Ceramic Arts & Perception — Ceramics Technical
Ceramics Art & Perception

Alice at the Allport

Fiona Tabart extends her experience into
the world of ceramic decal printing

 

"SURE WE CAN DO THAT.” Some stress, lots of questions, and a deal of apprehension can follow the utterance of these words. But life is a challenge – or so they tell us. Before we get started I’d like to put my hand up and declare that I’m not a ceramist, I don’t work in three-dimensions... I’m not sure that I even think well in 3D. What I am is a graphic designer – I have a good understanding of two-dimensional surfaces. My business partner would not class himself as a ceramist either – although he did study ceramics at art school in the early 1980s. He used to have a small electric kiln which has since been sold (ceramics being too time-consuming and full of other inherent difficulties... is that news to anybody...), he does however handle most of the 3D packaging work we do – he thinks that way.

My partner Jon and I, own and operate Inkpot Studios Pty Ltd in Hobart, a small business we established in 1988 shortly after leaving art school. Inkpot is a graphic design and screenprinting studio in which we undertake the usual array of graphic design work – including corporate identity, print media, food labelling and packaging, signage and interpretation, product development, etc – alongside personal artistic enterprises. We also do inhouse screenprinting, having both majored in printmaking at the Tasmanian School of Art. The studio also works with local artists on special projects – anything from producing accurate vector-based digital files for computer routing or laser cutting; etching aluminium panels (for art/furniture) and sterling silver (for jewellery); screenprinting limited editions on archival paper; and printing artwork on to all manner of materials, including aluminium, timber, glass, acrylic, ceramic tiles, glass bricks... and now we add ceramic decals (on waterslide transfer paper) to that list.

These jobs can be challenging, but they also offer us a chance to do something interesting and provide a welcome break in our routine. The Alice at the Allport exhibition at the State Library of Tasmania presented such an opportunity. Penny Smith, the exhibition curator, had invited four (non–ceramic) local artists to produce artwork for an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ inspired teaset. (I was a late inclusion into this group, so that made five of us.) The teaset consisted of a teapot with lid, sugar pot with lid, milk jug, and four cups, saucers and side plates – these were donated by Your Habitat of Hobart, a local home-wares store as blank white chinaware. Penny Smith had the tedious job of working out the decal templates, and supplied us with her working drawings on paper, complete with accurate measurements so we could firstly transfer these to digital files. This was done in Adobe Illustrator, a vector-based drawing program, perfect for producing accurate templates to ensure all the artists were working on exactly the same size pieces.

With printed copies, or digital files, of the nine required templates (teapot: left and right sides, all others singles), into which the artists had to fit their drawings, as well as a tight time schedule – we all had just two weeks at a busy time of the year to complete the artwork. November and December is Inkpot’s busiest time of the year and as we all know Christmas creates a mad swirling vortex that sucks in everyone and everything, creating universal chaos – or is that just how it feels to me. Time was in short supply for everyone, including myself. I could sense that white rabbit hopping wildly around our corridors staring fixedly at his watch. And I had to reread Alice in Wonderland before beginning work... the text provided a wealth of visual ideas and John Tenniel’s iconic illustrations were as fresh as ever and a major source of inspiration (for many of us). Working with graphic and print related material everyday I’m used to fitting images into defined spaces, making things look good and read well even in tight/small areas.

With two-dimensional material you can readily print out a copy to check how well everything’s working; with three-dimensional products it’s a must to mock up the object to get a feel for how all the surfaces/planes work together. I found this to be true with regard to the teaset designs. With my own design, I worked with pencil on to the template printouts until I was happy with the overall design. Then these images were scanned into Adobe Photo-shop and saved. They were then placed in Illustrator and used as a guide to redraw all the elements as vector artwork. This gave me some freedom to move things around – enlarge or reduce as required and fit the drawings directly to the digital template files. When I was happy with these I printed them out, cut them to size and applied them (good old masking tape) to the actual teaset blanks (which Penny Smith had supplied us all with). This step gave me the opportunity to hold each item in my hand, turn it around and look at it from all angles – amazing how it can change things. After this process I made significant alterations to my artwork, until the realisation sank in that there was just no more time to muse over the minute details... so I stopped.

