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Traditional Printing Techniques
PLANOGRAPHIC PRINTING - pt2
Lithographers had begun placing color in their prints soon after the technique was invented in 1798, but it was Godefrey Engleman who named and patented chromolithography in 1837. His invention of the registration frame solved a major production problem, which allowed him to be the first to put this method into commercial use. The first chromolithograph to be printed in the United States was made in Boston only three years later. The term Chromolithograph specifically refers to a lithographic print produced in three or more colors but we generally only apply it now to those commercial lithographs printed by technicians from many more stones during the 1880’s up through the First World War. Despite the growing popularity of these brightly colored images, most prints continued to be hand colored through the mid-19th century to keep costs down. Chromolithographic production always required an extensive investment in both time and materials, which allowed other techniques to compete on price if not beauty.
Though the optical mixing properties of primary colors was known since the 17th century and sometimes employed, no scientific color separation techniques were available in lithography’s early years. Multiple hand drawn substrates were used instead to produce each individual local color and corresponding tone. Since ink can only be applied to a stone in an even film, colors can only print in the same value as the ink used. Light, dark, and medium tones of the same hue all had to be printed separately as in tinting. The white of the paper could have been used to create optical tones but this would detrimentally effect color saturation. More importantly, this would have also effected the purpose of this type of print, which was usually used to reproduce the look of a painting. While intaglio and woodblock prints utilize the paperÕs surface, little to no paper was left exposed on most chromolithographs. If white was needed in the composition, it too would be printed as a separate color. This meant that a complicated color image might require at least ten different stones to produce, and some images incorporated as many as forty-five. This build up of ink often causes chromolithographs to suffer from looking dull because light cannot easily pass through all the layers and reflect back off the paperÕs white surface. Despite all these obstacles lithography proved to be the medium best suited for color printing in the 19th century.
The amount of hues to be found in a chromolithograph was not limited by number of inks in its palette. Most inks were transparent and created new hues when overlapped. This meant that an image printed with many different inks could create an incalculable number of color variations, while allowing those printed with fewer inks to still appear as if a much larger palette was used. Very often a series of tonal grey and near neutral hues were laid down first in broad swatches. This created a heaviness to the print that was essential when reproducing the effect of oil paint. Though these initial layers were all light in value, they still acted similar to a chiaroscuro drawing beneath a glazed painting that sets up the tonal range. The next layers of ink tended to be of high chroma and transparent like the glazes in a painting. The final layers were usually the darkest hues and of lower intensity. They were used sparsely to tie the composition together, lower the chroma of specific areas when necessary, and provide the majority of modeling and hard edges.
Chromolithograph: Chromolithographs were widely used to reproduce paintings during the 19th century and the most elaborate and expensive postcards made were issued as fine art reproductions. Even when employed to create original prints and postcards as in the example below they often take on a painterly look.
Chromolithograph: At first glance this postcard seems to be printed with only a red, yellow, and blue palette under a black key, but this simple image is not as simple as it looks. Three different stones were used to print each of the different tones of each hue, which means it required a totality of ten stones to print.
As the quality of printing increased, so did the demand for color images. Their low price compared to that of original art work created a Democracy of Art among a rising middle class. Heavy varnishes were routinely mixed into lithographic ink to better create the illusion of paint. Although a desired quality then, it now often shows up as cracks and white spots where ink has flaked off the paper. Sometimes white marks are just created by paper, ripped from the back of another card stacked over it before the varnish had completely dried. This type of flaw can at least be corrected with careful washing. This was also an age of an ever increasing amount of consumer products and the need for advertising greatly expanded the size of the printing industry. Posters and trade cards made great use of color technology, and in 1889 the worldÕs first color postcard was printed in Austria. For the remainder of the 19th century chromolithography would be the primary method used to produce color cards.
Flaking: The heavy multi-layering of lithographic ink, especially when combined with thick varnish has caused the image area on many old chromolithographs to flake off its paper substrate as seen in this detail. This damage may have also been aided by the sticky varnish clinging to another surface. It is not at all uncommon to find this type of damage on chromolithographs.
