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Printing Technology and the Role of Illustration

America's Introduction to Aesthetics


Architectural Pattern Books

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Analysis of Beauty
Analysis of Beauty, Plate II, copperplate engraving, William Hogarth, The Analysis of Beauty, Written With a View of Fixing the Fluctuating Ideas of Taste, 1733.
Gift of J. Dennis Delafield.

Though exceptional in composition, Hogarth’s foldout illustrations presented a problem. Readers could not look at them and reference the text at the same time.
Printing Technology and the Role of Illustration

It is useful to understand the technology employed to create the illustrated book. Printing techniques used to create illustrations fall into three basic categories: relief (where the ink sits on the highest level of a carved printing block), intaglio (where the ink fills troughs carved into a plate and is then forced onto paper through pressure from a press), and planographic (where the ink rests on a completely flat surface). A woodcut print results from relief printing, a long lived technique. In the 19th century, a version of the woodcut, bearing the misnomer of “wood engraving,” assumed a premier role in book illustration because it could be set along side wooden moveable type. Copperplate engraving, an intaglio process, produced the most detailed illustrations, but the copperplates had to be run through the press separately from the wooden type. Even so, this technique was favored for fine printings. Alois Senefelder is credited with the invention of lithography, a planographic process, in 1798. This technique was far less labor intensive that carving a wood block or a copperplate. In lithography, the printer makes a sketch using a grease pencil on a flat piece of limestone, covers the surface in water, and then applies the ink. The ink adheres to grease and the resulting print possesses a crayon-like effect.

The Practice of Wood Engraving
The Practice of Wood Engraving,”
The Illustrated London News, July 6, 1844

Other technological advances pushed the illustrated book form forward. In the 1810s, the printing press, formerly worked by hand, became steam-powered. The steam-driven press then met its ideal partner, a machine that could produce continuous rolls of paper. Two decades later, mechanical typesetting equipment made true mass printing possible.


The Value of Book Illustration