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Learn the Basics of Screen Printing

The art of screen printing was first used by the Chinese over 2,000 years ago. Although technology and techniques have changed since then, screen printing is still used today in a variety of artistic and commercial applications. Though typically related to the apparel industry, screen printing is incredibly versatile. In addition to t-shirts, hats, and clothing, screen printers also work to create designs on everything from coffee cups and diverse types of merchandise like posters, banners, and other large displays.

The screen printer’s main task is to create unique items with vibrant and customized printed designs. Aspiring screen printers should be creative individuals with an eye for design and color. Screen printers will often have to create their own unique and eye-catching designs, so some experience with or interest in design work is also helpful for those who are interested in this career. Most of the work that screen printers accomplish requires them to work one-on-one with individual clients, businesses, and organizations. This makes it important for aspiring screen printers to also develop customer service skills.

There are three types of environments where screen printers typically work. Some screen printers work independently. While this option allows for the most creativity and flexibility, it also requires the individual to have the determination and self-discipline to both work as a screen printer and business owner. Screen printers can also work for a small screen printing company that offers services to individuals and businesses in the immediate area. Yet another option is to work for a large apparel or merchandise factory. This requires knowledge and experience with industrial screen printers.

Whether you are working on a simple project that requires only one color logo printing or a more complex project with intricate designs and multiple colors, it is important for screen printers to be able to take the client’s idea and bring it to life on the chosen canvas. This requires attention to detail and knowledge of what is and isn’t possible when it comes to printing on different materials.

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Advance Your Skills & Technique

At its core, screen printing is a simple process that involves pushing paint or ink through a mesh screen onto a substrate or canvas. The screen printer uses a stencil to create the images, logos, letters, and any other designs that will later be printed onto the canvas. Though anyone can learn how to screen print, skilled screen printers work to perfect their technique and effectively manage the screen printing process in order to create more intricate designs on a variety of different materials.

Professional screen printers may perform any or all aspects of the screen printing process. This can include coming up with the design concept, drafting the design, developing the stencils, mixing and loading inks, cleaning and maintaining machines, and storing the finished products. Screen printers who work independently or run a small screen printing business will also need to learn basic skills that come along with running a business such as managing employees, maintaining a budget, marketing the company’s services, and other administrative tasks.

In addition to learning the ins and outs of the screen printing process, professional screen printers also need to be able to handle repetitive tasks with careful precision. Mixing the chemicals used in the screen printing process and creating accurate stencils for design requires patience, organization, attention to detail and dexterity. Screen printers working independently or for smaller screen printing businesses will also need to become familiar with screen printing equipment in order to learn to identify and troubleshoot any technological and mechanical issues that may arise.

A formal education is not a requirement to become a professional screen printer. However, a degree or career experience in an art field can help aspiring screen printers gain the skills they need to become professionals. Some schools offer courses in screen printing that can help you learn printing techniques and gain hands-on experience with the process. Other courses in fine art such as illustration or graphic design can also help aspiring screen printers learn the basics of color and design, which will lend well to the screen printing profession. It may also be helpful for aspiring screen printers to work as an apprentice in a screen printing shop. This role will not only allow you to gain hands-on experience as a screen printer, but you can also learn the ins and outs of how the business operates.

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Develop Your Personal Style

The screen printing industry is rather large, and it can be hard to stand out among your peers. Whether you are planning on starting your own small screen printing business or looking for a position with an established screen printing company, it is important that you can differentiate yourself from others in the field. The best way to do this is to find what type of screen printing you excel at and market yourself as a specialist. This is where a portfolio can come in handy. By having a portfolio or samples of your work, you can show perspective customers or employers your strengths when it comes to screen printing.

As with nearly every type of artist, screen printers can benefit from professional networking. Whether you want to work independently or with a screen printing company, it is vital to gain hands-on experience and training with a seasoned professional. One of the best ways to do this is by learning from or working under a screen printing professional in your community. Network with local screen printing business owners and ask about opportunities to watch the artists at work or even become an apprentice at the shop. This is a great way to learn more about the business and gain hands-on experience with the screen printing process.

In addition to networking with local screen printing business owners and others in the field, it can also be helpful to expand your network to learn from others outside of your local community by joining relevant organizations and attending tradeshows. The American Screen Printing Association is a global organization of screen printers that provides guidance and networking opportunities as well as training and certification for aspiring screen printers. The Specialty Graphic Imaging Association also provides networking opportunities and educational resources for professionals in the industrial, garment, graphic, textile, electronics, packaging and commercial printing fields. This organization can provide great opportunities for screen printers to make connections in complementary fields.

Get to Know Our Experts

Jacob Goodman

  • Title:
    Co-Owner
  • Company:
    Fresh Prints, LLC
  • Where:
    New York, NY
  • Experience:
    3 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    Jacob and his business partner, Josh, have been running the company since they were both sophomores in college. Previously, they had no background in screen-printing and took it upon themselves to put in the hours and effort to teach themselves the art of screen-printing. As a result of their work ethic, Fresh Prints is a successful and thriving company.The Art Career Project asked Jacob to share some of his experience in becoming a successful screen-printer and entrepreneur:

    Advice

    Figure out what you’re best at

    My advice to the aspiring screen-printer artist is to find something you can do better than other screen printers (and custom apparel providers) and leverage that strength. The screen-printing industry is insanely large and no company can be the best on every front. When we first started our business, a client used a stolen credit card to place a $10,000 order. We had no idea the card was stolen until the card user’s bank contacted us a month later and stated that they were going to remove the $10,000 from our bank account and that there was nothing we could do. I wish we would have known then to require a customer’s signature and billing address for payment because that would have protected us against the fraud. What I like most about my work is the problem-solving involved with the job. We have to work hard to quickly solve problems with orders and structural roadblocks in the scaling of our business.

