Ben Day in the Printing Business

Part 1: Lithography (1880s to 1940s, approx)


As always:

  • click on a picture to enlarge
  • many pictures can be clicked again to enlarge more—you’ll see the + sign
  • use your browser’s back button/arrow to return here

FOOTNOTES will be linked and made clickable when I can get round to it. Apologies. I just want to get this post up for now.

Moonrise off Gravesend_DETAIL 00_72dpi

Detail of lithograph using Ben Day dots (The Boy’s Own Paper, 1891)

In my previous post I looked at the main methods that were used to print illustrated material up to the 1880s, when Ben Day dots came on the scene. Printing was a rapidly expanding industry throughout the 19th century in Britain, the USA and Europe, as demand for books, newspapers and magazines increased. (Not to mention art prints, stationery, forms, tickets, chits etc.) In the later part of the century the packaging and advertising of foods and other products also required more and more printing—of advertisements, labels, posters, leaflets and other promotional items.

Lithographic printing was a new arrival in the early years of the century. Invented by Alois Senefelder in the late 1790s in Munich, Germany, it became established as a regular trade in large European cities in the mid-1820s. For some purposes, especially pictorial, lithography offered real advantages in speed and economy. Michael Twyman has charted the rising numbers of printing businesses in London—letterpress, intaglio and lithographic—from just over 200 in the early 1820s to about 1500 by 1890. (1)

Twyman’s figures also show how lithography grew proportionately much more rapidly than other types of printing, from small beginnings in 1822-23 to almost a third of all London printing firms by 1890. Similar booms were happening in Europe and the USA.

Letterpress printing—a much longer-established method, for books, newspapers and magazines—was also thriving, mostly for black & white material. Lithography found a particular place in the printing of colour images, but was also useful for one- or two-colour items such as contracts, forms, diplomas, certificates and labels. It took a lot of business away from the old intaglio processes for printing in B&W, i.e. engraving and etching on copper and steel.

Amazing though it seems now, in the early years of the Ben Day process, the 1880s—and for some decades after that—lithographic printing was almost exclusively done from heavy stone blocks. For illustrations and posters, one advantage of lithography over wood engraving was size. Wood blocks were small and slow to engrave. Litho stones could be a lot larger in area, as well as faster to prepare. Of course, the larger the stone, the more cumbersome it was.

The stone in the picture below—dating from slightly later—was used to print a cigar box label. The label would have been about 25 x 18 cm, the stone in this case about twice that size. It looks as if it was printing two copies at a time. With small labels and cards, 30 or more copies might have been printed at once, from a very large stone—more on this later.

Social Smoke screensize

Cigar label and printing stone, 1888-1907, from

Larger stones than this were also used for posters. Because of the weight and thickness of the stones—and because stones could break—lithographic methods using thinner, lighter metal (zinc) plates were gradually developed. Eventually these evolved into the “offset litho” almost universally used for printing paper material today (2).

However, when Ben Day patented his “printing films“—later known as “shading mediums“—in 1879, the surface used for most colour printing was still a hefty chunk of limestone. As I showed in Part 4, Day described in his patent documents how his semi-transparent gelatine sheets could be used to imprint patterns of lines, stippled dots or other shapes onto drawing paper or a lithographic printing stone—or even one of the new photo-engraved metal printing plates.

The method might have been attractive to some illustrators, working on paper and board—and I have shown that Day himself used his films this way—but it was the burgeoning field of colour lithographic printing (chromolithography) which responded most enthusiastically to his new shading process.

Twyman photo 01b crop

Ben Day screen on lithographic stone. Photo from M. Twyman’s History of Chromolithography.

Later, notably from 1891, this carried over into the brand new area of metal-plate photoengraving or “process” printing. This was in its infancy in 1879, but would gradually come to dominate the printing of pictures and graphics. It was here that Ben Day shading went on to find its place in the comics—of which, more later.

It is clear that in their first decade—before they were widely taken up by photoengravers—Ben Day’s lines and dots were very extensively used in colour lithography, itself a large and growing field.

Indeed, I will show in this post that Ben Day’s shading mediums did not just share in the success of colour lithography, but were themselves an important factor contributing to that success.

Commercial lithographic printing from stone as well as zinc did not really die out until the 1940s, at least in Britain—though its heyday is usually quoted as the 1870s to 1920s. Shading mediums, including Ben Day’s, were in constant use in commercial lithography from the early 1880s for 50 or 60 years.

This is the forgotten history of the Ben Day dot.

If Ben Day dots are remembered at all in the 21st century, it is for the printing of colour comics—a photoengraved letterpress method—or the exaggerated version of comic-book dots painted by Roy Lichtenstein.

Next time I will move on to photoengraving. This post is about the use and success of the Ben Day method in lithographic printing.

Starting with:

(i) The Importance of the Adjustable Frame

As discussed in Part 4, following the 1879 debut of his printing films, Ben Day’s next patent in 1881 was just as important for the success of his method—the “Adjustable Frame for Printing Films.”

As seen in the 1879 patent, each transparent shading sheet, with its pattern of lines or dots (shown as dotted area A in the diagram below) was fixed to its own wooden frame (B). This framed film became known as a “Ben Day screen“. For clarity, I have tinted the screen orange in the picture below, taken from Day’s 1881 patent document. The new Adjustable Frame held firmly on to the screen, and being hinged, allowed the inked screen to be lowered into position, flat down onto the surface to be imprinted with the Ben Day pattern.

The frame was at a suitable height to be used with a lithographic stone, as shown below. I’ve tinted the stone purple.

Holding Frame 1881 purple and orange cropped

The great advantage provided by this mechanism was the very accurate placement of the Ben Day film on the stone. I suspect the Adjustable Frame was inspired by—one might say derived from—a similar-looking frame which had been recently introduced to the lithographic printing industry. This was used to line up lithographic stones in the best possible register, when printing in two or more colours.

502305_grammar-167_DETAIL_FRAME_purple 72dpi

The picture above is taken from W.D. Richmond’s The Grammar of Lithography (3)—published in book form in 1878, the year before Ben Day’s first patent, but originating as a series of magazine articles starting in 1875. After detailing various ways of registering blocks by hand, Richmond has this to say about the new-fangled device:

Registering machines have also been employed by some lithographers with success, and though they are not usually on sale by dealers… they may be had to order. [The illustration] shows one of these contrivances adapted to a stone. It consists… of a frame adapted to the stone by means of set screws, which answer the double purpose of securing the frame to the stone and adjusting it in position.

The Ben Day screen was quite a different proposition. It often did not need to be positioned on the stone or drawing with any degree of perfect register. For a single application, the screen could be placed by hand, so long as the craftsman could hold it steady while rubbing down the pattern. As seen in Part 4, areas of the image which were not to be shaded were “masked off” with a paper “frisket” (as per Day’s own patent description) or, in lithographic studios, with a layer of liquid gum, painted on and allowed to dry. It was the careful positioning of this “mask” which determined the accuracy of the shaded area, not the precise placement of the Ben Day screen itself.

However, Day realised that applying his shading films more than once would be useful, to create repeated or enhanced patterns. His ingenious twist was to use a device similar to the registering machine—the Adjustable Frame—to mis-register his line and stipple patterns between applications, but by very slight amounts and under very tight control.

On Day’s frame, the adjustment screws moved the frame one thirty-second of an inch per complete turn. “By means of the pointer V and the scale on the dial W the most minute movements of the screws can be regulated and measured,” as Day said in his 1881 Letter Patent.

A 1948 book (4) reports that precise movements of 1/640 of an inch—about 4 hundredths of a millimetre—could be made, implying that the dial had 20 divisions per turn of the screw, which is credible. Day does not actually state this in 1881, and it could have been a later refinement. Clearly though the original device was already quite efficient in its adjustability. (5)

This had a very important application: after imprinting its pattern on the stone once, the Ben Day screen could be lifted off the block, re-inked, replaced in the frame, moved a fraction of an inch, then used to apply a second print of the dot or line pattern. This print would sit alongside the previous one, creating a double pattern. A third was also possible, more if needed.

In Part 4, I showed Day’s parallel line pattern being used for cross-hatching, in which a second set of lines was imprinted over the first—seen below in his own drawings from the 1879 patent. This was shown as a manual procedure.

Cross hatching fig 7 & 10

From 1881, with the Adjustable Frame, it became clear that there was much more utility in his “printing-films” than it might at first have seemed.

Every individual film, Day had now revealed, was able to print multiple patterns.

In diagrams provided with the 1881 patent, Day shows how this could work in practice, with two simple examples. First a line pattern X is repeated at an even spacing to produce a doubly-dark line shading pattern, X’:

1881 X & X'

Then he shows us some Ben Day dots—the first time we have seen any in his own documentation—albeit not the regular grid of dots which we now know so well, but a stippled dot pattern, looking very much hand-drawn. (As we will see, this hand-drawn pattern was not simply a case of technical limitation.)

The original pattern Y1 is shown being doubled to Y2 and tripled to Y3:

1881 Y x 3

Finally at Z he shows a stipple which has been re-applied up to four times, with different areas being pressed with the stylus “according to the shading of the picture or print desired.” In other words the user can to some extent draw with the dots to create a graduated shading effect.

1881 Z

Two notable points emerge from this:

Firstly, whereas today we think of Ben Day dots as regular round dots in a mathematically precise pattern, in their early days they were intended to look like hand-drawn stippling. Day was mimicking the kind of dots that artists and printers were already using. These might be semi-regular—perhaps laid out in curved lines—but they were recognisably marks made by hand.

Secondly, this was just what the commercial lithography industry needed at this point in its continuing development. Benjamin Day’s 1878/9 patent text may have seemed rather tentative about the use of his shading mediums in lithography, but in 1881 they were poised on the brink of major success.

I will now look at the various different ways lithographers had made images on their stones up to this point—and how Ben Day’s patterns fitted into their world.

(ii) Lithographic Shading Techniques Before & With Ben Day

Among the various printing techniques of the 19th century, lithography was something of a magpie and something of a chameleon. Its pioneers looked at other, long-established printing methods, worked out what they could borrow or adapt, and/or how to mimic in their own ways the look of wood engravings, letterpress text, copper and steel engravings, etchings etc. When photographic printing methods took off in the latter part of the century, ways were soon found to imprint photographic images on stone.

Before 1837 though, hand-drawn black and white or two-colour work was the bread-and-butter of the lithographic printers. One of their great advantages was the mixing of text and images on one stone and in one print run, with text that could be more creative than that of the letterpress printers. The latter needed a set of cast metal type for every style of lettering, which had to be printed in straight rows and columns. The lithographer could potentially draw a new style of lettering for a client’s particular needs, and it could flow around the page and be integrated with images.

The Italian billhead below shows some of this, as well as a scene illustrating lithography itself. Click to enlarge, and you should be able to read the original caption which I have left in place.(6)

Italian billhead 1889_72dpi

The basic techniques listed below could be used for:

  • making a single-colour (monochrome) print—usually black ink on white paper
  • or for one of the stones which would be printed in coloured ink as part of a tinted print (black plus one or two colours)
  • or one of the stones used for a fully-coloured lithograph. A typical colour print might use 9 colours, and so require 9 stones. Fewer stones, or more, could be used as needed.

In every case, the ink used to make the image on the stone was black—a special grease-based black ink. The final, printable, version of the image, was “etched” chemically onto the stone. It then repelled water and attracted the printing ink used to print the image onto paper. The printing ink could be whichever colour was required. For more detail, see Part 4.

The main techniques used were:

Ink drawing directly onto smooth, polished stone

A brush or pen could be used, with the black greasy ink in a liquid form called tusche. This gave a solid line—or dot, where needed—and could be used on a smooth stone to imitate fairly closely a drawing done on paper.

Engraving on stone

Fine line work imitating closely the look of copper or steel engravings could be achieved. The stone was coated with a thin gum layer, then a fine point used to scrape the gum off, creating a drawing in lines and dots of exposed stone—or to some extent actually engraved stone. The final inked image, with the gum washed off, could produce prints almost indistinguishable from a real metal engraving.

When wood engraving became the world’s favourite method for printing pictures (see Part 4) lithographers learned to mimic the “white lines on black” look by laying down ink on the stone, then scraping it off to create the white lines of the final image.

Both of these techniques were complicated and required a great deal of training and skill to execute.

Generally speaking, lithographic printing, like letterpress, could print only solid areas of colour—in the case of a black & white image, no shades of grey. However, each line or area of solid colour could be very thin / small. Small dots could be drawn with a pen, larger ones with a brush—again, on smooth stones. This kind of shading—stippling—came into its own later in the day, and will be looked at below.

The main earlier form of dot-making was…

Crayon or “chalk” drawing on rough, “grained” stone

On a rough textured or “grained” stone, a greasy black crayon—called rather misleadingly “chalk”—could be used. This gave a pleasing “natural” effect something like a drawing done with actual chalk, charcoal or soft pencil on a “toothed” paper. This was useful for shading in lithography because it was essentially a pattern of tiny dots—a fairly random distribution of dots of many sizes. Each dot on the stone could be printed from, as a small area of solid colour.

This illustration shows some typical patterns achieved with crayon / chalk from a 1940 book by renowned lithographer Thomas Griffits. The upper rectangles are about 40 x 35 mm on the page. (7)


And below is a very skilled example (only 20 x 50 mm in size, originally) by Charles Hullmandel, one of the pioneers of lithography, reprinted by Michael Twyman—again, I have left his caption in place. (8)

Twyman photo of crayon from First 100 y_72dpi

This kind of drawing was not as straightforward as it might look. At a basic practical level, it had to be done without the slightest touch of the artist’s hand onto the stone—due to the method used to etch the image, any tiny, unseen greasy residue would show up on the final print as a mark.

The drawing itself could easily turn blotchy and uneven, whereas an even tone or a smooth transition was usually what was required. This is deliberately shown in the “flat chalk” example above. The others have been carefully worked using repeated strokes with the point of a sharp crayon, not a flat edge.

“Crayon or chalk work calls for a delicacy and refinement. Only the most experienced lithographic artists are capable of doing real justice to this class of work.” So wrote Henry J. Rhodes, lecturer in lithography at the Royal Technical College, Glasgow, in a book of 1914 (9). He also stressed that crayon work required great skill from “the provers, transferrers and printers”—i.e., even if the artist did his or her job well, shoddy printing techniques could easily mess it up. (I will return to “transferring” later.)

Artists like Delacroix, Goya, Manet, Whistler and Toulouse-Lautrec used crayon lithography for prints or posters, but an army of mainly nameless commercial artists also had to master it for their day-to-day work.

Below is a fairly commonplace lithograph from 1834, bearing the name of its publisher but, typically, not its artist—though the eagle-eyed will spot a semi-legible date and initials in the space at bottom right. This was almost certainly drawn on grained stone. Under the main image I have shown some details at different levels of enlargement. The full image is about 23 x 15.5 cm. Finer details (bottom row) each about 12 x 9 mm.

Stipple BW Litho w details

With his 1881 patent, Ben Day demonstrated that his shading technique could produce a great variety of patterns, including something rather like the random “natural” dots of chalk / crayon drawing, as seen at Y and Z in his diagrams. Also, this could be done using not only a very fine degree of control but also some creative skill or spontaneity, as the job demanded. Furthermore it might be done without employing a skilled artist—potentially a significant saving in time and money.

Later on, Ben Day also produced shading tints which directly imitated areas of crayon drawing, without the need for second, third or more applications. I have selected the most crayon-like below, from Ben Day proof pages printed sometime between 1911 and 1936. It is likely that some or all of these same patterns were in use much earlier than that. Bamber Gascoigne, in his 1986 book How To Identify Prints, reports a Ben Day advertisement from 1887, showing more than a hundred varieties of screen already available, including grained tints. (10)

grains x4 72dpi

Here is a direct comparison of Hullmandel’s ideal chalk shading, a real lithograph, and one of Ben Day’s patterns:

Crayon on stone montage

I have shown black & white examples, but crayon / chalk drawing on stone was used for a lot of early chromolithography, i.e. colour work. Godefroy Engelmann, pioneer and early patenter of colour methods (1837) used mainly crayon work.

From the very start of his endeavour, though, Day would also have been aware of another key factor—one which had already pushed lithographic image-making away from chalk drawing on rough stone and inexorably towards the use of smooth, polished stones and a lot more of a different kind of shading: stippling.


By the 1850s and 60s steam-powered lithographic printing presses were increasingly replacing the old, slow hand-presses. An early pioneer of the powered litho press was the Parisian, Hippolyte Marinoni.  We shall be meeting him again later in the Ben Day story.

The future of commercial lithography clearly lay with the powered press.

And as a general rule, the powered presses could not handle rough stone, only smooth—mainly because they used different ink rollers from the manual machines, and did not dampen the paper between printings (11).

That meant that the future also belonged to techniques for creating images on smooth stone.

This was when stippled shading gradually started to take over from chalk/crayon work.

As Michael Twyman puts it, “Pen and ink stippling (with or without the support of mechanical tints [i.e. Ben Day patterns]) became the bread and butter technique for commercial work, and was adopted for the reproduction of popular paintings, magazine and book illustrations, greeting cards, scraps, advertising and ephemera. It remained the staple method of chromolithography until the demise of the process, and is especially obvious in trade cards and labels, where its visual characteristics often seem to have been exploited for their own sake.”

I showed examples of hand stippling on a scenic postcard in Part 4. I don’t know the date of this, but judging by the lack of regularity in pattern of the dots, most or all of the stippling looks hand-done to me:

Inversnaid waterfall

Henry Rhodes provided this example (original image 20 x 50 mm) of various ways stippling could be done by hand, in his 1914 book:

Rhodes Hand Stipple

I note in particular that in places dots and lines are used together. This could be done by superimposing more than one Ben Day pattern as well.

Rhodes goes on to describe “shading mediums” and how they were applied to a stone or plate, though without mentioning Ben Day by name, and provides this example of one (54 x 50 mm):

Rhodes Shading medium

The “festooned” or “fan-shaped” hand-stippled pattern became a firm favourite in lithographic printing. In their idealised form, the curves overlapped each other constantly, so the pattern could be extended indefinitely over a large area.

Lithographic artists, craftsmen and printers learned during their apprenticeships that, when drawing stipple, they must avoid dots in straight lines. In this they were partly imitating the copper engravers who came before them. Curves and festoons of dots were to be preferred, as giving a more “natural” look that was easier on the eye. In addition, the human hand is quite well suited to drawing a curved array of dots. You can easily try this out for yourself.

Similar forms were occasionally seen in wood engraving, amongst the generally relentless linearity, in the negative version—white dots on black. H. Pisan, engraver of Gustave Doré‘s  Bible illustration Achan Stoned (c.1865) used a few curved arrays of dots on his black sky, for example:

Achan-5 black sky white stipple

The examples below are from The Magazine of Art, 1891 & 1893. The bottom right detail shows how wood engravers also had their own version of black dot stippling, created effectively by carving cross-hatched white lines on black, leaving fragmented black lines reduced to a dotty pattern. Missing “dots”, clearly seen here, might be where the tiny remaining bits of wood simply broke off.

B&W stipple x 5

Ben Day and Stipple

The Ben Day shading mediums, or mechanical tints, were ideal for use on smooth stone. Indeed, the polished hard surface of lithographic limestone blocks took the pattern from a Ben Day screen better than the rougher, more absorbent surface of drawing paper. (The same advantage applied to smooth, hard zinc—i.e. metal—printing plates in later years.)

Though the early years of the Ben Day tints are not well documented, it appears that these curvaceous stippled patterns were introduced into his range from the very beginning of their commercial use, or very near it. The 1887 advertisement reported by Bamber Gascoigne offered line, stipple, grain and other patterns.

Ben Day’s first patent for an actual dot pattern, in 1900, was for just such a stipple pattern:

Patent 1900 STIPPLE_72dpi

A close-up look at the shapes of these dots shows that they probably originated on a specially made etched copper plate. From this they were moulded in gelatine to create the printing surface of the Ben Day screen, as described in Part 4.

Patent 1900 STIPPLE_detail_72dpi

The only other Ben Day dot patent I have found was for a graduated tone of the same or a similar pattern, in 1901:

Patent 1901 STIPPLE_72dpi

I have a catalogue of Day’s products, sold to me as 1911 vintage. The cover does have a 1911 copyright, but the booklet is designed for newer pages to be inserted. One of the interior pages is copyright 1936. (12)

Front cover

In these pages 172 different screens are shown. Below I have collected, from different pages, all the 26 stipple tones. Most of them are on one page headed “Hand Stipples.” Lithographic studios would typically have kept a limited number of Ben Day screens on their shelves, perhaps ten or fewer, which they were familiar with and could use flexibly. Special orders might be put in for unusual screens where needed.


