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L. Elizabeth Upper on Rediscovering Color in German Graphic Art, 1487–1600


Detail of Hans Baldung Grien (attr.), Title Border with Wrestling Putti, color woodcut from two blocks (red and black). Title page of Juan López, De libertate ecclesiastica (Strasbourg: Johann Schott, 1511). Cambridge University Library, shelfmark Acton.d.48.362. Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

In her concise and well-illustrated talk on early color printing in Germany, L. Elizabeth Upper set a high standard for the speakers who followed her. Upper made her main point early and repeated it throughout the presentation: color printing from woodcuts in Germany in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was more common than previously thought.

Upper presented her research on three forms of printed materials: book illustrations, single-sheet prints, and intarsia panels on chests. Single sheets showing color printing are widely known, but Upper showed through graphs that color book illustrations were also widespread and numerous.

Some of Upper’s illustrations showed how friskets worked on early wooden presses, which related to an interesting question she discovered in her research. She found it difficult to decide how some early color was printed. Some color was not stenciled or inked by hand, and close scrutiny of details shows the same wear to the blocks that printed color as to those that printed black. It appears that some blocks were printed twice, and Upper suggested that friskets had been used to mask out printing surfaces except those areas that printed in color. After the talk, APHA member David Goodrich asked if Upper had found any frisket marks around the color printed areas, and she replied that she had. This puzzle was the perfect topic to discuss at an APHA conference, which attracts scholars familiar with early printing, as well as printers familiar with press mechanics.

Upper’s presentation had immediate impact on the audience, and even on some of the presentations that followed. The general impression among the attendees was that Elizabeth Upper’s research is significantly advancing knowledge of early color printing.