In Europe engraving on metal was used as a decorative art form by armourers
and goldsmiths but the first engraved prints on paper were produced in
the 15th century. By the 17th century, when the Listers and the Merian
family flourished, intaglio was the standard for producing mass quantities
of finely detailed illustrations. When the plates were made of copper,
a common practice, the technique was known by the eponymous name copperplate
Invented by Alois Senefelder in the late 18th century as an inexpensive
alternative to copperplate engraving, lithography quickly became the first
choice for illustrators and their publishers. In this environment, John
and Elizabeth Gould, John Lindley and his artist Sarah Drake, John James
Audubon, and others were able to feed the growing popular appetite for
natural history information with sumptuous reproductions.
Some color printing techniques were in use early, but the scientists
producing or commissioning illustrations had exacting standards that
these crude techniques could not fill. Although the prints were mechanically
reproduced, the color was added by the hand of the original artist
or by teams of professional colorists. Maria Merian worked with her daughters
on her books, while John Gould hired Gabriel Bayfield who managed the
work of his two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth. In the case of coloring
for hire, the scientist would sometimes provide a guide print with precise
instructions for color, shade, blending, etc. or an original watercolor.
Working from the guide, the head of the team of colorists would present
a sample to be reviewed and corrected. Because each image is individually
hand colored, some variation can be observed from one edition of a book
to the next, while some copies will remain uncolored.
Counterproof is a technique that produces the finest quality copperplate
printing. Historically, this technique was reserved for an artist’s
wealtiest or most influential patrons. After the fresh print is pulled,
another piece of paper is immediately placed across its surface. This results
in a print with delicate lines, oriented to the same direction as the original
drawing or watercolor and with the final image lacking the beveled impression
left by a plate edge.