World Fine Art Professionals and their Key-Pieces, 45 - Frans de Leef

Frans de Leef is a true Hague artist. Together with his brother Jan, he built an impressive oeuvre on silkscreened cityscapes. Frans and Jan de Leef always worked together. De Leef brothers’ website opens with a nice quote from AD, Algemeen Dagblad.  

Jan en Frans de Leef. Inseparable, as if they were mirror images

‘First as associates in the plumbing business, later as artists. De Leef brothers prints have become a household name in The Hague. In the small workshop in Hendrik van Deventerstraat the walls disappear behind the shared past. Prints of the Gemeentemuseum, the Waste Incineration, Swimming Pool De Regentes, together they colored the city’s memory.’ (AD, 14/06/07, Peter Koop). 

Unfortunately Jan de Leef died too young in 2002. Frans is at the the end of his silk-screen career. At the moment I wrote this article he was almost 65. Certain materials like indirect film and certain printing inks are no longer available. ‘I will continue, but not with serigraphs, I will paint, especially watercolors.’ He gave his last presentation, a lecture on screen printing, at Marcello’s Art Factory some time ago. It was announced as follows:  

How does it work, serigraphs?  

John and Frans de Leef together made dozens of special Hague cityscapes in very detailed screen printing. And what kind of screen printing! Where most screen printers use between 5 and 8 print runs for their artwork, for the brothers Jan and Frans 50 print runs (or more) was very normal.’  

The room is packed. The prints are hanging on the walls. Frans stands in front of a table with many sheets of paper, a sloping ‘t-shirt-table’ and a single red leaf, which appears to be a template.

Frans starts his story and grabs a large sieve. ‘What do you need for screen printing? A sieve, there are different formats. In it is a mesh of nylon. The wires are perpendicular to each other, if you look closely you see tiny little holes.’  

Nina Simone  

‘When did I start? In 1982 my brother and I learned it from an advertising decorator.  Actually, now I just think of it, I started earlier. When I was sixteen. We lived in the Schilderswijk, in the Hobbemastraat. Around the corner, at Om en Bij, there was a sign on a lamppost with the designation “De Schilderswijk”.  

In response, I made my first screen printing. I hammered together a wooden frame and in the frame I stretched my mothers’s nightgown. I drew with crayons the face of Nina Simone. On top I put schellac and after drying, I washed it off with turpentine. Then I printed it with etching ink on a A4 sheet. On all lampposts with the sign “De Schilderswijk” the portrait came to hang, underneath the text “Blank Getto” (White Ghetto).’    

Surgical scalpel  

‘We continue the process. There is the paper, the screen and the template. What you don’t want to print, you hold close. For what you do want, you use a ‘filler’, a light-senstive emulsion. I myself work with ‘indirectfilm’. The main tool is a small tweezer-like device , a surgical scalpel. What isn’t exposed, you rinse away.  

The screen goes over it. In the corners you put four pieces of lead to keep the paper and the template in their proper place. Newspaper on it and then you move the roller. The emulsion is in the sieve. Hopefully it is applied properly. Then it starts to dry.’  

’t Goutsmits Keurhuys, 44 printings  

Using the example of ’t Goutsmits Keurhuys at the Binnenhof, Frans explains the printing process. ‘I start by making as many pictures as possible. The whole façade I measure up. Then, with the photo there, I draw the façade. I bring the perspective in with a string from a certain point. On that basis, I make the initial templates.’  

With the scalpel I cut the first piece of the template. I start with the air. Blue sky, my brother and I loved the beautiful blue skies. Ultimately they won’t be quite blue. Occasionally you see something white in it. Then there is the emulsion. Expose and rinse. Goes on a shelf, sieve and roll. The first print is on paper.’  

Then we go to the next print run on a fresh sieve. We makes the joints of the stones gray. Next: a separate film for the side part. Next: we print the stones. Next: we paint the stones, three times because the stones have three different shades. Then we do the street below and then, with yellow color, the “white” of the frames. Then, every time a new print run, the curtains, the blinds, the upper windows and the dormer.’  

De Gruyter  

‘We are about halfway. Print run 20, windows green, doors and drainpipe, number 21, the weapon on the wall, 22, the door, 23, transparent ink to make shadows, 24, on the weapon a transparance sheet ……….. 33, slate on the roof, 34, reflection in the window. In total 44 print runs. It took two months for my brother and I, working every day, to finish a silk screen. In a week we were making ten runs.’  

The lecture is over. Are there any questions in the audience? Did you and your brother have a certain division of labour? Was he a specialist in one and you more at the other? De Leef: ‘We were very well attuned to each other and we both dominated all aspects of the work. Of course, there were differences: my brother was a master in perspective drawing. I had more intuition and speed. We never had a fight, or actually, once we had. That was about a silk screen of De Gruyter shop on the Beeklaan. It was about the color of the blue-green tiles on the façade. Eventually, I got my way.’ 

What will your last screen printing be?  

‘The door of the Nutshuis at the Riviervismarkt. I promised the man from the foundation in this house a screen printing. But I completely forgot. I met him a while ago and then it shot through my head. I told him and asked why he hadn’t asked for it. ‘Actually, I didn’t dare to ask.’ ‘I’m goning to make it for you. It is the last one.’ 

Finally, Frans shares with everyone a numbered copy of a screen print of the former Artfac building at the Prinsessegracht.







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