Denslow’s Mother Goose, W W Denslow, 1901
I have been thinking about limitations lately.
Like illustrations from old picture books before four-color photo-processing became the norm. The ones I’ve accumulated are mostly from the 40s and 60s and they seem have been printed that way to keep production costs down. An economy of expense leading to an economy of style.
Those images have a particular quality that I’ve always loved. The simplicity of an image made by building layers of color. The opposite of slick. Perhaps that is why I was drawn to printmaking. Printmakers are inordinately fond of process and tools you have to sharpen by hand. We think in layers. We are to painters what typesetting is to Microsoft Word.
Kees & Kleintje, Elizabeth Enright, 1938
Not that images like these were simple to produce. Each color had to be created on a separate overlay in black (or the photo equivalent). Often the print run was limited to two or three colors so overlapping was used to create more.
When you have to do the color separation yourself with specified colors, you have to create the mechanicals whilst thinking ahead to what the image might look like. You won’t know for sure till the finished page comes off the press.
Kees, Elizabeth Enright, 1937
The above images were printed with red, yellow, blue and black inks. The oranges and greens and other tones come from overlapping the transparent inks and using screen tones of those four colors. I know it sounds like CMYK, but the difference is that the color separations were all done by hand. There was no full-color image to start with ahead of time.
Rather than confuse you further by describing what I’m talking about, I will show you an example. The spread below demonstrates how three separate images overlap to produce a multicolor picture.
Woodcuts & Woodengravings: How I Make Them, Hans Alexander Mueller, 1939
When artists work under these limitations, I think a kind of magic can occur. I like the happy accidents that happen when colors overlap and registration gets a bit off. Some people would argue that you can get the same effect more easily using a computer, but there is too much control — down to the pixel — with digital media. There is no room for chance or Happy Accidents. The only accidents I can think of involving computers involve spilled liquids, and they are NOT happy.
Pierre Pidgeon, Arnold Edwin Bare, 1943
Ilenka, Arnold Edwin Bare, 1945
Mrs. McGarrity’s Peppermint Sweater, Abner Graboff, 1966
Josefina February, Evaline Ness, 1963
James and the Giant Peach, Nancy Eckholm Burkert, 1961
So how does all this inform my work?
“Daphne’s Hand”, Margaret Chodos-Irvine
Well, like I said, I’m a printmaker, and printmaking isn’t the most practical illustration technique in which to work. Nonetheless, it is worth it to still leave room for chance in my work. Images like these remind me that working within limits can have positive, even beautiful, results that could not be achieved in any other way.