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Tricolor and Process Printing
The introduction of the linen postcard in 1931 was an attempt to make the best use of the latest advances in printing technology. Presses were now performing at higher printing speeds but they could not easily accommodate work to be printed in color for the ink would remain wet as it entered subsequent phases of production. This was further exasperated by the new dye based colorants that were developed in the late 1920’s. Where traditional pigment based inks would lie on a paper’s surface, these thinner watery dyes had a tendency to be absorbed into a paperís fibers where it lost its advantage of higher color density leaving behind a dull blurry finish. To experience the rich colors of dyes, light must be able to pass through them to excite their electrons. A partial solution was found in mixing these dyes with highly refined petroleum distillates that had a fast evaporation rate. Special heating units were added to large presses to increase drying time of these heatset inks even more. The last element was to print on embossed paper, which by spreading the ink out over a larger surface area finally allowed dyed based inks to dry fast enough to be used in postcard production. Presses that could print at least four colors at once would become the norm by the 1940’s.
Linen Paper: Linen Paper: Linen postcards revitalized the old method of embossing a texture consisting of small regular waffle like indents into paper that give the illusion of woven lines. The detail above is from a French postcard published in 1910 and below is a detail from a linen card produced in the 1940’s. Notice how the more watery inks used for linens run into the embossed depressions. Different printers of linen cards each had their own unique variation of this type of embossing pattern.
Although a printing revolution was inspired by Curt Teich’s understanding of the advantage embossed paper had in speeding up the drying time of dye based inks, he was not the first to use this type of paper. Textured papers for postcards had been manufactured before the turn of the 20th century, but since this procedure was not then a necessary step in aiding card production, its added cost kept the process limited to a handful of publishers. The original purpose of embossing linen patterns into paper was to imitate the texture of canvas, thus the status of a commercially printed postcard could be elevated to a painted work of fine art or at least associated with art to encourage a sale.
Linen Paper: This brightly printed postcard on embossed linen stock is not considered a linen card at all but a chromolithograph. It dates from 1909 and is primarily printed with hand drawn dots with a darker key in line work used to render the details on the ship. The Albertype Company was already well known for its hand colored collotypes when linens came into fashion. Their postcard below from the 1930’s is an unusual example of this type of printing because it has been made on linen stock.
This idea of adding an additional color had already been put into practice with tinted halftone postcards, but here there was only one screen pattern to consider. With process printing this fifth color created the same problem as when black was first added to the CYM mix; the 30-degree halftone rotation that was required to avoid moiré patterns could only accommodate three colors. Any extra color had to be carefully integrated within the composition to ensure it did not interfere with the other dot frequency patterns. These two related hues could both be printed at the exact same angle of rotation if each was segregated from one another within the composition. A more common approach was to make the plates for the two similar hues from the same negative. A dark exposure would cause dot gain rendering the lighter hue in broad dots, and the darker color to print over it would be exposed to more light rendering it in much smaller dots. Printing presses were then designed so that a fifth spot color could print with the four process colors at the same time.
Linen: Curt Teich used two different blues to print this linen postcard. The darker blue is printed in small dots directly over a more broadly printed light blue at the same line frequency and rotation.
Linen: Two different blues were used in the CYMK mix that printed this linen postcard. Their integration was made easier by segregating most colors from each other through the extensive use of benday. This has created partial and few complete rosette patterns leading to flatter bolder colors as seen in the detail below.
Unlike other processes discussed, linen cards are not as much about technique as they are achieving a certain look. Part of their appearance is derived from the textured paper they were printed on, but a good part also comes from the tendency to retouch them in a radicle manner. Even though the images on linen cards were based on photographs, they contained much more handwork of the artists who brought them into production than most cards previously produced. The negatives they were made from were airbrushed by retouchers, not only to remove unsightly objects as was always done, but also to radically alter the composition. Other decorative patterns and objects were routinely airbrushed in. Linens tend to be simplified images following the general modernist trends in graphics that gained acceptance after World War One. There were other non-linen postcards printed at this time that followed the same conventions in retouching and look remarkably similar.
Linen postcards are more than the direct results of new technology, they are a product of the great halftone revolution that began in the 1890ís and all the promise that came with it. Its introduction created great debate among social thinkers, which is evident in the first national conference of the Industrial Art League held in Chicago in 1902. Some felt this melding of technology and the arts into industrial art offered a great historical opportunity to expose the general public to high culture cloistered away in museums. Others however were fearful that the flood of imagery halftones would provide would only diminish aesthetic values, and efforts to please public taste would surround us with mediocrity. While this debate still continues, linen cards are the inheritors of this promise where art and technology was blended for mass distribution. They would also be the last postcards to noticeably display any touch of the human hand on them. Following the Second World War, linen cards had to compete with more photomechanical based process prints that were growing in popularity, which led to a tendency to reduce the embellishment of linens to give them a more natural look. This trend continued until the market for them faded and production ceased in 1959.
Tricolor Line Block: As technologies changed there were often carryovers of conventions from one process to another. With its photo-like appearance combined with heavy retouching, this Mexican postcard looks very similar to a linen postcard, only without the tell tale texture. The manner in which the background on this card was simplified can be commonly found on linens. While linen cards were usually printed through lithographic process printing, many early cards were printed in tricolor line block just like this one.
Linen: Even when the photographic origins of a linen postcard were obvious, so was the retouchers hand. A realistic image could quickly be rendered unrecognizable by the poor application of color. While sometimes this is an obvious flaw, one must be carefully not to judge these cards too quickly, especially against the qualities of the modern photochome. The mannered look of linens were more a result of intended style than printing technique.
Linens: Both these linen postcards depicting scenes of downtown New York seem very disparate, but they were both printed in 1941 with the same CYMK process colors. There is no difference in technique, only in style. With airbrush in hand, a retoucher could keep much of the original integrity of a photo or completely alter it. The image on card below is so highly mannered one would suspect it is based on a drawing but a photo credit is given.
Linens: The problem with describing linen postcards is that their is no real common denominator to them other than their texture. Most employed a five color palette but some did not. Most were heavily retouched but some were not. While there may be a general look to linen postcards there are always exceptions to the rule. The linen above from 1938 has been so heavily retouched it looks more like a much older tinted halftone. The late linen below has also been retouched but it is closer to a modern photochome in appearance.