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Glossary of Historical Printing Methods
edited by Chris Cloutier

LITHOGRAPH- Lithography resembles the appearance of a charcoal or crayon drawing but is actually ink. Invented in 1795 in Germany; a waxy crayon is used for drawing on a smooth fine-grained piece of limestone. After treating this “plate” with chemicals, the stone is inked and wiped. The ink adheres to the wax drawing but not to the clean portions of the stone. When the stone is pressed onto paper, the image is transferred to the paper.

COLOR LITHOGRAPH- Individual Limestone plates are prepared for each color to be printed. When they are printed on a sheet in correct registration an incredible color mixing result is achieved. The best color Lithographers were Artists who understood color theory and could create results comparable to the Old Master European Painters who worked in Oil Paint or Fresco. The best period of color lithography was 1830 to 1900, and as many as 40 separate stones were sometimes used to create a sense of natural variation of color and texture. But the better colorist were able to use as few as 4 plates to create a full color effect (see Posterists Pal, Cheret etc). This idea of combining a few colors to create full color led to the 3 and 4 color process of Offset Lithography.

PHOTO-OFFSET LITHOGRAPHY (3 and 4-color process)- Towards the end of the 19th Century, today’s standard of printing was developed. The process used Cameras to photograph the artwork using color filters to “separate” the principal colors into dot screens. Usually the image is separated into three colors (magenta, yellow and cyan) or four colors (magenta, yellow, cyan and black). When the p[lates are printed in sequence a “full-color” image is produced. If one looks closely at the image one may notice a uniform dot pattern (easily seen in the Sunday Comic strip of todays newspapers), more mechanical looking than the more random “hand-made” dots of the Traditional Lithograph. When antique prints are reproduced today this is the most common method, and the dot pattern is the evidence that the print is a modern copy. But many authentic early 20th century prints and posters were made using this technique. When a collector gains familiarity with what he or she collects, the “look” of the printing, as well as the type of paper used, is how the collector can judge originality and authenticity.

ENGRAVING- The artist or engraver scratches the image onto a smooth copper plate with a Burin (fine chisel). The plate is then coated with ink and then is wiped off. The ink stays inside the grooves. When paper is pressed against the plate the art is transferred onto the paper. The deeper and wider the grooves, the darker and richer the printing. Shallow thin lines print lighter. Skilled engravers can produce sensitive Masterpieces of detail and tone. After a few hundred prints are made the plate can become worn out, and to prevent this the plate may be “steel-faced” or plated to prolong the useful life of the image. This is known as the “Steel Engraving”.

WOOD ENGRAVING- This approach was used in place of the steel engraving for faster results and became popular for daily periodicals requiring quick illustration. The best wood engravers could get results as fine as the former technique. Similar to the woodcut, except the design is engraved into the end-grain of the wood, which is harder and allows much finer lines to be produced. The peak of wood engraving was the latter half of the 19th scentury and we can see these type of enghravings in Harper’s, Scribner’s etc of art work by Winslow Homer, Howard Pyle, etc. Often the engraver had the ambitious task of “interpreting” the artists painting in reverse on a plate. The skill and mastery was in how well it was done. Sadly this reproductive art-form is impractical for today’s world of printing newspapers because of the efficiency of photo-offset printing.