Off Register: Even on color prints made from only a few plates, registration could still be a serious problem. On this postcard we can see that none of the three color plates are in the same register as the black key plate. Quality control for postcards was rather lax, and many mis-registered images found their way onto the market.
The first method used to solve registration problems was simply to design images that had some leeway between the placement of printed colors. While this was often adequate for two or even three color prints in letterpress, it was a serious limitation to creating more complex images. It was only after a system of registration marks was developed that printing from multiple substrates became viable for commercial printing. The most common method of registration was to place simple line markings on the substrate along two or four sides of the image. These marks would then be matched up with corresponding markings placed on the back of the paper, which would later be trimmed off. They were exactly drawn with the same placement on every substrate in relation to the image so that the paper could be perfectly realigned in the next pass on the press. Perhaps the earliest example of this is the kento, a cross-like mark first used on Japanese woodblocks in 1745. The t-bar was a similar type of marking that was specifically developed for the lithographic process. Aligning these marks by eye slowed down printing, but in 1837 the registration frame, patented by Godefrey Engelmann, was able to hold paper in place over a litho-stone, which finally sped up the registration process to the point that color prints could be commercially produced.
Another registration method used in lithography was to bore small holes in two corners of a litho-stone that would hold pins and then punched corresponding pinholes through the paper that was to be printed upon. Each pin would have to be carefully placed on each stone in the exact relationship to the drawing so that all subsequent printings would perfectly align. As holes will remain in the final product their compositional placement also had to be considered so that they would remain hidden to the eye. This registration process was later extended to include the use of transparencies when exposing an image to a photosensitive plate. While the pinhole method is more precise than using registration marks since the paper cannot accidentally shift, it still had the undesirable effect of damaging the final print. The use of t-bars became the most common registration method used in the production of postcards, but if chromolithographic cards are held to light, some will show pinholes.
Even with the reduced number of plates used in process printing and more highly calibrated offset presses, color registration continues to be a problem in multi-plate printing. It does not take much to throw registration off and even the slightest mismatch is often clearly visible. In official printings of items such as stamps and currency quality control methods are put into place so that off registered items can be destroyed. Those items that survive this scrutiny are considered very rare and often become valuable among collectors. With postcards, quality control was left up to the individual publisher or printer who often did not want to loose money over mistakes. Cards with off-registered colors more often than not found there way into the marketplace. These flaws are so common on postcards that they add no value and can often devalue them.
Sometimes the colorist working on an image would create a reference book detailing in print the look of each individual color and their additive effect as they were printed over one another one at a time. The purpose of these books seem to have more to do with creating public demonstrations of the process than aiding the process itself. It can be speculated that these books were also used to help train apprentices, and perhaps as a guide in planing out future stages of color while the chromolithograph was still in progress. While this may seem like a logical conclusion we must also consider the intuitive skills of the printer. Any with working experience in the process could envision the results of their actions without the need of these aids.
Chromolithograph: The illustration on this postcard makes use of a very heavy and distinct key line to separate its color features. This once common style is now often only associated with cartoons, which can add or subtract to the appreciation of traditional prints.
Key Plate: Each of these details come from two very different looking postcards, yet both use the lines of a single dark tone to give structure to random fields of color dots. While technique can often effect style, chromolithographs were primarily designed for effect not expression. The process could imitate any style regardless of who reproduces it.
Chromolithograph: On this postcard the black key line is drawn so heavily that that it dominates the image creating a very mannered look. It was rare for an element of the technique to so obviously become part of its style.
Drawing on multiple stones to produce a single color image posed two problems. How can production time be sped up without going through the expense of hiring an additional artist to draw on each stone, and if hired how can each color unite into one cohesive image if drawn by different hands? The answer to both questions lay in the model set up for commercial wood engraving where an artist would draw an image that was then faithfully engraved by a team of craftsmen all trained to render lines and tone in the same generic style. In lithography the traditional method of drawing an image with broad tonalities in crayon was replaced with images made up of small dots that allowed craftsmen to replace artists, and little if any personal style would show though. While this new drawing method improved production speed it still required a fairly skilled workforce to create a readable image that was entirely made from nothing but dots.
