Judging the Authenticity of Prints by The Masters:
by David Rudd Cycleback

Chapter 13 : Photomechanical (Not Handmade) Prints

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Photomechanical prints are not hand made prints. This printing was designed for the commercial mass reproduction of graphics, including for the printing of soup can labels, glossy magazine covers, advertising signs, calendars and vacation postcards.
Some famous artists make photomechanical reproductions of their original paintings, prints and photographs. Sometimes these reproductions are artist signed and limited edition numbered. These are collectable, they shouldn't be confused with the original hand made prints.

The following is a look at some of the most common forms of photomechanical printing.


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Halftone Printing

The most common and easily identifiable photomechanical process is the half-tone process. This is the common process used to make reprints and counterfeits of original art. The collector who knows how to identify a half-tone print can identify many fakes and cheap reprints of expensive handmade prints.

The half-tone printing process is one of the most significant inventions of modern times and has been applied to relief, intaglio and lithographic printing. Before the invention of the half-tone process in the 1870s, it was not possible to mechanically print photorealistic images in newspapers and magazines. It was only possible print to newspaper and magazine pictures with handmade prints, like woodcut and engraving. This could create attractive images, but without the subtle tones and detail of a photograph. If you look at the pictures in a 1870s Harper's Weekly or similar publication, you will see the images look like drawings.
The invention of the halftone printing process, often aptly called the dot process, replaced lines with dots, allowing for greater detail. In the process, a photographic image is projected through a special screen, resembling a screen door, and is projected onto a photochemically sensitized printing plate. The screen transforms the image into a series of tiny dots on the printing plate, which then appear in the resulting print. These tiny dots allow for a much finer detail than engravings, etchings and woodcuts. While halftone can't produce the quality and detail of a real photograph, it can make a realistic representation. This process is used today to illustrate newspapers, magazines and books, but also trading cards, advertising signs, postcards, cereal boxes and more. If you take a strong magnifying glass or microscope and look closely at a picture in a magazine on your coffee table you will see that it is made up of tiny dots. For a black and picture the dots will be black. For a color picture, the dots will be various colors.

For many halftone prints, the halftone printing was used only on part of the prints. In a magazine, the picture may have the halftone dots, while the article text will be solid ink. On a sport card, the image of the athlete may have halftone dots, while the border design and text will be solid ink.

above 2 pictures show microscopic views of black and white and color halftone lithographs.

If you see a Durer woodcut or Picasso linoleum cut that is a halftone print, you can be confident that the print is a reprint.


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Photolithography is a general term that refers to photomechanical lithography with and without the half-tone process.

Photolithography without halftone can reproduce woodcuts, engravings and other original prints of solid ink. In the 1800s, photolithography was commonly used often used to reproduce maps.
Photolithography without half-tone can closely resembles certain types hand made lithography.Under the microscope, the ink will have the same flat appearance. It cannot reproduce well the subtle tones and detail of hand made wash lithography and hand made crayon and chalk lithography.

Photolithography with and without half-tone has been popular in 20th century commercial printing and is often used together on the same print. As with all halftone printing, it is made up of a fine pattern of color dots. For a black and white print the dots will be one color. For a color print, there will be dots of different colors. Halftone make quality naked eye reproductions of hand made wash, crayon and chalk lithographs, but the fine dot pattern under the magnifying glass will give it away as a reproduction.


Photoengraving was a vintage commercial printing method. In the late 1800s to mid 1900s, photoengraving was used to make the images for magazines, newspapers, advertising posters and commercial prints. It is rarely used commercially today, having been replaced by photolithography. Photoengraving can reproduce both solid lines and solid areas of ink and the subtle tones of photographs. To reproduce tone, photoengraving uses the halftone dot pattern.
Photoengraving is a relief process. Under a microscope of 50x or more power, photoengraving has the distinct dark rim or edge common to all relief prints. Even the halftone dots of a photoengraving will have the dark rim.

As photoengraving has the rim and can print solid ink when halftone is not used, it can make deceptive reproductions of original woodcuts, wood-engravings and linoleum cuts.

microscopic view of photoengraving with the
dark edge and waffle-like pattern


Collotype was a photomechanical process popular in the early 20th centuryIt was versatile and produced high quality images on many types of paper.Some examples can be difficult to distinguish from photographs.Many silent era lobby cards and picture postcards are collotypes. Postcards with "Albertype" printed on back are collotypes.

The images can be in any color and usually have a matte surface. Under the microscope, the ink pattern in the image is reticulated, meaning that it appears like a mosaic with similar size pieces of irregular shapes.Sometimes it resembles a bunch of noodles. Some collotypes were varnished, making it difficult to see the reticulation even under magnification.

microscopic view of a 1920s collotype movie lobby card showing the distinct reticulated pattern

Photogravure (Gravure)

Photogravure, also known as gravure and rotogravure, is the term for any photomechanical intaglio print.

As with all intaglios, photogravures will often have a plate mark. This means it can make a deceptive reproduction a hand made intaglio print. A plate mark can be missing when it is cut off, which was often the case for commercial prints.

There are several variations to photogravure.
Line photogravure was used to reproduce line images, including etchings and engravings.Many earlier photogravures can be differentiated from the hand made intaglio prints because they reproduced because the photogravure does not have the difference in depth between darker and liner lines.However, with advancements in technology, the photogravure could reproduce these differences.In many cases, it is important to examine the paper to determine if it is a photogravure or hand made intaglio from earlier centuries.Line photogravure was invented in 1827, but was not commonly used until the 1860s and 70s.

Photogravure can also reproduce tonal images . Phorogravure reproductions of photographs is known for its excellent image quality and detail. This 'tonal photogravure' was invented in the late 1800s and is still used today.The surface is matte and the image can come in any color.Vintage photogravure's sometimes have images that are faded and with foxing (browning/redish age spots. Under the microscope an irregular often speckled ink pattern exists.A variation of the photogravure called the rotary photogravure was produced on a cylinder.The ink on the photogravure image is set up in an even grid with dots of ink surrounded by intersecting white lines.This is a similar pattern to the halftone.

Photogravure was used commercially in the 1800s to mid 1900s. It was used to make commercially sold prints, book plates and pictures for magazines and newspapers. It is rarely used today commercially.


Computer prints

Computer printing is used today in both our normal lives and in the fine arts. While there have been numerous processes used in the past several decades, this section focuses on the two most commonly used: electrostatic printing and ink jet printing. The popular giclee process is a type of ink jet printing.

Electrographic Printing: Laser
Printer, Photocopier and Xerox

Large numbers of reproductions have been made using these printers, all of which use electrostatic or electrographic printing.Under the microscope, the resulting prints are easily identified. The lines are made up of many tiny dust-like grains of pigment that have been fused to the electostically charge area.However, not all the grains make it to the intended area, so the print is identified by the many stragglers outside the lines.It looks like it needs a dusting.

Microscopic view of a laser computer print,
showing the unique 'dusty' ink pattern

Inkjet including Giclee

Today's inkjet printer can produce attractive color and black and white reproductions and can be printed on many surfaces.There are a variety of types, all squirting the ink onto paper surface.

Under the microscope, the image is made up of a fine dot pattern closely resembling a halftone lithograph.

The giclee, or iris print, is a fancy type of inkjet printing often used in the fine arts. It can make high quality reproductions of paintings, photographs and prints on a variety of papers, from matte to glossy to canvas. As the images are resistant to fading and deterioration, the process is used to make many limited edition display photographs. Famous artists who have made giclees include Richard Avedon, Walter Chin, Stephen Holland and David Hockney.

(c) david rudd cycleback, all rights reserved


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