This month’s crocodile mystery asked what’s going on with the odd-looking painting technique in an original work of art, shown in a detail. Here’s a view of the whole thing:
Jan came close, commenting that “It appears to be the preliminary underpainting where the artist puts in the lights and darks before going on to the next stage.” In this case, though, the next stage wasn’t adding color paint, it was taking a photograph. After several more stages, the picture eventually became a double-page spread in the 8 September 1908 issue of Black and White, a British illustrated weekly magazine.
In technical terms, the picture’s medium can be described as “ink wash with opaque white” where “ink wash” means “ink diluted with varying amounts of water and painted on with a brush.” It’s the opaque white that stands out as odd-looking to me. Normally when an artist works in ink wash, the “white” is actually the bare paper, as in this detail from an unidentified classical scene by a unknown artist.1
For wash drawings intended to be reproduced photographically, however, white paint provides the highlights. The white often looks alarmingly heavy and bright in the original drawing, but when transformed into a high-contrast black-and-white image, it blends in with the rest of the picture.2 Opaque white can also be used to cover mistakes and to tone down areas that would otherwise be too dark.
Comparing the drawing and the magazine illustration side-by-side shows another way that photography has enhanced the picture: the published version is smaller than the original. Photographs can easily be enlarged or reduced, and it’s standard practice to reduce drawn illustrations. This gives the final result a neatness and delicacy that would have been impossible (or at least, impractical) at actual size.
If the margins haven’t been trimmed off the original, you can often still see notes showing what the finished size of the illustration should be. Here, for example, a drawing that measures 15 1/4 inches (38.8 cm) wide was meant to end up being 9 1/8 inches (23.2 cm) wide on the printing plate—a little over half size.
Another difference between the original drawing and the magazine illustration becomes apparent when you look at the final product under magnification:
The image is made entirely from black ink, but at a normal viewing distance it appears to be done in different shades of grey. The principle had long been known (see the Collation post “Mezzotint!” for 17th- and 18th-century examples) but until the development of the halftone screen at the end of the 19th century, there was no photomechanical way to produce dots of differing sizes or densities. The dots had to be made by hand. With halftone photography, the dots in halftone photographs are created by placing a gridded screen in front of the light-sensitive plate or film inside a camera. Like looking through a window screen while focusing your eyes on the screen, the halftone screen breaks the image up into individual bits on the resulting negative.
If the image had been converted to pure black-and-white without a half-tone screen, the result would have looked something like this:
Want to learn more about ink wash drawings and half-tone reproduction? Enjoy the bombastic writing style of the late 19th and early 20th century? There are many examples out there, but I particularly like the “Wash-drawing” chapter in Charles J. Vine’s Hints on drawing for process reproduction (London: Charles Roberson & Co., 1895) and the “Half-tone process” section of Horgan’s half-tone and photomechanical processes, (Chicago: Inland Printer Co., 1913).
- Here’s a link to the full drawing: https://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/s/4j61ou. Anyone recognize the scene, or who the artist might be? The dealer who sold it to Mr. and Mrs. Folger in 1920 said it was a Shakespeare scene by Henry Fuseli, but no evidence has been found to support either assertion.
- To be fair, though, what we see in these pictures today isn’t how they would have looked originally. Over the decades, the paper will often have yellowed, and the ink can start to show through the white overpaint.