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Tricolor and Process Printing
MANIPULATED TRICOLOR PRINTING
The basic idea behind tricolor printing is to reproduce a full color image by printing with only three primary colors. This can be used to reproduce illustrations, but the primary goal was to create photo-based images in natural color. While this remained the ultimate goal it did not stop printers in the first half of the 20th century from utilizing the method in various ways that produced very unnatural looking pictures. This was largely a result of not having access to good color photographs or enough black & white images shot on panchromatic film to base the work on. Tricolor cameras were expensive; and using them added an additional cost because of the three negatives it took to make one image. It was the rare photographer that took up this process. Most publishers already had a large stock of ordinary black & white photographs on hand, and that is what they used. The tricolor process however remained attractive because it could still produce full color images, even if unnatural looking, from only three or four plates all printed on the same press. Only primary colors would be used, but it would be the retoucher rather than the photograph that determined the placement of hues on these cards. Many borrowed ideas from earlier printing traditions to create strange hybrids, and others just used this technique to produce highly mannered images. These interim measures would continue to be used into the 1940’s. They are sometimes referred to as pre-separated or fake process prints.
While color printing continue to be based on additive color theory many of the particulars had been forgotten in the time that past between the writing of Ducos du Hauron’s color theory and its commercial application. The precise color matching of inks to the color wavelengths captured through filters was actually impossible to achieve and the prescribed use of red, green, and blue would not hold sway. With no clear basis for preference, many printers just continued to use the more common varieties of ink they were most familiar with, which were red, yellow, and blue. Artists had long used this trio as primaries in painting, but their effectiveness had more to do with the chemical mixture of pigments than with optical blending. Even after the subtractive CYM pallet was understood to be beneficial in producing a good color image, many printers remained uncertain of how to properly match an image to these hues. Inks were rarely mixed but used straight as manufactured to retain consistency in output, and no real magenta or cyan was available when the tricolor process was first initiated. On many early tricolor postcards hues will range somewhere between red & magenta, and cyan & blue. This palette would slowly grow lighter until nearly perfected in the 1930’s.
Line Blocks: Both of these early postcards were printed in line block using only red, yellow, and blue ink, but while the image above is made from drawn lines supported with benday dots, the image below consists entirely of rotated halftones. The overall color placed in on both cards by a retoucher looks similar, but the two images could not read more differently to the eye.
Tricolor Print: The postcard above printed during the First World War uses only primary colors but its production was hurried and the retoucher took little care in assigning hues. The results are an image where the colors do not only look unnatural; they draw our attention to their awkwardness. The tricolor postcard below printed about the same time demonstrates that many subtitles in hues could be achieved if care was taken when separating colors.
Tricolor Print: The colors on this postcard are so localized it almost appears to be hand colored but a closer look will reveal dots of red, yellow, and blue throughout. With no black key, dark values are created by overlapping red, blue, and yellow, but each of these hues is also used separately to render detail. The small palette used limited the retoucher’s hand, forcing him to choose detail over color, which causes each hue to visually dominate the areas in which it is most prevalent.
Fake Process Print: An attempt was made to render natural colors on this postcard with limited success. The detail below shows that while primary colors are used throughout in conjunction with a black halftone key, they still render fairly localized hues. Color placement on this card was obviously the work of a retoucher and not based on anything captured by a camera.
Fake Process Print: The RYB colors on this postcard are all printed as small round dots. The black key however is printed with a much more open Euclidian halftone that completely ignores the underlying frequency patterns thus failing to become part of the rosette as normally found on process prints.
Tricolor Prints: Although the tricolor card above is promoted as a Process Color Scene, it employs a traditional palette of red, yellow, and blue. All its halftone screens are aligned to the same 45-degree rotation. While card below is promoted as a Natural Color Photograph, it is also printed in a tricolor palette of red, yellow and blue. Both cards are obviously photo based and attempt to reproduce natural color, but their wording is not in line with what is presented. Popular terms that caught the public’s attention were often placed on cards just to increase sales whether they were applicable or not. The newness of these techniques made them difficult to question.
Tricolor Prints: The tricolor card above was printed with a traditional palette of red, yellow, and blue. While it is a photo-based scene that makes some attempt to reproduce natural color, it has been so heavily retouched that colors become highly segregated. The photo-based postcard below was printed in process colors, but it to has been highly retouched to the point of becoming more stylized than real. In both cases retouchers defied the techniques ability to render natural color in favor of exaggerating color to entice customers.
Fake Process Print: Most of the colors on this lithographic postcard were applied through halftone dots in a standard 30-degree rotation, but additional solid areas of color were also printed to create stronger hues. A light blue is also printed in addition to a dark blue. Despite all the variables these elements might create, we can see from the detail below that it has only created a simple mixture of gradated tones and flat space.
Tricolor Gravure: Process printing was nearly always used in conduction with lithography, though this unusual example above was produced in rotogravure. The inherent grid in the rotogravure plate makes color rotation problematic though not impossible to achieve. To compensate, the three CYM colors were printed very lightly allowing the single pattern of the black key to dominate.
Fake Process Print: On this card line blocks were employed to print both red, yellow, blue, and black benday dots along with solid tones of the same hues. While this has created an intense color image it has also flattened out the space despite the addition of a photographic halftone key in black. There has been some attempt to rotate the line patterns, and while moire patterns are avoided, the more comfortable looking rosette is not perfectly formed. In the finer detail further below we can see black benday printed over what should be a solid blue but the ink squash is so great it has created random multiple toned patterns throughout.