Unless you're lucky enough to live in a vast townhouse, a country pile or a converted industrial loft or workshop, printmaking at home can be rather challenging. Look Up artist Chris James overcame a lack of studio space by building a relatively compact home screenprinting set–up, allowing him to create vibrant paper stencil prints whenever his muse strikes...

When we sketched out our concept for Look Up, we met Chris, bought him a pint and asked him what he thought. We value his opinion, we love his work, and we're delighted that he's playing a pivotal role in our fledgling gallery. So what's the story? Having graduated from Kingston in 2003, he worked in graphic design before moving into fashion. When he's not busy designing apparel graphics and prints, he creates beautiful hand-painted typefaces – as F is for Fonts – or experiments with his chosen printmaking medium: paper stencil screenprinting. With a new Look Up edition just launched, and following a recent showcase at Bermondsey Furniture Project, we talked to Chris about the process involved in weaving his own brand of silkscreen magic... 

Colour Test 2 – detail of Chris's new Look Up edition

Look Up So Chris, what prompted you to create your home printmaking set-up?

Chris James Like all things it came from a problem and how to solve it, and for me it was to do with my organisational skills. It was fun being part of a members’ studio for printing, but it could also be a pain in the arse. You usually have to book time slots - like, a week next Tuesday - but it would get closer to the time and I’d be too busy freelancing. So it was partly the frustration of not being able to print when I wanted to. Also, because I use paper stencils rather than exposing images onto my screens, it’s quite a fiddly process; not ideal when you have the constraint of only a few hours…

LU So time was a big issue?

CJ When I’m positioning the stencils I like to take my time, look at them and go, okay, I’ll move that bit around… Not ideal if you have to clear everything away ready for the next printmaker. I found printing in a members’ studio great when I knew exactly what I was going to print, and I was going in just to do the printing, but I wanted the space and time.

Chris's homemade set-up, with hand-held vacuum cleaner for suction

LU Time plus space equals creative freedom – which might be a given if you have your own studio, but booking time slots can’t always be conducive to experimentation.

CJ It’s definitely important to create an atmosphere for that to happen, which only left me with a few options. Obviously I could buy a printing bed/table secondhand for a grand or two, which would be amazing but…

LU They don’t come cheap, and neither do industrial units or loft conversions.

CJ If only! I mean, they’re lovely, and one day it would be great, but living in a fairly small flat it just isn’t practical. So that really only meant one thing, build something. I had a think about how small I would practically have to go and then looked into it. The main bulk of my set-up is a metal platform from Hong Kong, which was made for screen printing circuit boards. I then converted it to my needs by adding some doorstops, drilling holes in it, making it airtight and attaching a small handheld vacuum to create suction to keep my paper in place when printing. I mean, it’s noisy… It’d be nice to print through the night, but the neighbours’ll think I’ve got OCD or something! At least it only goes on for ten seconds at a time whilst I pull each print. 

It all begins with a stencil...

LU Did you say "doorstops"?

Yeah I added two doorstops because one end of the screen was sitting higher than the other, creating havoc with my snap (the small gap between the screen’s mesh and the paper). I had to find something to adjust the height and searched for hours on eBay for ones with an exact size… Finally, the internet delivered.

So now you have the time, space, freedom and gear to make prints at home?

CJ Yes, it means I can print when the time suits me, and it’s set up exactly how I want It. I can also avoid some of those annoying shared studio scenarios, where you start printing but realise somebody's fiddled with something. It’s usually fixable, but as I use stencils, one of the drawbacks is once you’ve committed to printing a layer, you can’t stop. It’s not like using a screen with an exposed image, where if something is wrong once you've pulled your first print you can stop, wash the ink off and start again. Not unless I want to cut out the whole stencil again, and they can be pretty detailed sometimes.

'Dissect' by Chris James, created for our E17 Art Trail show, 'Fractions'

LU How do you go about registering the prints on your new set-up?

CJ On other larger beds you can use either strips of card or tape around the edge to mark off where the paper needs to sit, but the paper overhangs my bed so I had to find a different approach. I use pins – if you look closely you can see three small holes in my prints, where the pins push through and touch against the sides of the bed underneath. Some people print on acetate first to adjust the alignment of each layer. I can’t really do that because of the stencils and the size of the bed, so it has to be more ad hoc.   

LU With a print like Dissect (above), do you start with a relatively finished 'design' for the image, or is there room for invention once the printing begins?

CJ There were initial sketches, but some bits I tweaked – the neon pink on the right was an afterthought. I did the first layer, the pink, and was about to print a blue layer when it dawned on me that apart from the moon, it was going to be a solid square of blue sitting on top of the pink – but sometimes it's nice to reveal the colour underneath, as well as creating new shades through layering. 

