Rare Book Collection: Printing Techniques for Scientific Illustrations

Rare Book Collection: Printing Techniques for Scientific Illustrations

The library collection is a library that’s used almost in it’s entirety. There aren’t too many things that we put
away and don’t let anybody see. I’m Barbara Rhodes, and I’m the conservator
for the library. A big part of my work is trying to keep the
library collection in useable shape for the researchers. The books in this collection of illustrations
sort of run the gamut from the very earliest to some fairly modern types of illustration
processes. We start out with woodcut, which was done
on the end grain of a piece of very fine-grained wood like boxwood. It actually started as a textile printing
method and was adapted by book illustrators. You could actually get very fine detail with
woodcut. But in the early years of printing, they were
relying on the accounts of sailors, and travelers, and probably whatever sketches these people
brought back with them. So, in many cases I think they let their fancy
go a little bit. It probably helped to sell the book. Engraving, which is the next step, that was
done on metal plates, usually copper. And the lines were inscribed into it or incised
with a special tool called a graver or a burin, and the ink would be run over the plate into
the lines that were engraved, and then they’d wipe off the excess and then they would put
a piece of dampened paper on it and run a roller over it with great pressure to bring
the ink out of the lines and onto the paper. And you could get incredibly fine detail with
this method, so it was very popular for quite a long time. And then the next thing to develop was lithography,
which was invented at the very end of the 18th century. This is a piece of lithographic stone, it
is a very fine-grain limestone. By about the 1820s or so, you start to black-and-white
lithographs in books. And then later in the century they developed
a process called chromolithography, which was printing in color. That involved multiple stones, actually, you
had to have one stone for each color you were printing. And later they developed a three-color process,
so you only needed three stones plus your black. There was yellow, cyan, and magenta. And those mixed together, they will actually,
in layers, make up the colors on the actual print. There are artists who work with the scientists
in the museum who have used our collections and come and look at the way things have been
portrayed. They’re valuable as objects in themselves,
but the information they contain is why we really have them.

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  1. Something that is amazing about those illustrations is that they are better than photographs.
    They need to show the essential features of an animal from an ideal angle.
    When I was younger I used to make this kind of drawings/paintings. Thanks AM of NH for sharing!

  2. Wow, how fascinating! Do you sell any postcards or books of the lithographic prints in the museum gift shops?

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