Printmaking 101: Half-tone Screenprints

The following is from WPG artist Mike Hagan, who will have a solo exhibition in October of this year.

Half tones? Ewww!

When I mention my interest in half tones to other printmakers, their responses are sometimes similar to those heard from people who have stepped into something left by a pet on the sidewalk.  When responses are more conversational, they often reflect assumptions that, while understandable, are not quite true.  Typical responses are below.  I’ve coupled them with comments relating to my use of half tones in hand pulled printing.  I have also presented an image to illustrate various half tone methods.

Examples of half-tones, courtesy of Mike Hagan

1. “Half tones are used only in printing processes, especially in commercial printing processes.” Not really.  When drawing with a pen and black ink on white paper, how do you get tones between black and white?  After all, you can only work with black ink and white paper. Dots, stippling, scumbling, crosshatching, etc. That’s how you simulate values or tones between black and white. These same half tone strategies may also be used in explicit, regular, and precise ways in printmaking.  The underlying ideas, motivation, and approach for half tones are exactly the same for both drawing and printmaking. These common contexts have made me rethink the use of half tones in printmaking. If dots, stippling, scumbling, and cross hatching are not to be obscured in drawing, why should such techniques be obscured in printmaking? In fact, half tone printmaking techniques may be openly exploited for interesting textures, patterns, and tessellating elements in hand printed images.

2. “Half tones are primarily used in commercial offset lithography today.” No. The ubiquitous home or office inkjet printer also uses half tone technology, but with a twist. In commercial offset lithography half tones are evenly spaced ‑‑ but vary in size. In inkjet printing the dots are all the same size ‑‑ but vary in spacing.  Two different half tone solutions; two widely used printing processes.  The main point here: Either or both of these can be usefully simulated in a hand printed image.

3. “Half tones are useful only in machine printing.” Not really.  Nothing prohibits the hand printer from fully exploiting the use of half tones.  In fact, relative to commercial printing, where economic and technological constraints are important considerations, the hand printer can use half tones in much more flexible, efficient, robust, and strategic ways.  Various techniques can be mixed. The color space can be also be strategically reduced, i.e., simplified, to the minimum set of colors necessary to present desired hues and values.  And, because there are more choices for inks for hand printing, the color space is not as restrictive as in commercial printing.

4. “Half tones are dots.” Not always.  A dot is a useful half tone shape, but not all half tones are dots.  Half tones can be any shape ‑‑ lines, crosses, squares, or custom shapes.  The shape must be able to vary to accommodate the amount of ink desired over the space where a half tone pattern is employed.  Lines, e.g., can vary in thickness to indicate various values from light to dark.  Simple half tone patterns are best ‑‑ most of the time.  However, patterns can be quite complex and still serve as halftones. Such complexity provides creative opportunity in hand printing.

"Sheep (Going Abstract)" Screenprint by Mike Hagan

5. “Half tones are necessarily connected to the CMYK color space.” No. The commercial CMYK color space is by design very useful for printing many, many different images. The hand printer is instead looking for exactly the right colors for rendering a specific image.  As in painting, images and ideas suggest the colors to be used, not the other way around.  For example, when painting a lime, what painter would start with a CMYK pallet?  A more natural selection might be 3 pigments:  green, light green‑yellow, and dark green‑blue.  Likewise, a hand printer might be able to effectively print a half toned lime with two or three inks B none of which would be CMYK process colors.  The combination of custom inks and half tones allows for smooth gradations from light into shadow, e.g., from light green‑yellow into green, or from green into a dark green‑blue shadow.

Finally, I simply note that the ‘theory’ of half tones has parallels in information theory, statistics, and entropy.  Entropy?  Ewww!  Now, what have I stepped into?


3 responses to “Printmaking 101: Half-tone Screenprints

  1. mahsie cavaiola

    Interesting thought process but the best part was your ending comment of ewwww…not sure if you meant ewe or you ….whatever ewww, ewe, you had in mind, I liked it.

  2. Ole Skat Nielsen

    Thank you very much – excellent!

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