From Panhead Harleys to Process Color: The Story Behind Anderson Studio
What happened when a passion for art, music, and motorcycles collided with an interest in screen printing? Anderson Studio was born. Learn about the shop's history and how it became known around the world for its garment work.
Stretching T-shirts over wooden crates, using flock adhesives instead of ink, eyeballing registration—it was the early 1970s, and Andy Anderson had decided to become a garment screen printer. Off-contact and screen tension had yet to become part of his vocabulary, and the thrill he got from printing overtook any momentary urge he may have had to learn the accepted methods of apparel decoration or score the right equipment for the job.
Back then, Anderson would print 300 shirts just to get 100 that were good enough to sell. So how did he manage to become an internationally renowned garment screen printer who would win more than 20 major awards for his work? It all started with Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
Anderson’s interest in screen printing stemmed from his involvement in the arts. A self-described hands-on kind of guy, Anderson spent four years at art school studying illustration, design, and advertising art. He also enjoyed building custom Harleys and airbrushing. He initially used his airbrushing techniques to decorate garments (Figure 1) and started with enamel paints. His first real screenprinting gig came from a motorcycle shop that wanted Harley-Davidson T-shirts. The prints were made without the use of a conventional garment press and textile dryer, and some of the techniques he used would put the fear in the owner of today’s high-tech, high-volume garment shop.
“Back then, Harley wasn’t concerned about trademark infringement, so anybody could do their logo. So I drew up a design and printed it for the shop,” Anderson recalls. “I had a friend helping me, and he would hold screens down, and I would manipulate the shirt underneath the screen to get it back in register after I had printed one of the colors until we got all the way to the black outline. There were some pretty good ones. We were stretching shirts onto old wooden Coke crates. My biggest problem was the fact that the ink was drying in the screen by the time I’d get it reregistered—and getting intoxicated from smelling all the solvents from cleaning the screens.
“I did several jobs like that, including one for the Allman Brothers. A friend of mine, who did the sound system for them, needed some special shirts done just for the Allman Brothers. This was probably 1972. I did a split fountain of their mushroom with a black outline around it (Figure 2). But I didn’t have shirts to screw up, because he had already given me these football-type jerseys with their names already stitched on the back. So I had to do these right. Some were a little questionable by today’s standards, but for the most part they liked them and used them. That was my introduction to screen printing.”
Tools specifically for prepress, printing, and curing were unheard of in Anderson’s workshop, which meant everything was done by hand (Figure 3) and measured visually. If a printed garment could sell, it was hung to dry on a clothesline. Turnaround times didn’t really exist in Anderson’s world, yet he managed to earn enough income from screen printing, as well as his other artistic endeavors, that he decided not to pursue agency work. Instead, he opened Anderson Studio in Nashville, TN.
I opened Anderson Studio in 1976,” he says. “I started doing airbrushing, illustration, custom painting, and design. That sort of petered out in 1978, and I was looking for other areas to diversify the artwork into. I had done some work for a guy who actually did the management for Kenny Rogers. Using proper equipment— a manual press and a dryer—I out you could make money doing this. It was fairly productive with this new equipment, rather than stretching on Coke cases.”
Setting the course
Thirty years ago marked the purchase of Anderson’s first pieces of screenprinting equipment: a Hopkins manual press and a dryer. He used photostencils produced by a local bureau to make his screens. All of these upgrades made a notable improvement in Anderson Studio’s garment prints—enough so that the next visit from Kenny Rogers’ organization, which took place in the early 1980s, would make Anderson Studio a bona fide presence in garment screen printing.
“They saw the artwork, thought the artwork was good, and said if I had an automatic press, they could do something about getting me the Kenny Rogers tour,” he says. “I went back to the banker and got my first automatic. That’s when I printed the tour shirts for Kenny using process colors, and it was my first experience with that.”
That process-color print (Figure 4), the only four-color job Anderson had attempted, earned him SGIA’s Golden Squeegee award. It was also at that time that the Kenny Rogers team told Anderson to call a printer on the West coast— someone who could really help bring Anderson Studio up to speed and improve the shop’s process-color work. Mark Coudray answered the phone and, over time, introduced Anderson to the technical nuances of garment screen printing.
