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Halftones and Hybrids
A great deal of research and experimentation went into the development photomechanical printing techniques, but even after the desired results were achieved, the role of the retoucher did not disappear. While a camera’s lens can capture an image without discrimination paying no heed to social status or aesthetic values, this was not always an asset for publishers. When marketing postcards this pure chemistry must be overcome to reveal subject matter that will attract paying customers. The play of light in a photo composition might also cause desirable objects to loose there distinction or it may highlight that which most might rather not see. It was then the retoucher’s job to bring back the desired emphasis and artistic balance. Retouchers worked both directly on the printing substrate and on the film sheets that a photosensitized substrate was exposed to. Some of this prepress work became highly specialized as with dot etchers who mechanically or chemically change the size of halftone dots on film to suit specific needs.
Perhaps the most important role of the retoucher’s was in the placement of color. When the first postcards came into production, there were only black & white photographs to base them on. While a few printers experimented with producing tricolor images solely made from filtered panchromatic film, it was a costly and complicated process, and most continued to solely rely on the judgement of retouchers. While palette options were usually predetermined by the printer, it was the retoucher who would have to work out how much of each color would be used and where. Even when clients requested specific color placement, it was still up to the retoucher to make the substrate print that way. When separating color by eye, the areas not needed to print would either have to be made opaque (spotting) or be completely removed depending on the technique before the transparency was transferred to the substrate. When working on a litho-stone, the complete image may be transferred to it and then unwanted areas could be carefully polished off with a minimum of surface damage.
Retouching Room: This postcard depicts the retouching room at the factory of Edward H. Mitchell Co. in San Francisco. The four men are not working at tables but at wooden supports that are each topped with a thick litho-stone. The studio is rather cramped even though Mitchell was a major printer and publisher of Western view-cards.
Since the placement of color on most early postcards was completely chosen by whim, there could be great variations between reprints of the same image. Reprints often appear to be made by a novel printing technique when the only change is in the way that colors have been laid down by a different set of hands. More often than not it was a single production manager or colorist who made the actual color choices and it was the retouchers who carried these decisions out. When a single person was making all the color decisions and retouchers were working to formula, all the resulting postcards might have the same distinct look. When this look dominated over the technique employed, it could provide the printing house with a signature style.
(See the Guide to Postcard Variations. in the Guides section of this site for additional information regarding retouch work.)
Color Placement: When colors are placed on postcards to carefully match up with the key plate, the retoucher’s hand does not even come to mind. The placement of color on the plates that printed this postcard however were quickly washed in with a brush with little regard to detail. Its method of production is the first thing that comes to mind rather than the subject. This common coloring method saved on production time but it often rendered images with limited appeal.
Color Translation: We differentiate much of what we see by color contrast but when a scene is captured by black & white film only tonal values are recorded. This can mean that a bright red car printed against a deep blue sky of the same value could disappear into a field of the same grey. If the photographer could not capture a good range of medium values the retoucher often had to step in to create them. This was not done on this collotype; it was exposed to capture middle range details at the expense of contrast and left that way to print.
Sky: Early black & white film could only capture the blue spectrum of light so details in the sky were often washed out, which usually forced them to be drawn back into a postcard’s composition by a retoucher. Benday dots were typically used to help create a sky because of the even tones they could produced. Once a sky was designed, it was sometimes photographed so it could be turned into multiple decals for use in the production of other postcards, which saved on production time.
Night: On early postcards, night was the realm of the retoucher. Film at this time had such poor sensitivity to light that exposures could not be taken at night. All night scenes were based on photographs taken during daylight hours and redesigned to appear as if it were night. Since these images are based on the idea of what night should look like rather than perception, they often take on a very unnatural look. Most publisher that produced night scenes more than likely produced a daylight version of the same image as well to get the most use out of a single negative.
Definition: Sometimes the contrast between objects on a negative can be so low that they are barely readable. When these objects were too important to the composition to overlook, a retoucher would often outline them to make them more distinct as with the sailboat on the left side of this postcard. This type of retouching work was rarely subtle and has much difficulty blending into a photo-based image as seen in the detail below. We can now recognize the boat but more as an concept than a real object.
Stylizing: While outlining was largely used to clarify a compositional element where visual information was lacking in a photograph, it was also employed to create stylistic effects. The contrast was purposely lowered on this Spanish postcard to such an extent that nearly all detail was obliterated. The retoucher then added black lines back into the composition for clarification, but only in selected places to create a highly personalized look.
Montage: Nowhere is the retoucher’s hand more apparent than in montage work. Not only did a new composition have to be pieced together but they were sometimes printed utilizing different printing techniques that required different methods to transfer an image to the substrate. Some of these postcards were based on set placement patterns while others were very free flowing requiring great skill to balance out the composition.
