King's College London
Online Exhibitions
From woodcut to photograph: techniques of book illustration

Hand-coloured woodcuts

Hand-coloured showing the uses of mineralsHand-coloured woodcut showing the uses of mineralsHand-coloured woodcut showing the uses of mineralsHand-coloured woodcut showing the uses of mineralsIn the early decades of its history the printed book was despised by many wealthy collectors, who preferred to stock their libraries with illuminated manuscripts, each one painstakingly and individually illustrated in colour.

The early printers, mindful of this tradition of colour illustration and eager to emulate it, experimented with methods of printing in colour - Gutenberg’s backer, Johann Fust, and his colleague Peter Schöffer, included woodcut letters printed in two colours in their 1547 Mainz Psalter - but the process was time-consuming and expensive.

One method, known as chiaroscuro, was to create a composite woodcut illustration from several interlocking blocks, each one inked with a different colour. More commonly, a single block was printed two or three times; a different colour ink was applied each time and the parts of the block to be inked were left uncovered, the remainder being protected from the ink by a parchment frisket, this comprising an iron frame fitted with parchment and attached to the press. Neither method was completely successful, and many woodcut illustrations were illustrated entirely by hand in watercolour by a colourist or team of colourists, once printing had been completed, especially if multiple colours were required.

On display is a hand-coloured copy of Hortus sanitatis, which translates as: 'garden of health’, a popular herbal also containing sections on animals and minerals.

The numerous woodcuts are in a style ideal for colouring, with thick outlines and limited detail, and all have been coloured using a simple palette of shades. Scientifically inaccurate, they served to break up the text and provide visual interest;  now they are of historical value, documenting 15th century beliefs, costume and daily life.

The pages on display illustrate the uses of different minerals beginning with the letter ‘p’. The initial letter ‘p’ of each entry has been rubricated by hand around a smaller printed letter ‘p’, which functioned as a place guide for the rubricator.

This rubrication, coloured in red and also seen in the body of the text, was a common practice in the early years of printing. As well as emphasising important words or indicating the start of a new sentence, it was another attempt by the printer to embellish and individualise his product so as to please the manuscript collector.

The green appears to have been the last colour applied to the illustrations, as it was not dry when the sheets were folded and has stained the facing page.

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