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August 20, 2009

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A Short History of Color Printing

So lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how color turns out to be a surprisingly important part of our experience reading printed books, and I came across this terrific website on the history of color printing, part of a special collections exhibit in the 90s from the University of Delaware’s Morris Library.


I love this stuff:

Lithography was the first fundamentally new printing technology since the invention of relief printing in the fifteenth century…. Early colored lithographs used one or two colors to tint the entire plate and create a watercolor-like tone to the image. This atmospheric effect was primarily used for landscape or topographical illustrations. For more detailed coloration, artists continued to rely on handcoloring over the lithograph. Once tinted lithographs were well established, it was only a small step to extend the range of color by the use of multiple tint blocks printed in succession. Generally, these early chromolithographs were simple prints with flat areas of color, printed side-by-side.

Increasingly ornate designs and dozens of bright, often gaudy, colors characterized chomolithography in the second half of the nineteenth century. Overprinting and the use of silver and gold inks widened the range of color and design. Still a relatively expensive process, chromolithography was used for large-scale folio works and illuminated gift books which often attempted to reproduce the handwork of manuscripts of the Middle Ages. The steam-driven printing press and the wider availability of inexpensive paper stock lowered production costs and made chromolithography more affordable. By the 1880s, the process was widely used for magazines and advertising. At the same time, however, photographic processes were being developed that would replace lithography by the beginning of the twentieth century.

Posted August 20, 2009 at 9:28 | Comments (2) | Permasnark
File under: Beauty, Books, Writing & Such, Briefly Noted


Good stuff Tim! When I was little, my grandma gave me this book called Wonders of China or something like that. Its basic thesis was that the Chinese invented everything which I found somewhat ridiculous. And yet...

Coloured woodcut first appeared in ancient China. The oldest known colored woodcuts are three Buddhist images dating back to the 10th century.

Take that lithography!

Haha - the Delaware exhibit talks a little bit about other methods and early European woodcuts, but they're sorta summarized by this statement: "these were successful in the hands of a fine craftsman but were too complex to gain general acceptance."

So, here as in everything else, China invented everything that you have to be really good at, and Europe found a way that you could use it even if you personally pretty much suck.

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