It is worth noting that several of these patterns are not flat, even tones, but graduated from light to dark, and that three of them use white dots on a black ground.

I have yet to find any definite examples of Ben Day lines in full colour lithographic illustration, though it is likely they would occur in black & white work, e.g. for shading of lettering, and many coloured maps almost certainly used Ben Day lines—more later.

The evidence shows that, in colour work at least, the so-called “hand stipples” were the favoured Ben Day tones. The regular grids of dots which we know from 20th century comics were a later development, giving a look more like the new “halftone” process—of which, more in a future post.

Not everyone was keen on stippling, however. In 1905 David Cumming, lecturer in lithography at the Heriot-Watt College, Edinburgh, wrote: “Hand stippling… is really an imitation of grained stone drawing, and is well adapted for machine printing. In artistic effect and softness it comes far short of grained stone work, but for commercial purposes it answers admirably…” Later in the same book, he is more judgmental: “The stipple dots, especially if visible in the stronger colours, are very offensive from an artistic point of view.” (13)

Bamber Gascoigne says of Ben Day screens: “It was argued that such textures would look natural since the originals, on which the embossing was based, had all been hand drawn. In fact they have a very mechanical look. The ordinary late 19th century lithograph, sometimes to the eye but certainly through a [magnifying] glass, will seem to have an advanced case of the measles.”

The same witticism had been applied to Roy Lichtensteins’s so-called Ben Day dots in the 1960s. Actually, any spots seen on people’s faces or other skin in old lithographs are most likely to be hand-drawn. Nonetheless, Gascoigne’s point is not wrong—the dots on many areas of many pictures are somewhat obvious, though I would emphasise that Ben Day stippling is no more spotty than its hand-drawn counterpart.

Thomas Griffits managed to write a whole book on The Technique of Colour Printing by Lithography (1940) without once mentioning the distasteful matter of stippling, hand or mechanical. His book provided the images of chalk shading above. As Frank Pick’s introduction made clear, this was a book about lithography as art—or at least, a craft capable of producing faithful reproductions of proper art, i.e. oil or water-colour paintings. “Now the lithographic poster is back in the streets on the ubiquitous hoarding,” wrote Pick. “The commercial printer discovered the ease with which the invention could be exploited, the cheapness by which copies of anything could be multiplied, and lithography has had to bear the unjust burdens of these sins against its honour.”

As joint pioneers of the British railway poster, now seen as an artform in its own right, perhaps Pick and Griffits both felt they were themselves sinners—or more likely, feared they were seen as such. Possibly they sought to atone by writing stippling out of the story of lithography. (14)

Ben Day Dots in Action

(a) Simple Tints

The scholar of the Ben Day dot is concerned less with the refined artistic print, more with the commercial end of the lithographic trade. Alongside some admittedly shoddy work, a great deal of admirable image-making was done. This gold-edged peacock, for example, was printed as a label for a bale of cloth, probably in Manchester sometime in the first half of the twentieth century.

Peacock textile label UK

Generally, hand drawing and hand stippling would have been used for details like faces, hands, most clothing—anything which needed careful delineation and individual “modelling”. Though Ben Day was keen to stress the variations that could be achieved with his dots, in practice they were often used, as here, for flat areas of tone like backgrounds.

On this label, lines and stipples done by hand are evident on parts of the peacock and the mound he stands on, but the background is done with two colours of Ben Day, yellow and pink, sometimes overlapping to make a pale orange. Each detail shown here is about 30 x 12 mm on the label. Full image area = 4.25 x 5.25 ins or 107 x 134 mm approx.

Peacock details x3

Like the peacock, the Naranjada label shown below is probably an early 20th century production—perhaps a conscious British emulation of the famous brightly-coloured Californian fruit crate labels. The oval is 90 x 70 mm, 3.5 x 2.75 inches. Here the background clearly shows a doubling up of the blue dots in places. In addition, I think some of the orange dots on the fruit itself are done with Ben Day.

Naranjada full and details ii

As Twyman points out, because the Ben Day stipple patterns imitated hand-drawn dots, it can be difficult or impossible to tell them apart when looking at a lithographic print—especially when hand work could be added to augment mechanical tints. Looking for precisely repeated elements in the pattern, and comparing the patterns to known examples, e.g. those in the catalogue, may help.

Another way to detect Ben Day dots might be to look for evidence of the edges of masked areas. At the stage when the Ben Day dots were imprinted onto the stone or plate with black ink, a liquid gum was painted on first, to mask off areas where the shading was not wanted. Any whole dots, or parts of dots, which were inked down over the dried gum layer would have been washed off with the “mask”.

I think this can be seen on the Naranjada orange segments, where small masked patches show as pale orange ovals between the darker orange dotted areas. At the edge of these areas some dots seem to have been “cut in half” where they overlapped the mask.  I have tried to show this in 20x and 400x magnifications below (15). Also, in places on the orange segment, the dot pattern is overlapped on itself for a darker colour.

Naranjada micro twice

Hand-drawn dots, I’m fairly certain, were simply drawn on the stone without requiring any masking—thus every hand-drawn dot should show as a full round dot, with no “cut off” fragments. The handmade dots would often get smaller at the edges of shaded areas, but each dot would still be a round shape, no semicircles etc. The whole orange on this label has definite hand-stippled shading.

The image below is earlier, and can be dated quite precisely, as it is from an advertising insert in the April 1888 edition of The Magazine of Art (16). Image size= 125 x 195 mm, 5 x 7.75 inches approx. On the red stone, the lithographer has used two types of Ben Day shading, line and stipple, overlapping in places. This works quite well, as part of the shadowing accentuating the “3-D” look of the folded paper, but shows the danger of creating “Moiré”-type patterns when overlapping tints. A hint of such a pattern is emerging here. More on this later.

Sun-life full and details72 dpi

(b) More Complex Use of Ben Day Dots

The Boy’s Own Paper, or B.O.P. as it liked to be known, launched in 1879 and surviving until 1967, provides an enduring record of trends in illustration and printing. Bound hardback volumes are available fairly cheaply. I have an example from 1890 / 91, complete with advertising inserts and the colour lithographs occasionally issued with this mainly black & white weekly—both often missing from such books. While the majority of the illustrations are still wood engravings at this time, a very few are printed directly from line drawings by the new (ish) photoengraving process.

The first lithograph, at the front of the book, is a fold-out more than three pages in length. Readers of the B.O.P. were never treated to pictures of exotic ladies, however. The subject of this picture is the uniforms of the British cavalry—far more suitable for good Victorian boys. The two illustrations below show only the left end of the print (which is the full height of the image area, 260 mm) and part of its right end.

Detail_left side_72dpi  Detail_right side_72dpi

Below are areas of sky in close-up. (Each image approx. 40 x 40 mm.) These views reveal the complexity of the Ben Day work. Not only has a stipple pattern of large blue dots has been laid down multiple times, it is also joined by a different, tighter pattern of much smaller blue dots. Some areas which at first may look plain white or pale blue also have grey dots, in addition to the more obvious grey areas themselves.

Sky details x 6
In these other close-ups, below: the red stone was clearly off register (by a little less than 1 mm); dark Ben Day dots appear to have been used on the clothing of the soldiers, which is somewhat unusual; Ben Day is used extensively in background areas; complex mixing of overlapping colours makes it very difficult to see how many colours were used.

Details x 4

Below is Moonrise off Gravesend, a lithographed copy of an 1889 painting, which appeared with the B.O.P. of May 2nd, 1891. (Picture area c. 160 x 240 mm. The framing colour in this case was not done in metallic ink, unlike the peacock label above). This is a good example of the art of “facsimile”—the closest possible copying of an actual painting—though a commercial product like this is a far cry from the expensive, largely crayon-worked artistic prints which would have satisfied the demands of a Thomas Griffits. For the young readers of the B.O.P. though, it provided a tasty treat. For us, it also supplies ample use of Ben Day’s shading mediums for enjoyment and study.

Moonrise off Gravesend 72dpi

All I would add in words to the details below is this question: would the picture look any better if some underpaid stipple artist had driven themselves insane—and possibly first blind—drawing each dot by hand? (17)

Moonrise off Gravesend_DETAILS x8b_72dpi

Also from my own collection comes another commercial product, like the B.O.P. aimed at a middle-income market, I would guess—though she may have been a promotional item. The calendar girl below was published in 1886 for the year ahead, 1887. Her background, outside the oval, is a slightly shiny gold, though not as sparkly as the peacock’s border, and sadly has been affected by moisture over the years.

72dpi Calendar 1887 small

The image area is 405 x 470 mm or 16 x 18.5 inches approx.—and that is with the calendar area trimmed off. (Not by me, I hasten to add.) Imagine the weight of those stones! And how many stones—how many colours, that is—do we think were used? Perhaps a look at some close-ups will help us find out…

72dpi_3 details

Having used a magnifying glass on the original print, I think there are nine colours here, as well as the gold—which makes the print absolutely typical of its kind. The colours I see are: flesh tone, dark brown, mid-brown, dark green, pale green, pale blue, mid-blue, scarlet red and a tiny bit of yellow. What looks like black is, I think, dark brown plus dark green. At first glance, the yellow seems to have been used only on her ear-ring, which would surely have been a huge waste of the large stone used to print it. A closer look shows that the gold border is almost certainly printed over yellow, to give it more “body”. Magnified, the yellow just shows at the edges.

The background within the oval uses Ben Day patterns—dark green and mid-brown dots over a pale green ground, with multiple applications of the dots in the darker areas. On her face the pale blue (looking grey) and scarlet dots printed over the flesh tone are, I think, hand-drawn—likewise the mid-brown dots in the more shadowy areas of her skin. The details below show the blue and red dots in typical curved arrays, like the Ben Day versions, but varying in size and distribution in a way which is characteristic of hand-stippling. The brown dots under the eye have been done in a combination of large, probably brush-painted, dots with some tiny pen-stipples.

72 dpi face details x2 AB

Before leaving this fine example of commercial work, let us reflect on the challenges facing its creator or creators—there was probably a team, each working on one or more of the stones. One person had to break down the image—probably an original painting—by a process of sketching and thought experiment, into a printable range of colours. An outline image was traced from the original to copy onto each of the nine stones, in a non-greasy ink which would not become part of the final images. (As described in Part 4.)

Then, using their skill and judgement, they drew images (and imprinted Ben Day patterns) on the stones, one for each colour, in black ink—visualising in their heads how the coloured combination of images would look. Time and budget permitting, they may have printed proofs of some individual colours or colour combinations as they went along, to guide them further in preparing the next stones in the sequence.

As if that wasn’t hard enough, the images all had to be in the closest possible register, not to mention the technical challenges of removing gum masks without taking off any ink, “etching” each stone correctly, etc.

Given all that, is it any wonder that lithographers embraced the savings of time and effort which Ben Day’s shading mediums offered?

And finally…

Before leaving the subject of stippling, one last image from my own collection—just for the fun of it. It’s by Tom Browne—artist of the Johnnie Walker whisky man, and creator of the comic strip Weary Willie & Tired Tim—from The Boy’s Own Paper of 1902. The name of the company which did the lithography, Tom Browne and Co. of Nottingham, is no coincidence—it was indeed Browne’s own.

Tom Browne chromo lithograph full 72dpi

I’ll let the stippling on this one—and the drawing—speak for itself…

Tom Browne chromo lithograph details x 6_72dpi


This technique of dot-making is closely related to stippling, and also known as “splatter”, “splash work”, “sprinkling”  or simply “toothbrush” after the main tool used in creating it.  Quoting Henry Rhodes’ Art of Lithography:

“A means of obtaining an irregular flat tint… It is effected by dipping a tooth or similar brush into lithographic writing ink and then going over the tips of the hairs with some such instrument as the small blade of a pocket knife in such a way as to cause the hairs to spring smartly forward. The splashes thus thrown produce a tint.”

If that is less than clear, perhaps a picture will be worth the proverbial thousand words:


The illo is from Thomas Griffits’ book—the one that failed to mention stipple. Spatter / splatter on the other hand clearly had the seal of artistic approval. Griffits added that a fine wire mesh held between the toothbrush and the stone could break up the larger blobs of ink, making a finer pattern.

Rhodes wasn’t kidding about “irregular” tint. The randomness of the spatter pattern was (and remains) part of its appeal, and something it had in common with the stone grain. Spatter also anticipated the airbrush, with its much more regular, controllable jet of ink droplets. That came into use through the late 1880s in the US and the 90s in the UK, its driving force of compressed air initially produced by a foot-pump.

The hands-on excitement of spatter ensures it will continue to inspire young artists, at least as long as ink remains in use. (I’m not aware of a precise computer screen equivalent.) The examples below are from an unpublished comic strip from 1978, done on paper, of course, not stone. The close-ups are 20mm and 30mm across respectively. Occasional imperfections in the masking process can be seen. (18)


Spatter work is said to be quite widely used in lithography. Did Ben Day, magpie and chameleon in his own right, set out to imitate it? No. 329 in the catalogue is certainly similar.

329 spatter grain_72dpi

Transfer Paper

In the very early days of lithography, its inventor Alois Senefelder realised that once he had printed an image from a stone onto paper with lithographic ink, when still wet it could be transferred by pressure onto another lithographic stone. Michael Twyman says that Senefelder considered this as important as the printing process itself. Thanks to him, and the ingenuity of his fellow lithographers who developed the idea over the years, he was not far wrong.

Special transfer papers were soon produced, with a coating which took lithographic ink well while absorbing as little of it as possible. By dampening the back of the paper and pressing the paper down onto a fresh stone, an image could be transferred from one stone to another, even days after it was put on the paper.

Transfer paper was a direct ancestor of the Ben Day process.

But long before Benjamin Day had his great brainwave, as commercial lithography grew and developed, transfer paper was crucial to its expansion. It was used in many inventive ways well beyond the basic taking of images from one stone to another, or “re-transfer”. Before describing in detail how to make eleven different types of transfer, David Cumming says in his 1905 book:

“Before the era of power driven machines there were comparatively few re-transfers used, a large proportion of the work being drawn direct on stone and printed from these original drawings. The introduction of power machines… made the use of re-transfers imperative for rapidity in printing and cheapness in production. Instead of a few labels being put on a stone 10 x 15 or 15 x 20 [inches] and printed at the rate of a few hundred sheets each day, printing stones and plates are now made up to double or quadruple these sizes (see below), and printed at rates from 900 to 4,000 sheets per hour.”

Uses of transfer paper included:

  • Drawings and lettering—even typeset text—on transfer paper could be done the right way round, unlike work directly on the stone, which always had to be left-right reversed or mirror-imaged. When transferring to stone from paper, the reversing happened automatically. This was massively advantageous, though details could be lost and fine lines broken up in the transferring process.
  • Artists could work more easily from home or studio on paper. Stones were sent out from litho studios to artists but their size and weight made this a difficult undertaking.
  • Michael Twyman points out that Rodolphe Töpffer, Swiss pioneer of an early form of comic strip, re-drew his graphic narratives on transfer paper from 1837 in order to have them lithographically printed for the public. Previously, only pupils and friends had seen his pen-and-ink versions. As noted above, the freedom to draw and hand-letter his stories at the same time was a particularly lithographic advantage. His Les Amours de Mr Vieux Bois was successful enough to be bootlegged, initially by tracing a copy on transfer paper in Paris. The 1842 U.S. bootleg (as The Adventures of Mr Obadiah Oldbuck) is often seen as the first American comic or graphic novel. We shall be meeting Mr Oldbuck later on in the sometimes surprising story of Ben Day.

Bro Jonathan extra

  • Transfer paper could be made almost transparent, so images—including handwritten letters and signatures—could be copied easily by tracing.
  • Given the original printing blocks or plates (or an electrotype or stereotype) a wood or metal engraving could be printed on transfer paper, put on a stone—with or without amendments—then reprinted lithographically.
  • Litho stones could print thousands of copies, but the surface did eventually wear down and begin to lose its image. Using transfer paper, an original “mother stone” could be kept safe and sound, its image transferred to other stones which did all the hard graft of printing.
  • The small images that made up a coloured label or card could be copied many times onto a large stone and printed in quantity, as mentioned above. The photo below, from Michael Twyman’s First Hundred Years, is an uncut sheet (625 x 478 mm) printed by this method. Assuming the two women were drawn together, 29 copies of the original image (80 x 55mm) had to be made, plus an extra half for the woman squeezed in on her own at bottom left. This was done perhaps on 7 stones, if 7 colours were used—perhaps 210 transfers in all. The pay-off for all that work was a quick print run yielding 29-and-a-half times as many cards per impression, plus a set of mother stones which could be used again.

Multi litho first 100y 72 dpi

More pertinently to the Ben Day story, not just images and letters, but any pattern which could be printed onto transfer paper could then be laid down onto a smooth stone. Masking was used to ensure only the necessary areas of the stone took the pattern from the paper. If you are thinking that this sounds very much like the way Ben Day’s screens worked… read on.

  • It was often desirable in the early days of smooth stones / powered presses to re-create the texture of crayon-work on rough stone. This could be done relatively simply by drawing on a real rough-grained stone, printing by hand-press onto transfer paper, and transferring to a smooth stone. Either a whole drawing might be transferred, or an area of grained pattern for use as a tint on the smooth stone.
  • A stipple or lined pattern could be etched or engraved on the whole area of a copper printing plate, using the same techniques as making a picture (see Part 4 for details). The plate could be then be inked, the dots or lines printed on transfer paper, then transferred onto a smooth stone. Once a metal plate had been prepared in this way it could be used over and over again. Cumming shows some of these line patterns in his 1905 Handbook of Lithography. The black semi-circle at the top is for contrast with an area of “solid” colour. (His original rectangles are 28 x 42 mm.)

Transfer patterns black x 4 72 dpi

  •  The Morocco pattern above also shows how other printing surfaces, not just engraved metal plates, could be used to make patterns on transfer paper. The original Morocco print would have been made directly from leather.
  • Cumming also shows the patterns in green, as an example of colour printing from a stone tinted in this way. I have put one next to the black version here.

Transfer patterns black & green cross 72 dpi

  • As Cumming also notes, transferred lines were very useful for colouring maps. Importantly, the colour mixes achieved in this way were very predictable. They used what W.D. Richmond, in his Grammar of Lithography, calls “quarter tints”—lines giving 25% of the full or solid colour—transferred at the correct angles. Cumming shows seven colours being made from the three primaries (below). He could have added several more if he had used the full available range or “gamut” of combinations—but that many colours were generally not needed. Richmond and Cumming both note that the stone must be thoroughly washed between each transfer of lines, which was largely not required with the Ben Day method. The arrival of Day’s screens must have made all this so much easier—something I will return to below, and also pick up on in my next post.

Litho colour maps_72dpi

  • In a further clever twist, using the same kind of prepared copper plates, or a rough stone, but with no ink, transfer papers could be embossed by pressing them very firmly onto the metal with its line or dot pattern, or the stone’s rough surface. The surface of the paper then held a pattern of raised lines or dots which could be drawn on, with a lithographic crayon. Careful use of the crayon produced an image in a similar way to drawing on rough stone—an image that looked like rough stone crayon work, or a more regular pattern of dots or lines, depending on what had been embossed on the paper. The resulting drawing—or just an area of tint for shading—could be transferred onto a smooth stone. Cumming shows a number of these stone-grained patterns in his illustration below, noting that skill and care is needed to draw on them, just as it was on rough stone.

Grained paper black top row black & green_72 dpi

In his Grammar of Lithography, written in 1875-78, W.D. Richmond wrote about the new type of embossed transfer paper which had been patented in 1867 by Thomas Nelson, of Edinburgh, Scotland. Richmond noted, somewhat in contrast to Cumming above, that the regularity of dots on Nelson’s stippled paper made it easier to draw on than rough stone, and produced a crayoned image “more open and better fit for transferring and printing from.”

Comics historian Andy Bleck recently found a book published in 1890 by T. Nelson and Sons of Edinburgh and New York—which I am fairly certain is the family company of the same Thomas Nelson (though it was named for his father, Thomas Senior). Pictures of the Childhood of Jesus is illustrated with six really splendid full-page colour lithographs, as well as its cover. I reproduce one below. (Original image 192 x 240mm.)

