Catching art prints up to the art; finding a way to create grey tones
Methods like etching and engraving often used approaches such as hatching to create areas of shade; drawing lots of parallel lines close to each other so it appears to be a shade of grey. Some artists like Giovanni Battista Piranesi made it an art unto itself, breathtaking to behold close up. Printmakers were working on new techniques though, and by the mid-1600s mezzotinting emerged, a process of adding rough and smooth textures to metal plates which would hold different amounts of ink, enabling the creation of grey tones and much more detailed art prints.
By the 1700s mezzotint was widely used but already giving way to aquatint, which worked similarly but used acid rather than manual tools to create the plate texture, allowing for much finer graduations of shade. Aquatints also marked a point where artists began to look for better ways to produce colour art prints; hand colouring was common, but slow, so thoughts turned to a process of creating multiple plates, each to provide a different colour to the overall piece.
Europeans had already been experimenting with colour wood block printing for some time; one block would lay down all the black shadows, then other “tone blocks” would apply colour parts, and with skill could even be applied in such a way as to mimic wash painting, but the effect was very basic and the limitations of wood soon felt.
The search for true colour art prints
The breakthrough came in the early 1700s, when Jacob Christoph Le Blon, an engraver and painter from Frankfurt, developed and patented a three colour printing process after years of experiments with multiple-plate prints. His process used three intaglio plates, one for each of the primary colours of red, yellow, and blue, though in later years he also worked with a four colour process adding black; the same basic four colours that all modern printing works with; cyan, magenta, yellow, and black.
Le Blon’s method required significant experience in deconstructing an image to it’s component colour parts, and understanding how to mix colours to create secondary and tertiary shades; expertise which only a few artists wanted to spend the time developing. Those that did drew some remarkable results, often combining multiple techniques to try and duplicate the feel of hand-drawings, or wash watercolours, and to seek new styles that could better represent the reality of an original artwork.
Woodcuts would remain a dominant force in colour print into the 1800s, largely because of their low cost and relative simplicity, though variations existed mixing colours in different ways or combining with intaglio which provided the primary outline of an image. True colour printing still seemed very distant, and in reality, true art prints still were; if artists wanted to create prints, they had to craft the printing matrix by hand or trust a craftsman to, there was still no way to perfectly replicate a painting as a print.
Photography helps create the modern high quality art print
Printers, artists, and print-makers continued to experiment with different approaches; lithography developed as a more cost effective form of printing which also allowed some correction of mistakes in forming the printing matrix. It was quickly developed for multi-plate colour printing but still had no mechanism to transfer painting directly to plate.
In the early 1800s photography was developing as a concept, and many people were experimenting with light sensitive chemicals. The French inventor Nicéphore Niépce developed a process to capture camera obscura images by applying a bitumen film to a metal plate. The bitumen hardened when exposed to light, allowing the unexposed areas to be washed away, and when acid was poured into this mould, it “photoengraved” the metal plate in the dark areas, which could then hold ink for printing.
While photography itself would offer a way to reproduce images as prints, photographic paper is expensive, unwieldy, and offers few economies of scale compared to the ideal of full colour art prints on paper. Niépce’s breakthrough helped full colour printing as well though; printers quickly realised that taking photographs with coloured filters enabled excellent colour separation. This enabled the creation of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black photoengraved printing plates to enable full colour CMYK printing.
Other innovations in the 1800s included halftone prints; the use of tiny dots to create shades of grey, developed in various forms around the same time, but with a lot of credit given to British scientist and inventor William Henry Fox Talbot. He would also lay the foundations of photogravure printing; a more complex evolution of photoengraving which produced phenomenal results. The process was refined to an art print standard in 1878 by Czech painter and photographer Karel Klíč, who gradually shared his method with printers enabling widespread adoption.
Colour printing methods would continue to adapt, changing dramatically with the introduction of computers and digital imaging and printing, all the way up to the complex lenticular prints we produce at our Kent workshop just outside London. What was once accomplished by a large team of highly skilled craftsmen working for months on an art print, can now be completed by a capable computer user in the time it takes a scanner to run.