Fiona Tabart extends her experience into
the world of ceramic decal printing
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
to the decal joins) to make things work as well as possible, and as simply
for the application of the decals, that is try not to make the decal applicator’s
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
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.