Add Ins: Sometimes composite images from both drawn and photo based sources were created where the mixture was not meant to be obvious. Here a line of people probably made up of individual studio photographs are pasted into a hand drawn backdrop. Problems with proper scaling and differences in detail quality usually give these types of postcards an uncomfortable if not disturbing appearance.
Masking: Thin opaque sheets of paper or metal were sometimes cut into specific shapes (masks) to prevent light from reaching the non-printing surface of a photosensitive substrate when transferring an image. While masking was used to create simple borders, retouchers often cut them into shapes to add a decorative touch to a postcard that might attract the attention of a customer. These masks could be used to unify a look when producing a series or saved for the production of new cards. Some postcards can be found where the same image was printed with a decorative border as well as a full bleed. Store bought and homemade masks were also applied to real photo postcards during contact printing.
Decals: Retouchers spent so much time polishing out unwanted details and adding in desired elements that they began using decals to speed up the process. While these tiny images of people, cars, rowboats, steamships, and even cloud filled skies could be purchased, they were often manufactured in house. Decals were usually applied to a transparency before exposure to a plate. Great care had to be taken with their placement so that they would sit on the correct picture plain in relation to their size. This was rarely done with any accuracy causing the objects printed from decals to look out of scale and often toy-like.
Throughout the mid-1900’s the ownership of hand colored lithographs became part of middle class culture; a true populist medium. This tradition of hand coloring was naturally applied to postcards when they also grew in popularity. There was however a consistent problem with applying paint over black & white printed images; the oil residue left in the printed ink tends to fight the application of the water based paints that were commonly used in hand coloring. This left only the white areas of unprinted paper to be truly receptive of color. While the end results tended to be dark and unnatural they were still more than acceptable to public taste, but as the areas of white were shrunken down to the much smaller postcard format, the applied colors often appeared muddy. This was especially true when images began being reproduced photographically as all existing colors were now translated into printed grey. Sometimes more opaque paints were employed to help solve this problem but they often proved too strong and stood out from the rest of the image.
Hand Colored Collotype: On this Japanese postcard dating from 1904 the red paint alone has been applied in an opaque manner so not to be muddied with the ink beneath it. The resulting effect however is to make it stands out from the pale image to the point of floating off the picture plane.
While collotypes rarely create the same dark tones that can be obtained through lithography or the gravure process, many good printers pressed the medium’s limits to create an excellent tonal range. Even so the general tendency with collotypes was for them to print lightly while still capturing great detail. Many publishers found a silver lining in this potential flaw because a lighter image proved to be the perfect receptor of hand coloring. While hand coloring could be added to any type of postcard, it was the collotype that was favored far above all. These hybrids were produced in great quantity and by 1902 this technique began to be commonly used on postcards where they remained popular for decades. With more paper surface left exposed and a less oily ink to fight the water based colorant it could more easily show off subtle hues or attain brilliant saturation. Some publishers would even adjust the transparencies used to create collotype plates so that their cards to be colored would print lighter than the versions to be printed solely in black & white.
Hand Colored Cards: On the early postcard above the open quality of the halftone creates more white space for the paint to cover, but it also provides for a weaker tonal structure that lets the colorants dominate the composition. It must be noted that it is difficult to gage how strong the blue once was because this color has a tendency to fade faster than other hues. On the postcard below from the 1920’s we can see the beautiful soft transitions that are also possible with hand coloring when combined with collotype printing.
Applying paint to a printed surface by hand is the most obvious way to obtain a multi-color picture and it was the first method used. Water based paints were not used only because of their ease and cost; oils had to be avoided because of the damage they could cause to the paper. While printing inks were oil based, they were stiff and little oil was absorbed into the paper before they dried. Coloring cards with a brush required a more fluid medium that the paper could absorb. Hand coloring was considered low skill work and it was often contracted out to women. Despite modern perceptions, a large percentage of factory workers have always been women, and they were often employed in the printing trades. Usually each colorist was responsible for a single hue, which would be applied in production line fashion, sometimes with the help of stencils as a guide. If quality was an issue there might be a more experienced colorist at the end if the line armed with a full palette to add the final touch ups. In smaller operations all color was applied by a single person from start to finish but this tended to result in wider variations.
Hand Colored Collotype: This black & white collotype from 1907 has been colored with the most common palette of red, green, and blue. While colorants could be applied in very subtle ways, each color here is very distinct indicating the possible use of a stencil. If another copy of the same postcard was available to examine, the exact replication of color shapes with the same edges would confirm this suspicion.