72dpi_Childhood of Jesus page

Close-up views show that the stipple used is almost certainly not done using Ben Day—there is generally a lack of the characteristic semi-circular festoons of dots. I strongly suspect that we are seeing Thomas Nelson’s patented transfer paper at work here. (Left hand column about 35mm across on the page, right hand column 17mm.)

72dpi_Childhood of Jesus details

Writing about Nelson’s embossed dots, W.D. Richmond added: “Nevertheless, the stippled plate, by its mechanical mode of production, produces a kind of pattern that is objectionable to the practised eye, which, added to its high price, has given an impetus to paper prepared by the old method. [I.e. from an inked grained stone.]” Both of those objections would later be raised to Ben Day dots.

And, as with VHS vs. Betamax, or MP3 vs. Super Audio CD, the technically superior product is not always the one that wins the day. Twyman reports that the same author, Richmond, wrote in his later book on colour lithography (c. 1885) that patterns transferred on paper from copper plates had largely been superseded by mechanical tints, i.e. the Ben Day screens, which had “led to a great saving in labour… ” And he admitted: “The results are such as are unattainable by hand labour.” In other words, embossed or printed transfer paper may have won out over transferring patterns from stone, but was then itself largely wiped out by the next evolutionary step.

Thomas Nelson’s own lithographers probably weren’t the only team to continue using Nelson’s embossed paper into the 1890s, though. It may have been more than loyalty to the family firm—the results they got were undeniably very good. (19)

Ben Day as Successor to Transfer Paper

As noted above, the stippled pattern on gelatine film which Ben Day patented in 1900 was almost certainly created used an etched copper plate as the mould. This, along with their very similar method of use, makes it clear that the Ben Day film was a close relative of embossed transfer paper.

In fact, going back to Day’s Letter Patent which he submitted in January 1878 for his original “Improvement in Printing-Films,” he describes how his early lined films were made from lines “prepared or engraved upon wood, metal or other suitable material,” from which moulds were made (see Part 4). Because he was using hot liquid gelatine to make his films, his method had to be different from embossing patterns onto transfer paper. Otherwise the principle was very much the same.

Also, we have seen above how transfer paper was inked with a pattern in two distinct ways, before the pattern was transferred to a smooth lithographic stone:

  • a patterned surface—rough stone, leather, a metal plate etched with dots or engraved with lines, set metal type—was suitably inked up, and the image of the pattern printed onto the transfer paper.
  • Embossed transfer paper, on which the pattern existed as a series of small raised “pimples” for dots or ridges for lines, was inked using a lithographic chalk / crayon.

It may appear from my account above that Ben Day’s Rapid Shading Mediums were specifically designed to do some of what transfer paper did—in effect, combining the two roles described above—but to do it faster and better.

Is there any actual contemporary evidence that this was Day’s express intention?

In Part 4 I looked in some detail at Day’s own words, in the 1878 Letter Patent. I noted a persistent lack of clarity in his statements about how his product would fit into the printing methods of the time. Having looked in detail at lithographic image-making, it is worth revisiting Day’s original text.

Ben Day was clearly aware of predecessors to his own shading mediums. The very name of his patent, “Improvement in Printing-Films,” makes that clear. He also says:

“I am aware of the processes described in English patents… of 1867 and 1871; but these do not show a thin, tough, and transparent printing-film like mine, nor the process of producing the impression by the abrasive action of a stylus upon the back of the film…”

I’m certain that at least one of these “English patents” was Thomas Nelson’s, for his embossed transfer paper.

Day also noted that his films were “designed for… printing and the preparation and finishing of drawings, printing and copying surfaces, &c.” Also: “…the quick and rapid production of printing and copying surfaces for lithographic printing…” The main “printing surface” of the time was lithographic stone. The only “copying surfaces” were transfer paper and lithographic stone, as in the “mother stone” method as noted above.

Though his patent showed only lines being imprinted, he mentioned that it could be used for “…any kind of stippling, graining, hatching, lining or shading… with the utmost precision, rapidity and excellency of finish…” Unlike transfer paper, Day’s films were semi-transparent, so lithographers could see where they were putting their shading (20). Combine this with the Adjustable Frame and precision and rapidity are certainly enhanced.

Day also emphasized repeatedly how flexible his patterns were—that is, varying the pressure used when laying a pattern down could produce a darker or lighter tint (or even a wobbly or “waved” line. While this may have been possible to a slight extent with transfer paper, it did not have the rubbery, elastic surface of Day’s film, which theoretically gave the latter far more variability.

Day also notes that a piece of typeset text could be imprinted on a Ben Day film for reproduction. This baffled me at first, as I was thinking in terms of shading and tinting. Using type as shading may not seem shocking to us now, but it would have been very avant-garde in 1878. Day was of course thinking of far more conventional use of text, which many lithographers would have been copying onto stone via transfer paper as a matter of routine.

They rarely attempted a whole book or magazine’s worth of text. It was too time-consuming and the results of uncertain quality—the transfer process always degrading an image slightly. Some short children’s books were printed this way—”nursery” books with very limited amounts of text in a large size, and a lot of pictures. Otherwise, lithographed pictures and letterpress text were separately printed, and the pages combined at the binding stage. Day may have felt his more direct method of imprinting text would offer a useful advantage here. In practice, it probably didn’t—at least, I haven’t seen any accounts of it being used this way.

Discussing how difficult making lined shading or cross hatching is “either in drawing or engraving by hand in the usual manner” Day claims that his new method can achieve “in one hour’s time… an amount of work that would require a month’s labor if executed in the usual manner.” This seems like an exaggeration, but if “the usual manner” included the original engraving of a lined or cross hatched copper plate, from which transfer paper was to be printed, it might be about right. If the lithographer had his prepared metal plate on hand for regular use… perhaps not. Equally, Day might have been comparing a lithograph made using his lined film with a copper or steel engraving done from scratch, or a similar engraving on stone, in which case a month was again perhaps not too far off the mark.

Day’s text repeatedly stressed the savings in time and labour offered by his new method, and, exaggerations aside, he clearly had a point.

A lithographer used to preparing new transfer papers for every job—either printed from a metal plate or rough stone etc., or crayoned onto embossed paper—would have immediately seen the advantages of Day’s system. For example, inking a Ben Day film with a roller was a lot easier than carefully drawing an area of even tone on an embossed paper with a lithographic crayon. And, unlike a piece of transfer paper—used once then discarded—each Ben Day film could be inked, used, re-inked, used again if need be, in doubling up or tripling the pattern—and the ink was then washed off the screen and it was put back on the shelf for next time.

If only Ben Day had been more explicit about all this in his original patent, instead of dropping vague hints… how many weeks of painstaking research might have been avoided? Others have noted that patent texts are sometime written with just enough detail to ensure a patent is granted, but not so much that all one’s secrets are given away. It may even be that Day’s repeated emphasis on the “artistic and decorative purposes” of his films was something of a smokescreen, meant to hide their true primary utility for printers.

The arrival in 1881 of the Adjustable Frame, as noted above, gave Day’s films further major advantages. And it appears that from then on, the printing business took them up in a very big way.

Ben Day as Success Story

Michael Twyman states, in his History of Chromolithography, that English patents for the Ben Day method were taken out in 1881 and 1882. He also shows an American Ben Day advertisement from 1891 stating that the system was “Patented in the US, Canada, Great Britain, France, Germany and Belgium.” The photo below of a Ben Day screen is also from his book. It shows instructions printed in English, Italian, Spanish, French, German and what I am fairly certain is Russian.

Ben Day screen and case Twyman History_72 dpi

In British publications of the 1880s and 90s, it is common to find colour lithographs—with Ben Day dots clearly on view—which had been printed in Germany and Holland. This does not necessarily mean that the whole book or magazine was printed abroad. The bulk of the pages may have been printed by letterpress closer to home.

However, there must have been some reluctance to use the new mechanical tints, in some cases on a national level. Twyman shows evidence that, in 1889 at least, French lithographers were not keen on Ben Day, preferring to continue with hand methods. I suspect this changed later. Certainly I think that the French were at the forefront of using Ben Day tints in letterpress printing in 1891, though that part of the story will be told next time.

I would love to know more about how Day marketed his “printing-films” to the printing business, especially in the early years. I haven’t been able to find any contemporary sources for this. But there is little doubt that the Ben Day system was very successful, significantly changing the industry—indeed, contributing to its continued growth in a fairly major way. How do we know this?

Accounts from Twyman and Gascoine tell us that Ben Day shading was highly prevalent in the last ten or fifteen years of the 19th century, and into the 20th.

I have found a few pieces of more contemporary evidence, the earliest so far being a short piece in an early “Penrose Annual,”  then called The Process Year Book for 1898. Subtitled “A Review of the Graphic Arts” this book, aimed at the printing trade—specifically those using photoengraving—was published in London, England. The anonymous writer was probably editor William Gamble. The article was headed Day’s Shading Mediums. The author is clearly well aware of the different ways Day’s films are being used. Leaving out a couple of sentences about photoengraving, which I will return to next time, he says:

“We have pleasure in again drawing attention to this excellent invention, the advantages of which are by no means so well known as they ought to be. [His remarks aimed mostly at photo-engravers, not lithographers.] These “mediums”… with either lines, dots, grains, stipples or other tints in relief on the printing side… This side, having previously been inked, and the film having been placed by means of the regulating apparatus on the stone, is pressed with a  stylus… the pressure printing the tint on the drawing.

By moving the film a trifle to one side, by means of the dials on the apparatus, thus throwing it out of register, the colour of the tint is increased by re-tinting and thickening the lines or dots, etc., etc. A variety of effects can be obtained also by combining two or more styles of tints.”

The article concludes with some revealing discussion of Ben Day’s expanding repertoire:

“Although there are already over one hundred tints from which the artist can select, Mr Day is always on the look-out for new effects and ideas, and in this way not only keeps his clients well up to date in the way of novelties, but is yearly making his shading mediums a more valuable adjunct to the studio.”

The next piece, written fourteen years later, is more explicit about the prevalence Day’s mediums have gained by that time in the trade. It is from an article on chromolithography in the London Times newspaper, from September 1912.

“The artist proceeds to draw, by hand, each separate colour… The actual draughtsmanship may be in lines, small dots, or on grained stone, in addition to areas of solid. The ink used is always the same black, fatty matter. The disuse of grained stone commenced before 1880, and in its place the artist dotted or stippled on the stone, in a mechanical evenness…

After 1885 the hand stippling was largely replaced by mechanical stippling. [My emphasis in each case.] The latter is done by means of semi-transparent films manufactured with a grained, dotted or lined surface, upon which transfer ink may be rolled… to be rubbed down onto the stone. The best example of these is the Ben Day film.

Their introduction has been a great boon to both the printing trade and the public. They have saved labour and time, and can be employed for lithographic drawing, and designs for photographic and letterpress production. They have largely cheapened the publication of works by chromo-lithography.

By “cheapened” the Times doubtless meant “made more economical” rather than “demeaned, degraded or devalued” as we might use the term. Critics of the “chromo” on artistic grounds might have agreed with the modern dictionary on that point though.

My third piece of evidence comes from British magazine The Artist, March to July 1941. (21)

Printer W. O. Page set out to explain colour lithography to his readers, in a series of articles called Lithography—Modern Methods. Three things are noteworthy about this.

Firstly, as late as 1941, Page’s article was sub-headed with the words: “…lithography constitutes one of the most important of present day commercial methods of reproduction in colour.” I found this somewhat surprising, and I suspect even at the time some of his readers must have been thinking, “Oh, really?” Process colour—printing using halftones and photoengraved metal plates—was taking an increasing share of the commercial printing market by then. Nonetheless, there is evidence that UK servicemen in 1946 were being trained in lithography for the post-war world—not perhaps the wisest of career choices (22). Cumming’s Handbook of Lithography was reprinted in 1946 in an edition “For the use of H.M. Forces—not for resale.” (23)

Secondly, in Part III, May 1941, Page says:

…each colour is drawn on polished stones, and the artist is greatly assisted by films called “mediums.” The best films come from America and are called ‘Day’s medium’ after the man who invented them.

Below is the selection of patterns he showed in his article, presumably reflecting the patterns which he himself—and perhaps lithographers in general—found most useful. The top two are shown overlaid with themselves in different ways. Most are  “hand-stipple” or grained patterns. Even at this late date, Page chooses no regular grids of dots in the “halftone” manner, which were being widely used by the photoengraving opposition—of which, more next time.

Artist_1941_BEN DAY PATTERNS stacked

Thirdly, Page advises his readers that a more affordable alternative to Ben Day mediums is available, made by a company called Penrose. Could this be the same Penrose who published the 1898 Process Year Book, which so effusively praised the Ben Day mediums?

Why, yes, it could. As well as publishing the Year Book, this London-based company’s core business was the supply of chemicals, printing plates and camera equipment to the photoengraving industry. One factor which helped Day’s competition is the fact that the Ben Day machines and shading sheets were not sold to their end-users, but leased, at some considerable expense. Penrose’s machines and films were sold directly, Page tells us, not leased.

Michael Twyman says that Penrose licensed the use of Ben Day machines from Day’s own company, though I suspect this was only until Day’s patents ran out. Evidently Penrose saw a money-making opportunity in marketing—possibly undercutting—the world’s number one in the shading medium business.  Clearly the arrival of cheaper competition can be taken as a sign that the Ben Day company was enjoying a high degree of success. I know of at least one other competitor, and Twyman discusses others. I might discuss these in a future post.

While the Ben Day leasing system may have had advantages, for example when a machine broke down or screens were torn—assuming the contract included repairs or replacement—it was costly, which meant that only businesses of a significant size could afford to use the system.

Ben Day meets Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Having recently read Michael Twyman’s excellent History of Chromolithography, I cannot resist re-presenting from that book one final example of Ben Day dots in action. Again, I have left the original caption intact.

For now this is a relatively low-resolution reproduction using the British Library’s scanning system (which generally has been an excellent recent innovation, I must add). I will replace it with a better copy if and when possible.

This is a portrait of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, done completely in Ben Day tints, printed in the magazine The British Lithographer in 1893. This was surely a promotional gimmick, and not something that would often have been attempted. Ben Day patterns were usually integrated into lithographs which used a variety of colouring and shading techniques. But what a splendid gimmick it was—a tribute to the Ben Day method which deserves to endure, and a fitting image with which to close my piece.

Twyman Tennyson 72dpi

Concluding Remarks

In summing up, I will quote David Cumming again, from 1905. After discussing the huge increase in speed of lithographic printing brought about by the powered press, he continues: “It will thus be easily seen that the production of lithographic work is now enormous compared to what it was previous to the year 1870.” Cumming was also reflecting on how important transfer paper was in this revolution.

I would add that the addition of Ben Day tints to the lithographer’s repertoire, from the 1880s onward, completed a triumvirate of technical factors significantly contributing to its ongoing expansion.

I do not discount the importance of photo-lithographic techniques, zinc plates or offset printing, but these innovations came to prominence later, and are outside the scope of this article.

Of course, if there was not also a great demand from the population for printed matter, especially in colour, no amount of technical proficiency could have driven such an increase in capacity. The stories of Victorian and Edwardian art prints, book and magazine illustrations, sheet music, theatre and railway posters, maps, labels for cigar boxes & fruit crates, postcards, greeting cards, advertising material, “scrap” & other ephemera etc. have been told elsewhere, and placed in their socio-cultural context by others.

If the true importance of lithography in these stories has arguably been underplayed, at least authors like Graham Hudson and especially Michael Twyman have in recent years redressed that imbalance.

To some extent that has included discussion of the importance of the Ben Day dot, but about this there is also still a great deal of misunderstanding and misinformation abroad. I hope I have started to fill an important gap at least in the material available online.

And if there is one take-home message from this post, it is probably this:

Ben Day dots aren’t just about comic books and Roy Lichtenstein. Remember also the years of the stone-printed lithograph…


—respect to the stipple!

Next time:

Photoengraving, metal printing plates, letterpress on newsprint and finally…

….the comics!


(1) Michael Twyman seems to have made the study of lithography his lifetime’s work. I may never have embarked on this post at all if I’d seen these two books of his earlier, as he almost says it all. The number of times I quote his work speaks for itself. Luckily I was forced to find out a bunch of stuff for myself too, so I’ve been able to add a bit here and there.
Breaking The Mould: the first hundred years of lithography  (London, The British Library, 2001)
A history of chromolithography : printed colour for all  (London, The British Library, 2013)

There is also this indispensable item:
The encyclopedia of ephemera : a guide to the fragmentary documents of everyday life for the collector, curator and historian, by Maurice Rickards ; edited and completed by Michael Twyman. (London, British Library, 2000).

(2) As lithography entered the 20th century, zinc plates were increasingly used. Eventually offset lithography evolved, in which the image prints onto the paper from a rubber surface, after being “offset” onto the rubber from a metal plate. Nowadays most printed paper material is produced by offset litho. It only gradually achieved this dominance. Older readers will remember “the inkies” still prevalent in the 1970s and 80s—newspapers and magazines printed on newsprint by the letterpress method—whose ink so readily came off on your fingers. Now many books are printed directly by digital presses… perhaps offset litho is on the slippery slope to oblivion dock…?

(3) The Grammar of Lithography: a practical guide for the artist and printer, by W.D. Richmond (London, Wyman & Son, 1878). Originally published as a series of magazine articles in The Printing Times and Lithographer, from 1875.

(4) Modern Photoengraving, by Louis Flader and J.S. Mertle, Chicago/Cincinnati USA, (Modern Photoengraving Publishers, 1948).

(5) Twyman reports that later Ben Day advertising claimed that adjustments as small as 1,000th of an inch—or 0.025 mm—were possible.

(6) From a photograph in The Design and Printing of Ephemera in Britain and America 1720-1920, by Graham Hudson (London / Delaware, USA, The British Library / Oak Knoll Press, 2008)

(7) The Technique of Colour Printing by Lithography, by Thomas Griffits (London, Faber and Faber Ltd, 1940)

(8) From a photo in Twyman, Breaking the Mould (see above). Inevitably, and unavoidably, halftone dots from the printed photo will intrude on any attempt to appreciate fully the detail of the dots here.

(9) The Art of Lithography, by Henry J. Rhodes (London, Scott, Greenwood & Son, 1914; revised second edition 1924).

(10) How To Identify Prints, by Bamber Gascoigne (London, Thames and Hudson, 1986; second edition 2004.) And yes, it is the same Bamber Gascoigne who famously presented University Challenge on British TV. How many Bamber Gascoignes did you think there might be?

(11) Michael Twyman has researched this in depth (as he has all areas of the lithography story). Leather rollers put the ink onto the stone before each print onto paper. The new rollers had to be smooth, for speedier inking, and so as to be easy to clean. They used the outer surface of the leather, stripped of all hair, glazed to a smooth shiny surface. They were too smooth and too fast to ink the tiny dots of the chalk drawing on rough stone. The old manual rollers had used “nap” leather, the fuzzier inner surface of the skin. In addition the early powered presses probably didn’t use high enough pressure.

(12) Ben Day catalogues may be hard to date, but they are even harder to find. Michael Twyman reports that “A catalogue from 1901 listed in St Brides Library has not been seen since at least 1939.” Alas this historic library of printing recently closed for lack of funds, though The St Brides Foundation is still open for now. If you have a few spare million, please consider helping them out.

(13) Handbook of Lithography, by David Cumming (London, A. & C. Black Ltd, 1905, revised 1919 and 1932, reprinted 1946.)

(14) Thomas Griffits (see note 7, above) worked, as lithographer, on Vanity Fair’s famous Spy lithographs, and many railway posters. The introduction to his book was by Frank Pick, a senior administrator of London’s railways who designed much of the look of the London Underground, and is credited with much of the success of its celebrated posters.

(15) The USB microscope which I use takes pictures at 20 times and 400 times magnification. I do not mean to imply that the image I am putting on the screen is 20x or 400x the size of the original print. That will vary according to the size you view it on your screen anyway. The numbers are just meant to indicate the level of magnification used in getting the images.

(16) The Magazine of Art (London, Cassell & Company Ltd, 1878 to 1904) is a treasure trove of wood engravings, etchings etc., occasionally available at reasonable prices as unbound copies and bound volumes.

(17) To which you may be inclined to reply, “At least they might have still had a job, if Ben Day hadn’t put them out of work.” The flipside of “progress” in the post-industrial-revolution world, and a problem which we haven’t yet seen the end of.

