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Eastern printing
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18th - 19th century
     Japanese colour prints

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Aquatint: 1768-1830

In about 1768 a French artist, Jean Baptiste Le Prince, discovers a way of achieving tone on a copper plate without the hard labour involved in mezzotint. His technique is to sprinkle on a fine dust of powdered resin, fuse the grains to the metal by heat and then submit the plate to the acid of the etching bath. The acid eats away at the exposed metal surface around and between the grains, resulting when printed in a fine mesh of black ink around white spaces. The intensity of the mesh can be varied both by the size of the grains and by the depth to which the acid is allowed to bite.

Le Prince's invention of *aquatint gives printmakers for the first time the option of using areas of tone in an etching, to give an effect much like that of a wash drawing.


Le Prince's discovery is eagerly seized upon in England, where a fashion for landscape watercolours is developing. Paul Sandby writes to a friend in 1775: 'I have a key to Le Prince's secret and am perfect master of it... I have already done 24 views in Wales'.

These views, published in the following year, are the earliest set of topographical aquatints. They are followed over the next half century in Britain by a flood of lavish volumes with views printed in aquatint and hand-coloured. The results, looking very similar to original watercolours, meet a growing demand at a reasonable price. The technique holds sway in this field until the 1830s, when it is replaced by the cheaper tinted lithograph.


Aquatint also provides creative artists with the first congenial tonal method in prints (the mechanical business of rubbing down a mezzotint being more of a craftsman's drudgery).

The first great artist to appreciate the full potential of *aquatint is Goya. He uses it in the eighty prints of the Caprichos, published in 1799, and then again to dark and brilliant effect in the eighty-two plates of The Disasters of War, too controversial for contemporary Spain and not published until years after his death. Goya is also the first great artist to make effective use of the next discovery in printing, that of lithography.


Japanese colour prints: 18th - 19th century

Japan, playing a very early role in the story of printing, has for many centuries provided Buddhist pilgrims with simple woodcut images of holy figures. The technology is therefore in place to supply the more secular demand for images of kabuki actors and courtesans. From about 1740 the protraits begin to be printed in colour. Intead of colouring a print by hand, the printers now cut an extra wood block for every colour in the image. Each block is inked with its own colour and then pressed against the sheet of paper.

With this development, Japan becomes the first region of the world to provide colour prints of a high quality at a popular price.


The demand which makes this possible is linked to ukiyo-e, the floating world. Actors and courtesans are the two most popular subjects. Stylized designs, built up with areas of flat colour, are well suited to depicting their flowing costumes. The resulting Japanese style greatly influences European art in the late 19th century.

There are many individual masters of the ukiyo-e school, each with numerous followers. In the late 18th century Utamaro is particularly well known for his woodcuts of courtesans, while Toyokuni is the leading specialist in prints of actors. His Yakusha butai no sugata-e (Views of Actors on Stage) is published in 1794-6.


In the early 19th century a new interest in landscape is pioneered by Hokusai, the greatest master of the ukiyo-e school. Hokusai is responsible for the best known of all Japanese images, the stylized and intensely dramatic views of Japan's holy mountain which he publishes over several years from about 1830 under the title Fugaku sanju-rokkei (Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji).

The other great Japanese master of landscape, Hiroshige, is much younger than Hokusai but is publishing at the same time. He makes his name with Toto meisho (Famous Places of the Capital) in 1831. He brings a new element of subtlety in the depiction of weather affecting the tone of a landscape.


The art of ukiyo-e, like the inward-looking Japanese society which it depicts and depends upon, cannot long survive the unwelcome intrusion of Commodore Perry and the outside world in 1853.

Yet the new links with the west, causing such an upheaveal in Japan, also carry abroad the Japanese colour prints. Ukiyo-e lives in the studios of the French impressionists and post-impressionists when its day is already over in Japan.


Lithography: 1798-1875

In 1798 an unsuccessful dramatist, Alois Senefelder, makes a discovery of profound significance in the history of artists' prints and later of commercial printing too. He has been attempting for some while to print from stone (prompted by a famous incident of 1796 when he jots down his mother's laundry list in greasy ink on a slab of limestone). What he comes to realize, in 1798, is that the antipathy between grease and water, familiar in any kitchen, can be used as a basis for printing.

In lithography marks are made on a stone surface in greasy crayon or ink. The stone is then wetted. Newly applied ink will stick only to the greasy marks. Paper pressed against the stone will pick up those marks and nothing else.


England is the first country in which artists take an interest in Senefelder's technique. As early as 1803 a collection of six lithographs by various painters (including Benjamin West, the president of the Royal Academy) is published under the title Specimens of Polyautography. By 1807 there are six issues, making thirty-six lithographs in all. They are mostly simple drawings in a pen-and-ink style.

In the long run the less restricting crayon style of lithography proves of more interest to artists. It is harder to achieve, but four early masterpieces in this medium are produced in 1825 by the elderly Goya in his series the Bulls of Bordeaux.


The example of these pioneers is not much followed during the main part of the 19th century except in the field of caricature, where artists such as Daumier use the immediacy of the medium to devastating effect in satirical journals. But by the final decades of the century the lithograph returns to fashion, along with etching, in a revival of interest in artists' prints which has never since slackened.

Meanwhile lithography makes steady inroads in the field of commercial printing. Topographical views in crayon lithography become common from the 1820s. Soon they acquire a tint or two, in fawn or pale blue from a second and third stone, to make them look more colourful.


The next stage in this progression is the chromolithograph printed in several colours, each from a separate stone. Bright and cheerful, the chromolithograph is a characteristic feature of 19th-century commercial printing - seen in posters, as book plates and eventually (following the example of the Illustrated London News in its Christmas issue of 1855) in weekly magazines.

The 1850s also see the first attempts to use photography in the making of lithographic plates. In the 1870s the process of offset lithography is invented. Senefelder's invention is poised to become, by the late 20th century, the standard method of printing.


This History is as yet incomplete.


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