Ever wonder how those hip prints you see on t-shirts or posters get made? Wonder no more as we take a behind-the-scenes look at Nakatomi Inc in Austin. See how graphic art goes from concept to a printed media we can touch, wear, and hang on the walls of our homes.
Nakatomi Inc is headed by Tim Doyle —1/2 the best artist in Austin. You may have even heard his name dropped on Conan O'Brien during a promo for the comic drama, The Intergalactic Nemesis, which features his artwork.
This year Tim moved his print shop out of his garage and into a full-fledged space in an Austin warehouse. Tim prefers to draw his artwork on paper, mentioning that he couldn't quite get the precision he wanted out of a Wacom digital tablet. Once the black & white line art is drawn, he digitizes it into a editor such as Photoshop or Illustrator. This is where he colors the piece with individual, distinct layers for printing. Each layer in the digital editor will be transferred to a specific screen during the printing phase.
The screen in screen-printing is a porous film or mesh that allows paint to flow through it. Tim uses custom ordered screens with aluminum frames for durability, just in case he needs to do another run down the line.
A light sensitive paint is applied to the screen and allowed to dry in a dark room. Once the drying process is done, a transparency with a print of the artwork is overlaid onto the screen and exposed. Tim's workshop has machines with bright light to expose things quickly and effectively.
After the screen is exposed for a precise amount of time, the screen is taken to a wash room — where the screen undergoes a high-pressure wash.
The paint applied to the screen is light sensitive — sections of the screen exposed to light are hardened and will withstand the wash. The unexposed areas masked by the printed transparency, however, will wash away. A positive of the image is left open on the screen, so paint can flow freely through it.
That screen is then taken to the print room, where it will be used by his press to make actual prints on media. A poster is being made in the shop today, so a sheet of white poster paper is put underneath the bed of the press and aligned. Colors are mixed by hand and eye by one of the print specialists, and then poured onto the screen.
The squeegee arm of the press pushes the paint through the screen and onto the poster paper. The bed is then lifted, and the print is filed onto a rack where it will dry. This process is repeated for however many prints they plan on doing that day.
After the first layer is allowed to dry, the process is repeated for another layer with a new screen and new paint color. Eventually these layers of paint will combine to make one cohesive image. You can understand how alignment is key for this process, and there are alignment marks along the edges of the poster paper to ensure each layer is spot-on.
The process of printing, drying, setting a new screen, paint, and printing again is repeated for however many layers are needed for that particular print. Here is the finished Mumford & Sons print, which uses only 3 screens.
Tim stores his excess prints in a cabinet — filed for future orders that may come through. Some of these will come in handy when he prepares for the upcoming Flatstock show — an international poster show held a handful of times each year in cities all over the world.
Austin is lucky to be one of the few hosting cities of Flatstock during the mega SXSW event. Check it out if you have a chance to visit sometime, and you're likely to find a unique and interesting print that you can take home and hang on your wall.
Next time you're looking at a poster or t-shirt, you can have a little more appreciation for the work and craftsmanship behind bringing it to life.
If you're interested in trying your hand at screen-printing yourself, Tim mentions that you can do some of these techniques in your own home using gear that you can find at your local art supply shop. Wooden screens, squeegees, photoemulsion paint, and transparencies are all readily available. The exposure process can be taken care of either by sunlight or your own task lamps, and a water hose can serve as your wash. This Instructable gives a good step-by-step of how you can do this at home. Try this versatile hobby out, and expand your prints outside the confines of paper — taking the prints to placemats, aprons, or other textiles and surfaces. You're only limited by what you can dream up.
(Images: Chris Perez)