    Jim Stevens

  • Title:
    Screen Printing Fine Artist
  • Company:
    The Scrimshaw Studio
  • Where:
    Wheat Ridge, CO
  • Experience:
    30+ years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    Jim Stevens has been a screen-print and fine artist for well over 30 years. His work can be viewed (and purchased) at his Scrimshaw Studio website. He also has a Facebook page as well. Read Jim’s expert interview with us.

    The Art Career Project contacted Jim to share some of his sage advice for aspiring screen-print artists and entrepreneurs:

    On beginning his career:

    “I wish I had known more about effective business and promotional practices and financial management when I first started my art career. I learned the business aspects of being an artist on my own, and learning about business by losing money over taxes and other problems is not an experience I would recommend. I finally figured things out, but I should have learned proper financial and business management in a classroom rather than my studio.”

    Advice

    Learn hands-on

    Learn hands-on from an experienced screen printer or two before attempting to branch out on your own. Only hands-on experience will make you a good screen printer and learning from someone who is already a professional is the fastest way to obtain the necessary skills you will need before offering your services to the public. I am self-taught, and it was a very long, very mistake-filled process. Today, I use screen printing with fine precision in my monofilament portraits where I actually screen print onto monofilament line that is then mounted in horizontal rows inside a clear acrylic case to create almost holographic portraits, but I would have learned faster and with fewer mistakes had I found a mentor instead of teaching myself.

    Take photos

    Other than that, keep an open mind to criticism of your work and take photos as much as you can! As a photographer, you have a blank canvas and your job is to fill it with something that at the very least inspires you. It may sound silly and easy, but once I started, I became obsessed with what was inspiring to me and how to fill the canvas. I started to dislike the photos I was taking because I knew they weren’t good enough. I still feel that way. I’ve realized that I’ll never be completely satisfied with my work, but it’s the pursuit of that feeling that keeps me going.

    How to get started

    Walk into as many screen printing shops as you can and see if they need help or if they will let you watch and learn. I was in a small shop one day picking up one of my art screens when a young man walked in and did just that. The owner wasn’t thinking about hiring anyone, but when the kid asked, the owner thought about everything he had going on at that time and decided to hire the young man right there on the spot. Of course, once hired, the training really begins. Learn everything you can. Don’t do it the way I did. I could have been so much better, so much sooner, if I had found someone to learn from. Self-taught is no badge of honor, it just means I wasn’t very smart in my early efforts.

    Johnnie Williams III

  • Title:
    Founder
  • Company:
    SteezyWorkz
  • Where:
    New Jersey
  • Experience:
    30 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    Johnnie Williams III is the founder and owner of SteezyWorkz, an alternative fashion, art and longboarding brand company in New Jersey. He also has a presence on Facebook.

    The Art Career Project got in touch with Johnnie so that he could kindly share what he has learned on his professional journey as a screen-print artist and business operator:

    “Since I run the startup completely on my own with the help of a few good friends, artists, and intellectuals, I am usually absorbed with my work from the moment I wake up until my eyes shut. Some days are more hectic than others depending on what type of work needs to be done. On average days I start out responding to emails and electronic queues I may have missed overnight. If there are fulfillments, I visit the post office. My cell phone is a great tool because no matter what I am doing I can maintain social networks, crunch numbers, or jot down notes for later. No matter what is going on, I always reserve time each day to create. After all, creativity is a huge part of our message, so I have to make sure I’m walking the walk. Normally, it takes longer to design an actual print for clothing than it does to produce it. So an average day includes some sketching and digital graphic design. On the days that we print, we do it during high noon as to take advantage of the sustainability of solar power. Not many people are aware of the technique we are using to create beautiful, detailed prints on fabric. I’m proud to be able to put this method to use!”

    “I love the freedom I have to think and create. I love applying my scientific educational background to solve art problems. I feel like I have a special edge in that regard, and it’s gratifying. I get to use game-changing products and science to create eco-friendly art and clothing. Those are the best things about my job. If I had to choose something I did not like about being my own boss, it would definitely be the amount of people who aren’t willing to learn what your message and goals are before they tell you what to do or give you advice…”

    Advice

    What he wishes he knew when starting out

    I think most people don’t actually know what they’ll enjoy most out of life. We all know we want to be successful, but often we lack direction and passion toward the one path that lights our hearts. I believe a lot of us are lost and seeking satisfaction from money and status in industries we don’t even love. If I had a more clear understanding of my own passions and knew what I wanted to achieve in my life and career earlier, I imagine I would be much further ahead with what I’m doing today.

    For the budding screen-printing artist

    The best advice I could give to anyone starting a career in screen printing is to never give up and to stay motivated toward your goals. There will always be naysayers and people who don’t believe in you. Believe in yourself, and give yourself a head start by educating yourself early. Find out what’s going on in the industry and figure out how you can connect. Get involved. My advice to anyone looking to get their foot in the door is to go out and find someone local who is currently screen-printing. Before you invest in expensive equipment and classes, have someone in the industry take you under their wing for a day or a week. Work alongside them to discover your strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes. In doing so one can start to develop a network and maybe find some lifelong partners!

    About education

    It really bugs me sometimes how far away removed we are from the world we live in. Educational programs are often too systematic, leaving little room for students to really spread their wings. Nothing is organic about learning. There should be more room in today’s classrooms for ideas to sprout. Instead of teaching simply how things are done, students should be armed with the knowledge and confidence to challenge the norms. They should understand why and how things work but go a step further in trying to make it better or safer. Students should be not only allowed but encouraged to think outside of the box.

    Screen Printing Infographic