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Traditional Printing Techniques
PLANOGRAPHIC PRINTING - pt1
The two most important planographic printing methods used in the 19th century could not have been more different from one another. Stenciling was a very old practice in which a colorant was applied directly to the finished product with the aid of cut guides in a strictly mechanical way without the need for a printing substrate. Lithography on the other hand had just been discovered, and though a substrate would be used it was not incised or reliefed in any manner as with older techniques. After being drawn upon, chemically processed, and readied for printing, the substrate’s surface looks no different from when the process began. The invention of lithography is one of the major leaps in printing technology, it would prove to be one of the most versatile and important of all printing mediums, and it is largely responsible for the vast amounts of postcards that were printed.
Stenciling, perhaps the oldest of all printing methods was in common practice since the Middle Ages, largely used to apply decorative designs onto fabric. By the 1400’s it was also being employed to add color to woodblock prints when used as book illustrations. A knife would be used to cut out the shape of the area to be colored from a sheet of stiff paper or thin metal foil. It was then placed over the object to be colored, and ink would be daubed into the open areas of the stencil by hand. Any free standing shape or design that could be cut could be printed. The simplicity of this time tested method eventually made it attractive to postcard publishers. While some printed images were made through this method alone, it was more often just used to speed up the hand coloring of cards, especially those printed as collotypes. Stenciling also created more consistency among them as it took the decision making process regarding color placement away from the colorist. As with all hand produced prints there always remains room for some variation between them. Registration was a common problem with this method, so when all areas of just one color seems very out of place, there is a good probability that the card was hand colored with the aid of stencils.
Stenciling: This handmade card on the back of a postal from 1956 demonstrates one of the simplest methods of using stencils. In this case two leaves were just placed on the cards surface and then the entire card was spattered with ink. Once the leaves were removed, a white silhouette remained. The lettering was probably produced in the same manner, only with cut paper.
Pochoir (French stencil)
Pochoir: The flat broad colors typical of pochoir can be seen in the postcard above. The detail below demonstrates how black was typically used as a drawing element rather than a color. There is no optical blending; both light and dark tonalities of the same hue had to be applied with separate stencils. Note that the dark blue in the detail below is off register implying the use of a stencil on hand colored work.
Unable to publish his play, Alois Senefelder began searching for a way to print it himself. It was through this quest that he discovered a new planographic printing method in 1798 that he termed chemical printing. This process now known as lithography (derived from the Greek word lithos, meaning stone) begins with a particular type of limestone block polished down to a fine flat even grain. An image can then either be drawn directly onto the stone, or transferred to it, by using a variety of materials ranging from crayons to washes as long as they contain grease or oils (lipids). Unlike the other indirect methods of preparing a plate, lithography was radically different in that it allowed the artist to draw on a stone just as drawing on a sheet of paper. Care only had to be made not to touch the substrate and transfer skin oil on to it.
Senefelder began his experiment in an effort to create a lightly reliefed surface on a stone that could then be rolled with ink and printed like a woodblock. To achieve this he placed a greasy drawing down on the stone to act as a chemical resist, and then painted over it with acid emulsified in gum Arabic in hope that this formula might slowly dissolve the limestone away around his image. His theory was sound but it did not work in practice. While a failure, his experiment revealed something even more amazing by accident. A chemical reaction took place between the acid and the stone that allowed a layer of salt to seeped into the stone’s pores all around the image. When the image was completely washed off he discovered that the salty layer created by the acid etch attracted water. When left damp and rolled with a stiff oil-based ink, the ink coated the dry stone but was repelled from areas where the water lay in the surface pores. This resulted in an image that was identical to the original drawing. Senefelder concluded that this newly created image could be transferred onto paper through the pressure of a press, and then the dampening and inking process could be repeated over and over to produce multiple images.
Sensitive to the artist’s touch lithography became the best way to reproduce gradated tones before the use of photo emulsions. Even though these tones were optical blends since a single stone could only print one value, the final print could still be made to appear to have the same hand drawn tonalities created by charcoal or crayon. This technique in its various incarnations would come to dominate the printing of postcards.
Lithography Cross Section: In lithography the etch does not relief the substrate but chemically alters its ability to hold water. When dampened during printing the substrate will only retain water in the non-printing areas; so when rolled with an oil based ink it will be repelled and only adhere to the parts of the surface that held the original drawing. The chemically treated parts of the substrate eventually begins to loose its ability to retain water as the surface is weakened during printing. This deterioration will first show itself within the most delicate areas of the image by filling in with ink.
The limestone most suited for use in lithography comes from a few quarries near the town of Solnhofen in the Jura Mountains of Bavaria, which is by no coincidence the hometown of Alois Senefelder. This particular limestone from the Jurassic-age was considered superior because its fine granularity was capable of capturing subtle gradations, while its purity allowed for production of flawless stable images with consistent reactions in processing. Impurities in a stone such as crystals or small marine fossils will yield unpredictable results in the final print. Large numbers of these stones were quarried and shipped to American printing houses during the 19th century. A deposit of high quality limestone was discovered in Iowa in 1914 and the town of Lithograph City (now Devonia) grew up around it. The varying grades of stone combined with an etching process that left nothing behind that the eye could see often created problems in printing, especially when dealing with multicolor images. One inferior stone might wear down before the other stones being used to print the same image, and it would have to be redrawn and processed before the press run could be completed. An unstable etch may also cause the image on a stone to begin filling in to the point that it needs to be remade. While many variations on postcards were planned, these unexpected problems with litho-stones can account for a large number of different looking images.
Lithograph: Very subtle tonal transitions could be achieved by drawing on a litho-stone with crayon, and early on this became the primary way in which lithographs were produced. While this style was used on both trade cards and early postcards, it became problematic when printing in color requiring a different method to be employed.