(18) That Miss Brunner… such a potty-mouth. Apologies to the great Chris Welch for messing with his lovely lettering. Hunter Tremayne wrote the script. Blame him.

(19) The idea of transfer paper lived on in many forms, including Letraset dry transfer tones and lettering, and the “transfer”—pictures of people, animals etc. which children in the 1970s and 80s were given to rub down onto printed cardboard scenes. It is also the distant ancestor of the tattoo that came with my Avengers Assemble Candy Sticks the other day. Instructions: place backing paper and tattoo on hand picture side down, wet back of tattoo with water, press down 20 seconds then peel away paper.


Two words of warning: generally, I’m very fond of candy sticks (or “sweet cigarettes” as they were known in a more guilty age) but these were, disappointingly, quite disgusting. Secondly, I wouldn’t try putting the tattoo on your laptop lid. Didn’t work at all well. Stick to skin use, as per instructions.

(20) I know I said there was a kind of transfer paper that was quite transparent, but this was not suitable for general use. The process that made it see-through also made it second-rate at actual transferring. It was OK when you needed to copy out a letter or a signature.

(21) I am particularly indebted to comics historian Andy Bleck for the discovery of this series of articles.

(22) Indeed, Michael Twyman thinks that the end of World War 2 in 1945 itself provided an incentive for a general retooling of the printing business and spelled the end for chromolithography.

(23) I may or may not have bought a copy myself. I’m not admitting anything, Colonel.

Posted in lithograph, lithography | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment



From the Eighth Production Yearbook, 1948. Ad may date back as far as 1919.

See also:
Part 1: Roy Lichtenstein, The Man Who Didn’t paint Ben Day Dots
Part 2: Halftone Dots and Polke Dots
Part 3: RGB dots on your screen, CMYK dots in your old comic books
Part 5: The Forgotten History of the Ben Day Dot: Lithography 1880 -1940


Introduction 1—Just what are these Ben Day dots, anyway?

Introduction 2—The Roy Lichtenstein effect

Part (i)—Printing Pictures Before Ben Day

The Press Before Pictures—Letterpress

The Arrival of the Illustrated Press

The Printed Image: Means of Production

  1. Wood engraving
  2. Copper (& steel) engraving
  3. Lithography
  4. Chromolithography
  5. Photoengraving

Part (ii)—The Ben Day Method

  1. Earlier Inventions by Benjamin Day
  2.  U.S. Patent no. 214,493
  3. What did Ben Day Design his Printing-Films For?

Coming attractions 


Introduction 1

Since this is Part 4 (of a series that just keeps getting longer) it’s about time I showed you some honest-to-goodness Ben Day dots.

This is an illustration from a book on advertising production—(Dalgin, 1946; see footnote 1). After reading a footnote, use the back arrow in your browser or the link provided, if using iPad etc. to return to the text.

(Clicking on any image takes you to a larger version, some of which may also be clickable/further enlargeable. Again, use the back arrow in your browser to return here.)

Ben Day screens x three w caption_100dpi

Are these at last actual Ben Day dots? The real thing?

Well… these are pictures of dots from a catalogue selling the products of Ben Day, Inc. Or rather, once upon a time, they were photographed from that catalogue, then printed in a book. Now, having been scanned by me and posted online, they are a bunch of pixels on your screen. Are they still Ben Day dots?

Ben Day dots originated in the 19th century. One way of defining the “real” Ben Day dot would be to look at the original process as used in the Victorian era. This could lead to an unreasonably narrow definition—or, as I hope to do, lay the groundwork for a definition of Ben Day dots which takes into account how the concept has survived into the 21st century.

Benjamin Henry Day Junior patented his new shading method in 1879. Later in this post I will be looking at his actual patent document.

Day patented a new way of producing what would later be called “mechanical tints.” His idea was to save some of the time and effort which was being spent drawing dots and lines by hand in the printing business. His was not the first such idea, but it was the one which dominated the field for decades to come.

From a 21st century perspective it is impossible to imagine just how many dots and lines were being hand-drawn (and/or engraved) in those days.

Printing on paper in 1879—in particular, the printing of pictures—was done using methods which have largely vanished from today’s world. I’ll be looking at those methods in detail before moving on to look at the Ben Day process itself. Understanding how pictures were printed back then will help to explain why and how Day’s invention became a success.

For about 60 years, that success was on a huge scale. By the time Dalgin (1) was writing about Ben Day dots in 1946, their glory days were over. The method was still in use, but newer, faster ways of printing similar-looking tints were rapidly taking its place. This makes defining what was and what was not a “true Ben Day dot” after, say, 1940 more problematic than it might at first seem.

Does this image from a 1964 DC comic contain Ben Day dots, for example? (2)

Girls' Romances 105 M-maybe

Here’s a close-up which makes the question easier to answer… or does it?

Don't Kiss Me Again! p6 pn2 detail_72dpi

Perhaps the precise question should be, “Did the original comic book, printed on paper, contain Ben Day dots—for example, the particular copy of the comic book obtained at the time by New York artist Roy Lichtenstein?”

What about the painting which Roy made based on this comic book panel, M-Maybe (1965)? Any Ben Day dots on that?


^^Table of Contents

 Introduction 2

This series started with a post about that famous Pop artist and his comic book paintings. Prior to 1961 the phrase “Ben Day dots” was part of the specialised language of graphic art, of publishing, production, engraving and printing. From that year onwards, Lichtenstein’s paintings brought the dots from obscurity into the public consciousness. As a helpful short-cut, I would like to designate this popularising of the dots “The Lichtenstein effect.”

A lot of the dots I looked at in Part 2 and Part 3—comic book dots, half-tone dots, inkjet & process colour dots, those pixels—are trying to create the illusion of something they’re not; an area of flat colour, a continuous graduated tone, a full-colour image.

And some of these other dots get mistaken for Ben Day dots. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the “real” Ben Day dot is an elusive thing.

dots x 5

Various dots—in a comic, a newspaper, from an inkjet printer, in a magazine, on a screen—pretending not to be dots.

The sub-title of my first post was “The Man Who Didn’t Paint Ben Day Dots,” a slightly mischievous but also quite serious assertion.

Roy Lichtenstein didn’t simply paint magnified versions of the dots he saw in the comics and small ads of the day. He painted his own personal vision of them, his response to them—Roy Lichtenstein dots. His dots were arguably doing the opposite of creating illusory tones—rather, being much larger than the originals, they set out to unmask the illusion. These, for example, are dots from his painting M-Maybe, as seen above.

M-maybe dots square

Roy Lichtenstein dots, being themselves

After the Lichtenstein effect set in, not only did a lot more people know about these dots—whole new levels of meaning attached to the phrase “Ben Day dots.” In fact, an online search reveals a great deal of misunderstanding about what they are, and what they are not.

Partly this reflects confusion about the technique itself, which gets muddled up with some of its 20th century successors such as Zip-A-Tone, seen below in this 1950s panel from the IDW book Wally Wood’s E.C. Stories.

ZIP Wally EC

Partly it is due to issues arising from the Lichtenstein effect itself.

This post attempts to dig out the truth about Ben Day dots—or at least, to make a start. It will include their “Secret Origins”—perhaps not actual secrets, but much of this stuff has not appeared online before, or is not easy to find. Nor is it covered in the histories of the comics. (3)

In this post I will:

  • look at how images were printed before the coming of Ben Day dots—this will be a lengthy section, setting the scene in various ways
  • Look in detail at Benjamin Day’s original 1879 patent

In future posts I will also attempt to answer these questions:

  • Who was Benjamin Henry Day Junior?
  • What did he do apart from invent dots?
  • How was his process used in the printing industry?
  • How successful was it?
  • Precisely how were Ben Day dots used in the comics?
  • If and when the comics stopped using them, what did they use next?

Finally I will return to 1961 and ask again: did Roy Lichtenstein really paint Ben Day dots? This time my answer will be totally and utterly definitive.  ;0)

^^Table of Contents

Part (i): Printing Pictures Before Ben Day

By “printing pictures” I don’t mean single works of art, or short-run limited editions of a few copies—though they may use the same methods I’m about to discuss. Artists making prints today (2015—and doubtless beyond) have kept many of the old techniques alive, long after their use in commercial printing ended.

Here though, unless specifically noted, I’m referring to mass production—the printing used for newspapers, magazines, illustrated books and postcards, for example. I include the colour lithography used to make early advertising posters and large editions of cheaper prints for framing on the wall.

Printing at that time Ben Day patented his dots was very different from what we see today. Clear accounts of this online are hard to come by. Some detailed explanations will help to clarify where Day’s invention fitted into the contemporary world of graphic art and printing.

If you read through this historical material, you will start to see why Ben Day did what he did, and why his new method had 60 or more years of success.

^^Table of Contents

The Press Before Pictures—Letterpress.

In 1879 newspapers and magazines, in general, were printed only in black & white. Special editions—e.g. Christmas numbers—or colour inserts, occasionally appeared.

Newspapers as such were also almost exclusively made up of text—with no illustrations. (4)


A Chicago paper, 1879, pages 1 & 2. Front page mainly advertisements, as was the custom.

When printing text pages, in books, magazines or newspapers, ink was transferred to paper from raised areas on metal surfaces, a process known as relief printing. Two other basic types of printing are possible, as shown below—intaglio (ink below the surface level of the plate) and planographic (flat plate surface)—more on this later.


From Dalgin 1946 (see footnote 2)

Text was printed from metal “movable type,” set into frames letter by letter and locked into a “forme” before printing. Since early newspapers and magazines used only type, the name letterpress was used for this kind of printing. The name stuck around even after various radical changes had occurred—e.g. the old flat “formes” had to be copied as curved “stereotypes” to go on the new rotary steam presses which came in during the 1840s.

The inclusion of pictures was another radical change to letterpress. If pictures and text were to be printed together on a page, involving only one “print run”—paper going through the same printing press only once—the illustrations had to be in relief at the exact same level as the type.

For technical reasons, until the 1840s, illustrations had mainly been printed by intaglio or planographic methods, incompatible with letterpress, and included only in relatively expensive books. (The exception to this was the crudely produced pamphlet known as the “chap-book” which we will meet below.)

Result: newspapers and periodicals in which pictures only rarely appeared—outside of humorous magazines like Le Charivari and Punch anyway—until 1842, that is.

^^Table of Contents

The Arrival of the Illustrated Press

Starting in 1842, The Illustrated London News (ILN) was the first weekly illustrated newspaper. Prior to this, the press would occasionally include illustrations of some royal special occasion or a sensational murder trial. ILN Founder Herbert Ingram realised that his newsagent’s business always sold a lot more copies of these editions.

His great innovation was to fill his publication with illustrations every week. (For a detailed account of the ILN, a lot of archive material, and interesting links, see )

ILN 1852

The technique used for the pictures, a relief method, had been around since the 1790s, mainly used in book illustration—the wood engraving (see Section 1, below).

After an uncertain start, the ILN became a real success, and many imitators followed, on both sides of the Atlantic. The combination of words and pictures was clearly something which the public was very much ready for. This was a major development in the media, comparable to the coming of cinema in the 1890s or radio in the 1920s.

And these magazines didn’t just need illustrations for their stories. They contributed to the irresistible rise of another institution that we now take for granted—the advertising industry. Increasingly, advertisements used pictures to draw attention to themselves, and this was a snowball that would keep on rolling.

Both editorial illustrations and advertisements would later be major users of Ben Day’s method, but they had to get by without him for the first 37 years.

Tea 72dpi

The London Tea Trade, ILN, Dec 1874

Some key points must now be made about this period—from the arrival of the ILN in 1842 to Ben Day’s first patent in 1879. There were a few exceptions to these statements, and things were rapidly changing as we will see, but on the whole:

  • Books remained relatively expensive, and book illustration was a different world from the periodicals and papers. From the mid-1840s, high-quality photographic prints could be used as book illustrations—thanks to a number of advances in intaglio printing techniques. But these were costly, slow, and could not be printed alongside text because they were not relief methods. (5)
  • Thus magazines and newspapers by 1879 still did not include photographs. That would require the halftone screen (see Part 2, and footnote 6) currently still in its infancy—widespread use of halftones only came in during the 1890s.
  • Even simple black & white line drawings done on paper could not be printed directly on the relief presses until another breakthrough had been made—photo-mechanical production of relief printing plates, or photoengraving. (Section 5, below). In 1842 this was still a long way off. It was technically possible by 1879—but it only arrived in the world of commercial mass printing during the 1880s.
  • For true mass production during this period, a drawing, photograph or painting—even a simple line drawing on paper—had to be re-created by hand in printable form, on a printing surface made of wood, metal or stone.
  • The first two had to be engraved and the third was drawn on.
  • Furthermore, pre-halftone, the printed black & white image could not have any shades of grey. All such shading or “tonal effect” had to be achieved by varieties of line and dot work.
  • Similarly, coloured images were being printed (from lithographic stone, and from wood). These also required dots (stippling) and lines to create “tints” or paler tones from any given colour of ink.
  • These lines and dots were essentially hand-drawn/hand-engraved, though by the 1870s the human hand was starting to get some mechanical help.

^^Table of Contents

The Printed Image: Means of Production

The main methods used to make images for printing at the time Ben Day was working on and patenting his technique were:

  1. Wood engravingmostly black & white (B&W) periodicals and books, colour possible for special editions.
  2. Copper engraving—steel also used; mostly B&W; for high-end prints and books, maps, sheet music, currency
  3. Lithography (monochrome)—mainly B&W; books, art prints, maps, advertising and promotional meaterial
  4. Chromolithography (colour)—special colour inserts for magazines; books, art prints, posters. Increasingly, mass production of greetings cards, cheap art prints etc.
  5. Photoengraving—in its earliest stages at this time; not yet widely used; however, a major bombshell whose fuse had been lit.

^^Table of Contents

Looking at these in more detail:

1. Wood engraving

The large-scale publishing of illustrated magazines in the 1840s and 50s greatly revived wood engraving, which had been a fairly minor craft, if not quite a “dying art.” Though it was gradually edged out by newer methods, wood engraving remained the dominant form of illustration in the mass-printed press from the 1840s/50s until the early 1890s.

The precursor of the wood engraving was the woodcut—printed from a carved wooden block, originating in China, developed in Japan. It came to Europe around 1400 CE/AD—just in time for the movable type printing revolution started by Johannes Gutenberg. Like letterpress, woodcut was a form of relief printing. This meant words and pictures could be locked into the same frame and printed together.

The mediaeval version is probably what comes to mind when we hear the word woodcut—something like this 1551 illustration from an edition of the popular book Fortunatus. (7)


Phenomenal German artist and mathematician Albrecht Dürer started as a woodcut artist, taking the technique to new heights. Thanks to Wikipedia I can show you both his pen & ink drawing of a rhinoceros, and the famous woodcut print made from it (1515). The drawing was not only further embellished in going from drawing to print, but also mirror-imaged or left-right reversed—of which, more later.

Dürer's_two Rhinoceroses

Dürer’s two rhinos. Above, pen & ink. Below, bestselling woodcut print.

To make a woodcut block, a drawing was made on a very flat wooden surface, either by drawing straight onto the wood, or tracing an existing picture from paper. The wood was then carved into by the block-maker—often not the same artist who did the drawing. Cutting the wood was a very specialised skill.

Printed images were made by applying ink to the wood surface standing out in relief above the cut-away areas. Any area of wood left flat and unworked would print solid black. Where the craftsman cut away lines and shapes from the wood was where the print would come out white.

In book illustration, the woodcut peaked before the 1700s. It was superseded by higher quality techniques of engraving and etching on metal. These needed different printing methods and separate presses from text, so illustrations of this kind now took up full pages, added in to books or periodicals during the binding process.

However, as illustration for cheap, popular printed material (ballads, chapbooks, almanacs etc.) the humble woodcut continued to thrive into the mid-19th century. Below is early superhero Jack the Giant Killer, from around 1820. Spoiler Alert: don’t read the cover of the chapbook too closely.

jack 2

^^Table of Contents

Wood engraving was the evolved descendant of the woodcut, originated by the English engraver Thomas Bewick in the 1780s-90s. His two great innovations were: working “against the grain” of the hard end of a boxwood block, rather than with the grain on the sides of the block; and use of fine tools (burins) previously used by engravers on metal. This combination allowed for finer detail.

On the print shown below, “del & sculpt” means that Bewick both drew the picture and engraved it. (“Delineavit” in Latin = “drawn by,” “sculpsit” = “engraved by”.) Later on, with factory-like production of commercial woodcuts, this was rarely the case.

Bewick horse 1790

Early Thomas Bewick, published 1790

The wood engraver achieved shading or the effect of grey tones mainly by various forms of line work. Parallel lines, often curved, and of varying thickness, were easier to make on wood than cross-hatching, which early on tended to be used sparingly if at all. (Indeed, another of Bewick’s innovations was the use of more “white lines” and the dropping of the time-consuming imitation of cross-hatched lines—though they crept back in later, as we shall see.) Dots and irregular stipples were occasionally used, generally white on black.

Though it had a place in the illustration of books, wood engraving did not take off in a big way until the second half of the 19th century, with the boom in illustrated weekly papers. Being a relief method, the wooden blocks could once again sit alongside text on the printing presses. With the massively increased demand from The ILN and its many imitators, wood engraving was soon being done on an almost industrial scale. (8)

As The Encyclopedia of Ephemera notes: “By the 1880s, ruling machines were in common use; they allowed very accurate tints to be engraved, and with much greater speed and precision than could be achieved by hand.” (9)

Also, from the 1860s increasing use was made of photographic techniques. Both pen-&-ink drawings and photographs themselves could be “fixed” photographically onto the wood blocks and copied directly by the engraver, though it altered the working surface detrimentally.

In imitating line drawings, the tedious replication of cross-hatched lines now came back in fashion. This could not be done directly, as engraving created white spaces, not black lines. Instead, each white square or “diamond” shape between the drawn lines had to be individually cut away.

In imitating photographs, with better paper surfaces and printing allowing finer lines closer together, the best wood engravings approached the fidelity of the photograph itself (See also 8)

Before long, critics including John Ruskin complained that wood engravers working for the magazines had lost any creativity they’d once had, being reduced to mere technicians—copyists, in a style called “facsimile.”

The Prince of Prussia, below, was very likely engraved directly from a photo. He also provides an example of cross-hatching. (10)

Prince of Prussia

Prince William Frederick of Prussia, wood engraving from the ILN 1870 (detail) (from Wikipedia)

Owners of engraving companies not only gained influence over what was published but branched out directly into publishing themselves. Frank Leslie, a senior engraver on The Illustrated London News, went to the U.S.A. in 1848, started Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in 1855 and got rich. We shall be meeting him again—or at least his paper.

Wood engravings also continued to be used in books—now increasingly so. Some of the best known are probably Sir John Tenniel‘s illustrations for Alice in Wonderland (1865). Tenniel’s drawings were engraved by the major commercial studio of the Dalziel Brothers—one of whom, Gilbert, bought the comic magazine Judy in 1872 and owned its massively successful 1884 spin-off, Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday. (11)


Gustave Doré and his engravers, in the 1860s and 70s, provided the Bible, Dante’s Inferno, Don Quixote and many other books with highly sophisticated wood engravings. Dore’s name appears by convention in the bottom left hand corner of his illustrations, and the block-maker’s at bottom right.

Dore Bible

John the Baptist Preaching in the Wilderness by Doré

The increasing level of detail possible in wood engraving made mass colour printing from wood blocks more feasible. Known as chromoxylography it was increasingly used in the second half of the 19th century, and into the 20th. Children’s books used a sophisticated type and cheap pulp periodicals a very simple version. In the weeklies, it was pioneered by the ILN, starting with its 1855 Christmas edition. By the 1870s, the better-off periodicals were using it for occasional special editions.

Very often by the mid-19th century original wood engraving blocks were preserved, and the images actually printed from metal copies, originally made by stereotyping (new metal plates cast from papier mache moulds of the original formes) and increasingly by the higher quality electrotyping. To make an electrotype, a cast of the engraved wooden surface was made in wax (or other soft material) then coated with a fine layer of graphite—an electrical  conductor. A thin copper (or zinc) replica of the original was made by dipping the wax cast in a bath of metal salts and running an electric current through it—copper (or zinc) atoms being deposited on the negatively charged graphite. The thin metal copy was strengthened before being used as a printing plate.