“I asked Mark for suggestions about inks and other things, and from that point on, Mark became my mentor for screen printing, along with many other guys in the industry at that time who were well above my field of expertise,” Anderson recalls. “But Mark was definitely one of the key figures in the success of the technical side of Anderson Studio as far as printing. There weren’t many printing four-color process at that level in the 1980s. To this day we still are fast friends.”
Early success in four-color work encouraged Anderson to focus his company’s efforts on improvement by breaking the process down, understanding its finer points, and controlling all of the parameters and variables. Anderson Studio had grown to a six-person operation during the mid 1980s and made contract work its specialty.
Anderson found a niche opportunity in the late 1980s that would give his team the chance to experiment with a bunch of different prepress and printing techniques. A summer festival in Nashville introduced Anderson to the musical and artistic talent it showcased, and his shop soon tried its hand at reproducing oil paintings, watercolors, and pastels on T-shirts—sort of like wearable serigraphy. The artists would then sell the printed apparel at the festival.
“We really started to excel in a lot of hand-cut separation back then. We worked on techniques for separating using hand-cut shading sheets, where you blend percentages of yellow, red, blue, and other colors to make secondary and tertiary colors, and we did a tremendous amount of work with that, turning the screens to get the right angles for the rosettes and making up the patterns for true secondary, tertiary, and complementary colors. It was all shooting from the hip,” Anderson says.
He eventually developed a formula that worked, learned which screen angles were productive, and determined which halftone dots would reproduce properly on press. Anderson explains that he did a lot of underlaying of white, with a wet white, with color going over it in a percentage to make two or three colors out of the same color. A 100% white in a certain area would produce a pastel blue, a 40 % or 50% white would make a medium blue, and so on. He’d then layer a 10% yellow over top to get a teal or aqua. Anderson Studio was limited to a six-color press, so the addition of lots of spot colors wasn’t the simple option it is today on 16- and 18-color machines.
“It became a challenge where you really had to think, and your artists had to know what was going on. So we spent an exorbitant amount of time really learning that technique, aside from just the process work, where we outsourced seps, we got the film back, and we’d put it on our screens and print it. That was pretty straightforward. This type of hand-cut work was so involved and so detailed and so time consuming that we didn’t do it on everything,” he says.
Pulling off the technique meant using shading sheets that were blended and faded. The shop used sheets that were designed with 100-5% gradations and in a resolution range of 36-85 lines/in. Anderson remembers doing everything possible to make the printed pieces look like the originals, even if he had to get the 20 or 30 colors he counted in a design onto a shirt using that six-color press of his. He also remembers the price he paid to do so, including what he describes as horrendous job-setup times, remaking entire screens just to fix small problems, working all those colors without pin registration or retensionable frames, and more. The purchase of a 10-color automatic gave Anderson Studio the ability to manage the multicolor specialty prints, and the addition of a flash-curing unit to the system allowed the shop to extend its work to dark garments.
The late 1980s saw Anderson Studio develop its own lines of printed garments for mainstream and niche markets in giftwear, zoos, museums, science centers, and tourism. Anderson cultivated the business by hiring sales and marketing help. He recalls coming to the shop each morning to find his fax machine loaded with orders.
“It was going really well. I was in hog heaven there. I wanted to diversify, because I was so tired of going through winters where we didn’t have anything and just depending on our walk-in customers and word-of-mouth customers,” he explains. I really wanted ways to keep the shop busy.”
Part of Anderson’s strategy was to build up his art department. The artists he originally hired were put to work on the presses because Anderson didn’t have any creative positions available. But the in-house line of apparel opened some slots for them, and he ended up with five artists at one time, as he puts it, pumping out artwork. Their press experience gave the artists an understanding of the printing process, which paid off in the art department in the form of press-ready designs that were tailored for screen printing. Color order, registration issues, and other factors were considered in each creation.
Each design started with pencil drawings that were ultimately shot in grayscale. Each layer of color was initially a pencil sketch. Anderson says he was unsure about how to separate those colors on the camera, so he and his team resorted to completing the task by hand.
“We took those pencil sketches and drawings and actually separated those— shot halftones of them and printed them with opaque inks on black shirts. They turned out beautiful. They were a little porous because we used 35-, 36-, or 45-line halftones in those days. It was a huge dot, but it still was really nice,” he explains.
