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Photography and the Black Arts
LINE BLOCK (Linecut)
The line block photoengraving technique is a hybrid of intaglio and relief printing. It is based on the earlier paniconograph, first introduced by Firmin Gillot as the Gillotype (Gillotage), and refined by his son Charles during the 1870’s. Unlike the earlier version that involved a mechanical transfer, this technique was a pure photomechanical process. A negative of a line drawing is first contact printed onto a metal plate that has been photosensitized with an albumin dichromate solution. Light hardens this emulsion into an acid resist while non-exposed areas are removed when rinsed in warm water. When etched in a bath of acid, the metal surrounding the emulsion protected lines is eaten away forming a low relief. Because acid will undercut the resist, the plate needs to be repeatedly recoated with a special ink that will gently run down the cut sides of the line without stopping further biting until a good depth is formed. Unlike intaglio, this plate is then rolled with ink, which will only adhere to its surface, and then it is printed in the same manner as a woodblock. Since the line block method can only print a single solid tone, all values are created optically, often enhanced through the addition of a wide variety of textures. Since these plates are inked in the same fashion as relief prints, they were usually adhered to woodblocks to raise their height so they could be used in conjunction with letterpress. It was through their use in letterpress that these impressions became known as line blocks or line cuts. Most books and newspapers were printed in letterpress, so line block’s easy adaptation to this medium insured it would become the dominant method of printing illustrations. Its use did not stop there as a great number of trade cards and postcards would also use line blocks in their production. A similar relief process to line block known as the Phototype was developed by Fruwirth and Hawkins during the 1860’s, but its surface could not hold up to the demands of commercial printing.
Line Block: This postcard is a good example of how line block illustration was typically combined with type in letterpress. Where text was usually printed over a cardŐs image, both the picture and the text here were printed from a single press run.
Line Block: Nearly all postcards have lines and text on their backs, but it is also not unusual to find elaborate graphics added to the backs of early cards as well. Letterpress was the preferred medium to print text because it rendered sharp edges making it easy to read. Since line block illustrations or graphics could be printed side by side with text in the same press run, there was no extra cost or time involved to add these features beyond making the original drawing.
Line Block: The picture on the postcard above resembles a wood engraving, but the detail below reveals that the edges of all lines are more typical of a rough intaglio etch than a sharp graving tool. While the edges of end grain wood tends to crumble, it rarely looks tis jagged. These type of stringy lines seem far more typical of wood engravings that have lost some of their clarity when transferred to a line block plate.
Line Block: Even though this early trade card resembles an engraving, many of its lines are not solid black but have small white dots within them. This feature is more indicative of a line block print, though the presence of these markings can be explained in different ways. The white dots may be the result of applying an aquatint dusting to the metal plate under the resist before the drawing was made. The uneven density of marks as seen in the darker area of the detail below reveals it may have been added for a textural design as much as for tone. Some marks might be nothing more than inadvertent gaps in the resist created though its faulty application.
The line block process was capable of using drawings in a number of ways. Sometimes the transferred images were so carefully ruled out that they almost give the impression of a steel engraving. In the late 19th century it was very common for cheaply made line blocks to imitate more expensive wood engravings as well as lithographs, which not only duplicated the types of popular illustration the public was most familiar with, but it added the prestige of a fine art look. When used to print small scale items such as postcards its rough irregular marks were especially good at creating the illusion of a crayon drawing. Most often however artists used the freedom this technique provided to draw without the stylistic constrictions that other mediums required. Sometimes this allowed for greater individual style to be captured on a plate, but too often the skill of draftsmanship was just allowed to declined and carefully drawn lines turned into sloppy blotches. In either case all drawings wound up being printed in a solid flat black. When halftone screens were invented, they were quickly adapted to line block printing so that optical tones could be more easily produced.
Line Block: While the ease of transferring an image to a line block led to a general lack of draughtsmanship, some line blocks were created with great skill and care. The image on the postcard above is created through the careful use of line work, and the postcard below with a combination of line and fill.
The rivalry between letterpress and color lithography led to the line block being adapted to multiple plate color printing in the 1860Ős. Chromotypographs were different from chromolithographs in ways apart from the obvious technology. There was no attempt to employ the same wide range of colors as they shied away from art reproduction and realistic rendering. The limited pallet of line blocks became part of their economy, which also made them easy to use. Simple illustration, comics, and advertising in more stylized graphic design became the mainstay of this technique. Chromotypographs employed a wide variety of textures but rarely plain dots. Some of these textures were created by drawing or spatter, while other marks were etched into the broad lines of the plate to print in white. Aquatint was often used in the production line block plates to create random texture. This allowed for more interesting patterns of optical blending when multiple color plates were combined. As the general trend at the turn of the 20th century turned toward printing with less color, the more elaborate forms of chromotypography saw little use. Line blocks would still be used to create color postcards in color, but in more expedient ways such as relying more heavily on manufactured tints.
Chromotypograph: Only three line block plates, red, green, and black were used to print the postcard above. While the colors were integrated to create optical hues they still read for the most part as local tints. Coloration like this was not added for realism but to make the card more appealing to customers.
Chromotypograph: When line block was employed to print color it was most often used in a decorative graphic fashion with no attempt to reproduce natural color as seen on this advertising card. In the detail below we can see how pen drawn line work creates the traditional defining key even on a more modern design, while benday is applied to expand the palette through optical blending.
Chromotypograph: Line blocks were often used on postcards depicting maps because of the exacting demands in rendering fine sharp detail. In the enlargement below we can see the crispness of the image, but despite that this is a form of letterpress, the irregular edges of the type indicate that it has been drawn in rather than set. The subtle curves and various angles that text needed to match up with in the layout could not be provided by the strict geometries inherent in setting type into a form.