If you are thinking at this point, “All this engraving and electrotyping and what-not must have taken a lot of fairly skilled man-hours—and ended up pretty expensive”… hold that thought. I’ll be coming back to it. For now, let us note that engraving on wood—though it might take days to finish a picture—was at least a good deal faster than the old copper method (below). If it hadn’t been, the magazines could not have existed.

^^Table of Contents

Before wood engraving took off, 19th century books were largely illustrated by engravings done on copper plates, or by the cheaper, faster lithographs.

2. Copper (sometimes steel) engraving

This had started in the 1430s. It involved cutting an image with hard steel tools into a copper plate, sometimes assisted by acid etching. In this it appears similar to wood engraving, but there is a crucial difference—this is an intaglio method. To make a print, ink is applied to the plate then wiped off the surface. The lines or dots cut into the copper hold ink and transfer it to paper under high pressure—i.e. the areas lower than the surface will print black, not white as in wood engraving. On copper, a flat unworked area prints white, the opposite of the relief method on wood, where it prints black.

Copper engravings tended to be used more in high-end, small edition printing, for expensive books or prints to go on the wall. Below is Robert Walpole, father of Lord Walpole, in an engraving from 1801—a copy of a painted portrait. The print in real life is just over 9 x 12 cm. The copper plate would have been the same size. Check out that dotted shading—stippling—every dot cut or etched by hand into copper. Every line carefully cut—hours, days or weeks of painstaking craftsmanship!

Robert Walpole 1801_whole_small  COPPER STIPPLE WALPOLE detail face

The pattern below is a typical stipple pattern of the kind William Blake learned to make during his apprenticeship as a copper engraver in the 1770s.

However I am cheating here—it is actually one of Ben Day’s dot patterns from over a hundred years later. While Ben Day was at the forefront of mechanical printing methods, some of his dots were decidedly backward-looking. Stippled patterns were key to Ben Day’s early success—of which, more later.


^^Table of Contents

3. Lithography

This was widely used in books from about 1820. Many periodicals also used B&W lithographs as illustrations and cartoons. After the wood engraving boom of the 1840s/50s, lithography continued to be used—especially, from the 1840s, as a colour method, chromolithography (see next section). (12)

In lithography, a drawing was made (or copied) in greasy ink on a flat block of limestone—about 10cm thick, heavy and cumbersome. Amazingly these blocks were actually used in mechanised printing presses (the foot-pedalled type giving way to the modern steam-driven variety) though they were later replaced by thinner, lighter metal plates using a similar grease/water method. (13)

Two things are particularly notable in the 1834 lithograph which I have scanned below. Firstly, the stippling here (seen in the close-up detail) is achieved by drawing on a rough stone surface with a greasy crayon or “chalk”—a much faster process, if giving less control, than making marks on copper.


1834 lithograph, original image size c. 23 x 15.5 cm

Secondly, the printed version would have to be drawn in reverse on the stone plate, as shown below. This applies to any image on a printing plate—text too. (14)


Above print, flipped left-right or mirror-imaged, as drawn on stone

Drawings could also be done on special paper, which allowed the greasy ink image to be transferred to the stone. From the 1860s, these “transfer papers” were increasingly used, the paper being made with grainy or other patterns which allowed for stippling or other variations in the lithographic image. Also, the paper drawing could be done the right way ’round, as it was to be reversed when transferred to the stone.

When an image had been completed on the block, the stone was treated with a watery mixture of weak acid and gum arabic, which chemically changed the surface layer of stone without appreciably eating it away. (This was called “etching” but was very different from the stronger acid-etching used in copper engraving and the making of “etchings” as such, and from the later photoengraving method (below)—all of which dissolved the metal to a greater depth.)

The image areas, covered by greasy ink, were protected from this chemical change. The non-image parts, once treated, had the property of attracting water. The original ink image was then washed off with a solvent, leaving a thin greasy layer bonded to the surface of the stone where it had been. The image thus remained on the stone as a flat water-repelling version of itself.

Now when the stone was wetted, the image repelled water, the non-image areas attracted it. Oil-based ink could be rolled onto the wet stone, adhering only to the image areas. The image could now be printed by repeatedly wetting and inking the stone.

Because the stone stays pretty much flat, lithography is a planographic technique—as seen in the Dalgin drawing earlier. As with copper plate engraving, because neither is a relief method, lithography required a separate print run from letterpress, with illustrated lithographed pages added in during binding. Alternatively, letterpress magazine pages could be run through another press, with lithographs printing onto blank spaces left between areas of text. Either method was an appreciable added expense.  (15)

^^Table of Contents

4. Chromolithography (Colour Lithography)

A lithograph often had a second colour added, e.g. a pale yellowish ink, which needed a second stone to be drawn—then for landscapes, a three-colour combination of black with pale brown (earth) plus blue (sea and/or sky). These tinted lithographs were popular and led to the widespread adoption of multiple-colour chromolithography, at  first for artistic prints, later book illustrations, postcards, greeting cards, cigar labels—and pictures to be inserted into the more expensive magazines. Vanity Fair, for example, only became a success after it started its famous series of caricatures in chromolithograph form (1869-1914). Though the technique was available from the 1840s, it really boomed in the 1880s and 90s. (Partly due to help from the Ben Day dot, as we shall see.)

Every colour added to a chromolithograph needed another stone to be made—drawn by hand—and a separate print run. The stones and images had to be very accurately positioned or “registered” so that the coloured images printed precisely on top of each other. One of the darker colours would be chosen as the “key” stone, and the others all lined up against this one. This is why the letter K—for key—is used for the colour black in the later four-colour CMYK printing, as seen in Part 3.

The craftsmen making them also had to work out how coloured inks would look when printed over each other. This accumulated knowledge would be passed on to printers working with newer techniques. (More next time in Part 5—Ben Day and colour.)

Below is an example from the entry on chromolithography in the famous German encyclopaedia, F.A. Brockhaus´ Konversations-Lexikon (1894 edition). I think the colour illustrations in this book were themselves printed lithographically. Nine colours are used here, shown in order of printing. Note how no green ink was used, despite all that vegetation.


Also, no black was used in this picture, and most chromolithographs used no black ink. (If the job did call for black outlines, as later styles sometimes did, the black would be the “key”.) In order to make the block for each colour, an outline drawing (below) was copied lightly in non-greasy/non-printing red chalk—or “stained”—onto each of the nine stones, but only as a guide for the craftsmen. This is shown below. This might also be called the “key” drawing—in German, it was known as the “Konturen” drawing—i.e.”contours” or “outlines”.

Chromolithographie_K pic_small_72dpi

Below is my scan of another chromolithograph, this time a postcard of a scene in Scotland (date unknown).

Waterfall at Inversnaid_72dpi

As noted above, each colour of ink could in the main only print as its pure self—there were no graduated or “half” tones. In fact, for the higher end of the market, ways were found to create paler washes and—by scraping ink off the stone—the effect of a “white chalk” highlight. These however were complicated and time-consuming.

Overlapping of colours could be used to gain extra hues, and stippling was widely used to give the illusion of lighter tints, if on a white background, and in colour mixes. Unlike engravings, the drawing methods used on the lithographic stone did not readily lend themselves to drawing fine lines. Again, there were exceptions to this, and I will come back to the subject in part 5.

Below are nine details from the postcard image, showing stippling in many colours. Though instruments were tried to speed this up, it was essentially a hand-drawn process, using pen and ink. (16)

9 pics_b

To sum up so far: when Ben Day launched his new process in 1879,  wood engraving was the main method used to create (mostly) black & white illustrations; chromolithography was a very large and still-growing industry for making a variety of colour images. Copper engraving remained in use for expensive projects. I haven’t mentioned aquatint and etching which were also used, largely for artistic prints, because they aren’t very relevant. Gravure, another not very pertinent printing method (though classy, expensive and eventually widely used) was just being perfected in 1879…

….but so was another new process that was starting to change the world of printing radically at the same time that Ben Day’s new method came on the scene…

^^Table of Contents

5. Photoengraving.

The importance of photoengraving to the Ben Day story cannot be over-emphasised. This is the type of printing in which the Ben Day dot would have its biggest and most lasting success.

Photoengraving is often discussed as if it were the same thing as halftone (see note 6 again). In fact photoengraving of plain B&W artwork came first, and took some time to perfect. The later addition of the halftone method greatly added to the possibilities of photoengraving, but for our purposes it is worth keeping line work and halftone work distinct. The Ben Day dot is part of line art photoengraving, though often mistaken for halftone and vice versa.

This definition of the photoengraving process is adapted from Flader & Mertle, Modern Photoengraving(1948) (see note 3):

A method for the production of metallic printing surfaces in relief, usually for illustrating purposes from drawings, photographs etc., the process being characterised by the following steps:

  • A photographic image of the subject is obtained by a camera—in this example, as a negative.
  • This is transferred by photographic exposure directly onto the metal,
  • which has been prepared with a light-sensitive coating,
  • so that light from the “white” parts of the negative image hardens the coating
  • which gives those parts of the metal a protective layer in the exact shape of the original image.
  • The metal is exposed to acid, eating away (etching) the unprotected (non-image) areas making the non-image areas lower than the image areas.
  • An image in relief has now been created on the metal
  • and can be printed from.

An early version of the technique was famously created by Paris engraver Firmin Gillot in the mid 1850s. Significant improvements were made by his son Charles who started the first commercial photo-engraving business in Paris in 1876. From the later 1880s, photo-engraving started to seriously challenge wood engraving as a way of reproducing pen-and-ink drawings. (17)

In 1893, the ILN Company launched a new weekly, The Sketch, which was the first to print all its illustrations using the photoengraving process. (See Beegan, note 8)

This diagram (also adapted from Flader & Mertle) shows the photo-engraving process in very basic form:

Flader diagram w text_72dpi

Flader & Mertle’s diagram originally illustrated halftone dots of different sizes being photo-engraved on copper. The same basic steps apply to line art—that is, any black & white picture with no grey tones. Line art would normally use zinc plates, not copper, which was reserved for finer halftone work. Coarser newspaper halftones would also use zinc. (18)

This brief account of photoengraving makes it all seem too simple. Dalgin (1) has a more detailed account that gets closer to the messy, smelly industrial reality. His account of how things were done in 1946 is not far removed from when Ben Day first went into the business. (19)

Dalgin’s Figure 1, below, shows the engraver making his own glass negative by pouring on a thick gummy liquid called collodion—a colourless, transparent solution of gun cotton in ether, which dries quickly.


In Fig.2 the coated glass is sensitised—soaked in a solution of silver nitrate, which is absorbed by the collodion layer, effectively turning it into a large piece of photographic film. This is the “wet plate” or “wet collodion” method, invented in 1851. Before this advance, photoengraving was not feasible. The sharpness and quality of the negative image was now greatly improved, and it could be peeled off its glass backing as a thin transparent layer.


In Fig.3 the glass/collodion plate is mounted in a large camera, and a negative image of the “copy” is made. The copy is the line art, or as Flader & Mertle’s glossary defined it in 1948: Copy—Popular but inept term for “original.”


At this stage the negative can be made smaller or larger than the original copy. Line art would generally be reduced for printing. The negative has to be the same size as the image on the printing plate, though—i.e the same size as the final printed image.

Fig.4 (20)

Fig.5:—After the negative has been peeled off the glass, using a solution of India rubber in benzene, it exists as a delicate sheet of dried collodion. This is generally laid down alongside other negatives on a “flat”, another large sheet of glass. For reasons of economy, several negatives are dealt with at one time.


The printing plate now has to be prepared.  Fig.6 shows an engraver coating a zinc sheet with bichromatised albumen. In the very early days a variety of bichromate-based coatings may have been used, but by the time photoengraving was in widespread use, this had become the dominant one.


In Fig.7 the flat has been laid directly onto the zinc plate and they are being exposed to very bright light. This could take an hour or two. At this stage the negatives are upside down, therefore they are left-right reversed, and so is the image being made on the plate. As we saw before, this is necessary for the final printed image to come out the right way round.


In our historical albumen-coated example, Fig.8 should actually show the plate being inked so the engraver can see the images. Instead Mr Dalgin shows a plate with light-hardened enamel image areas being dipped in dye—same principle, but a later development. Before this stage, there is hardly any visible difference between the light-hardened image areas and the still-soluble non-image areas of the albumen coating.


In either case, the images only show clearly after the non-image areas of the light-sensitive coating have been washed off with water (Fig.9). By analogy with a photographic print on paper, Dalgin calls this “developing” the plate.


Fig.10 shows the plate being etched in an acid-bath. Before this its back surface has been painted with a protective layer of tar-like “asphaltum”, so as not to be dissolved away. Only the non-image areas on the front of the plate—unprotected by the hardened albumen—must be eaten away. The first etching is shallow and called “the first bite.”


There were usually three more “bites.” Fig.11 shows the plate being powdered between bites. The powder was the legendary Dragon’s Blood, a powdered dried resin gathered from various trees and palm fruit. At every stage of etching after the first bite, it was brushed four times over the plate, so as to protect all four sides of the raised metal areas from undercutting by the acid.

scr DALGIN 11 w D Blood

Dragon’s Blood photo by Andy Dingle (from Wikipedia)

What’s more, every time the powder was brushed on, the plate had to be heated over gas jets (Fig.12) to melt the resin, and solidify it into a protective layer on the metal. Before each of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th bites a cycle of four brushings/heatings/coolings was carried out—twelve in all. This could be half day’s work in itself, for a skilled craftsperson. If not done properly, the image areas on the metal would not be fit for purpose.


Fig.13 shows routing, in which unwanted metal is cut away, and larger etched (non-image) areas may be deepened. This was done with the aid of high-speed machines.


Below left is a completed zinc plate—or part of one—from 1879. The repeated circular marks made by the router can be clearly seen. On the right, I’ve flipped it and made a negative, which gives you an idea at least of what the printed image looked like. (21)

Zinc plate 1879 x2

I say “zinc plate—or part of one” because, like Dalgin’s example above, this image was probably taken from a “flat” with several negatives on it. Thus the zinc plate also had several pictures on it, and was physically cut into pieces to separate them. The once-common term “cuts” for individual illustrations, as in Comic Cuts (1890 to 1953) originated in the days of hand engraving, when the illustration was literally cut into the copper or wood. In the photoengraving world, the term “cuts” persisted well into the 20th century, possibly because of this cutting up of plates. In letterpress, each cut was mounted on a wood block to achieve the same level as type in the forme.

Comic Cuts

Here’s something a bit more up-to-date, below—the black plate of a page from a Popeye comic book—no.13, according to its owner (22)—probably from 1950. Also flipped, on the right, looking more like the printed version.

Popeye13printingplate_cheezyWhiz 2008

Like the original newspaper strips from which they evolved, comic books were printed by letterpress—at least for their first few decades. Final fun image, below: I don’t need to flip this one. The seller of this 1982 Avengers cover plate (again the black plate) had it mounted with a copy of the comic book cover. The legacy of the photoengraving revolution of the 1880s lived on for over a century.

Avengers 225

^^Table of Contents

And revolution it was. Apart from the catastrophic employment statistics for wood engravers, this was also a big change for illustrators:

Brush or pen & ink line drawings were now reproduced without the intervening hands of the engravers.

Artists no longer had anyone to blame if their drawing didn’t come out well in print. On the other hand, wood engravers had also been known to improve deficient drawings. Illustrators and cartoonists were now on their own. In the longer run this led to a Golden Age of illustration, but at first there were many anxieties to be overcome.

In 1894, Henry Blackburn began his book The Art of Illustration with these words: The object of this book is to explain the modern systems of Book and Newspaper Illustration, and especially the methods of drawing for what is commonly called “process,” on which so many artists are now engaged.

He went on: The illustrator of to-day is called upon suddenly to take the place of the wood engraver in interpreting tone into line, and requires practical information which this book is intended to supply. (23)

Already by 1894 (and indeed much earlier) the photoengraving processes including line work and halftone were collectively being referred to as “process,” a name that would stick for a long time—long enough to attach to “colour process” when it arrived some time later. At this time, everything in “process” was still in black and white.

The catch-all term “process” really did take on a life of its own. Below is the 1898 cover of the influential publication later known as The Penrose Annual, which had started in 1895 and would run until 1982. Its official original title was The Process Year Book. (24)

1898 Penrose cover 72dpi

Another implication of this revolution was that a previously published line art illustration—a copper or wood engraving, or zinc relief photo-engraved print—could now easily be copied by photographing it, and making a printing plate from the photo. Publishers/bootleggers were not slow to pick up on this, especially as international copyright laws were non-existent. As early as 1880, Mark Twain published his book A Tramp Abroad, containing over 300 illustrations prepared by the new “process.” These included—as reviewers noted at the time—several copies of previously published engravings. (25)

One of many artists contributing new pictures to A Tramp Abroad was a decidedly average illustrator called Ben Day. I will discuss this important book in another post.

But we should not meet Ben Day, unremarkable artist, just yet. It’s time to meet Ben Day, inventor of the famous dot… though I should make it clear that they are indeed one and the same person.

^^Table of Contents

Part (ii): The Ben Day Method


1. Earlier Inventions by Benjamin Day

Benjamin Henry Day Junior of West Hoboken, New Jersey, was nearly 40 in January of 1878 when he filed for a U.S. patent for his new shading medium. It was granted in April 1879. (26) It can be safely assumed that he was working on the new invention at least as early as 1877.

Though Day’s artwork had been published in major magazines like Frank Leslie’s and (according to Wikipedia) Harper’s Weekly and Vanity Fair, he probably knew he was not in the top rank of American illustrators. Luckily for him—and the printing world—he also had the inventing bug.

His first patent, as far as I can ascertain, was granted in 1864. U.S. Patent no. 42,530 was for “Improvement in Relief-Printing Plates.” This followed on from an 1860 patent (not Day’s) in which a chalk or hard clay surface was used to print from. Day’s improved method probably led nowhere much. Chalk- and clay-based printing never seriously challenged lithography. Author Mark Twain (him again) invested heavily in a method called Kaolotype, but famously lost his money.

Ben Day’s next invention may not have troubled the bestseller lists either, though it could have been ahead of its time. “Improvement in Sectional Images” (patent granted December 1870) was described by him as “a new and grotesque… scientific and artistic toy…” He proposed making a series of fragmented heads with different features, which could be mixed up when fitted together, to produce “from a very few complete sets of features, a vast number of different images” for amusement or artistic study. A bit like Mr Potato-Head or those flip-cards where you fold a ballerina’s top half into place above the legs of the Incredible Hulk.

Sectional pics

^^Table of Contents

2. U.S. Patent no. 214,493

His next patent was dated April 22nd 1879, and modestly entitled Improvement in Printing Films. With this document we see the arrival of the Ben Day shading method.

So this is when Ben Day patented his famous dots… ?

Well… almost. This patent, in its two-and-a-half pages of text and two pages of diagrams, doesn’t actually mention the word “dot” once. It was all about the line at this point—or nearly all. Over half-way through the text, Day does eventually mention the possibility of “stipple,” and we know of course that stippling means drawing dots. But the word stipple(s) / stippling appears only four times to line(s) / lining’s thirty, and the illustrations all show lines being used.

As far as I have been able to ascertain, it was 1900 before Day patented a dot pattern as such—though he was manufacturing stipple patterns as early as 1881. More on that in a later post

Text 1 Top

“This invention,” wrote Day in his opening remarks to Patent no. 214,493, “relates to certain new and useful pellicles [skins or membranes] which I denominate ‘flexible printing-films’ designed for use for artistic and decorative purposes; also for printing and the preparation and finishing of drawings, printing and copying surfaces, &c., as will be hereinafter more fully described.”

He goes on to describe how he makes one of his printing-films, in this case 6 x 8 inches in size (some later ones were much larger). He gets a series of lines engraved on a wood or metal block, then makes an impression from this by electrotype or pressure “in any suitable substance but preferably tin foil.”

This foil “matrix” is heated on a flat glass or metal surface to between 100 and 200 degrees Fahrenheit (27). He pours on a warm solution of fine glue or gelatine and glycerine, and continues to heat it until most of the water has evaporated and the mixture sets solid. He backs it with fine white silk which is cemented on by pressure, then peels the film off the matrix. It is then sewn onto a wooden frame.

The film in its frame would later become known as a “screen,” probably due to its resemblance to a screen door. There may have been some analogy with the “halftone screen,” though that was made of glass and is quite a different animal. Dalgin (1) shows a Ben Day screen being taken off the shelf later in his book:

Dalgin 20

Day notes that his film is nearly transparent; has a surface with raised lines corresponding to the engraved lines of the original block, except flexible, yielding and elastic; and has a surface which readily takes printing inks or other colours from rollers or pads.