This new problem was addressed by emulating the long established style based on the traditional pen and wash drawings of fine artists. The stone to print black would simply carry the same key lines found on the original artist’s drawing; and this became known as the key plate. This methodology was encouraged by some schools more than others. The Dusseldorf Academy proved to be quite influential in carrying this methodology into the lithographic trades. Some postcards would be drawn with close adhesion to these principals, which give them what we would now refer to as a cartoonish look. It must be remembered that cartoons came out of this style that was then considered a modern element of the fine arts. These same principals would be used in a number of stylistic ways, but always for the same aim of creating a cohesive image. With dark lines now guiding the composition, coloration became closer to fill in work and craftsmen with even less skill could be hired to do it. The use of a black key plate was not only an important development in chromolithography; its principals would be passed along to photomechanical techniques and used throughout the 20th century long past the day they were important to the fine arts. The majority of all printed postcards would employ this convention in one way or another.
Key Plate: The black key plate used to print the card above and the one below were both produced from the same photograph. The difference in outcome lay in the manner that color was applied; the color in the image above is made up of lithographic dots while the image below is colored by hand. Despite the different ways that color was applied to these postcards, the key plate still holds both together in a very similar fashion.
Drawings can be made it two distinct ways, either in tone or in line. Tonal drawing techniques tend to be taught while the ability to draw in line seems universal. We perceive objects in space through our interpretation of contrast between different colors and light and dark. The higher the contrast observed the more distinct an object becomes. When we interpret objects through drawing, the tendency is to follow the same contrasting contours. This is why a good drawing can be made without any coloration or tonal values and we can still read space into it. This is why a good linear key plate can usually hold even the most poorly colored image together.
Line Drawn Lithograph: Lithograph: Even though many of the objects in this lithographic postcard are simply outlined, the spatial composition is comprehensible. Any addition of color to the card may make it more appealing but it will not necessarily make the space more readable.
Color Tinted Lithograph: This lithographic postcard dating from 1902 was made with a black key drawn in line printed over light red, yellow, and blue lithographic dots. The detail below clearly shows that this is not a photomechanical image despite all of its apparent detail.
Color Tinted Lithograph: On this early postcard only three primary colors were laid down under the black key in broad flat fields so that they retain their saturation and create a bold look. These types of cards must have seemed jarring when compared to most other postcards of their day, but there always seemed to be a market for the unique.
STYLE AND TECHNOLOGY
The choices artists make when selecting materials to work with are not solely based on desire or need, they are confined by what is available to them. Products and techniques developed for the printing trades are based on their suitability for a commercial market where the most profit can be made, and it is these products or variations of them that trickle down to the artist’s hand. As new printing methods were developed, most artists tried to adapt the traditions they were familiar with to them. We too often only think of artists in terms of their style not realizing that their medium of choice has historically either put limits on style or created a venue where innovative new styles could emerge. All this is very evident in lithography where style and technology played off of one another to effect the way postcards would be drawn and printed. While the detailed progression below is listed in a somewhat chronological order, it must be remembered that nearly all of these methods were in use simultaneously at one time or another as change back then came very slowly.
There are basically two ways that artists have drawn over the centuries. One is in tone that captures the value range of the subject; the other is in line to capture detail through contrasting contours. Ink wash and watercolor could stand alone in capturing tonal values or they could be used in conjunction with drawn or painted line. These basic principals were carried over into lithography where they determined the look of all early postcards. For most of their history drawings were used as studies for paintings and not considered finished artworks. The sudden increase in printed material during the 19th century and the great need for illustration began to redefine all graphic mediums. While we still debate the differences between fine and applied art, the images placed on many postcards go far beyond the second class status usually assigned to them. This difference in status however has created a different evolution in the graphic arts that sometimes meets up with trends in fine art but just as often goes its own way.
Color Lithograph: This Swiss made art card dating from 1932 does not imitate a lithographic crayon texture, the image is actually drawn with on stone with a crayon instead of the dots so often used in commercial chromolithography. These types of postcards are not common.
