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Traditional Printing Techniques
RELIEF PRINTING METHODS - pt2
The relief process known as Letterpress was the primary method used to print text throughout the 19th century and halfway through the 20th. Traditionally text had been printed by cutting whole lines into a single block of wood until it evolved into a method where individual letters (type) were carved. This saved an enormous amount of time as these small pieces of type could be locked together into frames to print entire pages of text at one time and then filed away for reuse. This method of printing changed very little in the 400 years since the goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg first put this concept into practical use. There were however some practical changes. Type was eventually cast in metal to make it more durable, and with the invention of the linotype machine whole lines of reusable cast text became easy to produce and they replaced single letters. Compositors who had traditionally set loose type into forms at no more than fifty lines per hour were thrown out of work by this innovation, but the underlying principals of this process remained unaltered. Prints created by this relief process are characterized by the same solid tones found in traditional woodblock printing, but because the inked form presses the image directly into the paper it creates a slight embossing that is often noticeable even when printing on heavy card stock.
Gutenberg Screw Press: This modern lithographic postcard issued by the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz illustrates Johannes Gutenberg printing a bible with his screw press in 1445.
Used extensively to print newspapers and books, the role of letterpress in postcard production as a typographical medium was basically limited to advertising cards and for the printing of sharp clear text. Linotype began replacing set type in 1892 and was extensively used to print the backside of postcards, but it was also employed to overprint text such as titles directly onto a card’s image. While softer toned mediums might produce a superior picture they were not very successful in rendering the precise sharp details required by lettering to be clearly legible. Letterpress overprints in color were also a method of highlighting text on an otherwise purely black & white card. Almost all early printshops of size contained a variety of presses capable of printing different mediums. A shop’s ability to use letterpress in combination with any other process must almost be taken for granted, but after offset lithography became a viable commercial process in the 1960Ős letterpress printing all but disappeared. Its limited role in postcard production shouldn’t be slighted for its century’s old dominance of the printing trades caused all other mediums and techniques to compete with it in some way or die.
Letterpress: The majority of early cards were used for advertising, and they usually combined a wood engraved illustration with printed text. This combination of letterpress was referred to as xylography (see more below). No other process could capture the minute facets and gestures that gives this typeface its readability and character, especially at this small size. Over time metal casts would be made of the wood engraving so it could be stereotyped along with the text for printing on faster rotary presses.
Rotogravure and Letterpress: Even though gravure is known for its high quality, the detail above shows the ambiguity of its structure when enlarged. Below is an example of letterpress type. Even with its dramatic ink squash its sharp edges still make it much more readable and this is why it was so often employed to print text on postcards regardless of the medium used to create the image.
Chromolithograph: The generic image on this unusual stock card from 1912 was printed in chromolithography while the title was added afterwards through letterpress. It was not unusual for small retailers to buy such cards and then add their own text on it with the aid of a small hand press.
Wood Engraving Joints: Since engraving blocks are cuts of end grain wood, they are only available in very small pieces that must be glued together if a larger images is wanted. This detail displays the joints typically found on large wood engravings, which are visible due to the crumbling of the block at its edge. Another visual disruption comes from the lines moving across the image that do not match up well at the joints. This is the result of each section being engraved separately before being pieced together.
The creation of a wood engraving requires a highly skilled hand. It is a slow process that can take weeks to produce a single image. In order to get illustrations into newspapers in a more timely manner, a system was developed in the 1840’s that largely took production out from the hands of artists and gave it to a team of craftsmen. Since engraving blocks are cuts of end grain wood, not planks, they are only available in very small pieces. To create larger images a number of these small blocks are glued together to form one large substrate. When working with a team these small blocks would only be temporarily bolted together, then coated with a wash of white paint so that the master artist could more easily make his drawing. Afterwards the clamps would be removed, and each piece given to an individual engraver to work on. Some engravers specialized in cutting skies or faces and so each piece would be portioned out accordingly. These were finely trained craftsmen whose role was to engrave to a set style and not to add their own individuality to the process. When each piece was complete, all sections would then be reassembled, glued or bolted back together, and the master artist would finish engraving the image along the lines where all the pieces met up. Sometimes these glued edges would pick up ink or more often crumble away and unwanted thin white lines would appear in the final image.
Wood Engraving: It would take a long time for white line cutting to find an audience, and in the meantime most commercial printers remained committed to work that simulated the popular line work traditionally produced by copper engravings. The central objects of attention in wood engraving were usually cut first and the background tones and details were added in afterwards. This can lead to a halo effect where linear tonalities do not meet up to outlining of the main subject as seen in the detail below.
Wood Engraving: Very often it is difficult to distinguish a wood engraving from a line block print because they share so many characteristics. At first glance the mottled surface on parts of this old trade card make it look similar to a line block print. If the surface of a woodblock is dented or abraded in any way, the damage will display itself as white markings within the printed blacks similar to the random texture often added onto line block plates. Despite this confusing issue, the detail below seems to indicate that this image was cut away rather than drawn in.
