This is part 2 of 6 in a series in identifying and authenticating the standard printing processes used to make collectible commercially made prints, from trading cards to advertising posters, magazines to postcards. This part is on the widely used area of printing called relief printing.
Relief printing is a major-general category of printing, and history’s oldest. It includes woodcuts or woodblock printing, wood-engaving type setting and photoengraving, and was used to make a wide variety of antique memorabilia and collectibles including Harper’s woodcuts, sports cards, magazines and books, premiums, advertising posters, postcards and tickets. Relief printing particularly popular with book and magazine publishers.
The key for antique memorabilia collectors is, while relief printing was once a widely used form of commercial printing, it was discontinued from commercial several decades ago. The vast majority of commercially made prints in the past forty plus years have been lithographs or, in recent years, computer prints. This means if you can identify an old-looking trading card, ad poster, publication, postcard or other commercially produced print as a relief print that is strong evidence, and sometimes almost definitive proof it is indeed old.
What is a relief print?
A relief print is what most people of think of is printing. A relief print is made by cutting away part of the surface of the printing plate, adding ink to the raised surface that is left and pressing the plate surface to the paper or card stock. The area that was cut away will not appear on the paper, while the inked area that was left will.
If you take a block of wood, carve your initials into it, ink it up and press it on a piece of paper, you have made a relief print. Everything but your initials will appear on the paper. If you had instead cut away everything except your initials, it would print just your initials.
A rubber stamp is an example of a relief print. So is a linoleum cut you made in art class.
How to identity relief prints with a microscope
Due to the way that relief prints are made, the ink has a distinct look under the microscope. The printing often has a dark rim around the edge of the ink. In cases, this can be seen with the naked eye or ordinary magnifying glass. In most cases, a microscope is needed. The dark rim is caused by the pressure of the printing plate against the paper pushing the ink to the edge. Inexpensive handheld microscopes are available on eBay and Amazon.com. Many cost under $20.
This rim appears on all types of relief prints. In relief printing the ink is most apparent on smooth, glossy paper. If the paper is rough, such as with newsprint or hand-made paper, the rim may not be a noticeable.
The only non-relief print that sometimes has a similar rim is early chromolithography, a colorful form of lithography discussed in a later installment. However, this rim in chromolithography is cause by the settling of the thin lithographic ink and will appear more irregular than mechanical. Also, this chomolithography is itself an antique process, so, whichever the source, the dark rim points to the print being old.
As a relief print is made by the pressure of the printing plate against the printing surface, some relief prints will have an embossment on the back of the paper. This can often be felt with the fingertips and seen. If the paper is thick or there is printing on the back, such as with the pages of a book, the embossment may not be apparent.
The main types of relief prints
WOODCUT OR WOODBLOCK PRINTS
The relief print called woodcut (or woodblock) is both the name for the printing process and the print itself. The artist or craftsman carves the design into the plank side of the wood using chisels, gouges and similar tools. The woodcut is an ancient form of printing, used in ancient China. It flourished in Europe after the 14th century. During the 17th and 18th century the Japanese made influential woodcuts. Woodcuts were used in for many 1700s and early 1800s book, magazine, poster and advertisement illustrations, and will have a simple, crude look. The woodcut was commonly used for commercial prints until the mid 1800s, when it was replaced by wood-engraving, a finer type of woodcut. The woodcut has used by many famous artists, including Albrecht Durer, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali.
Identification of woodcut prints.
Along with the dark rim around the ink that is typical to relief printing, the woodcut is identified because of the distinct and often primitive lines .The white areas are the result of the wood being scooped from the block. If you can imagine the white areas being scooped out, then this is a strong indication it is a woodcut.
Due to the natural irregular shape of the wood, neither the woodcut nor the wood-engraving can print large areas of solid ink without showing the grain or irregular shape of the wood. To simulate large areas of solid color, a series of parallel or cross-hatching lines was made. These lines will appear as white light lines against the area of otherwise solid ink.
Also, as already, mentioned, woodcut printing was used for commercial prints in the 1800s and earlier. The era of the item would identify it as a wood cut.
Though not an antique process and almost never used for mass production commercial purposes, the linoleum cut, also known as linocut and linoleum block, is mentioned here as it’s a common process and one many of have used. Through introduced at the beginning of the 1900s, it was not popularized with artists until Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse used it in the 1950s. Since then, it has been commonly used by artists.
The linoleum cut is made the same as a woodcut, except a block of linoleum is used instead of wood. Linoleum is cheap and, unlike wood, soft and easy to cut. Many of us have made linoleum cuts in school or at home. As linoleum is easier to cut, a linocut can have many different effects, lines and squiggles not possible with woodcuts.
Linoleum cuts often look like woodcuts. It is sometimes difficult to tell if a print is linoleum cut or a woodcut. As with most relief prints, the linocut has a noticeable rim around the ink. Due to the smooth surface of the linoleum, linoleum cuts can print large areas of solid ink. This is unlike the woodcut, which cannot print large areas of solid color.
Wood-engraving is a form of woodcut that largely replaced the woodcut for mass production commercial purposes in the mid 1800s. It was the common way to make pictures for newspaper and magazines until the 1890s when it was slowly replaced by photoengraving. In the fine arts, wood-engravings are still made today.
A harder wood is used than with the woodcut, and the artist carves across the grain of the wood (end-grain). This allows for finer and more detailed lines on the block of wood and in the resulting print.
Identification of wood-engravings:
As with all relief prints, the wood engraving has the hard rim around the ink that can be viewed under the microscope and sometimes with the naked eye. It sometimes has an embossment on the back of the print caused by the printing pressure. The wood-engraving can closely resemble the woodcut in general appearance, except that the wood-engraving is more detailed with finer lines. If the white line is thin and delicate, it is most probably a wood-engraving instead of a woodcut. It was not possible to create such a fine line in the woodcut.
Due to the natural irregular shape of the wood, neither the woodcut or wood-engraving could print large areas of solid ink without showing the grain of the wood. To simulate large areas of solid color, a series of parallel or cross-hatching lines was often made.
As already mentioned, wood-engraving was used commercially in the mid to late 1800s. The date of an item will help identify the process.
Photoengraving was a vintage commercial printing method widely used in the 1890s through the early to mid 1900s. Photoengraving was used to make the images for magazines, newspapers, advertising posters, baseball cards and commercial prints. Most early 1900s sports cards with realistic looking pictures are photoengravings, as are almost all photo realistic pictures in magazines. For baseball cards that includes the Sporting News issues, Sporting Life, Baseball Magazine Premiums, Exhibit Supply Company cards, 1913 Polo Grounds and National Game and many more. It was decades ago discontinued for commercial use, having been replaced by lithography.
Photoengraving can reproduce both solid lines and areas of ink, but also reproduce photorealistic images. To reproduce the subtle tones and details of a photograph, it translated the image into a pattern of dots. As photoengraving is a relief process, it will have the dark rim around the graphics. Even the individual dots will often have the dark rim. One a relief print, check all areas for the dark rim– the dots in the image and the solid areas of a borderline or text.
Due to the form of the printing plates, the relief dot patterns will often have little white crosses in some of the dots and also a distinct ‘waffle pattern’ in other areas.
To finish this column, a brief gallery of some relief printed sports collectibles
The next installment in this series will be coming soon.