Color Lithograph: Although the fineness of texture on a lithograph was largely dependent on how fine or course a stone was ground, how the variety of drawing materials were handled could make a huge difference in outcome. Greasy litho-pencils could be sharpened to a reasonably fine point while a litho-crayon could produce broad marks. On this early German color lithograph it is the expressive nature of the drawn in black that dominates. The bold style is more typical of artistÕs prints than commercial illustration.
Chromolithograph: The illustration on this postcard has the textured look of a crayon drawing on very rough paper. This is only due to the key plate being drawn with crayon as all the color underneath it has been added with spatter and small dots put in with a pen.
While the printing techniques used by chromolithographers revolved around their commercial viability, they could not completely overlook public taste in style. Black &: white lithographs colored by hand had been a mainstay of the popular print market for much of the 19th century and the crayon drawn look was what many expected. Providing this look however proved difficult with an industry now dominated by craftsmen working in production line fashion rather than artists overseeing the production of a print from start to finish. The crayon-like drawings found on postcards are usually produced through another technique more suitable to higher speed production. Some of these images are still made with lithography but here the crayon texture is usually imitated with small drawn dots. Some trade cards and postcards that look as if they were made with lithographic crayon are actually line blocks printed in letterpress.
Line and Wash Drawing
The term Lithotint is nothing more than a product brand name, which has too often been confused with the actual process of drawing with washes. This process was also coined around 1842 as lavis lithograpique by the French printer Rose-Joseph Lemercier, but both these names have since faded from use. This greasy ink is now usually referred to as liquid tusche, from the German tuschen. A similar but more fluid product with less tinting strength is autographic ink.
Chromolithograph: This very early trade card was drawn with liquid tusche as is evident in the detail below. Dots are used here but only to aid in the creation of occasional tonal transitions.
Chromolithograph: In this broad detail of a postcard from 1901 we can see the wide range dots, lines, and shapes that could be created with liquid tusche and a drawing pen. This product opened up a whole new stylistic range for artists to work in.
As with the use of crayons, line and wash drawings in the right hands could render beautiful subtleties but that became a problem for commercial printers. The traditional techniques used by artists were quickly becoming too inefficient for high volume commercial printing in steep competition with alternative methodologies. The growing demand for color work required many more hands to process stones and promptly turn out products than there were artists to fill.
Chromolithograph: While the image on this postcard seems as if it were made from tusche washes, it only reproduces an illustration created with wash. The fluid quality of the image is actually rendered from a collection of colored dots.
Drawing with Dots
Chromolithograph: Above is a postcard reproduction of a painting. The image retains a painterly quality even though it is entirely composed of small dots because of the careful dedication of the workforce involved to only reproduce what lay before them.
Chromolithograph: The illustration on this unusual postcard from 1910 consists entirely of dots. At first glance they almost appear that they are a result of a halftone screen but in the detail of the sky shown below we can see their shape and the lines they form are too irregular indicating that they were drawn in. The palette is also strangely close to the CYM colors used in much later years along with a very unusual amount of white paper exposed.
One of the most effective ways that liquid tusche was used was in the splatter effect. Large areas of small random markings could be quickly created by spattering tusche off the end of brush bristles or by running a brush across a screen. This method of creating tone had widespread acceptance and was used on everything from large posters to postcards. The shapes made with tusche tend to be darker at their edges and look similar to the ink squash found in relief printing because particles suspended in liquid tend to separate. Sometimes gum Arabic was initially spattered on a stone and the tusche was then painted over it. This gumming out process would create white dots on a dark field. The use of spatter would eventually be replaced with the airbrush, which worked faster and yielded more predictable results.
Chromolithograph: The image on this postcard is entirely made up of controlled spatter of only three colored inks. It was unusual not to use a key plate in printing, for while cheaper, it often yielded an unfocused looking image. In the detail below we can see that colors can be localized, but the random marks cannot provide clear definition.
