History of color printing

History of printing
  • Woodblock printing (200)
  • Movable type (1040)
  • Printing press (1454)
  • Etching (ca. 1500)
  • Mezzotint (1642)
  • Aquatint (1768)
  • Lithography (1796)
  • Chromolithography (1837)
  • Rotary press (1843)
  • Offset printing (1875)
  • Hectograph (19th century)
  • Hot metal typesetting (1886)
  • Mimeograph (1890)
  • Screen printing (1907)
  • Spirit duplicator (1923)
  • Dye-sublimation (1957)
  • Phototypesetting (1960s)
  • Dot matrix printer (1964)
  • Laser printing (1969)
  • Thermal printing (ca. 1972)
  • Inkjet printing (1976)
  • 3D printing (1986)
  • Digital press (1993)

Woodblock printing on textiles preceded printing on paper in both Asia and Europe, and the use of different blocks to produce patterns in color was common. The earliest way of adding color to items printed on paper was by hand-coloring, and this was widely used for printed images in both Europe and Asia. Chinese woodcuts have this from at least the 13th century, and European ones from very shortly after their introduction in the 15th century, where it continued to be practiced, sometimes at a very skilled level, until the 19th century—elements of the official British Ordnance Survey maps were hand-colored by boys until 1875. Early European printed books often left spaces for initials, rubrics and other elements to be added by hand, just as they had been in manuscripts, and a few early printed books had elaborate borders and miniatures added. However this became much rarer after about 1500.

CHINA

Michael Sullivan writes that “the earliest color printing known in China, and indeed in the whole world, is a two-color frontispiece to a Buddhist sutra scroll, dated 1346. Color prints were also used later in the Ming Dynasty. In Chinese woodblock printing, early color woodcuts mostly occur in luxury books about art, especially the more prestigious medium of painting. The first known example is a book on ink-cakes printed in 1606, and color technique reached its height in books on painting published in the seventeenth century. Notable examples are the Treatise on the Paintings and Writings of the Ten Bamboo Studio of 1633, and the Mustard Seed Garden Painting Manual published in 1679 and 1701.

Europe

Most early methods of color printing involved several prints, one for each color, although there were various ways of printing two colors together if they were separate. Liturgical and many other kinds of books required rubrics, normally printed in red; these were long done by a separate print run with a red forme for each page. Other methods were used for single leaf prints. The chiaroscuro woodcut was a European method developed in the early 16th century, where to a normal woodcut block with a linear image (the “line block”), one or more colored “tone blocks” printed in different colors would be added. This was the method developed in Germany; in Italy only tone blocks were often used, to create an effect more like a wash drawing. Jacob Christoph Le Blon developed a method using three intaglio plates, usually in mezzotint; these were overprinted to achieve a wide range of colors.

JAPAN

In Europe and Japan, color woodcuts were normally only used for prints rather than book illustrations. In Japan color technique, called nishiki-e in its fully developed form, spread more widely, and was used for prints, from the 1760s on. Text was nearly always monochrome, as were images in books, but the growth of the popularity of ukiyo-e brought with it demand for ever increasing numbers of colors and complexity of techniques. By the nineteenth century most artists worked in color. The stages of this development were:

  • Sumizuri-e (墨摺り絵, “ink printed pictures”) – monochrome printing using only black ink
  • Benizuri-e (紅摺り絵, “crimson printed pictures”) – red ink details or highlights added by hand after the printing process;green was sometimes used as well
  • Tan-e (丹絵) – orange highlights using a red pigment called tan
  • Aizuri-e (藍摺り絵, “indigo printed pictures”), Murasaki-e (紫絵, “purple pictures”), and other styles in which a single color would be used in addition to, or instead of, black ink
  • Urushi-e (漆絵) – a method in which glue was used to thicken the ink, emboldening the image; gold, mica and other substances were often used to enhance the image further. Urushi-e can also refer to paintings using lacquer instead of paint; lacquer was very rarely if ever used on prints.
  • Nishiki-e (錦絵, “brocade pictures”) – a method in which multiple blocks were used for separate portions of the image, allowing a number of colors to be utilized to achieve incredibly complex and detailed images; a separate block would be carved to apply only to the portion of the image designated for a single color. Registration marks called kentō (見当) were used to ensure correspondence between the application of each block.

19th century

The modern revival of colour-printing from wood-blocks, inaugurated by Whittingham, Leighton, and others, owes its full success to the energy, enterprise, and artistic skill of Edmund Evans. It is this printer that we have to thank for the delightful coloured plates by Caldecott, Greenaway, and Crane, that during the last thirty years have won the affection of old and young.

English coloured books (1906)

In the 19th century a number of different methods of color printing, using woodcut (technically Chromoxylography) and other methods, were developed in Europe, which for the first time achieved widespread commercial success, so that by the later decades the average home might contain many examples, both hanging as prints and as book illustrations. George Baxter patented in 1835 a method using an intaglio line plate (or occasionally a lithograph), printed in black or a dark color, and then overprinted with up to twenty different colors from woodblocks. Edmund Evans used relief and wood throughout, with up to eleven different colors, and latterly specialized in illustrations for children’s books, using fewer blocks but overprinting non-solid areas of color to achieve blended colors. Artists such as Randolph Caldecott, Walter Crane and Kate Greenaway were able to draw influence from the Japanese prints now available and fashionable in Europe to create a suitable style, with flat areas of color.

Chromolithography was another process, which by the end of the 19th century had become dominant, although this used multiple prints with a stone for each color. Mechanical color separation, initially using photographs of the image taken with three different color filters, reduced the number of prints needed to three. Zincography, with zinc plates, later replaced lithographic stones, and remained the most common method of color printing until the 1930s.

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