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Sarah Lowengard on Why Color? On the Uses, (Misuses) and Meanings of Color in Printing


Detail from Gautier (d’Agoty) and Duverney “Muscles of the head” from Myologie complete en couleur et grandeur naturelle(Paris, 1746). Wikimedia

Why color? For keynote speaker Sarah Lowengard, whose research hangs at the intersection of scientific theories and technological processes in eighteenth century Europe, the answer is in its multiple meanings. Color is both concept and process, and is therefore a significant framework for looking at that modernizing culture’s art, materials, and technology of making. In a similar vein, Lowenberg posited an overarching question about aesthetics, technology, and science: How do we make something beautiful, but lasting?

To make color beautiful Lowengard discussed how we consider both our personal preferences and societal expectations: Is the color pleasing? Does it look the way I think it should? What does this color say about me if I own it? Everyone wants color and everyone has an opinion about its appropriateness. Color enhances our experience. It is useful in organizing and identifying, sometimes guiding us without much thought.

To make something of color lasting Lowengard emphasized that good printing comes from successful science­­—chemical matches between inks and substrates that give us items that are both aesthetically pleasing and perform the actions required. The systems of printing color are complex and difficult to manage. Printing in multiple colors increases the significance of decisions made and number of problems to be solved.

As an example of one such intersection of science and print technology Lowengard discussed Frenchman Jacques-Fabien Gautier d’Agoty (1716–1785), who boldly (and not without question) identified himself as the true inventor of color printing using both three-color (red, blue, and yellow), and four-color (plus black) mezzotints, and working in part with printing processes adapted from textile production. Gautier d’Agoty’s shop was an economic success because he was able to exploit a burgeoning market in scientific illustrations for anatomical books, where color aided in distinguishing body features. He was both technician and artist, engaged in the modern sciences of the time by developing modern ways of presenting information.