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How To Ink: Where mistakes are everything in silkscreen printing

Last Updated: April 2, 2021

Written by Nicole Lam

“People always mistake us for a tattoo shop”, Stanley Cheah, the founder of How To Ink, laughs as he and Jessica Chan, the resident artist, explain the beginnings of their little art studio tucked away in the Concorde Shopping Centre.

As Stanley further explains, the idea came quite serendipitously. When wracking his head for a name, he thought about the Chinese characters for letterpress. A rather melodic triad, the characters 凹凸印 (Āo Tú Yìn), when verbalised, sound like ‘How To Ink’, which is essentially everything Stanely is doing with the studio in regards to printmaking.

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Likewise, on that Thursday afternoon, I was there to try my hand at their workshop: How To: Silk Screen (UV emulsion) (S$100 per pax). Of course, when you spend time with passionate individuals such as Jessica and Stanely, you leave with more than just a tote bag.

How silk screen printing works 

Before making your head spin with what will happen later, I should explain what silk screen printing is. Silkscreen printing is one of the oldest forms of printing that dates back to the Song Dynasty before we had those snazzy laser printers.

Silkscreen printing is where a mesh is first attached to a screen with a stencil attached to the screen. The stencil would make some parts of the mesh impermeable to the ink. A blade or squeegee is then dragged along the length of the mesh and The ink will go through the permeable parts of the mesh and print on your material. And then voilà, you have your very own print.

Picking the illustration

The first step in this process is choosing your illustration. You know me, as a purveyor of high-art, I decided to have this cutesy llama from a website Jessica showed me. Sophisticated, I know.

Wall of How to ink

I walked up to How To Ink, excited and brimming with anticipation but mainly spurred on by Concorde Shopping Centre’s maze-like corridors. How To Ink is everything you’d expect an art studio to be. The walls are plastered with countless illustrations that range in style, size, and colour. Numerous tubs of paints reside in a corner, waiting patiently to be used, lo-fi tunes playing murmuring in the background while the paint-splattered workstation as the centrepiece of the studio.

Jessica and Stanley emerge from the backroom, welcoming and ready to bring my alpaca to life.

The emulsion 

pouring emulsion

My adorable alpaca has already been printed onto a sheet of transparency, all ready to go. It begins with mixing the emulsion, which is what will coat the silkscreen. A jar of bright blue emulsion is combined with a sensitiser in a ratio of 10:1, where it transforms into a calming teal.

Coating the screen 

Pulling emulsion on silk screen

The next step requires a little bit of skill and practice, Stanely informs me with a kind chuckle. After pouring an even layer of the emulsion into the scoop coater, you would have to drag it along the mesh layer with relatively consistent pressure.

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Stanley does it easily with a practised proficiency testament to years of experience, whereas I scrape by, quite literally. Too much or too little pressure would cause an uneven coating, which is something you don’t want.

Sun in a box 

Placing silk screen in to UV box How To Ink 12

Then, you would place the tacky screen carefully on top of your transparency. This way, the emulsion will adhere to the ink on the transparency. Now, all you have to do is turn on the UV box for about four minutes, and the emulsion will harden.

Washing it off

Jet washing the silk screen

Using a high powered jet, you then wash off parts of the illustration that didn’t harden in the UV box. That way, you are left with an outline of your drawing in which the paint will go through. The screen is then placed in a dehydrator where it’s left to dry for a good twenty minutes.

As we wait for the screen to dry, Jessica and Stanley don’t miss a beat and begin to show me more around the studio.

The fine print 

If you haven’t realised, silk screen printing is a highly technical art that requires a lot of planning. A print of multiple colours would need several layers of consecutive printing and drying. A process that Stanley relishes and calls the best part of silkscreen printing.

Chinese New Year Print fromHow To Ink 1

They show me a couple of prints that the studio did over Chinese New Year. A print like this would require three screens to get the outline and words.

If you thought that was complicated, Stanley showed me one of his newly acquired prints from Nakatomi of Daft Punk that looks more like a painting than a traditional silkscreen print. I can’t imagine how many screens it took to create it.

How To Ink 9

One of the most attractive qualities is how the mistakes are appreciated or even valued when it comes to silkscreen printing. Jessica shows me a gorgeous silkscreen piece she recently acquired from a Thai silkscreen artist that features a cat staring longingly at some marbles.

“See how there are patches of red here, and this part isn’t entirely perfect?” Jessica enthuses while holding the print gingerly. It is these imperfections that make it all the more valuable because they are unique to the piece.

Normally our Singaporeans sensibilities would baulk at these imperfections, “Get me a new piece”, you’d say, but for Jessica, she sees it as a metaphor for life. For what is life without a couple of missteps here and there?

Printing 

Close-up of ink from silk screen workshop

The timer dings, and it’s time for me to remove my screen. I’ve selected metallic blue and pink paint, and I’m told to portion the paint in a relatively even layer at the end of the screen. The first pull is always the most exciting, and as the blue goes across the mesh, I feel a rush of excitement. It’s a meditative and therapeutic thing that you can’t help but lose yourself in. Who needs puppy yoga now?

Silk screen in process

We play around with the colours, swirling them around and even creating a drop shadow. When we are finally ready to print on a bag, I let intuition guide me and pull carefully.

Alright, so it’s not like those Nakatomi prints, but it’s something that I’ve created every step of the way. Then, the screen can be washed to be reused for a new print or kept for repeated prints.

Tote bag printed from How To Ink 20

You have to appreciate the gentleness and inclusiveness How To Ink has with its workshops. They gently educate, and you leave wanting to learn more about this new world. Stanley and Jessica are also blithely aware of the practicality of choosing this so-called ‘starving artist route’ in very pragmatic Singapore. And yet, you can hear the love and hope for the art scene in every sentence.

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They tell me of local artists collecting forgotten type settings, lament the loss of schools losing their only silkscreen teacher, and gush at how silkscreen pieces are little snapshots of the artist. I leave feeling a little hopeful that even if the arts in Singapore will always seem a little frivolous, there will always be artists like Stanely and Jessica keeping those embers burning evermore.

Price: $ $

How To Ink

317 Outram Road, Concorde Shopping Centre, #01-26, Singapore 169075

Price

How To Ink

317 Outram Road, Concorde Shopping Centre, #01-26, Singapore 169075

Telephone: +65 9655 9103
Operating Hours: 11am- 7pm (Tue to Sun), Closed on Mon
Telephone: +65 9655 9103

Operating Hours: 11am- 7pm (Tue to Sun), Closed on Mon
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