Paper stencil screen printing

Having been struck by the graffiti as a feature of my edgelands space I consider but quickly reject working with spray paint in the development of artwork – the fumes are just too toxic in a basement studio and it would take a lot of trial and error to control the medium for any ends I want to achieve. Instead, research into the world of graffiti led me to explore paper stencils, most famously deployed by Banksy, but in my case used for screen print process.

I like this technique for several reasons:

  • It’s quick and easy which makes it enjoyable and intuitive
  • It has lower chemical impact and water usage than standard photochemical screen print process.
  • It doesn’t require expensive kit or facilities like a dark room or exposure unit etc.
  • The ‘in-betweeness’ of the stencil fits with the in-between theme of the project.
  • The coloured stencils themselves are interesting by products of the process, which can be used as the starting point for other designs.

Technique – Newsprint paper works best for stencils. It sticks well to the screen once wet by the ink and allows for around 8-15 pulls. Of course the variety of design and level of detail is limited by the technique compared with photochemical processes but sometimes these limitations are helpful to the creative imagination.

I worked with stencils prepared in advance some that are cut/torn in the moment. The simple motifs all relate to the urban edgelands environment and images both remembered and recorded from there (including graffiti, pylons, puddles, lichen etc.). The stencils are not closely observed from this research material but rather improvised around these themes often engaging hand before brain. I particularly like the quality of the line achieved where the paper is hand torn rather than scalpel cut although the directional grain of the newsprint paper makes this tearing process quite difficult to control – so limits the range of line/shape. These prints give me something I can work with, handle, rearrange and convert into digital images – to combine with each other/other things, develop or scale for different purposes. As a quick and easy way to make imagery this process works well for me.

Composite paper stencils

Early on I also experimented with stencils that were laser cut as a way to get more complex lines than I was achieving with hand cut stencils. This works well although it requires more preparation and access to a laser cutter which takes away some of the immediacy that I like in this process. Also, the dandelion motif shown here demonstrates one of the perils of using digital short cuts. The ‘vortex’ appearance that makes the dandelion look like it is spinning resulted from using a single vector drawn outline repeated to create the Illustrator file used by the laser cutter. This was a useful reminder of the need to mix things up a bit to avoid the appearance of unintended patterns in repeated elements.

Compostie print studio image

Wonderful Weeds

Weeds seem like an essential inspiration/motif given their prevalence in the kind of place I am exploring. Often described as ‘plants in the wrong place’ weeds are dismissed variously as valueless, undesirable or troublesome plants. In the urban edgelands environment they grow ‘wild and profusely’ and their overlooked qualities can be closely observed. Their strong outlines and interesting combinations of curved and angular lines are instantly recognisable and a joy to draw.

Weed drawings

These features of the weeds appeal to me and I am not alone:

Michael Landy describes weeds as optimistic:

‘[weeds] are marvellous, optimistic things that you find in inner London … They occupy an urban landscape which is very hostile and they have to be adaptable and find little bits of soil to prosper’

Michael Landy talking about his ‘street flower’ etchings.

Weeds are as ubiquitous in my edgelands space as are the graffiti writers and I can’t help seeing similarities in their lines and their cause for being here. Both are unwanted in our privately owned city centres, our residential estates and our tidy suburbs – so it seems inevitable that this becomes their space.

Perhaps what I like most about the weeds in this place is the juxtaposition of ‘order and chaos’ highlighted by them. They are at once feral and ordered in the Fibonacci sense. They are structured by the underlying properties of all organic matter (including us) and as such they display a familiar order. Their appearance is governed by sequences and ratios that are also reflected in what we find aesthetically coherent and pleasing in design and for that they are as fascinating as any other plant recognised as being classically beautiful.

