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When an artist is selling a screen print and it says it's a '9 color screen print' what does that mean exactly?

For example this: http://tragicsunshine.com/art_prints/mulholland-drive

24" x 36" 9 color Screen Print w/ Metallic Inks on 100 lb Cream Cover Paper. Edition of 300, signed and numbered.

enter image description here

Does that mean the artist literally only used 9 different colors to create that piece and then they're each layered on in the screen printing process? That seems pretty crazy that an artist would have to only choose from a handful of colors. I guess in the example I linked I can see just a few colors being used but the different shades, etc. make it seem like more.

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Does that mean the artist literally only used 9 different colors to create that piece and then they're each layered on in the screen printing process?

That's exactly what it means! Screen printing is when the artist takes each pigment, and drags it across the image-imprinted screen, one at a time, layering the inks in a specific order to get their desired effect. 9 inks would actually make for a pretty high-quality screen print (as the sample image you posted certainly looks to be).

Here's an infographic from shopworks.com that shows the process for a 1-color screen print. Multiply that by 9 for a 9-color screen print. It's actually quite a bit of work!

enter image description here

  • Wow, awesome. Thanks for the infographic and description. It does seem like a lot of work from both the screen printing side AND the artist to use such a limited amount of colors... – user1076802 Nov 11 '15 at 3:06
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    You should mention that in the example given by @user1076802 it is also possible to design in full color first THEN separate in 9 films (if the whole process is done in computer). It is not as limited as your answer makes it look like. – Luciano Nov 11 '15 at 14:20
  • @Luciano You just did. ;) – Vicki Nov 11 '15 at 19:15
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    @user1076802 Consider that your average office printer uses only 4 colors. So 9 is a LOT. Printers appart from sublimation systems do not mix colors. So most of what you see printed can be achieved by 4 colors – joojaa Nov 17 '15 at 13:28
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One easy way to wrap your head around this is to think in terms of INKS not in terms of COLOURS. Having worked a lot in print, this has become second nature, but if you spend a lot of time working digitally then it won't be quite as simple.

The example you've given uses 9 different inks to create the design. That means that some areas will be screened over or under others with differing dot patterns to achieve certain shades. This is particularly obvious in the red inside of the banner shapes: the red is laid down with the navy blue laid over it as a shading tool.

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Yes 9 colors are used. Shades or tints of a color don't count as a separate color and additional colors can be created by overlapping two or more colors.

  • Thanks for your answer. This blows my mind...Looking at the print I linked along with others from the same artist or others, I can definitely see the limited amount of colors being used: I suppose the different shades/tints as you mention make it look like it's more when really it's just different shades/tints of the same color such as a blue/teal. – user1076802 Nov 11 '15 at 3:05
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    If you think 9 inks is crazy, remember that the vast majority of print you see is offset litho using just 4 inks: cyan, magenta, yellow and black. – Dre Nov 18 '15 at 10:33

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