Skip to the good stuff!


Jane Rodgers Siegel on Experiments in Color Printing in the 15th through the 19th Centuries


Detail of a color-printed intaglio illustration from: Salomon Gessner (1730-1788) Mort d’Abel (A Paris, Chez Defer de Maisonneuve, 1793, page 91). Courtesy of Columbia University RBML.

Jane Rodgers Siegel, rare book librarian at Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, gave us a virtual tour of landmarks in her talk “Experiments in Color Printing in the Fifteenth through the Nineteenth Centuries: A Survey.” Printed color was rare in book illustrations until the nineteenth century, when color printing dropped in cost and became widely available. After showing early two color examples such as Gutenberg and Fust and Schoeffer’s Canon Missae, Siegel defined color printing as using more than two colors. For the fifteenth century, the work of Erhardt Ratdolt and of his friend and collaborator Santritter, stood out because so few other printers attempted multicolor printing for books. In the late seventeenth century artists like Jakob Le Blon (author of Coloritto), inspired by Newton’s Opticks,began experimenting with intaglio printing of individual prints in three colors (red-blue-yellow).

The eighteenth century proved to be a time of immense change for intaglio printing with new techniques (aquatint, soft ground etching, among others) and materials (wove paper). The two major processes involved either creating separate plates for each color or dabbing each color by hand directly onto a plate where it would print (known as ‘a la poupée’). Either process might have additional color added by hand. Techniques developed in the “furniture print” market found their way into color book illustrations. Although the 1790s were a high period for color intaglio, it was never common. 

Just as color intaglio processes peaked, Alois Senefelder was experimenting in lithography, and his manual included examples of color lithography. Siegel showed impressive images of multicolor lithography and chromolithography by (among others) Senefelder, Wilhelm Zahn, Owen Jones and Charles Hullmandel.

Rounding out the survey in the nineteenth century with relief printing, Siegel showed pages from William Savage’s virtuoso performance in Practical Hints on Decorative Printing (circa 1815–23) and concluded with some images of Charles Knight’s wet wood-engraving four color process and “Baxter Prints” (which used a key with 8–12 color blocks). Jane Siegel’s whirlwind tour gave context to many presentations that followed and preceded it.


  1. Jane, I am coming to New York City on May 16th to the release of Esther Smith’s remake of my gggrandfathers 1874 Specimens of Chromatic Wood type. I was wondering if I can get together with you on May 17th to look at William Hamilton Page’s original book and maybe if you have other collections of his work. My train will be leaving on the 17th @ 2:00 so perhaps my best friend and I can meet you on the 17th. Please let me know if that is possible.

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

APHA encourages comments to be short and to the point; as a general rule, they should not run longer than the original post. Comments should show a courteous regard for the presence of other voices in the discussion. We reserve the right to edit or delete comments that do not adhere to this standard.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.