DIY in Shanghai: Screen Printing

Screen printing studio IdleBeats resumed its beginners and advanced printing workshops earlier this year, after its proprietors, artists Nini Sum and Gregor Koerting, took a bit of a hiatus from hosting classes during the tail end of 2014. If you need a primer on IdleBeats, the OGs of Shanghai's screen printing scene, then have a quick scroll through this and this. As for the workshop...

What You Need

It's not necessary, but you can arrive prepared with artwork — maybe you have a design or illustration that you'd like to integrate into your print, or if you're like me and can't draw for crap, then a photo that can be used for collaging. Whatever it is, it's got to be in digital form, so be sure to have it ready on a flash drive when you get there. Also, best not to wear anything that you'd want to keep stain-free. This beginners' workshop doesn't get too messy, but you're still likely to catch a stray fleck or splatter of paint on your clothes.

Who Goes in For This

The creatively inclined. You're certainly going to see some artists and designers, but they don't make up the whole group. There are also people who dabble in music, writing, advertising and the like — including some who have zero experience in visual arts. Each class is kept small, so there's plenty of interaction between tutor and student, and among students. There's an average of 3-4 participants per workshop, and Idle Beats caps it at 5 people maximum.

What Happens

The workshop starts off with a rundown of the screenprinting process and a quick tour of IdleBeat's studio. Then, everyone gathers at Gregor's computer and watches as he edits our images — we want high contrasts and halftones, he tells us. Those of us who brought in photos or artwork get them printed out on vellum paper — translucent, thicker and stiffer paper that we'll later use as stencils. Anyone who wants to illustrate something from scratch gets blank sheets of this paper. After some coffee and pleasantries out in the patio, we spend the next 30-60 minutes making the "positives" for our prints. This part was lovely — people drawing, people cutting and collaging, bouncing ideas off of each other. Very laid back.

I tried to draw hands but they looked like bananas. Gregor and co. were kind enough to draw them for me, encouraging me to try something different, like a pair of Mickey Mouse balloon hands in peace sign formation. Gregor has a tray of vellum paper printed with different patterns, plus scraps of Idle Beats designs that he and Nini didn't end up using. You can take those to cut out and collage on to your own work. I ended up using some of these leftover illustrations, taking a pair of chicken feet to use for the hands I so desperately wanted.

Once you're happy with your artwork, the actual printing begins. You start off by coating one side of your silk screen with a thin, even layer of emulsion. When that's done drying, the entire screen and that "positive" you've lovingly prepared go into an exposure machine that "burns" your design onto the finely meshed, emulsion-coated surface of the screen.

Give the screen a rinse, and aha, there it is. Your pride and joy.

As you wait for the screen to dry off, it's time to choose your colors. There are dozens of paint colors available, or you can work with Gregor to mix them for new shades. For beginners, Gregor advises to keep it simple — either stick with one color, or if you do more than one, then only do color accents. Alternatively, you can take two or more colors and line them up on the screen at the same time, to create graduated tones.

Then, you prep your screen and printing station with tape, mounting and locking your screen down. Finally, the moment of magic: squeegee time! Run it down the screen with two hands, and there you go — you have printed. This part takes a bit more finesse than you'd think. Press too hard, and your colors bleed, making your image blurry and causing you shame among fellow workshoppers. I got a bit over zealous and ended up with over 10 prints of the same image. If you decided to do more than one color, then there are added steps: you'll need to block out the parts of your screen that you want in another color, thoroughly wash off the predominant color you initially slathered on, then go over your print again to layer on the additional colors.

While your prints dry off on the rack, you undo all that tape you stuck on and Gregor shows you how to clean off the entire screen, emulsion and all.

How Much of Your Life This Will Take Up

There isn't a set schedule and Gregor runs things pretty casually, allowing us to move at our own pace. Our group ran a bit slow, and ended up staying for nearly five hours, though people who aren't quite as picky about hands and squeegeeing will probably be able to finish between three to four hours.

How Much Does It Cost

One session of a beginners workshop runs 700rmb per person. If screen printing becomes a hobby or skill that you'd like to develop, then Idle Beats is also doing a package of 2000rmb for four classes. That comes out to 500rmb per session. If you're already pretty good at screen printing, then the senior workshops might work out better for you. Gregor tells me that the typical attendee for those classes is an artist or designer with a project in mind, and is there to use the studio space and get one-on-one help in order to realize that creative project or art piece. Otherwise, some people go to learn new, more complex techniques in screen printing. That's 400rmb per person, per hour. These prices cover all the materials you'll need, but if you want to print shirts or tote bags, then you'll have to bring those yourself.

Plusses

You learn a new skill, and can relish in producing something tangible and (hopefully) visually striking — and if you're lucky, all while doing it in good, like-minded company. You'll end up with multiple copies of your artwork, too, so you can give one to your significant other, your mother, your best friend... Put a frame on it and voila, that's a lot of holidays, anniversaries and birthdays covered. Cheapskate.

Minuses

It's expensive, especially if you end up going more than once. It's probably one of the priciest activities I've paid for in this city, but think about it this way — it's probably close to what a lot of people here spend on day drinking and brunches in just a couple of weeks.

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Workshop dates are announced on IdleBeat's online schedule here.

Note: there is only one beginners' workshop per month, and address details are given only after sign-up.

Photos by Rhiannon Florence