Pop Art in Printmaking: Everything You Need to Know

Pop Art in Printmaking

The art movement that defined the mid-to-late 1950s in Britain, pop art quickly began came into vogue in the United States. It’s based on modern popular culture and the mass media, especially as a critical or ironic comment on traditional fine art values.

Pop art began as a revolt against the dominant approaches to art and culture and the traditional views on what art should be. Young artists felt that what they were taught at art school and what they saw in museums did not have anything to do with their lives or the things they found around them every day.

Early artists that shaped the pop art movement were Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton, who described pop art as:

  • Popular (designed for a mass audience)
  • Transient (short-term solution)
  • Expendable (easily forgotten)
  • Low cost (mass produced)
  • Young (aimed at youth)
  • Witty
  • Sexy
  • Gimmicky
  • Glamourous
  • Big business

Undoubtedly the most famous pop artist in history, however, is Andy Warhol, famous for using commercial brands like Coca Cola and Campbell’s Soup in his printmaking work.

Pop art in printmaking

Printmaking is the process of creating artworks by printing, normally on paper. Each print produced is what’s known as an “impression” and is created by transferring ink from a matrix to a sheet of paper or other material by a variety of techniques.

Although printmaking was an established fine art practice long before pop art emerged, pop artists abandoned traditional modes of printmaking such as etching and woodcut in favour of more commercial approaches to the medium. Andy Warhol, for example, found that techniques such as silkscreening and offset lithography best suited a smaller-scale interpretation of what he aimed to capture in his large-scale paintings. Warhol eventually established his own printing factory, publishing and circulating his work. Other artists, like Roy Lichtenstein, sought out partnerships with publishers to aid in the creation and distribution of their prints.

Silkscreen printing

Silkscreen printing is a unique medium because the print isn’t made directly from the surface of a block or plate; instead, images are printed through a screen mesh using stenciling techniques. People who are new to screen printing often begin by learning how to create hand-cut stencils. In this method, you use a knife (typically an X-acto blade) to cut a design from a sheet of self-adhesive plastic film. Then, you adhere the film to the bottom of a mesh screen and place it on top of a piece of paper. Using a squeegee, you pull ink across the top of the screen, and wherever you cut out a shape from the film, ink will slide onto the page.

Another popular way of creating a screen print is to coat the entire screen with light-sensitive emulsion. This liquid material will harden and fill in all of the screen’s holes. From there you can use a computer to print the negative of your design onto a piece of transparent plastic. Next, you place the design onto the surface of an exposure unit and lay the emulsion-covered screen on top. When you turn the exposure unit on, bright light will pass through any place where there is no design, subsequently exposing the emulsion. Light will only pass through the negative space of your design (which is why you print your design in negative onto the plastic). The next step is to use a high-power washer to blow out the emulsion that the light exposed.

This alternate method allows artists and designers to quickly achieve finely detailed screens, and has long been used in creating clothing and advertising.

Tips for pop art in printmaking

With its saturated colours, bold outlines and vivid representations of everyday objects, pop art can grab the attention of your audience instantly. To make the most of it:

Play on the themes of consumption and materialism

Whether it was an endorsement or critique of capitalism, pop artists depict the affluence and abundance of postwar society with images of celebrated materialism. Consequently, pop art works feature imagery that’s drawn from advertising and consumerism, with prominent brand names, recognisable packages and familiar scenes.

Use fame and celebrity culture

Andy Warhol’s obsession with fame and celebrity culture cause a ripple effect through pop art that still remains today. Hollywood, movies, television, magazines, newspapers - it’s all still relative.

Borrow from mass media

Borrowing visual sources from magazines and comic strips is common practice in pop art and many works feature images of recognisable products and people. With fame and consumption so heavily promoted in the postwar mass media, artists turned to them for inspiration and reference.

Showcase ordinary objects

Warhol had a knack for elevating everyday objects to museum status. Think objects that are banal, commonplace and ubiquitous. For inspiration, check out the back of your pantry or the cleaning cupboard.

Enlarge and repeat

To drive home the theme of consumption, enlarge proportions and repeat for visual effect. A good example is Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans. Wei Yi Boo’s campaign for Chupa Chups is another good example, which not only repeats the image of the iconic lollipop but also draws on characters from popular culture.

Get creative with collage

Fashion meaning to your work by combining similar or dissimilar images from advertising, magazines and comic books. The effect is to create analogies between popular products and people in order to make an artistic or cultural statement.

Use saturated colours

Postwar life was a colourful time due to the mass production of new plastics. Bright colours conveyed the optimism and affluence of postwar life and pop artists used primary colours and saturated neons to vivid effect.

Aim for clear lines and sharp colour

Bold outlines, clean lines and sharp colour is the name of the game in pop art. Check out Roy Lichtenstein’s famous paintings for inspiration.

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