Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Printing Through the Ages

Castle in the Air has always been proud to stock an array of cards, papers, and other products made with a variety of printing methods. To give you more of a sense of the history behind them, here is a history of printing techniques and innovations and how they’ve developed into forms familiar to us today.

Block Printing: The oldest method for the mass production of images on fabric and paper is the woodblock print, the earliest surviving samples of which are textiles from China around 220 CE, and from Egypt around a century later. Block printing involves carving a raised image on the surface of a block of wood, which is then coated with ink and pressed onto the print medium. The Buddhists of the fourth century are credited with first using block printing on paper, to reproduce scriptures. In Europe, cloth block printing dates to around 1300, and printing on paper—for playing cards and the Church—took off in the 1400s when paper became more prevalent.

The line of prints, jour
nals, and albums from Mariaelisa Leboroni’s Xilocart studio sold at Castle in the Air is a masterful example of this earliest printing technique.

Screenprinting and Stenciling: Screenprinters paint images onto framed pieces of fabric which, when dry, become stencils. Originally known as “silkscreen” because the fabric templates were made of silk, screenprinting was first used by the Chinese as early as 960 CE. It came to Europe much later, in the 1700s, and was used in printing wallpaper. The simpler stenciling method, with solid templates, was at its peak in the Edo period (1603–1868). Stencil was used in Europe to color playing cards and old master prints as far back as the 1400s, and stenciling was still en vogue during the postcard boom of the Victorian era. In the 20th century, screenprinting became a popular means of printing t-shirts, posters, CDs, and (in the case of Andy Warhol) ersatz Brillo boxes.

Berkeley artist Diva Pyari offers her screenprinted Linea Carta cards, books, and pencil cases through our shop.

The Printing Press: Although German goldsmith Johann Gutenberg is credited with the invention of the moveable type printing press, which revolutionized printing, around 1439, you may not be surprised to learn that the Chinese developed moveable type about 400 years earlier. Individual letters, numbers, and images are arranged and inked in the press, and paper is held in a frame which is folded over onto the type and pressed down, transferring the image. The printing press replaced block printing as the most popular means of mass production, and enabled the rise of mass production of books. The earliest printing presses used moveable wood type, but this gave way to lead type, which was easier to produce and could provide more detail.

The limited
edition hardcovers and pamphlets of Dromedary Press’ Castle in the Air were printed by local printing press master Richard Seibert, and Castle in the Air sells postcards, greeting cards, and sheet paper printed in this way as well.

Foil Stamp: In foil stamping, thin sheets of adhesive metallic foil (usually gold or silver) are pressed with a heated die onto paper. Often, foil stamping is combined with embossing to give a raised effect. Egyptian artisans may have been the first to work with paper-thin layers of gold, embellishing the sarcophagi of mummies and other royal artifacts. Later, gold and silver foil were pressed into the leather covers of books to create distinctive lettering and other design. Modern uses of foil stamping still include book lettering, but also seals, business awards, and wedding announcements.

Castle in the Air
is proud to carry local artist Paula Skene’s line of foil stamped holiday and everyday greeting cards.

Engraving: Engraving is a process of carving an image in a hard material (usually metal, wood, or glass), which may then be used as a plate in a printing press. (Somewhat confusingly, the printed works made from engravings are also called engravings.) Engraving is a truly ancient art form, found first among prehistoric southern Africa tribes who carved pictures into ostrich eggs. It was developed to a dizzying degree of detail and perfection in the ancient world and medieval Europe, with artists like Albrect Dürer creating masterpieces that are famous to this day. Before the domination of photography over handmade imagery, engravings were used exclusively for illustration in newspapers and commercial advertising.

Our vintage ephemera packs at Castle in the Air often include samples of 19th-century engravings, and the Jan Petr Obr stationery we stock is made with this same technique.

Offset: The process used for most of the printed material we see today, offset printing was developed from lithography, or printing with plates made of stone. The heavy plates had the capability to duplicate photographs, but thanks to a happy accident in 1901—when New Jersey printer Ira Washington Rubel forgot to load paper into his lithographic press—it was discovered that an inked rubber surface produced a clearer image. Special presses were developed that transferred an image from an inked plate to a rubber sheet to the final printing surface. Because the plate and paper never touch, offset technology allows for larger, sharper print runs.

Books like Dromedary Press’ Commonplace Mouse and the illustrated classics hardcovers we stock at Castle in the Air are printed using offset, as are many of the sheet papers, pamphlets, and the shop’s other printed matter.

The next time you visit our shop, feel free to ask for a tour through the history of printing. We’ll be glad to show you all these examples, and many more.

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