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Facsimiles & Identification
CONFUSING STYLE WITH TECHNIQUE
For anyone who takes the time to familiarize themselves with the look of a particular technique, it can be frustrating to discover that many printers have done their best to deceive you. This is not easy to do with some mediums. It should be impossible to confuse someone into thinking that a postcard reproduction of an artwork is an original oil painting. When dealing with printing mediums, especially those that share similar characteristics with the original, this job of deception becomes a lot easier. All reproduction is designed to fool the eye and while it is assumed that there will be some willing participation of the viewer in this endeavor, some printers have the skill to go far beyond that, to make our belief in falsehoods absolute.
Many collectors and dealers of prints today make a fine distinction between color lithographs and chromolithography. The assertion is that chromolithography was a commercial process used for art reproductions as opposed to the more valuable color lithography of fine artists. Many artists drew on a litho-stone in the same style as they drew on paper when they took up the craft. Some artists however only supervised technicians at printshops as they rendered drawn or painted images into dots. The ability to hide this fact from the viewer is a hallmark of the process. On large prints more than one technique may have been employed, but dots were almost always used to render the images on small items such as trade cards and postcards.
Trompe l’Oeil: It had become a popular fascination in the 1880’s to paint still-lives of shallow space that were inhabited by objects meant to be mistaken for real. Many of these trompe l’oeil compositions contained renditions of paper products reproduced with meticulous care. This tradition was well known by graphic artists who incorporated it into their postcard designs as on the one above. The card below, which appears to be a novelty printed on wood does something different. Here an effort was made not to create the illusion of an object but a texture, for the wood grain is actually made up of lithographic dots. If paper, wood, and stone could be easily imitated, then so could other printing mediums.
Virtuosity: Early painters would go out of their way to show off their ability to render objects with modeling and shadows, and these skills became a selling point. Many printers took also took pride in their skill to render facsimile textures, and some cards are more about fooling the eye through their virtuosity than their subject matter. Blind embossing has been used to create the illusion of a carved cameo on this card, which sits in a blocked frame in silver. The facsimile marble texture was created through color lithography.
Despite the unique marks left behind by cutting tools one must not be too fast to jump to conclusions when identifying Japanese woodblock techniques. When postcards first began being manufactured in Japan, their printing industries eager to modernize had already adopted lithography and collotype from the West. By 1903 most postcards in Japan were produced through lithography, which was capable of producing faster and larger press runs than with woodblock. This proved to be a smooth transition because lithography was not only able to easily reproduce the flat even tones of color traditionally found in woodblock printing, it was a more natural way to use the medium than breaking it down into small dots as done in the West. As the demand for traditional types of images remained strong in both Japan and in the West, lithography continued to be used in this stylistic manner through the 1930’s.
Facsimile Woodblock: In the detail below of the postcard above, all the usual signs of woodblock cutting are evident but in a few small areas, colors are made up of a benday dot pattern indicating that the this image is printed in lithography. The lithographic process was used to reproduce woodblock prints as well as to create original illustrations that only imitated the traditional style. Japanese printers preferred using benday over halftones until the 1920’s.
Lithography was also widely used in the West to imitate other printing techniques. This habit was largely due to the way in which different printing methods are categorized and classified giving them artificial status within a hierarchy. While an engraving and a chromolithograph might be equally labor intensive to produce, engravings took far more skill to make, and thus engravers were harder to find and they received higher pay. The high cost of engraving precluded it from most commercial printing, and it was usually found only in the most expensive books or part of high end portfolios. Lithography, which had a strong presence in commercial printing, was a populist medium without much status. By imitating a more expensive printing technique or those used by fine artists, any medium could increase its status by association, which in turn could possibly increase desirability and sales.
Facsimile Engraving: As with many techniques, lithography was sometimes used in such a manner that the images it produced looked as if they were made in a different medium. The drawing above is in the style of a hand colored engraving but the detail below clearly shows that the image consists entirely of lithographic markings.
Both prints and postcards have a long history of being colored by hand. The motive behind this has always been simple, to increase salability while incurring the least amount of cost in the process. The feasibility of this scenario plays out in the relationship between cheap labor and the efficiency of color printing, a balance that has not remained constant. Apart from cost considerations, many consumers preferred hand coloring over printed images, possibly because it seemed closer to a real work of art. This new status often caused publishers to boast that their postcards were handcolored. While the practice of hand coloring postcards generally remained useful to publishers into the 1930ís, this style was also sometimes reproduced in lithography alone.