A great deal of 19th century illustration employed wood engraving yielding beautiful results. It was occasionally used on earliest advertising postcards where an illustration would enhance the text. By the 1890’s wood engraving was completely replaced by line block, which was much cheaper to produce. Many early line blocks were created in the style of wood engravings that the public was so familiar with, and they are hard to differentiate on postcards without the aid of strong magnification.
Wood Engraving: In this illustration an engraver is cutting his fine lines into a small block of wood while observing his handiwork through a magnifier. The block sits on a pillow so it can easily be maneuvered instead of awkwardly turning the hand when curving lines need to be cut. Various sized gravers are handily laid out on one side besides him, and on the other are more blocks ready to be cut.
Wood Engraving: This old wood engraving is mounted on a board with written instructions of how to convert it into a halftone. By the 1890’s the introduction of cheap halftone printing had practically replaced the entire wood engraving industry causing a huge revolution in the printing trades. Postcards picturing wood engravings are usually reproductions made through line block or halftone printing methods.
Multi Plate Printing
Color Woodblock: Only two woodblocks were used to produce this postcard with its unusual pallet. Color is not used to create a more realistic image, but to attract attention through stylization.
The more common way to print two colors was through the introduction of a second substrate. Areas that required color would be left blank on the substrate that holds the black portion of the image, and then the same paper would be placed over another substrate that held only areas inked to print in color. Since color was only added to attract attention, red was the most common color applied. This technique was widely used on early advertising postcards. As more complex methods of adding even more color to an image were developed, this simple technique largely fell out of use. Producing images from multiple substrates however would become the dominant method of color printing.
Chromoxylograph: This rare chromoxylographic postcard used the technique to create an association with folk art. Most printers at this time would have just created a facsimile image in either lithography or line block to keep costs down.
Chromotypograph: Postcards were generally not made as chromoxylographs with the possible exception of a few pioneers, but the style was imitated in other mediums. This early Will Call card from 1903 pictured above may have a simple design, but it took four separate line block plates inked with RGB colors plus black to print it. Most cards similar to this one used fewer colors.
Lithograph: This coloring on this early lithographic postcard from 1896 does not follow the normal conventions of chromolithography. Its use of linear marks drawn with a simple red, yellow, and blue pallet is much closer in spirit to a chromoxylograph. Only the use of a dark brown key for details is more typical of a lithograph. In the detail below the card’s strange array of markings almost look as if they were cut out from wood.
Chromoxylograph: Artists also used multiple wood engraved blocks to create color prints but the choice of pallet was usually based more on individual discretion than industry standards. This image was produced with only five color woodblocks.
Various materials had been used for stamping since ancient times but it was not until Charles Goodyear discovered a way to stabilize rubber in 1844 that rubber stamping became possible. Cured with sulphur and heat this vulcanized rubber began being used for hand stamps in the 1860’s. A drawing of the desired image is placed on a metal plate in the form of an acid resist, which is then etched down into a relief. A cast is then made of this relief into which rubber is poured. After curing the rubber is pulled from the mold and once mounted onto a hand grip it is ready for use. These hand stamps utilized a more liquid form of fast drying ink with greater similarity to that used with pens than on a printing press. The ink is picked up from a soft inked pad and then transferred to paper or an object by simple hand pressure. Rubber stampings most familiar association with postcards is through the postmarks placed on them.
Rubber Stamps: The back of this Austrian card has no postmark, yet it is full of rubber stamp marks. These types of stamps are not uncommon; they were used to recognize commemorative events as bell as indicate that this card made an appearance at certain locations. A traveler could have a postcard stamped at various tourist sites as a memento of a trip.
Stock Card: This generic stock postcard was printed in lithography but the name, Bergen Beach was added on later with a rubber stamp by the business who ordered them. The combination of generics and hand stamping allowed any shop to buy small amounts of cards and still sell them as local souvenirs to their limited audience.
Rubber stamping was often used on stock cards when a hand press was not available to add on a place name or greeting. Some photographers also used rubber stamping to place their names on real photo postcards while avoiding the added cost of commercial printing to their already high end items. The selling of real photo postcards were often tied to current events, and the immediacy of hand stamping allowed photographers to market these cards in a timely manner. Rubber stamps were not used in the commercial printing of postcards, but by the 1970’s they became and important tool in the creation of Mail Art cards.
Rubber Stamping: The postcard above was made through a combination of letterpress, hole punching, and rubber stamping, all closely associated with Mail Art. The card below is a piece of Mail Art posted in 1998. It is made from a piece of yellow poster board hand cut to an unusual size and then hand stamped by the artist and the Postal Service.