More on the theme of order and chaos to follow….composite weed text

Interesting reading:

  • Burger, E. and Starbird, M. (2005). Coincidences, chaos, and all that math jazz. New York: W.W. Norton.
  • Elam, K. (2001). Geometry of design. New York: Princeton Architectural Press

Graffiti – working with found colour

Graffiti and weeds are everywhere in the urban edgelands spaces that interest and inspire me. An initial trip to the canal side to take research photographs highlighted the extent to which in this green, grey and brown environment it is the graffiti and weeds that supply inspiration in terms of colour.

I started to look at the chance colour combinations, initially recording only those instances of graffiti where no ‘design eye’ had been applied ie. where the colour combinations resulted from the more or less random tagging and over-tagging of different graffiti writers. But as I continued taking pictures I quickly started to break my own rules, recording any colour combinations that caught my eye. This led me to think about who my unknowing collaborators might be and why, like me and the weeds, they frequent spaces like these. I conclude that it is largely because no-one is looking – the same reason I find this a good place to think and to be.

Graffiti is easily dismissed as mindless vandalism but as Nancy Macdonald’s study of graffiti writers in London and New York (Macdonald, N. The graffiti subculture. New York: Palgrave 2001) reveals, for those involved it is often anything but. For the graffiti writer it is tied up with seeking recognition and respect from peers – something we all do in our own way. I am no more a fan of graffiti tagging than the next non-graffiti writer but I can’t help being struck by the human presence in the graffiti writers’ marks, so clearly circumscribed by their own physicality and capacity for risk taking in the pursuit of self-expression. Further research into the world of graffiti and graffiti writing (legal and illegal) got me interested in the work of Benn Eine (often seen on the hoardings and roll shutter of East London) and the use of paper stencils – on which more later!

Back in the studio I uploaded my photographs and matched the found colours with a colour chart for a popular brand of spray paint that would more accurately reflect their origin. I then tested my colours by hand mixing and digitally printed them onto different textile and paper substrates. I tested the resulting palettes with friends and fellow students. Without the context of their origin and any assumptions this might bring with it many of the colour combinations were deemed ‘desirable’ in a design context. These palettes offer me an opportunity to break away from habitual colour palettes and preferences. The vivid colours do justice to the way I feel about my edgelands space as one of freedom and possibility.

Graffiti palette


‘Place is security, space is freedom: we are attached to the one and long for the other’ Yi Fu Tuan (1977) Space & Place – The perspective of experience p3.

This blog should have started some months ago when I set out to develop my printed textile and surface pattern design practice as a postgraduate student at Leeds College of Art but with so much to learn blog writing has taken a back seat until now when I finally feel I have something to share.

I am developing a design practice exploring issues of craft, material culture and the use of hand and digital print technology in the process of design development and production.  As my practice falls between the digital and the analogue, and between the flat and the three dimensional, I am attracted to the in-between and the liminal as a visual theme and a starting point from which to explore.  So, what better place to start than the urban edgelands environment, the spaces between places on the periphery of the city?

The term ‘edgelands’ was originally coined by geographer and environmentalist Marion Shoard and subsequently used as the title of a wonderful book of poetic musings on exactly this kind of space by poets Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley (Edgelands – journeys into England’s true wilderness, 2012).  I have always been attracted to this kind of environment and struggle to put my finger on exactly why. What I know from my research is that I am not the only one. As well as the poets already mentioned, there are a host of psychogeographers, environmentalists and artists who delve into these spaces, including Edward Chell whose work documenting the flora of motorway embankments was at the centre of the Soft Estates exhibition at the Bluecoat Gallery in Liverpool 2013/14  where I also discovered the work of Day Bowman and Simon Woolham.

I have used a stretch of the Leeds Liverpool Canal between Kirkstall and Leeds city as my source of inspiration. I started by recording the structures, flora and texture of this environment through photography, drawing and mark making. The ‘order’ of man-made stuctures is juxtaposed here with the ‘chaos’ of irrepressible nature. Both graffiti and weeds are ubiquitous in places like this and provide myriad inspiration in form and colour.

Composite edgelands 3