Tusche Dots: There are many illustrations on postcards like the one above that seem to be rendered with tusche washes but in fact they were rarely used in chromolithography. The detail below shows that the image is actually made up of an accumulation of small dots drawn in tusche to reproduce an artwork in wash.
Tusche Spattering: Even in areas that may appear as solid tones to the eye, a number of different colors were often used to create a more vibrant look as can be scene in both of these details.
Dots with Black Line
Chromolithograph: This postcard is notable for its soft look. The effect is enhanced by the key lines being printed not in black but in a medium-dark grey with broken lines. All the other colors have been printed in exceptional light tones except for a medium red, which is used to accent the highlights as seen in the detail below.
Chromolithograph: On this early Gruss aus card a black line key is drawn over light to medium color dots. While the card’s overall appearance is much sharper than a crayon drawing or even dots alone, the small scale of the black markings are able to generate most of the compositions tonal scale. In the detail below we can also see how much the key is able to hold the composition together.
Chromolithograph: This old trade card from 1884 clearly demonstrates the small scale at which line work on a lithograph was drawn. While the portrait has been created exclusively with dots, the background has been drawn in with lines. In the detail below we can see how the lettering is not printed from type but is actually made up of shaky lines from a tusche loaded pen.
Chromolithographs: In both the postcard above and the one below there has been no attempt to create modeling through tone. Their style is decorative, surrounding solid fields of color with a black key outline. When observed more closely, only the card below is printed with flat colors; The color fields in the card above are still being created by the traditional method of making a composite through multicolored spattered markings.
Blots with Black Line
Blots and Key: As artistic renditions grew more decorative than realistic, there was far less need to create spatial atmosphere with color dots. In this postcard from 1900, only broad areas of color were used along with a few black lines to provide definition.
Many have used their own particular interests to define the origins of a particular artistic style, but to pinpoint a single cause is nothing less than illusionary. Style is a concept and not a thing to which clear sets of boundaries can be assigned. As ideas congeal and gain wider acceptance they only become noticeable to the point that we wish to label them. Once formed they never just disappear but usually evolve into new incarnations. Around the turn of the 20th century the decorative Art Nouveau style had replaced realistic tendencies in many quarters and was widely used on illustrated postcards. The flat color fields used in Japanese woodblocks is a clear and accepted influence on Art Nouveau graphics but that alone does not tell the full story. It is by no coincidence that these abstract tendencies show up most clearly in printed work rather than in painting. In many ways the flat colors used in modernist work harkens back to the earliest color lithographs, where color was used for impact rather than realism. The economic incentive to printing with less colors cannot be ignored. This was not so much to save on ink as reduce labor costs and speed up production time. The production of half chromos, that is color lithographs printed with less than the standard palette of a chromolithograph were ushered in as quickly as public taste allowed. Printing is the medium that best lends itself to such renditions and in turn it was the graphic arts that helped encourage the sparse modernist style.
Half Chromo: In this detail we can see an unusual combination of solid tones, lines, and dots all used with a limited palette. Although the use of black helps to create space, it is no longer well defined as a key, which is typical of later chromolithographs. These types of marks could be used abstractly to rendered totally pure optical effects or mimic a real texture or an object within the same composition.
Color Lithograph: Only two stones were used to print this colored postcard on buff paper. While it incorporates popular subject matter, its rendition demonstrates the abstract tendencies in of early 20th century graphic design. Its simplified printing method has removed it from the strict definition of a chromolithograph and pushed it closer to that of an art print.
Despite the increased influx of modernism into graphic design since the late 1800’s much of the public remained suspicious of it. Everything in the world seemed to be changing at a pace that made most uncomfortable, so they clung to whatever was familiar to them including graphic styles. Postcards more than anything else is a popular medium, and while the turn of the 20th century saw many radical changes in the arts, most publishers ignored as many of these changes as they could to produce more traditional looking images. Postcards as a whole reinforced prevailing beliefs and there was a love hate relationship with anything that seemed to usher in the new. The value placed on many artist signed cards today only comes through retrospect. Despite the many fine cards produced by important artists; If they were as popular then as they are now their cards would have been printed in much greater numbers and would be far less valuable today.