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Halftones and Hybrids
The ability to reproduce images through photographic halftones had an unforeseen effect on the appearance of postcards. While some publishers continued to produce images of high quality, many others found that the chromolithographic model in which a separate plate was created for each local hue desired could now be discarded. By using a halftone image printed in black as a key, the remaining composition could be held together with fewer printed colors underneath. While most printers reduced these colors to the basic primaries, there was no consensus among them as to which colors were primary. Some combination of red, green, yellow, and blue were the most commonly used. The concept of mixing different techniques was nothing new. Baxter prints, patented in 1835 had combined color wood engravings with a strong intaglio presence for line detail. Nelson prints, first printed in the 1850’s used wood blocks to create a background tint over which a linear lithograph would be printed.
For us who are so familiar with photographic reproduction it is hard to imagine the novelty of the first such image made. There was something unique about even the poorest quality reproduction that drew attention toward it. This license allowed publishers to experiment with all sorts of methods to create color postcards. Some sought ways to produce images with as close a fidelity to reality as possible while others were satisfied with any mannered yet attractive look. Some spared no expense to achieve their goals and others searched for ways to cut corners at every step of production as if the inclusion of color alone was enough to make a sale. While these hybrid cards were not as impressive as those printed with ten or more colors the results were often more than adequate considering the cost saved. The entire printing industry would quickly begin shifting toward this new efficient model.
In the 19th century a second tinting plate was conventionally used to supplement black & white lithographic images in the same manner of drawings on colored paper. These duotones were not meant to create the illusion of natural color or to be a lead up to better color printing; they had practical applications in themselves. This added color helped reduce the unexpected starkness often found in a printed image since the stone or plate it was originally drawn on was grey or possibly even tan, but never white. Usually of a single light hue, this color field was sometimes scraped into to produce pure whites like the highlights added to a drawing with gouache or chalk. Ben day dot patterns were also often employed to create tinting plates because they could produce an unblemished continuous field with ease. This tonal effect was eventually taken up by postcard publishers, especially when it was seen that it could yield similar results when used in conjunction with halftones. This process helped solve the loss of subtlety in representing mid-tones created through crossline screening. Some methods were widely used in the trade while others became associated with specific postcard publishers. They also created a more striking look at a low cost that might arouse interest among potential customers looking for something untypical.
By the mid-19th century, inquiries began being made to see if chemical additives to printing ink could be used that would prevent different colored inks from mixing thus allowing multiple colors to be printed in a consistent manner from a single plate. Little came of this, but in the 1890’s an additive was found that would change the color of ink as its printed values changed. This was used to create duotone tints with the use of one plate. The results cannot always be distinguished from prints made from two plates, though multiple plate printing tends to yield more distinct color separations and a wider palette.
Duotones: Both of these postcards make use of a tinting plate in a flat warm color but the one above has an overprint in photogravure while the one below is overprinted with a black halftone key in line block.
Duotone: While the flat tint on this postcard nicely tones down the contrast of the black halftone key, the whites have been polished out of it with such little subtlety that it draws attention to itself jolting the viewer out of the illusionary scene.
Hand Colored Duotone: Additional color was sometimes added to a postcard printed with a flat tint through hand coloring. Because the entire surface of the card was already covered with ink it was rather non-accepting of water based paints. Images that were already made to look mannered often took on an even more unnatural or bizarre continence.
Blue Tints: Above is a line block postcard from 1954 where the light blue sky seems completely separated from its blue-black foreground despite efforts to unify the image. Neither section is purely one color as halftone dots of black were added to the clouds in the sky to help create volume while random blue dot permeate the foreground to create a cool cast. There is perfect harmony between the blue and black halftones used to create the card below from 1921. It works better because black can dominate the entire composition because it is a night scene.
Blue Tints: Above is a line block postcard from 1954 where the light blue sky seems completely separated from its blue-black foreground despite efforts to unify the image. Neither section is purely one color as halftone dots of black were added to the clouds in the sky to help create volume while random blue dot permeate the foreground to create a cool cast. Even though there is no sky represented in the composition below, a blue is washed in as if there were one and the background trees were just printed over it. When this technique was used as a half measure the end results usually showed it.
Doubletone: Two tinting plates were used to create the image above, one holding a light warm grey and the other a medium neutral tone. They were overprinted with a halftone key in black. The postcard below also uses two tinting plates with a halftone key in black, only here one holds a light tan and the other a more obvious blue, which has been largely used locally for the sky. Color choices in the same tinting process could be used to help unify a composition or bring out stark contrasts.
Rainbow Rolled Collotypes: The postcard above from 1907 is printed from two substrates, a collotype key inked in black and a lithographic tint inked with a two color rainbow roll. The whites are where the non-printing areas of both plates combine. The French postcard below illustrates how this technique could be used in an even less realistic way just to achieve a novel look. The same color is used for both sky and foreground with only a gap left on the inking slab to separate the tints.
Rainbow Rolled Lithograph: This lithographic postcard was drawn with liquid tusche to create large expanses of solid tone. It could have been printed entirely in black but a rainbow roll was used to impart some color on an otherwise oppressively dark image. The rainbow roll was also an easy way to create more variance in tonal values where none exist on the plate. Since the application of the tint is arbitrary, its presence can take away as much as it provides. The only rule followed seems to be color sells.
Rainbow Rolled Line Blocks: The rainbow tint under the halftone on the card above may separate the man from the woman, but the colors do not reference anything in the composition. It seems that these bright colors were just added to a black & white image as an afterthought to attract attention, which they do, but they create a garish image in the process. The card below was designed to hold a rainbow roll; there is a tinting plate that holds the colors, which is incised to create some whites. A black from a line block plate was then printed over it. This palette was specifically chosen to enhance the composition.
Duograph: On this detail from a postcard made in 1933, a black halftone is printed over another inked in a pale brown. This gives an overall warm tone to the final image as if it were printed in a deep brown. This effect could be used to create the illusion of various monotone hues.