Still lots of white but you can see red and blue all over.  One of the things I love about this type of surface design is the wonderful figuring on the cloth. I will point out more after the fabric is batched and washed.

. The next thing I did was to take the squeegee with clear print paste and pass it over the print. It picked up enough color to tint the white spots.
I didn't want to mix the red screen and yellow screens so I used clear print paste directly on the squeegee without a screen and as you can see the white spots are now tinted without losing the definition. This is the power of the first strike. Once those catcher's mitts have balls in them they have a powerful bond. If you are relatively gentle with the clear print paste, you can add tint to the white without disturbing the original prints. This was Judith's idea. My idea was to place a used screen on the print and just pull tinted print paste on the small area that was white. This also worked and was a bit faster. It also had the safety of having the screen between the printed fabric and the squeegee preventing any smears.
                                                  This another screen in process

 I forgot to get a picture of all the fabric covered. You will see it tomorrow after batching. This picture is after I tore off the last 2 feet of unprinted fabric which I will save for another time I need pretreated fabric. I took that last bin bag and placed it over the end of the fabric then folded it so that all wet sections were touching plastic. Four big folds below.

Folded neatly into a small packet to fit on my tray. I leave the tray on the top shelve of my parents bookcase. They live in an apartment off my kitchen. My house is 60 degrees which is too cold to batch. There apartment (especially near the ceiling) is about 80 degrees. That is perfect for batching. Another method if you don't have parents conveniently located off your kitchen is to use rice bags heated in the microwave oven, placed on plastic covered fabric and covered with a towel. It works beautifully.
Next we will see the finished fabric and a comparison with some deconstructed pieces I did before filling in the white spots.

Here is the entire piece batched, washed and ironed

 Some of these are close-up and some are pictures of two prints. I only made four prints of each screen. Sometimes you can make more but I'd rather have mine rich in color than numerous.

This is a closeup of the drips. The thick drips of dried dye act as a resist but as they break down (deconstruct) they leave a halo or outline of their color. Can you see the navy outlines along the sides of these drips?

On the block below you can see a double image or ghost image. This happened ( many times) because I lifted he screen after the first pull, thought the image too weak so I lowered the screen back into place but it was just enough off to give the double image or ghost look.

      On the screens above, you can see the navy color around the drops or circles on both screens
These last two were just fill-ins. I had run out of dye on the screens and just filled in the space with color. If I hadn't, I would have large blocks of white. This way I used some of the left over dye, covered the white and have something I can add more layers to with stamps, more dyeing or fabric paints.
This was a very sad pale square although the drips and dots are kind of cute. A good first layer. The objects on the left are color catchers which grab loose dye molecules in the washing machine to prevent dye back or dye re-depositing on the fabric

Here are some fabulous deconstructed screen prints with those sad white blank spots. See the difference when you fill them in? Also with all the white filled in, 4 prints can read as one long piece of fabric.

In addition to filling the white spots or areas of resist with dye I also have been very diligent to at least butt and sometimes overlaps screens slightly so that multiple prints read as one piece of fabric like the results from today.
I hope you have enjoyed this tutorial as much as I did creating it. If you have any questions or need a clearer more precise description, please leave a comment. You can also email me at the email address in my profile.


  1. I am very excited to try this!!!

  2. Great detailed description of how to do this! Your fabric turned out beautifully! I enjoyed seeing how you apply dye and create texture - it's slightly different than how I do it. Just shows that there are lots of ways to do things - I can easily get stuck on doing it the way I always have.

  3. Wonderful to see it beginning to end!

  4. Great tutorial, Beth. I also do things differently; I never soda ash my fabric - I add soda ash to the clear print paste. And since alginate is a resist, I sometimes paint into the fabric with liquid dye to add color without having it change the color of the thickened dye on the fabric.

    You can dry your screens with a hair dryer if you are in a hurry (I live in very humid NJ) and I don't have room in my studio to batch, so I hang it to dry with a fan on it and then steam. While you don't have to steam with MX dyes, it makes a big difference in the vividness of the final fabric.

    We all have our variations and whatever works is great! Thanks for posting this.

  5. I'm sure you know that you wrote a comprehensive tutorial; but FYI, I just printed it off and it was:


    SIXTY FOUR PAGES (!!!!!)

    Go Beth! :)

  6. Holy Cow!!! 64 pages. I have done the same thing too on other peoples tutorials!!

    The thing about this technique is that it is self perpetuating. When you have your thickened dye out and you've cleaned your screens, I just jump right back in and re-set them up for another round. Is their a 12 step program for deconstructed screen printing??

  7. Hi,
    what is Thick Sh

    also, what do you do with the fabric?
    Sandy in the UK

  8. Great tutorial, great examples, great inspiration. Im excited to get started. I mixed up my print paste this morning. I have never used print paste before and only had PRO Print Paste Mix SH from PRO Chem on hand. I hope it will be ok to use. What you have seems to be much easier to deal with. For just a cup of the Print Paste Mix I had to put in 5 1/2 tablespoons of the paste mix (as per their jnstructions). That's a lot of tablespoons when dealing with a quart!

  9. Sandy. Thick SH is a thicker, more viscose, print paste that is offered by ProChemical and Dye in the US. You use less to get the same result. The two things you can do with the fabric is pre-soak it in soda ash and allow it to air dry OR add soda ash directly to the print paste (regular or thick SH). You NEED the soda ash to make the chemical bond between the Fibers of the cloth and the molecules of dye. If I am not being clear or not understanding your question correctly, email me back,OK?

  10. That is a lot. I used 2 Tablespoons per quart of water. The THICK SH is much cheaper to use and doesn't cost that much more. Using a wire whisk or a blender is a great help. Hope you are having fun!!

  11. oh my -- I can't WAIT to try this. Thank you for the tute -- there will be no more food coming out of my kitchen this weekend...!

  12. The results are so very very pretty that I definetely will give iit another try with your clear instructions, thank you so much for sharing.

  13. Beth, wonderful tutorial! I haven't tried this in awhile, but it's on my project board for this year, just as soon as the weather warms up a little. Thanks for sharing your process!

  14. I never truly understood what deconstructed screen printing was until I read this tutorial. Thank you so much for defining it for me, as well as showing me so clearly how to do it. This will help me so very much!

  15. Thanks Kathy. I consider this true serendipity and I love the results. Sometimes when I'm done and have clear (no soda ash added) print paste left, I divide it up into into a few yogurt cups, add a bit of dye powder and reload the screens for another go... so addictive.


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