He likes silk for the backing, but says that “collodion or [any] other transparent flexible substance” would do. The commercially available version, later on, is known to have used a celluloid backing.

You will have noticed that all his patents so far have been for “improvements.” Why does Day call this patent “Improvement in Printing-Films”? He explains: “I am aware of the processes described in English patents Nos. 2,844 of 1867 and 109 and 2,538 of 1871; but these do not show a thin, tough, and transparent printing-film like mine, nor the process of producing the impression by the abrasive action of a stylus upon the back of the film.”  These English patents are not as easy to find as the relevant U.S. ones, so for now that is all I can tell you.

In explaining how his films are used, Day refers to his diagrams, reproduced below. Starting with Figures 1 to 3, he simply shows the film in its frame. I have paraphrased his own words slightly in captioning the pictures:

Fig 1 2 3 w text

The narrative skips to Figs. 11 and 12, showing the inking of the film in close-up:

Fig 11 12 final w text

Now he describes transferring lines in ink onto a picture (Figs. 4 to 7, below). It is, he tells us, a picture “drawn in the usual way by hand upon stone or other suitable material.” This might indicate that Day saw lithographers as the main users of his method—more on this later.

Fig 4 5 6 7 final w text

Figure 13 shows how the stylus is used to press the inked film down onto the stone or paper.

Fig 13 final w text

We are used to thinking of Ben Day patterns—the famous dots at least—as the epitome of mechanical shading, with complete, we might say mathematical, regularity. Certainly this was one of the features which Roy Lichtenstein was to exploit in the 1960s (and Roy did use lines as well as dots himself). Day was clearly aware of this as an advantage, but as seen below he was also keen to stress that his printed lines could be imbued with variety and character by the hand of the artist or craftsperson.

Fig 8 9 10 final w text

We look at the Ben Day method across a gulf of time, and we are wearing Lichtenstein-tinted spectacles. But we can attempt to put ourselves back in Ben’s own shoesby looking at the direct evidence of his Letters Patent, and indirect evidence from his times—and ask…

^^Table of Contents

3. What did Ben Day Design his Printing-Films For ?

Some U.S. patents state if they are for a new design or a new method. Ben Day’s Patent no. 214,493 covers both. It is much more clear on the design (and manufacture) of the printing-films and the method of (im)printing lines with one than it is on what the method might be used for. I suspect that the imprecise language used in this patent would today be rewritten by a practiced attorney, so as to define far more specifically the purposes to which the method was foreseen to be put.

Starting with the name; it is clear that they are called “printing-films” because they are used to (im)print a pattern in ink onto a lithographic stone or a piece of paper, etc.—not because they are to be used in the printing industry. The name “printing-film” is intrinsically ambiguous and potentially confusing. (Before long, they were officially known as “shading mediums”—and by artists and printers, as “screens.”)

His introductory words on the subject are also typically ambiguous: “…printing-films… designed for use for artistic and decorative purposes; also for printing and the preparation and finishing of drawings, printing and copying surfaces, &c.”

Here when he says “printing” as in “printing and the preparation and finishing of drawings” does he mean (im)printing his patterns onto drawings, i.e. directly from his printing-film, or does he mean he mean “for commercial printing of drawings by lithography etc.”?

If the latter, why does he go on to say: “..and the preparation and finishing of printing… surfaces”? Here he must be referring to the surfaces of printing blocks/plates, so he would be repeating himself, effectively saying “my films can be used in commercial printing and in commercial printing.”

Either way, he makes usage in the actual printing business sound secondary to “artistic and decorative purposes.”

He later states: “…prints may be made, not only upon flat surfaces and various materials, such as paper, wood, metal, stone, ivory and glass, but also upon curved or irregular surfaces of every description of the same or other materials.”

In his final summing-up Day does not mention lithography or printing plates at all. He defines his process as “The method of lining, shading, stippling, hatching, graining, printing or tinting pictures or other objects in one or more colors…”

Admittedly, printing plates/blocks are “other objects,” but to me this conjures up a vision of a carved ivory walrus, decorated with a regular grid of fine lines, in a room with the prettiest window panes in town.

However throughout the document there are indications that he does see utility for his films in these areas:

  • lithographic printing
  • photoengraving of metal printing plates
  • wood engraving
  • drawing on paper

Lithography at first seems the most favoured of these. As noted above, Day’s diagrams show a drawing “on stone or other suitable material.” Day never states what will happen to the stone after his lines have been imprinted on it, though. Will it be used to print a black & white image? Could it contribute coloured lines to the printing of a chromolithograph? Perhaps he thinks this can simply be “taken as read.”

Just after the part about ivory and glass, and before his summing up, he has this to say:

“Another of the useful results of this invention, to be also described in one of my other applications for patent [my italics—see below], is the quick and rapid production of printing and copying surfaces for lithographic printing and the production of etched blocks for printing, and of copying-surfaces for the making of printing blocks by photographic agency.”

This is a very revealing paragraph. Firstly, it is the only clear indication in the whole document that Day foresees his films being used during the photoengraving process. By “etched blocks” and “printing blocks” he could mean metal plates, which were widely referred to as blocks in the early days.

Secondly, despite that “Another …” which again seems to relegate this to a secondary usage, it demonstrates that Day saw the lithographer as a significant user of his films.

This is also borne out by a look at his next patent which I think must be the one he is referring to here, though he did not apply for it until July 1881. It was granted on November 29th that year. This was for an Adjustable Frame for Printing Films. (I will discuss this in more detail next time. The Adjustable Frame was as important to the success of Day’s shading medium as the printing-films themselves.)

As seen in the diagram below, the Adjustable Frame holds the shading sheet A and its own wooden frame B over the “lithographic stone A’, or other block upon which the drawing or design is to be fixed.” Again Day’s diagram clearly shows a stone blockwhich I have tinted purple for claritywhile his text allows the possibility that it could be a metal one. In his summing up he repeatedly refers to a “stone or block.”

Holding Frame 1881 purple cropped

I find it interesting that he doesn’t directly mention photoengraving on metal plates at all in this 1881 patent, and only very briefly in the 1879 one.

Returning to the 1879 document, Day does refer to wood engraving directly and more than once: “To produce such lines accurately by hand-drawing in the usual manner by any species of drawing instrument, or by means of graving tools in wood-engraving or other engraving, is a work of difficulty, involving much labor and the exercise of peculiar skill…”

Day is particularly proud of his cross-hatching. As he says: “To execute good cross hatching, either in drawing or engraving by hand… is one of the most difficult, laborious and expensive operations known to the artist.” I noted earlier that cross-hatching was a particularly difficult thing to achieve on wood, involving cutting out the white spaces between the black lines.

He says that his films could be “…cast with a different face or different character of lines, grain or stipple… thus effecting a vast saving in time and labor in the production of difficult artistic work.” He is offering “…greater rapidity, doing in one hour’s time… an amount of work that would require a month’s labour if executed in the usual manner.”

Tea details X 4

Details of a wood engraving from 1874

There is an obvious emphasis on Day’s method speeding up the production process. The lengthy time needed to engrave wooden blocks did of course contribute major delays and costs to the publishing business. But there is also such a lack of clarity in Day’s text that I find myself asking: “Production of what, exactly?”

Day must have known that imprinting his lines on their blocks would not have helped wood engravers very much, if at all.

They would still have had to carve away the wood around the lines, and they already had mechanical devices to help them engrave fine parallel lines. Given that wood engravers are very unlikely to use his printing-films, it’s strange that Day should mention wood engraving at all, let alone give it apparent emphasis… but I will return to this below.

With the benefit of hindsight, we know that the first big success of the Ben Day method was in the field of chromolithography. Here the speed and efficiency of his method was indeed a crucial factor. In my next post I will show evidence that by 1885 it was in almost universal use by colour lithographers. Day clearly anticipated this, at least to some extent.

It seems he was not so sure whether photoengravers would take up his method, though he probably had inklings. This is hardly surprising—whereas chromolithography was well-established, photoengraving was a very new technique. Day was certainly well-placed to take advantage of the possibilities when they opened up. Use of Ben Day shading mediums did become massively prevalent in the photoengraving of black & white line art and coloured illustrations.

This is reflected in the British ad below, from the 1898 Penrose Annual, in which Day’s UK agent puts “zinc” ahead of “stone.” (In the U.S. it looks as if “stone” was still privileged, as seen in the ad I showed at the top of this section.)

1898 Penrose ad BEN DAY only

In my next post I will look in detail at where and how the Ben Day method fitted into both the photoengraving process itself and the printing industry in a wider sense. This included, from 1991, an explosion of colour printing in newspapers, which was only possible because of two advances—new types of printing press and the Ben Day method.

The histories tend to remember the presses, and forget about the dots. I hope to make amends. Also, particularly for those who have been waiting patiently—this is of course where the comic strips come in.

Comics 3x3

Finally, back to the drawing board. You will have noticed that both the old advertisements I’ve shown mentioned “cardboard.” This refers to illustration board—drawing paper mounted onto a stiff backing—which professional illustrators routinely used for their finished work.

There are many references in the 1879 patent to “artistic purposes”, drawings, and artists at work. Day himself was an illustrator—did he think that his printing-films would be popular with artists, imprinting his patterns onto their drawings on board? Did he use them this way himself?

If we knew that, we might also find the answer to that nagging question, why did Day repeatedly refer to wood engraving in his patent text?

I quoted Henry Blackburn above, from 1894, re: photoengraving: “The illustrator of to-day is called upon suddenly to take the place of the wood engraver in interpreting tone into line…”

Is this where the emerging importance of photoengraving, Day’s detailed discussions of wood engraving and the slowness of its techniques, and his own work as an illustrator, come together?

Did Ben Day—responding to the same concern as Blackburn, but over fifteen years earlier—think that artists would now want to draw pictures that looked as much like wood engravings as possible?

Interesting questions. Perhaps a look at one of his own drawings from that time might help to answer them—for example, one of his illustrations from Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad, published in 1880.

In my view this picture answers those questions without any further words from me—though in a future post I will have more to say about this important book, and Ben Day’s contributions to it.

Twain Tramp Abroad strange

An illustration by Ben Day, 1880

^^Table of Contents

Coming Attractions

In future posts I will take a detailed look at more of Ben Day’s own black & white drawings.

I will also look at the Ben Day method in those two areas where it became hugely successful, but which Day’s own Letters Patent barely mention:

  • photoengraving on metal plates
  • printing in colour.

This will lead to a look at Ben Day in the comics, including: how did the Ben Day men get from this:


to this:

Nemo 1907 72 dpi

…in a few easy steps?

(Clue: there were quite a few steps, and it wasn’t easy.)

Plus: Some or all of:

  • Who was Benjamin Henry Day Junior?
  • How was his process used in the printing industry?
  • How successful was it?
  • How can the Ben Day dot be defined?
  • Did comics still contain any Ben Day dots by the late 1950s / early 60s?
  • Did Roy Lichtenstein really paint Ben Day dots?

Be seeing you.

Nemo 1907_detail 02_72 dpi

^^Table of Contents

Acknowledgments: Thanks to Fiona McIntosh, Amy Pryor, Andy Bleck, Roger Sabin and Shevek Freeman.

Text Copyright © Guy Lawley 2015. If shared please credit me. No copyright claimed in images.


(1) Advertising Production (New York, McGraw Hill, 1946) by Ben Dalgin, Director of Art and Reproduction at the New York Times.
Back to text—Intro
Back to text—Photoengraving

(2) From Girls’ Romances No.105 (Sparta Illinois/New York, Arleigh Publishing Corporation/DC National Comics, Dec 1964). Artwork attributed to Tony Abruzzo.
Back to text

(3) A list of sources for this essay (other than the perennially useful Wikipedia, Google, Google Books and Google Ngram) must start with a blog post by Phil Normand—TARZAN: the Sunday Comics, 1931-1933, part 2: Tarzan and the Ben Day Men, or The Mechanics of Color in the Sunday Comics at Mr Normand helpfully listed his sources, leading me to:

The Eighth Graphic Arts Production Yearbook (New York, Colton Press, Inc., 1948) ed. Leo H. Joachim

Printing Progress: A Mid-Century Report (Cincinnati Ohio, International Association of Printing House Craftsmen Inc., 1959) ed. Clifford L. Helbert

I also used:

Modern Photoengraving (Chicago/Cincinnati, Modern Photoengraving Publishers, 1948) Ed. Louis Flader & J.S. Mertle

Achievement in Photo-Engraving and Letter-Press Printing (Chicago, American Photo-Engravers Association, 1927) Ed. Louis Flader

Printing Art Vol.67 No.4 (Chicago, Dartnell Publications, 1938) Ed. John L. Scott
Back to text—Introduction
Back to text—Photoengraving

(4) Possibly the sole exception was the New York paper The Daily Graphic, 1873 to 1889. This did have numerous illustrations. Ahead of its time and not a long term success, I will return to this interesting hybrid later (note 15).
Back to text

(5) The earliest efforts at photography had included making images on metal (Niépce, 1822). The Daguerreotype had been around since 1839. Fox Talbot did crucial early work on printing from negatives onto paper, patenting his process in 1841. Photos in books were printed as Talbotypes, Autotypes, Woodburytypes and most successfully from 1868, Collotypes. None of these methods used a halftone screen. All the prints needed to be printed separately from the book’s letterpress text pages and added in during binding, or glued in—costly methods.

For a detailed account, see Photography in the printing press: the photomechanical revolution by Helena E. Wright in Presenting Pictures, 2004; ed. Bernard Finn (London, The Science Museum, co-produced with the Deutsches Museum and the Smithsonian) and currently online at:
Back to text

(6) History of the halftone: The coming of the halftone method (described in Part 2)—allowing grey tones of wash drawings and photographs to be mass-printed for the first time—went hand-in hand with the rise of photo-engraving, if about a decade delayed, at least in terms of widespread, commercial use.

Attempts had been made earlier, but from the 1860s onwards, new glass “halftone screens” succeeded in breaking up the continuous grey tones of photos or wash artwork into dots of graduated size—within the cameras which photo-engraving houses already used. This dotted image could be developed on a letterpress printing plate by photo-engraving, and by printing the dot pattern, a reasonable illusion of the original picture with its grey tones could be reproduced.


This is Senator Joseph Kennedy, JFK’s dad, from an old newspaper

The first halftone printed from a photograph in a newspaper was in 1880: “A Scene in Shantytown” by Stephen Horgan in the New York Daily Graphic (see also note 14). This used a lithographic technique though, rather than a true relief metal plate photoengraved halftone, and the floodgates did not open straight away.
Early printed halftone images were, in general, not impressive. Much hand-work had to done by engravers to achieve good results. Photo-engraving of line art had to be well established and the quality of printing presses, paper and ink all had to improve before mass printing of halftone images could really take off. In 1887 the Levy Brothers of Philadelphia started producing half-tone screens commercially for the first time. Through the 1890s halftones, especially from photographs, took an increasing share of the illustration space in magazines and newspapers.
Back to text—Arrival of Illustrated Press
Back to text—Photoengraving

(7) Fortunatus seen at
Back to text

(8) See The Mass Image: A Social History of Photomechanical Reproduction in Victorian London (Basingstoke/New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) by Gerry Beegan. Highly recommended and to be cited again.
Back to text—Wood Engraving
Back to text—Photoengraving

(9) The Encylopedia of Ephemera: A Guide to the Fragmentary Documents of Everyday Life for the Collector, Curator and Historian (London, New York, 2000 & 2001, the British Library/Routledge) by Maurice Rickards and Michael Twyman
Back to text

(10) Does anyone else look at this picture and think “Bryan Talbot’s Luther Arkwright style”—or is it just me?
Back to text

(11) Ally Sloper debuted in Judy in 1867 and is often quoted as the first comic character to appear on a regular basis, predating the Yellow Kid (from 1894 or 1896, depending on your definition). Sloper also spawned toys, live stage versions, etc., and probably directly inspired W.C. Fields & Charlie Chaplin.
See: Roger Sabin, Ally Sloper, The First Comics Superstar? in A Comics Studies Reader (University Press of Mississippi, 2009) ed. Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester. Also online:
Back to text

(12) See The Essentials of Book Collecting by Robert F. Lucas
Back to text

(13) Later versions of lithography “offset” the printed image onto rubber “blankets” before the ink finally transferred to paper. “Offset litho” is still very widely used today (2015) but it’s come a long way from the blocks of limestone that gave it its name.
Back to text

(14) Letterpress type was of course reverse-imaged. This is probably the origin of the expression “mind your p’s and q’s” since printers had to pay particular attention to letters which resembled each other in the mirror. Why not “b’s and d’s”? Used much more commonly, printers probably soon learned to recognise b & d without thinking. P’s & q’s might have been applied to “pints and quarts” in pub tallies as well, but I’m not sure I buy that.
Back to text

(15) As I mentioned in note 4, New York’s Daily Graphic was a hybrid. It had 8 pages printed from one large sheet. One side of this (4 pages) was printed by lithography, with the illustrated material, and the other side by letterpress. I don’t know if this extra expense contributed to the ultimate failure of the Graphic, though it was beset by other financial woes—see The World’s First Illustrated Newspaper, by Stephen Horgan in Penroses’s Annual, Vol 35, p.23 (London; Percy Lund, Humphries & Co. Ltd, 1933).
Back to text

(16) Can anyone see how many colours were used in printing this card? I tried to count them, but my brain started to melt.
Back to text

(17) One result of this was that many, many wood engravers became unemployed, or sought jobs in the new photo-engraving or “zincography” trade where they could. A lot of manual work was still needed in producing and “touching up” photoengraved plates. (see Beegan, note 8)
Back to text

(18) Flader & Mertle also had this to say about photoengraving: “[It] may be rated as one of the greatest inventions of all times. It superseded handcraft methods in the making of printing plates and substituted photographic and mechanical speed, accuracy and fidelity for the uncertain effects of human hands.” As big-wigs in the business of U.S. photoengraving, they were of course somewhat biased—though they had a point. Beegan (8) discusses the ambiguous implications of that supposed “accuracy and fidelity,” specially with respect to the halftone photograph in print.
Back to text

(19) See also, for example, the opening sentence from Zincography: A Practical Guide to the Art as Practised in Connexion with Letterpress Printing (4th edition, London, E. Menken, 1890s—the 5th edition was 1896, the 4th is undated) by Josef Böck: Before entering upon the subject of the requirements suitable for a zincographic atelier, it may be pointed out that the workshop itself should possess the means of being well ventilated, since, during the etching process, acid vapours are developed which are highly detrimental to health…  Böck might have mentioned that ether and benzene fumes were not exactly pleasant either.
Back to text

(20) Figure 4: There is no figure 4 :O)
(There was in Dalgin’s book, of course. It showed an alternative type of camera, not around in Ben’s day.)
Back to text

(21) Original photo taken from
Back to text

(22) Popeye plate:

Back to text

(23) The Art of Illustration (London, W.H. Allen & Co Ltd., 1894) by Henry Blackburn. In fact this “sudden” change was well under way long before 1894, as we see later when looking at certain illustrations published in 1880.
Back to text

(24) Articles in this issue included “Process” from the Photographic Point of View, False Standards and Conventions in Process Work and The Three-Colour Process—a Step-Child. There were also many advertisements using the term, e.g.  for the magazine The Process-Pictogram (“The leading Process Publication of the World.”)
Back to text

(25) I don’t know if his publisher paid for these. I do know that Twain was very angry about Canadian publishers in particular bootlegging his books.
Back to text

(26) Patent documents were found using Google Patent Search. I also went to the web site of the U.S. Patents and Trademark Office,
Back to text

(27) If you work in centigrade… the boiling point of water, 100 degrees C,  is 212 degrees Fahrenheit. The freezing point, 0 degrees C, is minus 32 degrees F. One starts to see why centigrade.
Back to text

Posted in Ben Day, History of Printing, Illustration, Newspaper comic strips, Pop Art, Roy Lichtenstein | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


Paula has probably not been seen since its original 1946 printing

The Creative Team

Dennis Wheatley, British author of famed occult thrillers like The Devil Rides Out (1934) was also a writer of conventional crime and war thrillers. In 2013 a number of his books were reissued by Bloomsbury. Neil Gaiman got in on the promotional campaign for this. He told how he had enjoyed being titillated by these perennial bestsellers from the age of ten. Wheatley’s sex ‘n’ satanism shockers were not aimed at children, and most British schoolboys of the 1970s (myself included) were probably a bit older than that when we got into the books.

