New Book Showcases Early Color Printing As Never Before

German print-makers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries worked in wonderful colors across many mediums, from works of art to missals to wallpaper. Their work is explored in detail in a new publication, Early Colour Printing: German Renaissance Woodcuts at the British Museum by Dr. Elizabeth Savage, senior lecturer in book history and communications at the University of London.
“The history of prints is usually in black and white, but early prints were vibrant,” said Dr. Savage, who curated an exhibition for the museum on the subject in 2015. “Late medieval and early modern German printers pushed the technology of the printing press to its limits in their quest to print color. They, not the artists, controlled the artistic effect.”
The book has more than 150 color illustrations of prints from the British Museum’s archives, including examples which have never been reproduced or seen before in public. It includes work by German print-makers such as Anton Woensam, Lucas Cranach, Erhard Ratdolt, Erasmus Loy, and his daughter Anna.

It is a book spanning the divide between book history, bibliography, and art history

“Color reproductions weren’t available until relatively recently, so centuries of print scholarship was based on written descriptions or black-and-white reproductions of prints,” said Dr. Savage. “Color was ‘written out’ by manipulating negatives and enhancing contrast to show the black outlines. I’m delighted that the publisher Paul Holberton insisted that the reproductions in this book be on thick, matte paper which better represents the original prints and their range of very dark tones. This makes it possible for all readers to see aspects of these artifacts, including evidence of the printing process that created them, in a way that standard illustrations do not.”
Early Colour Printing: German Renaissance Woodcuts at the British Museum is published by Paul Holberton priced £50 and available from the University of Chicago Press at $65.

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