When the artwork deadline came, two artists had produced digital files and two had supplied drawings on paper. The digital files were checked for file type and accuracy, and where necessary ‘tweaked’ just a little bit. As we were printing decals in one colour only – black – we wanted the final files to be either Illustrator vector images (infinitely scaleable) or Photoshop bitmap (black or white) images saved as 600 dpi at actual size (our guidelines to the artists had been no half–tone [grayscale] work in the finished artwork). The remaining two artists’ work required scanning, saving as individual files (one for each template) and importing the template linework for accurate cropping of the images. There was some manipulation of both artists
work in regard to scale and position of some elements, (particularly in regard
to the decal joins) to make things work as well as possible, and as simply as possible
for the application of the decals, that is try not to make the decal applicator’s
life hell.

When all the artwork files were ready, we set up two main template sheets Right: Rubylith and film with multiple templates on each. As the filmwork needed to be accurate, with positive for decals. The piece of no distortion, we had it run out at Photolith, a local filmhouse – right reading, film for my design: saucer, side emulsion up, film positives. These positives are then used to transfer the design plate, cup & teapot lid. to the screen via a photo-sensitive emulsion. For the artwork we used an indi rect emulsion. This consists of an emulsion layer on a film backing and is exposed and washed up away from the screen, then applied to the back surface of the screen mesh; once the emulsion has dried the film backing is removed. The advantage of this method is that because the emulsion is on the back of the screen it is in direct contact with the substrate during printing, thus en suring a clean ink transfer from the screen to the paper. The screen mesh used for the artwork screens was 77T, with an indirect emulsion (Autotype Novas- tar) for crisp sharp linework reproduction. 43T mesh (coarser mesh counts deposit more ink) was required for the overprint lacquer (covercoat) and the printing stencil was prepared with a direct emulsion (Sericol Dirasol 916).

Direct emulsions are more suited to coarse meshes as they fill the spaces between the threads, making a more durable stencil. Both these photo-stencil types are exposed with an ultra-violet light source and simply wash up in water.
We needed to print four sheets per artist to have the number of decals required (with some extras in case of transfer problems). The first print run was made using the H64 onglaze colour directly from the tub – it printed extremely well considering the artwork ranged from dense flat blacks to delicate pen and ink work. We were pleasantly surprised, and relieved. After scraping the excess ‘ink’ off the screen and back into the tub, we added a small amount of the Oil Nr. 221 (literally a couple of drops) to re-loosen the mixture just a bit before printing the next screen. All the designs printed remarkably well. Drying time for the onglaze colour was approximately 30 – 40 minutes.

Jon had managed to have all the artwork sheets printed by end of business on December 22nd (officially our last day for the year). Our annual three week holiday always seems like months... the reverse Christmas vortex I guess... we were afraid if we didn’t completely finish the decals before the 25th we’d have forgotten how to by the time we came back to work in mid January. So while I did the last minute Christmas shopping, Jon printed the cover-coat lacquer on to all the decal sheets on December 24th. The covercoat lacquer is applied as a continuous flat in the actual shape of the templates. Again, it printed beautifully, no pin holes – a perfect consistency directly from the tin. Drying time was quick, so we phoned Penny Smith that afternoon and she picked up all the sheets later that day – out of our hair and into her lap – I think we had the easy job... Penny had to cut out and apply all those decals and then fire all the pieces.

Just to conclude my foray into the world of ceramics, I applied some of my own decal designs to a cup, saucer and plate (under Penny’s expert guidance)... a delicate process, but satisfying – I found the decals to be fairly robust and surprisingly flexible, they could be stretched when necessary for accurate positioning.

The end result was five Alice teasets that looked fantastic... and the installation at the Allport Library completed the picture – dining tables set with hand printed tablecloths and napkins, specially designed cake stands and the teasets. The Mad–Hatter would have been proud, and could have continued his tea-party all day long... bring on the tea and cake.


Fiona Tabart is a graphic artist from Hobart, Australia.
Ceramics Art & Perception — Cermaics Technical
Ceramic Arts & Perception — Ceramics Technical
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