Facsimile Watercolor: This lithograph displays a decided effort to reproduce a line drawing colored in with washes. There is no guessing as to motive for the card itself proudly declares that this is facsimile hand coloring.
Facsimile Autotype: Early color photographic transparencies known as autotypes were reproduced on lithographic or line block postcards through a photomechanical transfer using the tricolor process. This card is only meant to imitate the look of an autotype (color photography imitation) as it is made up of hand drawn color lithographic dots with a heavy use of black benday patterns placed over it.
Facsimile Wood Engraving: On this postcard published in 1983, a wood engraving from a hundred years earlier has been reproduced in lithography without the use of a halftone screen. The original print was photographically reduced and transferred to a photosensitive lithographic printing plate through contact printing. Though the line work is now much tighter than in the original image, it alone is still capable of producing optical grays without halftone dots.
Facsimile Pyrograph: This chromolithograph from 1899 does an excellent job of imitating a pyrograph. Not only are the burnt lines made of small printed dots, the very realistic but printed background creates the illusion that this is an actual wooden postcard when it is on paper. Chromolithography was capable of reproducing any texture.
The advent of the halftone line screen allowed for the reproduction of any medium through lithography or line block by simply reducing an image into a series of dots. This deception is often dependent on the line frequency used. Sometimes the quality of halftones are so good that our eye is fooled into believing that it is perceiving something that it is not. At other times the dots produced are so large that they are visible to the naked eye and break the reproductive illusion. The image can still be read but never mistaken for another medium. Even when individual dots cannot be perceived they often produce a certain overall look that is easily identifiable as originating with a halftone screen. While the greatest confusion between style and technique is often found here, the use of a halftone should be much easier to discern than with other mediums under modest magnification.
Lithography and Line Block: The postcard above is printed through line block with a tricolor palette of red, yellow, and blue supplemented with black. The postcard below uses the exact same colors, only it is printed as a hand drawn lithograph. Even when style, palette, and subject mater are nearly the same, the lithograph with color applied directly produces a richer looking image than when colors are optically blended. While these two cards are contemporaneous, this type of comparison becomes more difficult with process prints that produced more vibrant hues. The eye however will usually chose style over technique when making an identification, so the top card will tend to read as a lithograph no matter how it was printed. While this is a problem when identifying cards, fooling us it is exactly what the card was meant to do.
Facsimile Chromolithograph: This postcard is printed entirely with red, yellow, blue, and black dots, but the black dots function in the same manner as if they were drawn lines on the key plate of a chromolithograph.
Facsimile Halftone: At first glance it seems that the halftone screen used to print this postcard is so open that it is visible to the naked eye, but on closer examination it is obvious that this image was not produced with halftones at all. In the detail below we can see that a CYMK palette was used and there is some semblance of a rosette pattern, but the dots are irregular in both size and spacing. In addition there are small stray color specs surrounding the larger dots. Though these dots may have been drawn in by hand, a benday pattern might have also been employed. Other areas of the image are printed in solid tones.
Facsimile Monochrome: This postcard seems little different from the countless monochrome postcards produced in collotype or gravure except that its reddish brown cast is brighter than most. In actuality it is a monochrome in appearance only for it has been printed from two halftone plates; one inked in red and the other in black.
Facsimile Hand Colored: At first glance the image on the postcard above seems to be a hand colored pencil drawing, or at least a reproduction of one. Both assumptions are wrong for while the color has indeed been added through hand coloring, the lines are the product of printed lithographic halftone dots. The image below has the same general look even though it is entirely printed as a tinted collotype. It could just as well have been printed as a tinted halftone because photomechanical techniques in any medium can reproduce artwork fairly well.
