Thursday, April 4, 2013

When we no longer remember why we do things

Arthur Rackham illustration- pen & ink and watercolor
Last night I heard a story. Let me tell it to you. Back in the day (by which I mean back in the first decade of the 20th Century) a new printing technology was coming in. This new tech (four-color separations) made it much more economical to print color book plates.

The old color process required paintings to have ink lines bounding images to “hold” the color and hide the effects of misregistration of the color plates. The new process was much more accurate did not require ink lines.   

This means that the pen & ink and watercolor images we find so charming today were originally created as a necessary requirement to hide printing misalignment errors!

*shocked look*

How could this be?

After the new process was in regular use book illustrators were free to create watercolor illustrations without bounding ink lines.

We see this transition from the old to new printing process in Arthur Rackham’s work. He worked right through the transition, keeping his bounding lines throughout. On the other hand, Edmund Dulac began his illustration career after the new process was established and his early watercolors don’t have any ink lines. Although you can see some ink lines in Dulac's later works, at that point it was because of reader expectation and not technical limitations.

Edmund Dulac - Look Ma, no ink lines!
Back around to the current day. Our printing processes are SO far beyond the ones I’ve been describing as to not hold any bearing on them at all. Except for one thing. We still like pen & ink and watercolor. I know I do. It’s charming and old-timey and reminds us of halcyon days. But… it was also originally a remedy for a dodgy printing process. Pretty sweet, huh? Somehow that takes all the charm out of it for me…or does it? Does it really even matter anymore?

I’ll still continue on with pen & ink and watercolor because I like it, not because I have to. Maybe I'll even like it more now that I know it's real origins. *lol*

Thanks to the Lines and Colors blog for the wonderful post I’m referencing here today.


  1. Fascinating post--I love the old-timey look of ink drawings too but now I know more about their history.