Gaiman wheatley

Paula   ̶  a crime story set in the world of British movie-making, which ran in the Daily Express from September to November 1946  ̶  was Dennis Wheatley’s only newspaper comic strip.

Wheatley was by this time a well established best-selling author. Paula was actually co-written (possibly “ghosted”) by T.E.B. “Tibby” Clarke, as noted in the Express‘s September 23rd text intro:

Paula intro text 23 Sep 46_72 dpi

T.E.B (Thomas) Clarke was a scriptwriter for Ealing Films, and a former policeman. He wrote Johnny Frenchman (1945) and Hue and Cry (1947). He would go on to write The Blue Lamp (1950) and The Lavender Hill Mob (which won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for 1952) and several novels.

His brother, Brigadier Dudley Clarke, reportedly “did as much to win the war for the Allies as any other individual.” Dudley Clarke was a pioneer in Britain’s military deception operations during World War Two. These involved deceiving the enemy with leaked false orders of battle, dummy tanks & planes and even whole “phantom armies”. Clarke had set up a successful unit in Cairo before returning to London in late 1941 to help create the London Controlling Section, LCS. One of the planning team at LCS was Dennis Wheatley.

Wheatley (born in 1897) had fought as a 2nd Lieutenant in the British Army’s Royal Field Artillery in World War I,  before being gassed with chlorine at Passchendaele in 1917 and invalided home. Despite having documented fascist leanings, Wheatley was patriotic when it came to the 1939 war, and keen to contribute. He had contacts in the security services, but was initially unable to find his way into any war work. His wife Joan worked as a driver for MI5, and through this connection Wheatley came to submit numerous advisory papers to the War Office in 1940-41. This led to his recruitment to the LCS. The web site has this page about his work there;

Wheatley and LCS were involved in the planning of several projects which have become almost legendary  ̶  Operation Mincemeat / The Man Who Never Was, for example, and the major Operation Fortitude, which convinced the Nazis that the D-Day landings were to be well north of their true destination, and was vital to D-Day’s success.


Wheatley left the LCS in 1944. How he met “Tibby” Clarke we may never know, but the connection with Dudley Clarke and the LCS  seems likely to have contributed. Phil Baker, in his very good biography of Wheatley, The Devil Is A Gentleman, confirms that he had an enduring friendship with Dudley Clarke. “Tibby” is not mentioned, and nor is the obscure Paula.

The third creative contributor to Paula was the uncredited artist, Eric Parker. I found out about the strip while looking up Parker’s work. He has been a favourite of mine for many years, since I started collecting Anthony Skene‘s Sexton Blake stories featuring Blake’s antagonist Zenith the Albino. (Zenith was famously one of the influences on Michael Moorcock‘s sword & sorcery character, Elric Of Melniboné.)

Eric Parker illustrated many of the Zenith stories, both cover art and interiors. These were text stories, appearing from 1919 to 1941 in the various magazines which carried Blake’s adventures  ̶  Union Jack, Detective Weekly and The Sexton Blake Library. Savoy Books republished Skene’s only stand-alone Zenith novel, and have a page on Zenith at, as does Jess Nevins,

My own Eric Parker cover gallery is here:


Eric Parker Sexton Blake illo from the 1968 Valiant Book of Sexton Blake

Parker is possibly best known for his coloured illustrations and comics strips, usually on historical subjects, for Boys’ World, Ranger and especially Look and Learn in the 1960s. The Illustration Art Gallery has a great Parker biography by Steve Holland here and some artwork for sale. A personal reminiscence by W.O.G. “Bill” Lofts appears here:


Though Sexton Blake comic strips ran in many venues over the decades, regrettably only a few weeks in the Knockout comic of 1949 were ever drawn by Parker. His other newspaper strips were also few; Steve Holland lists Pepys Diary (Evening News), An Age of Greatness (Daily Globe), Our Gang (Sunday Pictorial) and notably, Making A Film for the Daily Express. I know nothing about this last one except its title. It sounds like a factual account. Perhaps it gave Parker some background for drawing Paula; maybe vice versa.

A Few Technical Matters

Paula has never been reprinted as far as I know. The Denis site has only this photo of the first instalment:

Paula 01_enh

The version I have accessed, from an online newspaper archive, is taken (I think) from a microfilmed image. The whole page of the full-sized, pre-tabloid paper is represented, and each Paula daily strip is a small fraction of the image, which I have cropped out.

It looks like this (the first instalment):
Paula 01 72dpi

As usual, a slightly larger version can be seen by clicking on the image.

I tried cleaning up some panels, initially thinking I could simply fill in some black areas. This looked pretty awful, with such marked contrast between my blacks and the other snowy lines. So I tried correcting other parts of the drawings too, but found it very difficult work out what was Parker’s ink line and what was an artefact of the patchy reproduction. I could not correct all of the drawing, or the word balloons. After a lot of work I decided it wasn’t really worth the effort:

Paula 01 RT 72

This was another attempt. I really couldn’t decide what was going on with this guy’s left eye, gave up, and blacked it all in. This convinced me I was on a hiding to nothing.

Retouched 02

So, Paula will be presented in Super-Special Snazzy Snow-Vision until something better turns up. Firstly, some observations about individual moments from the strip, then the first two weeks of continuity.

A few thoughts arising from the strip

Tommy Trinder was a successful British comedian of the 1930s and 40s on the variety stage and radio who also appeared in a number of films, including Ealing Studios’  Champagne Charlie in 1944. His catchphrase was “You lucky people”.

TommyTrinder portrait

Given his fame, one might think his appearance in Paula would have been trailed in its introduction. Parker’s caricature is not at all bad, but Trinder’s name on his dressing room door in strip 5 ensures that readers know who he is. In strip 6 he is presumably playing up to his perceived public image when he flirts “humorously” with a young actress.

DETAIL_Paula 05_Trinder smaller           DETAIL_Paula 06_Trinder

The opening panel of strip 1 seems very clumsy to me. Starting in the middle of an argument with the word “Then” is an odd choice. It sent me looking around to see if I had missed the actual opening strip(s), but no, this really is how it starts. It is an attempt introduce Paula herself as continuity girl, but a better introduction of setting and characters should have been expected. I suspect this poor beginning reflects the lack of comic strip experience of both writers.

DETAIL_Paula 01_01

And there is no attempt to explain what the role of the continuity girl actually is. Perhaps all Express readers in 1946 already knew what a vital member of the film crew she is, checking that everything in camera view is just the same between takes  ̶  right down to a stray lock of hair or the length of a partly-smoked cigarette.

In strip 7, Paula’s concern for the “stand-in” suggest Thomas Clarke’s scripting hand:

DETAIL_Paula 07_stand-in

Finally, in the same strip, the lack of sugar in the Turkish Delight reminds us of Paula‘s post-war setting. Sugar rationing did not end in Britain until 1953.

DETAIL_Paula 07_no sugar

The first two weeks of Paula

Paula ran from September 23rd 1946 for nine weeks. It appeared every weekday and Saturday during that period, six strips per week. Most days it was the only comic strip in the Express, though it was occasionally accompanied by a dire “humour” strip called  ̶  no relation  ̶  The Parkers (“by Hodges”).

After nine weeks  ̶  the mystery concluded  ̶  Paula rather abruptly ended. The adventures of the plucky continuity girl were not to be continued. History does not record the whys and wherefores.

And I must ask: if anyone thinks they have rights in this intellectual property, and that I have made anything other than fair use of it on this not-for-profit, historical-informative blog  ̶  please get in touch.

As usual, clicking on the small image should take you to a larger, more readable version  ̶  as readable as Snazzy Snow-Vision is ever going to get, anyway.

Paula Week One: September 23rd to 28th, 1946:

PAULA week 01

Paula Week Two: September 30th to October 5th, 1946:

PAULA week 02

That’s it for now… you lucky people!

Posted in Newspaper comic strips | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


RGB dots on the screen. CMYK “four-colour” in the comics. Etc.


The Avengers, Captain America and Daredevil are Copyright and TM 2015 Marvel Characters Inc.


Some decades ago, before the internet changed this kind of inquiry forever, I got interested in what everyone called benday or Benday dots. There were two reasons for this; I loved the comic books that were supposedly printed with actual (tiny) Ben Day dots, and I loved the paintings of Roy Lichtenstein, who was said to have painted giant Ben Day dots. (I’ll go on calling them Ben Day dots from now on, as that was their original name, and because it commemorates the man who invented them — Benjamin Henry Day Jnr.)

Here is a detail from a panel in a DC romance comic — one which Roy Lichtenstein did not borrow. This shows the Ben Day dots used to print our heroine’s skin tone and pale blue eyes… or so you might think.

From Girls’ Romance 81. Art by John Romita.

Many years ago I read in a book or magazine that “The dots you see in the comic books are NOT Ben Day dots” — or words to that effect.

I wish I’d kept that piece, as it went on to explain its seemingly controversial statement. If I had it now, I could quote what it said and be done. Instead I have tried to rediscover the details behind that assertion. And while the internet has been useful, particularly in locating old books, most of my information has come — fittingly enough for such ancient and largely forgotten wisdom — from those dusty old paper pages.

Now I’m ready to tell the real story of the true Ben Day dots.  Including — has this typical lovelorn DC Comics blonde got Ben Day dots on her face? The answer is a very definite “yes and no”.

I will come back to the real, historical Ben Day dots in Part 4. I know, I did promise the full gen on Ben Day dots here in Part 3. But first, I want to look at how the images we see around us today are made. Ben Day dots used to be almost as big a deal as pixels are now. They dominated their field for more than 50 years, from their beginnings in 1879. In trying to understand not only how they worked, but why they were so successful, I found it useful — and fun — to look at their modern-day equivalents.

So, I’m starting with the here and now, before working backwards into the past. This post will look at two other relevant subjects — the RGB and CMYK colour systems — before I get back to the Ben Day dots themselves, and the comic books.


This is what Ben Day dots seem to us to be all about — colour in the mass production of images. But the Ben Day process can — or could (the past tense really is correct here) — be used to print dots of any colour you liked, including black. And while people did increasingly find uses for coloured dots, for decades, every day around the world, millions of black-and-white images using Ben Day dots were printed in comic strips, graphics, advertising art etc. These used the dots to print shades of grey.

From the 1890s, newspapers increasingly used colour as well, as weekend colour sections took off in U.S.. In the colour Sunday comic strips, the dots really came into their own, used to make a huge variety of colours. For example, yellows mixed with varying densities of blue could make a wide range of greens.

The dots below aren’t Ben Day dots from a Sunday strip, though. They are from a 1950s comic book.

green 2

But I am getting ahead of myself. Or rather, behind — in the past. I’m supposed to be working backwards, from where we are now. And where we are now is the world of:

2. RGB COLOUR — RED, GREEN & BLUE DOTS. On a screen near you now.

Most of the manufactured images we see these days (as opposed to the images of the real world coming straight into our eyes) are on TV and computer screens. Most of these screens (some book reading devices excepted) are emitting light from millions of little rectangles called, as we all know, pixels. (Short for “picture elements”.)

Nobody would call pixels a type of Ben Day dot, and quite rightly, though they are doing much the same job as their historic forebears.  That is, they are creating an illusion of uninterrupted colour from a huge number of tiny dots, so close together that we don’t notice the individual elements — or at least, we can forget they are there.

Though today’s screens can show us thousands, even millions, of colours, these are all made up from only three colours of dot, Red, Green and Blue — hence the name RGB. These colours add together to make, for example yellow, which is red plus green. The white part of a screen is emitting all three colours, as seen in this diagram:

From Wikipedia

Actual pixels doing this on a real laptop screen can be seen below, photographed at 20-times magnification. (I turned the picture on its side so it looks more like the RGB diagram above):

20X RGB 3

Below are the three RGB colours in close-up, photographed at 400-times magnification from the same screen. They look as if there is too much black on the screen to make a “solid” bright colour. In reality each pixel is of course blazing with light. So what your eye sees is the colour shown in the smaller square on the right:

400X R = Square R

400X G = Square G

400X B = Square B

And below are the colours from the overlapping areas of the RGB diagram, also at 400X. These are known as Cyan (the pale aqua blue), Magenta (the pinky red) and straight Yellow:

On-screen cyan:

400X C = Square C

On-screen magenta:

400X M = Square M

On-screen yellow:

400X Y02 = Square Y

That last one above, as an example, doesn’t really look very yellow, does it? At least, not when magnified 400 times. Try looking at this detail of the yellow part of the RGB diagram (below) at 20X magnification, with its green and red components also shown. How’s that looking? (Clicking on it shows a larger version):

20X Y

Are you starting to see how the illusion of yellow is created? (Getting a bit further back from the screen than usual might help.) It’s an “illusion” in that there are no yellow pixels, only red and green on a black background. Certainly looks like yellow by the time it’s been through your eye and reached your brain, though, doesn’t it?

And this is how your screen shows you white at 400X:

400X white = Square White

And below, photographed at 20X, is the white background behind a familiar blue “e”:


Likewise this doesn’t look very white, though you know it “really” is.

And if these enlarged images of “screen yellow” and “screen white” don’t look as if they should really work, that may not be the only thing about RGB colour which seems “wrong”, at least compared to the colour mixes we see or paint on paper.

The RGB model, so familiar on our screens, is quite different from another kind of colour mixing that we also think we know very well… the kind we learned in painting classes. What happened to the famous “three primary colours” we were told about at school?

They are not the Red-Green-Blue trio of RGB, but “The three colours, red, yellow, and blue, that can be mixed together in different ways to make any other colour,” as the Cambridge Online Dictionary says — often shown like this:

Primary colours

Well, those primaries may work (up to a point — see below) on paper or canvas. But these three primary colours were conceptualised by François d’Aguilon in 1613 when the colours of pigments used to make oil paints were the key factors in people’s minds. This was before full-colour printing on paper was even possible; light came from candles, not light bulbs or LEDs, and screens were things you sat behind to confess to your priest. Electricity only entered someone’s life if they were unlucky enough to be struck by lightning.

And the lit-up electric-powered screen is a very different thing from a painting or a print on paper. On a screen we see additive colour, made with transmitted / emitted light, and the three screen primaries are clearly red, blue and green. These three colours add together to make the various combinations — clearly shown in this photo of three spotlights shining the RGB colours onto a wall. (Possibly a little Photoshopped… but an illustration that makes its point.)

Thanks again to Wikipedia for this photo

Isn’t that what we do when we mix colours with paint, though, or print with coloured ink on paper — add colours together? Strangely enough, no. What we are doing then is taking colour away — subtracting it. We are taking colours away from white.

White paper is not emitting light. It gets its whiteness from reflected light. The white reflected light is still made up of all the colours of the spectrum mixed or added together, just like the white light where those three spotlights overlap. This is seen when prisms or raindrops split white light into its component colours, and we see a spectrum or rainbow.


What makes colour subtraction different from addition is that paint or ink put onto white paper absorbs some of that reflected light, taking it away from the white. This is in some ways the opposite of what happens when light is emitted from a screen.

So: on a screen, colours mix in an additive process.

On paper, colours mix in a way which is called subtractive.

Which neatly brings me on to:


The computer screen may bring us most of our images, but we are still living partly in the world of paper, and probably have to print stuff out now and then. Your home or office printer is a place where you will see CMYK colour at work, as anyone who has changed its ink cartridges may have noticed. As with the RGB pixels on screen, the printer uses its own tiny dots to build up images, and a very limited number of colours — in this case not three, but four.

C, M & Y are the Cyan, Magenta and Yellow that we met a while back, where the R, G & B overlapped. K is Black. Obviously. Even if my Epson ink set calls it BK, just to be awkward:

72_ cmyk cartidges

Below is a picture of the Legion of Andy. I have printed out a copy to show how my Epson inkjet printer makes the image.

Legion of Andy

Andy 20X flesh  Andy 400X flesh 02

Above: Andy’s skin at 20x and 400x.

Below: Andy’s cigarette end, ditto.

Andy 20X cig  Andy 400X cig end

As with the pixels, I don’t think anyone would call these printer dots “Ben Day dots.” They are too irregular in shape and pattern. People tend to use the name “Ben Day dots” for neat, regularly spaced, round ones — and they are partly right (of which, more later).

So, my/your printer is using a subtractive CMYK process. And most things printed on a surface — such as paper, but also other packaging materials — will be printed using CMYK (some exceptions will be shown later).

The colour diagram or “model” of CMYK will look fairly familiar to anyone who ever mixed their own paints:


Picture from Wikipedia

In the centre is a black area, where all the colour has been subtracted from the white light by the overlapping cyan, magenta and yellow. In real-world printing, the overlapping colours tend to make something that isn’t really good enough, and black is added to improve the final image. (Some black dots are visible on Andy’s red cigarette end, above.)

As we will see later, in the days of the real Ben Day dot, and in the comics, the black part of the image was even more important. In fact it was known as the “key”, which is where the K for black in CMYK comes from. (Some sources suggest it was called K rather than B so as not to get muddled up with B for blue. This may have been helpful in some circumstances, but since the blue is actually called cyan or C, it is less likely than the “K for key” story.)

In the CMYK system, it is cyan, magenta and yellow which are the primary colours, not blue red and yellow. These are the colours that really can be “mixed together in various ways to make [just about] any other colour,” as the dictionary had it.


CMYK or standardised “four-colour” printing really only arrived in the early twentieth century. Here’s a very condensed version of the road to CMYK:

Pictures and words carved onto wooden blocks, inked, and printed onto paper were probably first produced in China around the year 200. Reusable “movable type” printing blocks, for printing words, were also developed there in about the year 1000 CE/AD. It was in the 1400’s that both these methods came to Europe.

In Mainz, Germany, Johannes Gutenberg had his metal movable type and printing press running by 1450—one of the key developments in human history.

Pictures printed from carved wooden blocks had arrived in Europe a few decades earlier.

Most pages were printed in black or one colour. Coloured illustrations were usually only achieved by hand colouring, which in larger editions increasingly came to involve stencils. Only a “solid” colour could be stencilled on, with no gradations. A red ink could not be broken up into dots to make pink, for example. This example below, from, is said to be a “nineteenth century penny print” using three “spot colours”:


In the very early, experimental days of colour printing, from 1710 onwards, pioneer Jacob Christoph le Blon did use the three old primaries, red, blue and yellow, sometimes with black. He engraved three or four copper printing plates (as shown below) by hand for each print, using a mezzotint method—one of the ways engravers created grey tones in B&W prints. This allowed for gradations of colour. But his method was very expensive and time-consuming, and did not catch on.


What took colour printing forward were advances in lithography, invented around 1799 in Munich, Germany, initially using stone printing plates, then metal. The images on the printing plates were still drawn by hand, then etched into the stone or metal with acid. In 1837 Godefroy Engelmann patented his technique of chromolithography (colour lithography) which dominated colour printing for decades to come. In the making of high end prints, for framing on the wall, several colours might be used, including two different reds, two blues, even blended shades of black, for example. Inks could be mixed to suit the job at hand.

This one, “Love or Duty“, an 1873 chromolithograph by Gabriele Castagnola, is frankly just showing off:

Litho 01

By the late 1800s, relatively cheap colour lithography was being used to make large editions of greetings cards and book illustrations. This birthday card from about 1888 is a more everyday example:

litho 05

Newspapers, printing mainly words set in metal type, remained black-and white at this time. They used letterpress printing with metal plates, and cheap very absorbent paper called “newsprint.”

The rotary printing press (using cylindrical printing surfaces, not flat plates) speeded up printing from 1843.

The revolutionary web rotary press — the classic newspaper press with the vast rolls of paper being fed through continuously, and printed on both sides at once — was invented in 1870.

In 1892 the colour web rotary press arrived in the U.S.A. — another revolution. At first only the big city papers, which owned their own printing presses, could afford the new technology. The first newsprint weekend colour supplements were printed in Chicago in that same year, 1892 — more in Part 4.)

I think this picture below is a web rotary press, circa 1940:

press c 1940 b

For some years, each newspaper’s staff chose which colours of ink — up to four — to use. But as colour printing spread, it made sense for every mass-production printing business to be offering pretty much the same four colours as everyone else.

The standardised cyan, magenta and yellow are reported to have arrived in 1906, when the Eagle Printing Ink Company of New Jersey introduced a new type of wet process inks, in the CMYK colours. The colours themselves had been around for a while. Now, in an evolutionary process comparable to Darwin’s “survival of the fittest,” these four hues really came into their own.