The ability of collotypes to reproduce high fidelity photographic images made it the ideal medium for reproductive work. This same characteristic has now made it difficult to determine the true nature of many postcards’ printing method without the aid of magnification. This technique was often employed to fool the eye, even to those who have trained themselves to recognize the look of various mediums. To the naked eye a collotype will retain all the production characteristics of the original printed material that it is reproducing. False techniques were often used on postcards in three different ways; for fine art reproduction, a reproduction of an illustration designed for the card, or just to appear as an imitation of another technique to add prestige. Collotypes also proved to be a good method of scaling down images to postcard size without loosing tonal range. The scale however also often provides the needed clue to reveal a postcard’s photographic origin. When the details rendered seem too small to have been comfortably created by a craftsman it is a sure sign they were produced by photomechanical means. Of course one must be familiar with the medium in question because it is very easy to underestimate a craftsman’s skills.
Collotype: The grain on this collotype from 1906 is so fine and the tonal balance so good it is easy to understand why these postcards were once considered interchangeable with photographs. Even in the detail below where some grain can be discerned the image still retains remarkable photo-like tonal transitions.
Facsimle Woodblock: The collotype technique was widely used in Japan after its arrival in 1884. From afar this collotype captures all the typical nuances found in traditional Japanese woodblocks such as cut edges and soft color transitions.
Heliotype: The high contrast of this card combined with its strong sharp lines give it the characteristic of a wood engraving. Since it is unlikely that a card from 1918 would employ wood engraving, and that some of the lines are a little too fine even for this extraordinary technique, a good guess is that tis is a reproduction of a wood engraving in lithography. This seems a good guess since the rich blacks on this card reveal no texture. On one corner however there is a touch of light grey containing the reticulated pattern of a heliotype. Once a printing pattern starts to fill in, it can become impossible to make a correct determination of technique.
Facsimile Wood Engraving: The light values growing out of dark solid tones is so typical of prints made by wood engraving, but on this postcard the same features are created through collotype.
Heliotype: The sharp geometric patterns and precise lines on this postcard from 1920 can make an observer believe that it was printed from a line block. The detail below clearly reveals this to be a heliotype. The first clue should not be in the buildings that the eye is drawn to but in the trees; their subtle shading is unlikely to be found on a line block impression. Since many printers aimed to fool the eye, first impression can easily be wrong.
Facsimile Engraving: This collotype has all the outward appearances of an actual engraving on metal, an illusion enhanced by a false plate mark. The detail below shows that what first appears to be the raised surface of fine graceful engraved lines is actually the accumulation of small reticulated markings of a collotype.
Facsimile Etching: While etchings were used to create postcards, many were just collotypes reproducing etchings. Not only does this reproduction capture the subtleties of line but of plate tone as well. It is sometimes difficult to differentiate the two mediums as a needle dragged through an etching ground can produce a scratchy line containing white dots that resemble the dots created through the collotype process. Collotypes however lack the raised surface texture of intaglio, which is absent on this card.
Facsimile Aquatint: This postcard has all the characteristics of an aquatint but this medium was not used for large press runs. On close examination it is still retains a texture that is very close to an aquatint but in a few areas there is the tell tale wormy pattern of collotype. Since the cracks of reticulated gelatin on a collotype can look nearly identical to the pattern formed around dust particles of rosin on an aquatint, the two techniques are very difficult to tell apart. On the back of this card we are reassured this is a collotype by the label phototypie.
Facsimile Lithography: This collotype has all the outward appearance of a lithograph drawn in crayon. Since the two techniques are printed in a similar fashion with lithography being the more cost effective medium, it can be assumed that the collotype process was chosen because the image had to be photographically reduced from a much larger crayon drawing.
Facsimile Lithography: This very unusual postcard from 1903 looks like a key plate from a chromolithograph but we can see from the detail below that its drawn lines are actually and accumulation of collotype markings. The drawing this image was derived from may have originally been intended to serve as the black key plate of a chromolithograph, but here it was photomechanically transferred to a collotype plate.
Facsimile Lithography: The grain on this hand colored postcard is so coarse that there is a likely suspicion that it made up of drawn lithographic dots rather than the crayon on stone; but either assumption would be wrong. The detail below shows that it is indeed made up of small dots, but each of these dots are made up of even smaller collotype markings. It is impossible to tell if the original image that was transferred to the collotype plate was a drawing or a lithograph.
Facsimile Chromolithography: While tints were most often used with collotypes simple to add color to a black & white photomechanical reproduction, they could also be used in such a way to imitate the feeling of a chromolithograph. While there are serious limits to how many optical colors can be created this way, the limited palette required by this composition allows the illusion to work.