Litho-stones are very heavy, especially when compared to other printing substrates because they needed to be of substantial thickness (3 or 4 inches) so not to crack under the heavy pressure of the press. When a printing job is finished the stone can be re-polished to remove the image and drawn on once again. This of course slowly wears down the stone, and as they grow thinner and more brittle through successive grindings, they can be cemented onto slate or another thin litho-stone to regain thickness and strength. So many stones had once been available that some printers never re-polished them for new jobs; they just coated them in gum and put them into storage in case their customers wanted additional prints. Storing processed stones saved a tremendous amount of prepress time but took up a lot of space, which most shops did not have. After World War One the use of litho-plates became more common because they could be used on fast rotary presses, and by 1930 most litho-stones had been discarded.
Lithograph: In the broad details above and below we can see some variances in how a drawing in crayon could be laid down. While better stones had a naturally finer grain, the coarseness of the printing texture could also be influenced by the particle size of the last abrasive grit used to polish the stone’s surface. The white lines below are the result of scratches left behind from incomplete polishing of the stone.
Lithograph: In this finer detail we can see the very irregular grain that made smooth tonal transitions possible. While this represents a fairly common detail, there were so many different materials that could be used and applied in different ways that the texture of lithographic prints may vary widely.
Litho-Presse: Pictured on the real photo postcard above is a typical flatbed press by Bouhey of Paris. While it is of an early design, and apparently hand cranked, it is still being used in a early 20th century press room. Presses were expensive, and while large firms needed to update their equipment to remain competitive, small shops often used antiquated presses. Note that four litho-stones sit on the press bed waiting to be printed. While this saves on setup, each stone stone on this press has to be inked by hand one at a time.
Litho-Presses: This illustration from 1852 shows the hand operated version of the press invented by the Austrian engineer Georg Sigl. Other models could be powered by steam. This picture is also interesting in that the press is being operated by women under a male supervisor. Many printshops were family business in which all members worked. Female employees made up about twenty-percent of industrial labor by the mid-19th century, and many were employed in the printing trades. The postcard below depicts the press room of the Edward H. Mitchell Co. in San Francisco. These electric powered presses were modern for their day.
Most early forms of printing did not incorporate color as a means to create a more realistic image; color was just added for its symbolism, to attract attention, and as a decorative element to be pleasing to the eye. Much of this same reasoning continued into the early production of color lithographs. While highly colored postcards in the form of chromolithography would be produced, they were printed alongside many other cards that followed older and simpler traditions. Over time however even these simple methods got caught up in the complexities of printing off of numerous stones. Even when many postcards wound up imitating older styles, their production methods were far removed from the simple methods once used to make them. During the late 19th century, color lithography was generally classified in three ways. Works employing less than 5 colors were considered tinted prints, those using 6 to 11 different inks were simply color work, and those utilizing 12 colors or more were chromolithographs. It must be noted that precise definitions were not always adhered to as terms were often used to best advance promoters needs.
It must be noted that the use of color developed differently in different parts of Europe. French lithographs tend to have brighter colors than their German counterparts because they used more expensive inks in their production. In England they tended to use more subdued tints following their strong watercolor tradition. The United States followed the German traditions most closely, simply because of the number of lithographers who fled there after the failed German revolution of 1840.
Colored Paper: The blue paper used for this lithographic Gruss aus card dating from 1904 has been printed upon with black, a light grey and red, along with a very transparent yellow. While it seemingly renders an unusually high colored night scene, its unnatural look could just as well represent the break of day.
Tinted Lithograph: On the postcard above, a medium gray tint has been printed under the black lines. Its presence is so dominant that the blue paper of the card can be used to create highlights by contrast as demonstrated in the detail below.
Tinted Lithograph: This postcard from 1917 is very similar to lithographs first printed in the 1830’s; it consists of a black crayon drawing printed over a solid fawn tint. Its only unusual feature is the bright yellow added to depict the sun.
Tinted Lithograph: The black lithographic drawing on this early postcard is printed over a lighter tint with the whites scraped out. The tint works to soften the overall image by lowering contrast while at the same time brightening the highlights by further isolating them.
Tinted Lithograph: Four stones were used to print this early postcard. Red and yellow have been added alongside a key black to accent highlights, but the composition is dominated by a unifying light grey tint.
Multiple Tint Lithography (Glaser Frey Process)
Double Tone Lithograph: This early German lithographic card was printed in three harmonized colors. There are two background tints in a light and medium fawn, which is overprinted with a dark brown. Colors is not used here to create a more realistic image, only give the illusion of a traditional tonal drawing. Its sparse whites also imitate the common application of chalk to a drawing, but these highlight are only the color of the paper, which is mostly covered with a fawn tint. Complex compositions such as this could be simply made as more clearly seen in the detail below.
Double Tone Lithograph: Only three stones were used to print the card above that dates from 1898. A light and medium warm neutral for was used for tone, and a black key for detail. It is similar to the double tone prints that became popular in the 1830’s, and follows the same color scheme used by the Glaser process to produce the illustration shown below taken from a 1880’s souvenir book. Publishers in the early 20th century would replicate this look by replacing the drawn line with a halftone.
Multi-Tinted Lithographs: Multiple stones were used to create this postcard from the 1890Ős. While some colors seem to migrate a bit more to yellow and others to red they are still similar enough to harmonize as different values of the same hue and create a coherent image. The colors used may be highly stylized but the image remains recognizable because of the tonal balance. Although the early souvenir card below is also stylized, it uses color tints to present a more natural palette. Four tints are used here under a black key; a light and medium grey, and a light and medium blue.