LU Which lends it self well to depth of field, nuance, accent colours...

CJ Exactly, the image becomes more interesting. When you get to this stage you're limited as to how much you can tweak it. I couldn't add any more pink; I was confined to that slither. Once I got to that stage and thought about it, I thought it'd be nice if the leaves were more dramatic, alternating between blue and pink. There's always scope to change things as you're going along, and sometimes you have to.

Let the inking begin – Chris gets started with a vibrant yellow

 LU Depending on how finished a sketch you make, is this the first time you start to see the image emerging? Especially as each layer needs its own stencil…

CJ It's always hard to work and visualise in the negative. If you look at the plant in Dissect, it started as a negative – a shape cut from a piece of paper that became a solid, positive shape once the ink was pushed through. It can be hard to get your head around. I’m experimenting with a new way, where the starting point is a positive shape and then when you’re printing the next layers you work into the image in a different way. But, yeah, it’s the hardest part, working the opposite way around to what you see in the end. It can be a bit of an experiment – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. 

Overprinting the yellow layer with a fluoro magenta ink creates a punchy red

LU Are Dissect and Colour Test 2 the first prints made on your home set-up?

I started with the magenta layer of a typographic print, OH YEAH, first, to make sure it all worked, then Dissect was printed alongside it at the same time. After printing a layer, you can peel off the paper stencil you just used for one print, stick another one on for a different design, then print the layer for that without having to wash the screen in between. So the jungle prints, (Chris’s In The Night Triptych – see them here) I printed all three at the same time, first I printed the yellow for all of them in one go, then the cyan, then the magenta – swapping the stencils as I went…

And presumably that makes it easier to print within the limitations of print studios?

CJ You’re always aware of the time constraints when you have time slots, so when I did get in a studio I wanted to make the most of it. If I could work on multiple prints in one session, great. One of the things I really like about my process is that I can have several prints on the go at the same time. I’ll take a look and see which ones need a yellow layer, then do them all together. 


Next up, a layer of cyan – note the texture of the Loop recycled paper


LU It works too, because when you look at all three In The Night prints, each one seems to have its own distinct palette, but the building block colours are common across the set. 

Yeah, there’s different ratios of colour, but they fit together. I’ve used the same core palette for all of my stencil prints. Happy Pills is the same palette. There’s enough variation in the combinations of colour, and the order in which you print them, to create a different feel, tonally, but it ties them all together.

Drying time following work on the first three horizontal layers

LU To forge a truly experimental practice it helps to have that continuous access to a printmaking set-up, to get a rhythm going. 

I’m hoping that my print bed will allow me to experiment even more, to use it to focus on the creative process. Sometimes I just want to make a mess and see what happens, print some quick experiments. Rhythm is important though, being able to print when I get a spare hour meant I could print Colour Test 2 in a couple of weeks doing a layer a day. Which sounds like ages, seeing how simple it is, but that would have taken forever to do all eleven layers otherwise. 

Chris's homemade set-up, with a work-in-progress Colour Test 2

LU So what’s next? A few more editions?

Definitely some smaller runs. I’ve found a few extra colours to play with… The benefit of making relatively small prints is that the stencils can be cut from an A3 layout pad, tearing out one page at a time… That means I can be out and about drawing and making those stencils in different locations.

Which then becomes another way of exploring the process.

Precisely. I can go out for a day’s drawing and come back with fifteen different ideas or actual stencils, then work out how to use them. I think that’s the next stage, so I can get better at visualising in my head how those layer up, so it becomes more like second nature.  

Almost done: more drying time before printing the last two verticals


LU Have you thought about making larger prints? Combining smaller prints?

CJ Yeah I could stitch them together? Or I could do one layer, shift it over, then rotate the paper… It’ll be in panels, but on one sheet of paper.

LU I quite like the idea of combining different panels.

CJ Or it could be four different colours. We’ll see, that’s the whole point of this, for me to experiment with printmaking, without breaking the bank – getting to grips with the technique and the colours whilst working on my style. 


'Colour Test 2' – an enticing, eleven-layer (!) multicoloured grid

All too often, time and space can feel like unattainable luxuries – but they're integral if, like Chris, you're driven by an irrepressible urge to create. He's developed a way of working and a compact, custom-made printmaking set-up that enables him to spring into action whenever his muse comes calling. It's enabled him to spend time exploring the process of paper stencil screenprinting, finding new answers to new problems while spreading his creative wings. We're looking forward to seeing how his work evolves as he continues to experiment, stencil by stencil, layer by layer, one ten second vacuum blast at a time.

Colour Test 2 is now available from the Look Up website here.

Chris James Look Up profile & collection