In October 2013, it was my pleasure to attend the American Printing History Associations 38th annual conference Seeing Color/Printing Color. The sum of these presentations gave a sweeping overview of the history of colour printing, highlighted by details. What follows is a brief and necessarily incomplete summary of information presented. Further information about the conference, speakers and presentations can be found on APHAs website.
Before the 19th century, colour printing was rare and, for the most part, restricted to red embellishments on black text and prints via frisket or stencil. In the early to mid-18th century, some medical and botanical prints were printed in colour, but it was not until the 19th century that colour printing came of age.
Multi-coloured etchings were built up layer by layer by printing successive plates onto the paper. Aquatint and mezzotint etching plates allowed continuous colour tones; single hand-painted plates also allowed multiple colours to be printed. Hand-coloured details were sometimes added to the image after printing. Robert John Thorntons Temple of Flora and William Blakes epic Jerusalem are examples of the creative possibilities being explored.
Newly invented lithography opened further avenues of colour printing and was sometimes used in conjunction with the older intaglio methods, as exemplified by the Baxter print.
Labour-intensive art prints, usually in runs of 200 or less, could result in financial ruin for the artist publisher, but labour-un-intensive, commercial book publications could make fortunes. Under the leadership of John McLoughlin, McLoughlin Bros. picture books were wildly successful because he kept pace with developing chromolithic printing technologies and was, in the manner of Disney, an inspired marketer: Childhood Looks for McLoughlin Books.
Colour printing was not limited to illustrations. Chromatic wood type used two woodblocks to create 3-D effects with up to four colours. William Pages 1874 specimen catalogue of types and borders is a psychedelic tour de force.
Artists designed their original work while keeping in mind the qualities of the technology with which it would be reproduced. Trichromate halftone photographic printing was developed with the goal of laying each colour so subtly that the method is unidentifiable (Joseph Pennel, Modern Illustration). It was used to reproduce the work of Maxfield Parrish, Beatrix Potter and Arthur Rackham. Rackham was so enamoured of trichromates qualities that he insisted on its use long after the ascendancy of four-colour printing.
Stencilling in the 20th century was used to illustrate limited edition fine press books because it made these small runs affordable. The aesthetic of the stencil was also appreciated in its own right (think Matisse), with original stencil art being reproduced by offset lithography.
Stencilling can be manipulated by hand techniques (shading, stippling) to produce very subtle effects. Nowhere was this done with such success as at Trianon Press under the leadership of Arnold Fawcus. Using stencil over collotype, Trianon printers worked with contemporary artists such as Duchamp, Chagall and Shahn to reproduce original artworks and create livres dartistes. Trianon Press also reproduced the work of deceased artists so they were preserved for posterity. Coming full circle, one of Trianons most famous publications was the reproduction of the last extant coloured copy of visionary poet and pioneer colour printer Blakes Jerusalem.