The colors used to hand paint postcards rarely extended beyond the additive primaries of red, green, and blue. While the RGB palette became the standard for most hand colored postcards, the act of coloring by hand provided a freedom unattainable in printing. At any whim an extra spot color could easily be added to suit simple desire or compositional needs. Yellow was the fourth hue most commonly added or a more neutral variant like tan. Most early hand colored cards were produced in Germany, but after their printing industry collapsed at the end of the First World War, Belgium and France took the lead. The postcards colored in these countries tend to have a more varied pallet. The subtractive primaries of cyan, yellow, and magenta were not used in hand coloring since they only became relevant to process printing in the 1930’s.
Hand Colored Collotype: In addition to the standard RGB colors, yellow, pink and a dull orange have been added to this French made postcard dating from 1929. Even when the results were not realistic, such cards drew attention to themselves.
Hand Colored Line Block: Even though there was some variation of hues used to hand color commercially made postcards, the choice of palette still followed some accepted principals that limited choice. There are however quite a number of black & white cards that were only colored after they were purchased. There were no restrictions to what an individual at home could place on a card like the one above with unusual colors and even metallic paint. A hand colored card with an unusual palette or excessive colors is usually a sign of a one of a kind image.
Early hand colored cards in the United States were usually little more than a few simple broad washes placed across a halftone image, but by the 1920’s they began to rival those more delicately colored cards created in Europe. Since this was a labor intensive process, production was dependent on a supply of cheap labor. As labor costs grew hand work declined until the years of the Great Depression when hand coloring became cheaper than color printing. The quality of this work varied greatly from the sloppy to the sublime. For a number of years hand coloring remained competitive with the new linen postcards, but by World War Two the production costs of this process became too high and production ceased.
Hand Colored Collotype: The hand coloring on this postcard is fairly typical of those produced in the United States between the two World Wars. While many such cards were now being colored to higher standards, it only took the misjudgment of one colorist to intensely to throw off the coherence of a composition on a whole batch of cards.
The public’s hunger for color has only grown stronger over the years like an addict who needs ever stronger doses to get a fix. Those who were once intrigued by prints in natural color soon demanded hues beyond the real. The colors used in printed matter and photographs have grown ever brighter an intense. Black & white images had long existed side by side with those in color for decades; one did not replace the other for they were seen as complimentary. This balance began to change after color printing became cheaper and differences in price began to fade. When the cost of a color card matched one printed in black & white, color was usually chosen. This choice was no doubt inspired by the idea that one was getting more for the money spent. While this changeover met with some resistance in photography since it was mot what people were accustomed to, consumers of postcards had been buying color cards for decades. When the quality of color photography grew better, this helped to foster a change in public taste. As time went on, black & white work largely came to be viewed as lacking at best, defective at worst. From this grew a tendency to hand color works that were not designed to carry color on them.
Hand Colored Halftone: The postcard above from 1904 uses a black halftone to reproduce a larger black & white wood engraving that was originally used as a newspaper illustration. It was subsequently hand colored but this new incarnation is so far removed from the original that the composition has grown somewhat confusing.
Hand Colored Collotype: After the First World War there was a greater tendency for postcards to be hand colored in a more mannered style as the one above from 1934. To achieve this quality, opaque paints replaced translucent watercolors on many cards. Since these strong colorants often completely covered the subtle details printed beneath them, coloring often ruined a postcardÍs composition. On some of these cards however a wonderful boldness is created.
For the most part, hand coloring was conducted with a small brush, which spread the colorant over the card in a continuous tone. There could be some variation in color intensity as the liquid medium pooled more in some places than in others but this method does not produce a perceivable grain of any sort. A possible exception could be the result of a technique known as dry brush where very little to no moisture is used. This prevents the colorant from soaking into the paper and it adheres to the raised paper fibers instead. This method breaks up the pigment into small speckles but the same look could also be achieved by airbrush, which was more common. With an airbrush tool, small particles of pigment are atomized and will adhere to the paper in specs of varied size and whose density can be varied by controlling the amount of ink flowing through the nozzle. This allowed the colorist to create solid tones or trail an edge off into a smooth transition. Fine details however where impossible to render.
Airbrushed Collotype: On this postcard all the colors have a dry speckled look to them as they sit on the paper’s surface. We can see this better on the detail far below where most of the ink was caught on the paper’s raised fibers. In the detail immediately below there are both hard and soft color transitions, which are off register. This implies the use of a stencil.
Hand Colored Rotogravure: While it was collotype postcards that most frequently received hand coloring, it must be remembered that any type of card could be hand colored. The low contrast and subtle tones on this French postcard may make it look like a collotype but under magnification it is revealed as a hand colored rotogravure.