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Facsimiles & Identification
LINE BLOCK FACSIMILES
Line block printing remains a largely unrecognized medium despite its extensive use. So many images were created through this medium to imitate other printing techniques that few today can even identify what one looks like. Letterpress dominated the printing industry because it was used in the printing of newspapers, books, and magazines; and since line block was adaptable to letterpress it became widely used to reproduce all sorts of illustrations. Line block being a relief had no trouble imitating other relief techniques such as wood engraving. While both methods produce ink squash, the occasional stray dark flecks in the white lines and white flecks in the dark lines are clues for they represent faults in the acid resist of a line block plate. Finding marks that look uncut is the clearest way to distinguish between these two relief printing methods. The irregular patterns that were easy to produce in line block allowed for subtitles in creating optical tone. This in turn made it perfect for reproducing the look of a lithographic crayon drawing. Many postcards that have the appearance of crayon drawn lithography are actually line block prints. If examined closely the black markings that make up such an image are usually much larger than the typical grain found on a stone or litho-plate, but it is not always possible to make a final determination unless ink squash is present.
Facsimile Engraving: This early postcard only has the feeling of an engraving printed from a metal plate because it captures the same general gestures of its line on a very small hard to read scale. When enlarged we can see the lines have none of the finesse found in metal engravings but all the characteristics of lines drawn with a pen and etched onto a line block plate.
Facsimile Wood Engraving: The lines on this fanciful line block postcard show all the characteristics of a wood engraving, but the scale seems finer than what could be comfortably made by hand. Fine lines cut into the hardest end grain woodblock can crumble if made too thin, but even finer lines could be incised into a metal plate.
Facsimile Woodcut: Line block is a perfect medium for reproducing woodcuts or even drawings in the woodblock style because it is also a relief medium. Metal however does not have the porous qualities of wood and ink lies on its surface differently. While both mediums create ink squash, it tends to be more severe when printing from metal line block plates, and it has a greater tendency to print badly from very wide expanses of surface.
Facsimile Color Woodcut: The simple design on this line block postcard was printed with only two plates but any number can be used. The process follows the same principals used to create color woodblock prints.
In the early 1800’s, methods of transferring a drawing from a sheet of paper to a litho-stone were developed so that the double transfer would not result in a mirrored image but one that matched the original. There was a great variety of transfer papers available to aid in this process depending on the task at hand. Most were usually coated with some sort of water-soluble gelatin or gum and then drawn upon with the same greasy crayons, tusche or autographic ink normally used on a stone. Once moistened and placed face down on a litho-stone, the blackened grease would stick and the gelatin and paper would be washed away. While transfer papers were primarily designed for applying a drawing to a litho-stone, it was found that other printed material such as woodblocks and engravings could be transferred to a stone as well. These prints will retain all the characteristics of the original medium and are not easy to identify at first glance. To make a determination one must closely observe the printed surface because deatail is always lost in every step of the transfer process. Usually there will be nuances to be found in the ink that display texture or line edge that is not applicable to the reproduced medium.
Facsimile Woodcut: This postcard depicts a woodcut but there is some question to whether it was printed as such or in line block. Within the whites there are more specs of black than would usually show up in a woodcut that are more typical of accidental spatter on a line block plate. While it is possible that this image was drawn in a woodblock style, there are many nuances that are very typical of knife cutting such as the white line around the figures. This may indicate the existence of an original woodcut that was printed on transfer paper, and then transferred to a metal plate but there is no way to know for sure.
While lithography became a populist form of reproduction due to the large press runs that could be extracted from the medium, the more delicate surface of intaglio plates limited the availability of their output to a more exclusive audience. The introduction of steel engraving and electroplating solved some of these problems, but etchings and engravings tended to be placed on postcards in small numbers. After the introduction of photogravure to commercial printing in the 1880’s, which provided a way to imitate even the most delicate surfaces like that of aquatints or drypoints, many postcards grew capable of holding an intaglio image if only as a facsimile. Meeting the demands of postcard production was just a simple matter of transferring an original print to a more durable plate by photomechanical means. The gravure process captures such fine detail that it is a nearly flawless reproductive medium. It is sometimes difficult to differentiate an etching from its reproduction in gravure because a needle dragged through an etching ground can produce a similar scratchy line containing white dots as that created by aquatint in the gravure process. The ink from photogravure lines also lay on the surface of the paper creating rich tones as in traditional intaglio, but they are never as raised or as sharp in appearance.
Facsimile Drypoint: Most of the extremely fine lines that make up the image on this postcard from 1901 are so pale it is difficult to analyze them. Many seem to skip and start as if a sharp metal point was dragged across a metal plate. This subtle tonal quality no doubt comes from the drypoint technique, but this medium is unsuitable for the rigors of commercial printing. On very close examination the granules of the texture indicate that even the most nuanced tonal qualities could be photomechanically transferred to a photogravure plate.
Facsimile Etching with Aquatint: It is a bit difficult to discern the media that this postcard is based on; the original was either a pen and wash drawing or an etching made with aquatint in the style of pen and wash. The postcard however is printed in rotogravure. Despite the fact that the image is made up entirely of small marks, it is still easily capable of capturing the hand drawn gestures of hard line, and all the subtleties of a wash at the same time.
Hand Colored Gravure: At first glance this image looks like one of the many hand colored etching postcards that were produced in the 1920’s. It is hand signed and has a real plate mark but some lines are just too broad to be held by the lines of an actual etching. Once magnified it can be seen that the blacks are created through photogravure with their telltale white aquatint dots are probably reproducing ink and brush work. While gravure is also an intaglio process, and it accounts for the plate mark it is not a technique usually employed by artists.
False plate marks were placed around many postcards printed in lithography, but this was more for the sake of novelty than to confuse techniques. When techniques are mixed this deception is often clear, but on those printed in gravure it is far less obvious. Since they are both intaglio techniques one can easily pass for the other without close inspection. Even though gravure is an intaglio process printed off a plate, most postcards printed by it were produced on large sheets, which were later cut down to size leaving no plate mark behind. A false plate mark was sometimes added back onto these cards afterwards by running the printed image over a blank plate that creates an embossing without disturbing the original picture. This was primarily done to remind the customer that they were buying a true intaglio print. Sometimes small gravure plates were hand printed leaving a real plate mark behind, so a closer examination is needed to determine its origin. White space left between the plate mark and the image is unlikely to be found on a true intaglio print where the embossing tends to meet up with the lines holding the ink. The edges of an intaglio plate that leave this embossed mark are normally wiped clean but any sort of scratch or abrasion can pick up ink and print. It is rare to find a real plate mark without some ink residue on it while false plate marks are usually completely clean.
False Plate Mark: Two images have been printed on this unusual postcard in photogravure imitating the style of an etching, but only the image on top with hand coloring has a plate mark. Its dirty edges would seem to indicate that it was printed separately from a reel plate but the ink on the border has the same texture as that of the gravure and falls minutely beyond the embossing in places. It is definitely a false plate mark.
Facsimile Gravure: While this card looks very much like the typical gravure with a false plate mark, the picture has no printed grain on it at all. Closer examination reveals it to be a real photo. It was not very common to emboss photographs this way because gravure was designed to reproduce photographs. A false plate mark could of course be added to any type of card.