The Print Technique They Don't Teach You in School

Posted by Daisy MacGowan on

Remember cutting out ugly flower stencils in school and sticking them to a screen printing frame in art class? You know, the ones where the prints all came out like a chintz wallpaper painted with pound shop poster paint? We did that in class because it was cheap, quick and they didn't have to wash the screens.

How else could all thirty of us could get a turn to do a print sharing two screens?Well it turns out there is a screenprint-esq technique thats quick and doesn't involve washing screens...

...but unlike school, this technique results in sick prints which are so distinctive and gorgeous your art teacher would give them a D- on the spot.

Riso loading image with squirrel running

Yep, I mean Riso!

Last week I made some Riso printed letter sets and it got me thinking about art class and how I wish we'd been taught about Riso. So here's some quick facts for you (and your high school art teacher).

Imagine screen printing and photocopying got together and had a beige plastic love child.

Just like its mama, screen printing, Riso involves pushing a single colour of ink through a screen with an image on it onto a sheet of paper. Because its dad was a photocopier, instead of photo-exposing or painting a design onto a screen, you lay your image on a photocopier bed and hit print.

It's artistic and tactile, but you can make 100 copies of a biro sketch in under a minute.

Riso was invented by the Japanese Riso Kagaku Corporation in the 1980s as a cheap way for offices to duplicate boring documents. The finished product was cheap and rough enough that it felt radical. 

Zine makers, bands, gig promoters and other punks who loved its vibe, cost and easiness soon started using it. 

Inside of a riso machine

Although on the outside the Riso machine looks like a humble photocopier, inside it’s very different. It works by burning an image placed on the photocopier bed as a single colour template into a bit of rice paper. This template is then wrapped around a drum of ink and rolled over a sheet of paper.

To make multicolour images you need to print one colour, change the drum of ink, and print your next colour by feeding the same sheets of paper back through the machine. This results in a similarly gorgeous overprinting and off registration you get from screen printing.

For the layman that jargon just means that the inks can be layered to make new colours, and that your colour layers often don't line up quite right giving each print a unique feel.

Pretty sweet huh? Well it's also eco-friendly.

Riso uses drums of special ink made from soy oil and rice bran. This ink only comes in 21 distinctive colours, though there are some extra fluorescent and metallic colours. Riso ink only sticks to matte uncoated papers, many of which are recycled. You will never see Riso on a shiny coated paper.

Because of the way the page is rolled across the drum the ink isn’t always perfectly even - it can have lighter patches. This is just part of the joy of printing though and adds to the unique feel. Riso sounds pretty mechanical but when you are designing for Riso you have to plan your work carefully and you can always get a surprise at the outcome. The way the colours engage and the limited layers (you can only do up to about 5 before it gets muddy) means that this really is an art form in itself.

Photo of cutting some riso notepaper

I first tried Riso printing few years ago at the DCA in Dundee. Ever since then I was hooked! Today I still am a member of the Print Studio and use their machines to print most of my Riso designs. It’s just around the corner from my studio so thankfully I don’t have too far to carry the end result.

Riso is getting really popular so check out local print studios and art centres to see if they have one.

If you can't get access there are loads of online companies that let you send them digital artwork and they'll Riso print it for you. If you just want to see some of the effects there are lots of places selling Riso zines and artwork (Etsy has lots).

During lockdown when I couldn't go into the print studio I started developing a digital Riso-style technique in Procreate.

It's all about texture, overprinting, registration and getting those colours to interact with each other. Hope you enjoyed this and let me know if you have any questions about Riso!


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