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You are hereHarvey-LeeHomeHarvey-LeeTechniques Harvey-LeeIntaglio Introduction Harvey-LeeColour-printed Intaglio Prints

Colour-Printed Intaglio Prints

Unlike in relief prints, there was no early tradition of colour in intaglio prints. From the outset line engravings and etchings were printed in black ink onto white paper and found their expression in the quality of line and silvery or dark tones inherent in the technique.

Printing with coloured inks was not thought of until the 18th century and then it was used only in the more suitable newly invented tone processes of mezzotint, pastel-engraving, stipple and aquatint.

European artists and professional printmakers, if interested in making colour-prints, from the earliest examples in the 18th century, have wanted the colour to be an intrinsic printed element and hence whether the technique was mezzotint or aquatint it was known as engraving in colours, a separate plate usually being engraved for each colour.

J C Le Blon (1667-1741), a German of French extraction, first devised intaglio colour printing from multiple plates. On the basis of Newton’s colour theory Le Blon made full colour prints from three superimposed mezzotint plates respectively printed in the primary colours of blue, red and yellow. Examples are very rarely found of his prints today as none of his business ventures was a success. He died in poverty in Paris. On his death his French patent was taken up by a pupil, Jacques Gautier Dagoty (see right for illustration), who perfected his process by adding a fourth mezzotint plate printed in black (the identical principle to today’s commercial lithographic four-colour half-tones for colour printing magazines etc).

Nicolas François Regnault (1746–c1810): Le Bain

Nicolas François Regnault (1746–c1810): "Le Bain". 
Four-colour aquatint after Pierre-Antoine Baudoin, c1780-86.
Printed from four plates in red, blue, yellow and black inks.  (198 x 130 mm)

The same four-colour plate system was also employed by the French colour aquatint engravers later in the century, Janinet, Descourtis, Alix &c. The colours had to be transparent enough to show through one another and were ground with nut or poppy oil. Prussian blue, yellow ochre, red lake mixed with carmine, and black were the four colours generally used. The plates were registered to assure accurate superimposition of the separate colours, generally by means of two small holes at the top and bottom of the plate. Each complete print had to be passed through the press four times.

The short-lived crayon and the related pastel engraving devised by Louis Bonnet also employed multiple plates but not in quite the same way. Being essentially linear rather than pure tone processes, they did not lend themselves to four colour printing. Crayon engravings were printed in black, sanguine and sometimes white, in imitation of chalk drawings (see above right). Pastel engravings employed a large number of plates, up to a dozen, each printed in a different coloured ink, replicating the pastel artist building up his drawing with different coloured pastels (see right).

Colour Stipple Engraving

Detail of the child's head from a late 18th century English colour stipple engraving. (Click on detail for enlargement to the full image.)

Printed from a single plate inked up à la poupée with blue, red, yellow, green, brown, grey and black inks, in a single passing through the press.

In England in the later 18th century the approach to colour printing was different. Both mezzotints and stipple engravings were printed in multiple colours from a single engraved plate. The different coloured inks in a wide range of ready-mixed tints were applied to different areas of the same plate as called for by the design and printed simultaneously in one passing through the press. The inks were dabbed onto the plate with little twists of cloth like miniature rag dolls and the process is known by the French term as printing à la poupée  (“with the dolly”). The engraved plate is the complete image, identical whether the resulting print is monochrome or coloured; the colouring is the work of the printer, not the engraver. (Compare the detail above – click for the full image – with the black and white detail shown in the Contents listing on the Intaglio Introductory page. ).

In the mid-18th century impressions from worn-out genre mezzotint plates, which printed only as a pale tired grey, were given life by being coloured over with opaque body colours. Later in the century topographical ‘perspective’ or ‘optical’ prints were issued hand-coloured in opaque watercolour and washes. Hand-colouring in translucent watercolour washes was adopted extensively in the first half of the 19th century, again principally in England, for decorative or reproductive aquatints such as topography, sporting prints, and natural history. Caricatures and little fancy pieces were often sold in two price ranges (penny plain, tuppence coloured); though the ‘plain’ impressions have often been subsequently ‘upgraded’ by later colouring.

