Notes on Platemaking and Printing

I am teaching a course called Commercial Modernism in America 1865-1965 this semester. It’s a class I first offered two years ago, and I’m happy to be back at it, tinkering with the content, materials and readings.

Today in class we explored the history of platemaking and printing technologies in the West between 1450 to 1850. In platemaking we covered woodcut, metal engraving, etching, and wood engraving; in printing we examined relief and intaglio printing processes. And then we ran out of time.

If the course and the history just described seem like a mismatch, it's a warm up for thinking about the industrial production of popular materials.

Before I pick up the narrative, I’d like to stress again how important these technologies are to understanding how prints look, the speed and volume at which they could be produced, and the uses to which they were put. It never hurts to be reminded that the central significance of printed pictures in human history has precious little to do with art and aesthetics, and much to do with the dissemination of valuable information: botanical, mechanical and cultural. For a bracing review of important developments with a strong point of view, consult grumpy old William M. Ivins Jr.’s excellent book, How Prints Look, issued by Harvard in the mid-fifties and reprinted by MIT more recently.

I mentioned the problem of optical gray as it presents itself to the printmaker. You get one color of ink–black–but you have to make it look like several different values of gray. It’s a density problem.

This print of the martyrdom of St. Erasmus provides naught but contour lines. The black works like a linear fence, dividing up a field of white. (Most unpleasant way to go, having one’s intestines spooled out by a crank.)

By contrast, this detail from an Albrecht Dürer Apocalypse woodcut shows white and black shapes collaborating to establish optical tones when viewed from further back. The red rectangle highlights the area shown a greater magnification below.

The closer you get, the more analytical and abstract it gets.

I mentioned the problem of translation. In both of the prints above the draw-er and the cutter are different people. That makes for more jobs, but it interposes a layer in the process, too. The visual middleman isn’t actually the problem; it’s the step itself. How to produce a printed picture that preserves the initial mark? Secondly, how to produce an optical gray that’s less analytical?

I mentioned the important figure of Thomas Bewicke, who figured out how to flip a plank on its end to get a far harder end-grain block, thereby launching the wood engraving boom of the nineteenth century. But at almost exactly the same time, Alois Senefelder made the unlikely discovery that a particular grade of Bavarian limestone was equally receptive to both grease and water, leading directly to the magic of lithography.

Recall, class, that both relief and intaglio printing methods rely on a system of divots in a plane: the ink goes on top in relief, and gets smashed below, into the divots, for intaglio. These methods are called physiographic, because they rely on physical relationships.

Lithography is a different affair altogether. Lithography (literally, stone picture) depends upon chemical relationships. Specifically, it uses the mutual antipathy of grease and water to create ink-loving areas and ink-repelling areas. Lithography is a planographic process, because everything happens on the same plane.

The Daumier lithograph below showcases the tonal range and sense of touch that the medium supports.

To produce a lithograph, an illustrator draws on a stone slab with a grease crayon or pencil. The stone surface has a slight tooth, to which particles of the pigmented grease adhere. By using light pressure, the illustrator produces a light gray passage with a velvety surface; by using gradually more pressure, she fills the spaces between the tooth. This is still an optical gray, in so far as white and black spots in close quarters produce it. Washes are possible in lithography; in that case the dispersal of pigment in solution creates the tone. Once the drawing is finished, the stone is sensitized to ink and water through the use of gum arabic and asphaltum.

Significantly, lithography is an autographic process; it does not require a translating step by a cutter or engraver, as do woodcut and wood engraving. The mark you make is the mark you get.

Finally, between 1800 and 1900 wood engraving and increasingly photomechanical platemaking processes for letterpress (relief) printing were the dominant matrixes for industrial scale printing in black and white. Chromolithography (multi-stone color images) was used for color printing and packaging, especially high-end stuff. (See chickens above.)

Scores of variations on platemaking emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century, about which another day.

Combined with what we covered in class, this should prepare you to look at the printed samples at Olin Library Special Collections next Tuesday. This will be but our first installment of platemaking and printing in this course. See you then!

The Sion Textile, North Italian (probably Venetian) woodcut on linen depicting the Legend of Oedipus, oldest extant printed textile in Europe, second half of the 14th century

The Martyrdom of St. Erasmus, an unattributed early German woodcut, likely Bavaria, 1400-1450

Albrecht Dürer, details from Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, woodcut, circa 1497-98

Albrecht Dürer, details from Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, woodcut, circa 1497-98

Honoré Daumier, Les 100 Robert Macaire, lithograph, 1838

illustrator uncredited, Hühner(Chicken Breeds), Meyers Lexicon, 1894