By the early 1990s, Anderson Studio was involved with custom printing, producing its own lines of printed garments, and ad specialties. Anderson found himself in need of administrative assistance, so his wife, Sherry, joined the company full time and took over the office, managing finances and day-to-day operations. Anderson says the business couldn’t work without her.
In the shop
Anderson Studio has come a long way since the days of the wooden crates and luck-of-the-draw registration. For example, film generation in the prepress area is handled by an Agfa Select- Set 5000 imagesetter, a tool Anderson describes as very accurate. It’s joined by a 56 x 72-in. vacuum frame and 6-kW NuArc exposure system, a Newman Roller Master stretching table, and a Serilor Diamond squeegee sharpener.
Equipment on the production floor includes 14- and 16-color M&R Challenger automatic presses, six M&R Cayenne quartz flashes, an eight-color Hopkins manual press, and a 20-ft M&R 2000 Series Sprint dryer. The shop also uses pin registration and Newman Roller Frames. A dozen employees, some of whom are part time, handle a variety of tasks in each department. Anderson says none of his business’s success would be possible without the help of his staff and the loyalty they show.
The Anderson philosophy
Anderson’s shop isn’t limited to his screen-printing business. He continues his work in custom motorcycles and airbrushing on the lower level of the two-floor facility he owns and uses part of the space for storage.
“I keep my hands in a lot of things artistically that I enjoy. That’s my philosophy on life,” he says. “I really wanted to find a way to make a living and enjoy doing what I’ve always liked to do—the creative field, whether it’s screen printing, airbrush work, illustration and design, or photography. It’s all fascinating and challenging to me. I tell young kids all the time: If you want to go into the arts, you need to figure out a way you can do what you love to do and also make a living at it because it’s very difficult. You’ve got so many people coming in with their eyes stuck on stardom, and one out of 10,000 might make it.”
Among Anderson’s accomplishments in the arts is the creation of album covers as a freelancer in the late 1970s for artists on the RCA and CBS labels, including Neil Young, Charlie Daniels, and Barbara Mandrell. He’s also been featured in magazines and books about airbrushing techniques and has sold photography to motorcycle magazines on a freelance basis. He says being able to make a living doing what he loves to do is a blessing.
On the screen-printing side, Anderson has decided to build a client base solely on custom printing. His goals are to continually increase the number of jobs the shop accepts and boost order volumes. He also recognizes that, as he puts it, marketing isn’t the company’s specialty.
“We enjoy the printing end of this thing and the technical side of it, but if we had started the business being salespeople and sales-motivated marketers, the growth of the company would have been a lot different compared to focusing on quality of the print and technical issues,” he explains. Anderson also admits that’s he’s coming to terms with the idea that jobs have to be done in a certain amount of time, that compromises must sometimes be made, and that he can’t spend all day working on a 12- color job when the order is for 12 dozen garments.
Another of Anderson’s goals is to “quit being in denial of the computer age.” He has avoided certain modern technologies, he says, because he feels they take away from people’s lives.
“I like to feel and touch things. I like to see the outcome of what I’m doing and have my fingers actually touch something. With the mechanical process of the computer, it’s so cold and impersonal that it really hasn’t motivated me enough to get into it. I’m not a video person. I like to get outside and do things. That’s just my mentality, but at some point I’ve got to address this and get up to speed and learn this stuff.”
Today and tomorrow
Anderson Studio made a name for itself in garment screen printing by becoming an early specialist in four-color process. The company has since added simulated-process printing to its arsenal and has won awards for that work (see page 41 for a selection of Anderson Studio’s processcolor and simulated-process prints). Still, Anderson sees possibilities for his company that he says may require the addition of a marketing professional to help raise awareness of the shop’s capabilities, secure new accounts, and take the business to another level.
“It’s very difficult for us with two automatics to do the kind of volume and the kind of profits that you need just for contract printing. It wears you out. And you’re so dependent on the other guys to keep your presses running,” he explains. “When they’re not busy, you’re kind of sitting and wondering what to do. If you have a salesperson who is dedicated, and has a salary on the line, then it’s a whole different ballgame. There are a lot of potentials for us out there.”
Some may be surprised to learn that what started more than 30 years ago as a one-man operation, with wooden crates for platens and a warm Nashville breeze as a textile dryer, has grown into an award-winning garment-printing business. But perhaps more arresting is that the whole Anderson Studio story started with the unmistakable rumble of a 1949 Harley-Davidson EL.