Hans Figura (1898–1978): "Fishing Boats, Venice". 

Hans Figura (1898–1978): "Fishing Boats, Venice". 
Colour aquatint, c1930.  (160 x 218 mm)

Modern colour intaglio prints, whatever their nationality, are almost without exception designed and printed in several ready-mixed tints from multiple plates. Sometimes the number of colours is further increased by colouring à la poupée some or all of the multiple plates. Though there are examples of modern colour etchings, drypoints and line engravings (more likely to be coloured à la poupée on a single plate), as in the late 18th century the tone process aquatint has been found to lend itself best to colour-printing from multiple plates.

Although the modern Etching Revival is predominantly an art form of black and white, the ‘discovery’ of Japanese colour woodblock prints led to a surge of interest by European artists in colour printing from the 1890’s into the early decades of the 20th century, especially in France.
In Paris the printer and etcher Eugène Delâtre encouraged many of his contemporaries such as Louis Legrand, Richard Ranft and Auguste Brouet to attempt colour aquatint, and founded and was the first president of the Société des Graveurs en Couleurs.
In London, the French emigré Théodore Roussel, founded the Society of Graver Printers in Colour and made some exceptional colour intaglio prints, even colour etching complementary mounts and frames. In Vienna Luigi Kasimir and Hans Figura (see illustration above) were enthusiastic and prolific colour aquatint engravers.

Though graphic art finds its most powerful expression in black and white, French 18th century colour prints are exciting as the incunabula of intaglio colour printing, a merging of the boundaries between science and art. There are also a number of masterpieces and interesting examples of colour prints by early 20th century printmakers.


Jacques Gautier Dagoty (1710–1781): Portrait of Voltaire. Four-colour mezzotint. (238 x 190 mm)

Jacques Gautier Dagoty (1710–1781):
"Portrait of Voltaire". 
Four-colour mezzotint. Printed from four
plates in red, yellow, blue and black (lacking
the separately printed lettering plate beneath). 
(238 x 190 mm)


Louis Marin Bonnet (1736-1793):

Louis Marin Bonnet (1736-1793):
“Bust in Profile of a young Woman”.
Two-colour crayon engraving, c1775,
after Louis Jean François Lagrenée (1725-1805).
Printed in black and sanguine inks from two plates.
295 x 214 mm)


Louis Marin Bonnet (1736-1793):

Louis Marin Bonnet (1736-1793):
“Provoking Fidelity”.

Pastel engraving, 1775, after
Marc Antoine Parelle. (318 x 247 mm)
Printed in a variety of coloured inks and gold,
from multiple registered plates.


Jean François Raffaelli (1850–1924): Self-Portrait. Colour etching and drypoint, 1893. (187 x 157 mm)

Jean François Raffaelli (1850–1924): "Self-Portrait".  Colour etching and drypoint, 1893.  (187 x 157 mm)
Printed á la poupée in black, brown, pink and grey
inks, from a single plate
inked up at the same time
and passed through the press only once.


Maurice Delcourt (1877–1917): La Pause (The Rest). Colour aquatint, from two plates, 1900. (243 x 154 mm)

Maurice Delcourt (1877–1917):
"La Pause"  (The Rest). 
Colour aquatint, from two plates, 1900. 
(243 x 154 mm)
A registration mark (solid black circle)
is clear at the top of the image


Peter Ilsted (1861–1933): The little Convalescent. Colour mezzotint, 1913. (130 x 175 mm)

Peter Ilsted (1861–1933): "The little Convalescent".  Colour mezzotint, 1913.  (130 x 175 mm)

See also :

INTAGLIO PRINTS - A General Introduction

Line Engraving
French Engraving in the Crayon and Pastel Manners
English Stipple Engraving
Soft-Ground Etching

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