It took a long time, though. In 1927, Arthur H. Ogle, Secretary-Treasurer of the Association of National Advertisers, Inc., wrote a piece called Achievement in Color Process Standardization. He was clear that much remained to be done: “It is but natural that the keen minds of the printing and engraving industry should have turned to the standardization of process color inks… It has long been the dream of a group of devoted crusaders… it will soon approach accomplishment…”

He continued: “The technical work, faithfully carried on over a period of years by the Standardization Committee of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, has reached a stage where printing in the standard colors is already being widely done.” On the other hand, “One publisher of an important trade paper has told us that in a recent issue he had twelve color pages, and… an entirely different combination of colors for each of the advertisements!”

Ogle was confident that standard colors had so many advantages that progress would continue, though it would require effort from the righteous, and further improvements could be expected. “The colors themselves are… something of a compromise between the theoretical ideal and the practical necessities… in time we may surely expect better colors than those which we now call standard.” He only meant improvement at a detailed level, though. The four colours were and still are:

Cyan: the name given to a printer’s (or “process”) blue which effectively has no red or yellow in it. (The name cyan was reportedly first applied to a printer’s blue in 1879, the same year that Ben Day launched his dots.)

Here is a quote from Wikipedia about magenta, which was: “…first introduced as the color of a new aniline dye called fuchsine, patented in 1859 […]. Its name was changed the same year to magenta, to celebrate a victory of the French and Sardinian army at the Battle of Magenta on June 4, 1859.” 

Magenta, a.k.a. printer’s red or process red, is quite different from the scarlet, “pillar pox” or “fire engine” red we were given at school as a “primary” colour. I can’t have been the only schoolkid who ever got upset because mixing my red and blue paints made a nasty brownish colour, not the purple I was promised — due, as I now know, to all the yellow in my “primary” red. (Perhaps by now art teachers have wised up to this problem? PLMK!) A variety of pleasing dark blues and purples can be mixed from cyan and magenta in various proportions, without brownness creeping in.

Printer’s or process yellow is similarly a neutral yellow. As shown on the CMYK diagram, “fire engine” or “pillar box red” is a secondary colour in this subtractive colour model. That is, it’s what you get when you mix two other colours — in this case, magenta and yellow in equal proportions.

Speaking of which, take another look at the additive and subtractive colour diagrams below, now seen side by side.

5. CMYK vs. RGB

The overlapping (secondary) colours in the RGB / additive system are the same as the “pure” or primary colours in the subtractive CMYK system, and vice versa — the three pure RGB pixel colours show up where two CMYK primaries overlap. And in the middle of one diagram the colours overlap to make white, in the other, black.

Two models
The RGB colour model (on the left) and the CMYK model (right)

I was fairly gobsmacked when this fell into place for me. It seemed almost crazy, but on the other hand, it helps to show that the two processes really are in some ways opposite to one another.

This may also help explain something that you might have noticed in the real world; getting a coloured image on your screen to print out faithfully is not a straightforward matter. Partly, of course, this is because ink on paper lacks the brightness and vibrancy of a light-emitting screen. And in practice, process cyan, magenta and yellow are not exactly the same hues as you see on your screen. But it’s also because the computer/screen combo and the printer are using completely different colour systems, pretty much opposite to one another. In practice, some very clever software is needed to translate RGB into CMYK.

Where that translation needs to be extraordinarily good is in the world of photography, where a top-quality print is required. But it is also important when reproducing colour pictures in books, magazines, comics and newspapers — and on cereal packets etc..

Which brings me to my next section:


Your printer is one place where you might see CMYK in action in today’s world (for the benefit of future scholars, that is the world of 2015).

Here is another. These images appear on every page of my daily newspaper:

Newspaper CMYK 02Newspaper CMYK

They have been set up to show at a glance if the four printed images that make up the page — still one for each colour, just like M. le Blon in 1710 — are printing well, and are lined up (or “registered”) correctly. The set of registration marks above looks pretty good. The marks below are from a page that is slightly misregistered, with a close-up of the top of the cross. None of the four images is precisely aligned with any of the others here:

News CMYK off reg  News CMYK off reg 3CU

Mass-produced printing has moved on a long way since 1961, when Roy Lichtenstein started making advertisements and four-colour comics his source material. Most newspapers have colour on every page now. In those days, most daily papers were printed only in black and white. The more expensive coloured sections were confined to the weekends, mostly Sundays. In the Sunday comic strips, and in the U.S. comics, printing of this standard (seen here at 20x, an image from few years after 1961, I know) was fairly common:

CA 104 d

Today’s newspapers rarely achieve anything that dramatically bad, and if they do, those pages are unlikely to be let out on the streets. Comics have improved even further than their newsprint cousins, relatively speaking; they long ago ditched the cheap “newsprint” paper, for a start. And they print with much finer dot patterns, giving a smoother look to the artwork. Many have digital / on-screen editions too, of course, or are even screen-only.

But the relevant point here is this: very few of the mass-produced paper media that you will see every day (including the comics and the newspapers) are printed by digital means — unlike the pages you make for yourself with your desktop or office printer. There is an intermediate stage in mass-production, as mentioned above — the printing press.

And while your own printer prints out a CMYK page in one go — all the coloured dots, of all four colours, being laid down in a complex sequence as the paper moves once through the printer — the printing press still uses four stages in printing, one for each of the CMYK colours, one at a time. Four different images are printed one after the other, progressively building up to the full colour version. That’s why the four images need to be very closely lined up with each other. Otherwise the final result is something like poor Captain America, above.

Early comics used metal (letterpress) printing plates, transferring coloured inks straight onto paper — like early newspapers. By the 1950s, most newspapers and magazines used web offset printing, in which curved metal printing plates (stereotypes) carried the inks onto rubber blankets, and the blankets carried the image onto the paper. Printers of comics also moved over to offset printing, but is not clear exactly when they switched. For example, World Color Press in Sparta Illinois, were printing DC comics from 1955, and World Color reportedly started using web offset printing in 1956.

Marvel only switched to World Color in 1969, having printed before that with Eastern Color in Connecticut (as DC previously did too). I have been unable to find out whether Eastern Color ever switched to web offset.

The colours used were (and are) CMYK whichever actual printing method was (is) used.

In 1977, World Color published a promotional comic book showing their web offset printing methods, illustrated by Joe Kubert (see


CMYK is a four-colour process, and everything printed using CMYK is four-colour printing — a name which was often used in the printing and publishing business as shorthand for CMYK.

On the letters page of Boys’ Life magazine for September 1954, Vance Everett of Scotch Plains, New Jersey, wrote to the editor: “You said the Outdoor Code in the March Boys’ Life is in four colors. I counted more than four colors. Who goofed?” The editor replied: “No-one goofed. You have just learned one of the terms of the printing trade. Actually the page was printed with four different colors of ink, skilfully blended to bring out practically all the colors possible. Printers and journalists refer to full color reproduction as four color work.”

But the name “four-colour” stuck particularly to the comic books, perhaps because their crude printing — those dots! that poor registration!— made the process more obvious than the sophisticated half-tones used to reproduce photographs etc. in glossy magazines.

Dell comics published over 1,000 issues of their Dell Four Color Comics between 1939 and 1962, featuring a revolving line-up of characters including Santa Claus, Francis the Talking Mule, and the gun-toing Dick Tracy.

Dell 4-C 96

Dell Four Color Comic no. 96, 1946

Publishers like Dell, fans of comics, and other commentators might use the name in a neutral way — e.g. “four-color fantasies” — but it is also very likely to be found in negative terms like “four-colour nightmares” from the time when comics were being persecuted in the 1950s.

Did I mention cereal packets…? My morning breakfast cereal comes in a box printed with CMYK plus 1 — the +1 is a dark green ink. This is not unusual in packaging. Here’s the cereal box registration mark and a close-up of part of the product’s logo. This shows that most of the green is still made up of blue and yellow dots. Only part of the logo uses the green ink:

Oatibix 2b   oatibix 4

These dots are one kind that people will often call Ben Day dots. “If you blow up a printed picture like this,” they will say, “you can see the Ben Day dots.” This is not true. These are halftone dots, as seen in Part 3 in black & white photos prepared for newspaper printing with a “halftone screen”. These are the modern, colour, equivalents, produced by software rather than by glass screens in a camera. Not Ben Day dots. Different animal.

By contrast, this cellophane wrapper (below) for Swizzels’ Fizzers is only printed with solid colours of black, white and pink, no CMYK at all, and no dots. Also still common in packaging, though much more common in days gone by.


Meanwhile, back at the  the four-colour process, here’s Cap again on the cover of Avengers 201, cover-dated November 1980. The printing of this comic was basically the same as it would have been in 1960. Some details were different, but surprisingly little had changed even since Cap first hit the printed page in 1941! (It was in the 1980s that changes — mostly for the better — really accelerated.)

The next eight pictures are scanned directly from four actual test printouts — “proofs” — sent to Marvel Comics’ art department from the printer for approval. (A few red marks can be seen on the black and white picture, indicating corrections needed.)

To start with, here are the four images in CMYK order:

A201 B  A201 M

A201 Y  A201 black

They are printed on clear plastic (acetate) at the same size as the comic, and are exactly the same as the four steps in printing, if they were done individually.

On the printing press the four individual prints would not be made like that. The order of printing was yellow, red on top of the yellow, thirdly blue added, then black. The acetates were stapled together for the editor to view in this order, on a white backing. Laying the transparent images over each other is just like watching the progressive printing process happening. Hence sets of acetates like this are called progressive proofs. Again, these are real scans of the actual acetates:

A201 Y then A201 Y&M then

A201 no black  and  A201 full .

The Marvel staffer saw the final version first, and could look underneath to view the lower layers if flaws were apparent.

Comic book publishers in those days only viewed proofs of the covers. Making advance proofs of the interior pages would have been too costly and time-consuming. Apart from anything else, these were physical objects which had to be mailed around the country. Imagine that!

Finally, here’s another one I really love, but don’t — alas! — own: the cover of Daredevil 38, March 1968. Progressive proofs were printed on paper, not acetate, in those days, and these were photographed rather than scanned.

DD38_prog_Yellow  DD38_prog_MagentaYellow

DD38_prog_CMY  DD38_prog_CMYK

In Future Posts I will look at how four-colour comics images were produced after the penciller and inker had done their jobs and delivered a black-and-white drawing. Will that — finally — involve Ben Day dots? Again, “Yes and no.” You will , I promise, find out why I keep saying that.

Part 4 will contain:

The true and complete history of the Ben Day dot — everything I could find, anyway. Or some of it.

Part 5: Ben Day Dots in Lithography, 1880 – 1940-ish

See you then, I hope.

Posted in Avengers, Comic-book art, Comics, Newspaper comic strips, Roy Lichtenstein | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments


Strange Tales of a Contessa’s Bottom

144_ST 167_cover

The soi disant bon viveur and stage magician Jim Steranko had an innovative and rightly acclaimed run on Marvel’s Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.LD. strip in the late 1960s. It peaked with the last few issues of Strange Tales, then a few early issues of Nick Fury’s own comic. After this Steranko drew two X-Men and three Captain Americas, a couple of short stories, and then, as if in a puff of smoke, was gone from the comics field — occasional covers and sideline projects excepted.

Nice copies of original Steranko comics fetch premium prices these days. Reprinted editions exist, but are of varied quality, especially if you value the original colouring above the modern versions.

Excitement has been stirred in the hearts of Steranko fans recently by the publication of beautiful, gigantic, hardback, pricey “Artist’s Editions” of his Nick Fury strips, each page lovingly scanned from the original artwork — black and white, of course.

But I bring you news of something genuinely rare these days; a real Steranko collector’s item that is well within the means of most collectors. An actual comic-book, by golly.

Firstly, some background:—

Steranko was definitely hip to all sorts of cultural novelties in the sixties and wanted to reflect these in his Nick Fury pages — in both style and subject matter. Plotting / writing and drawing what was basically a “superhero James Bond” strip, Steranko inevitably pushed the comic-book limits not only of derring-do, spy gadgetry, and frankly psychedelic sixties-ness, but also of sexual imagery. Any Bondesque fiction, after all, demanded some Bondish “Babes” — and a bit of love action.

Steranko introduced the Contessa Valentina (approximately) Allegra de la Fontaine (the spelling varies) as a S.H.I.E.LD. agent who becomes Fury’s girlfriend. Possibly inspiring the Black Widow’s introduction in the film Iron Man 2, the Contessa throws Fury to the floor with a judo move during their first encounter. See below — panels from Strange Tales 159, August 1967

144_ST 159 Val intro

There are a few nice Nick / Val romance pages in Steranko’s all-too-brief run, oases of calm in the hectic lives of these busy super-spies. Check out this one from Nick Fury 5, October 1968:

144_ NF 5 Oct 1968

An earlier page, in Nick Fury 2, had been famously censored. Too racy for the times — or at least, for a mainstream comic of the times — no fewer than 4 panels of this page (below)had to be redrawn. The Comics Code Authority vetted all Marvel artwork, and could demand changes. Stan Lee, anticipating problems, would sometimes pre-censor panels before submitting them for the Code’s approval. Below is the original art, scanned by owner Richard Martines

He says “The [censored] panels were covered up with stats.” It looks as if they have been carefully restored to their original sinful form.

Warning: snogging, cleavage and an off-the-hook phone ahead! Only view if legal in your local jurisdiction!

NF2 page 5 OrArt

Full details of the changes inflicted on this page can be found here:

Less well known is the page shown below, which was also subject to censorship. Again the Contessa Valentina was at the bottom of it. This page is also mentioned at the Legends Revealed blog (at the above link) but until last weekend I had forgotten all about it. It’s from the last 60s issue of Strange Tales, no. 168, cover-dated May 1968, after which Dr Strange and Nick Fury got their own comics. Inks by Joe Sinnott.

ST 168 Val page

What I can now happily add to the account on Legends Revealed is that Marvel published a pretty handsome reprint of this story in Dark Reign: The List – Secret Warriors One-Shot no.1, Dec 2009. And there, somewhat to my surprise, you can see the Contessa’s uncensored rear view pretty much as it left Steranko’s drawing board.

SWos_Val page

This comic is still easy to find at a cheap price, making it a genuine new (-ish) collector’s item for Steranko fans. It may have slipped beneath the radar of many of them.

The colours are a reasonable reflection of the way the book was initially done. (No fancy digital effects which look great on artwork done with them in mind, but can jar so badly with the line artwork of the old comics.) Suffering slightly from bright white paper and garishness, but less than some.

I am massively indebted to Andy Williams who drew my attention to this little gem at the London Comic Mart last weekend. Andy may not have known quite what an important bottom he had his hands on, but at least he showed it ’round. For that generous act the world owes him its thanks.

SW The List Cover

I note also that Steve Ringgenberg wrote about Val’s posterior in The Betty Pages magazine no.4, 1989 — and showed a B&W image of the uncensored Val (also borrowed by Legends Revealed). Ringgenberg’s article also details Steranko’s interest in vintage pin-up art.

ST 168 Val B&W

It looks as if Tony Lewis used the Ringgenberg image to recreate a colour version of the Strange Tales 168 page as it should have looked — . Kudos to Tony, but the Secret Warriors reprint is a superior image taken, I suspect, from the original art or a good stat.

Questions remains.

How did the original version of Val’s rear survive intact? Was a good quality stat taken before the original art was blacked in, or was the blacking in done on a stat of the page? Perhaps a small piece of white board was glued onto the original art, the new black bottom drawn thereon, allowing for removal later.

The original art of Steranko’s cover for Hulk Special no.1, 1968, has similarly survived, the published version having had the face redrawn by Marie Severin (and, I think, Frank Giacoia).

72_Hulk special cover 72_Hulk special 1 colour

But why was the Strange Tales 168 strip simply dropped in at the back of the Secret Warriors One-Shot with no fanfare — indeed, with no comment at all? It isn’t mentioned on the cover or even on the contents page. It’s just there, after the main story finishes.

Was this reprint chosen very specifically? Did One-Shot editor, Tom Brevoort, know what a major step he was taking in showing this uncensored artwork? The Comics Code Authority was long gone, and far more overtly fetishistic female anatomy had graced the pages of Marvel comics prior to 2009. Mr Brevoort was not pushing any boundaries here. But he may have realised he was filling a gap in many people’s Steranko collections.

It is conceivable that it was just a happy accident. Alternative versions of Marvel art have popped up from the files over the years at random — occasionally, if not exactly often.

If he knew he was doing it, and was in any way embarrassed about reprinting Val’s shiny bottom, he could have claimed he was reprinting the story because it won fandom’s Alley Award in 1969 for Best Feature Story published in 1968.

Perhaps it has been reprinted elsewhere, and this actually was / is no big deal? I know of at least one (digitally recoloured) book reprint of the censored page (see below; it’s from 2001, Andy Williams tells me). If anyone knows about another uncensored reprint, do please let me know. I’d also like to know which version is in the recent Artist’s Edition.


(Tony Robertson has commented (thanks Tony!), letting us know that the 2009 Marvel Masterworks hardback, Nick Fury vol. 2, had the uncensored art. That would make the Secret Warriors One-Shot something of a promo piece — or would do if they had remembered to mention the hardback in the comic. Tony also says the 2013 Complete Steranko S.H.I.E.L.D. Collection book had the censored version. However this reasonably priced paperback does have the two censored pages in B&W in its back pages, Tony reports. He also points out that the Artists’ Edition with this strip is not out yet… any day now though!)

Perhaps drawing attention to Countess Valentina’s bottom was, in 2009, still considered in some way in poor taste? It is a potentially sensitive subject.

It obviously wouldn’t do to over-emphasise the censored (or uncensored) portion of the image too much. On the other hand, it would surely be remiss not to show a clear comparison of the 1968 and 2009 versions.

Twin vals 01

And, just for those who like to figure out precisely how the artwork might have been altered:

Twin vals 02

Final point about this historic page: seriously, sometimes a cigar really is just a cigar…

ST 168_cigar

… something clearly understood by Lee and Steranko, as shown by this panel from the final page of the story:

SW_cigar 2

And just for the heck of it, here’s another fondly remembered Jim Steranko page — printed as drawn, as far as I know — from Captain America no. 111 (March 1969). Inked by Sinnott again. He got all the crap jobs.

144_Cap 111 MH

Yes, these uplifting images of Madame Hydra killing a henchman were untroubled by the censor’s inkpot. The Comics Code Authority and / or Stan Lee presumably felt that her large shiny, tightly-clad breasts and her whip were acceptable reading matter for young people, unlike the Contessa’s shiny and tightly-clad buttocks.

Chacun a son gout, as they say in Gay Paree.

Posted in Comic-book art, Comics, Jim Steranko, Superhero movies | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments


Possibly the best book on an individual comics creator to date

Peter Bagge : Conversations

Edited by Kent Worcester

The University Press of Mississippi, Feb 2015. Hardback, 208 pages (approx.), 6 x 9 inches, 9781628462043

Amazon US has this book as a $40.00 hardback and cheaper Kindle editions, and buying looks straightforward.

Amazon UK has it at £25.00 but says it will take 1 -2 months to get hold of.  Hmm… other sellers are listed, or maybe the Kindle edition at £18.61 (!) is a better bet.


Kent Worcester: Do you think of yourself as an “equal opportunity” satirist, taking shots at protestors, yuppies, hipsters, and suburbanites alike?

Peter Bagge: Well, sure. I don’t think any particular subset of our society is more deserving of ridicule than another.

Or, as he might have added, any less deserving.  Though after some 35 years on the job, Peter Bagge may be found analysing subsets of society more often than he ridicules them these days.

The University Press of Mississippi is to be congratulated for adding this excellent book to their already substantial series Conversations with Comic Artists. There seem to be at least seventeen other books in the series, including Conversations with Carl Barks, Charles Schulz, Alan Moore, etc.—the full list can seen here:

I mention this in particular because the Press does not list or promote those other books in the Bagge volume, though they helpfully list 22 books by Bagge himself on the indicia page.

And while I’m digressing, before discussing this book about a lapsed Catholic cartoonist, I need to get some personal confessions out of the way. Forgive me, readers, for I have sinned…

Firstly, I have to confess that I pretty much lost track of Bagge’s work after his Buddy Bradley comic Hate  ceased regular publication, somewhere around the turn of the century. I bought a couple of Hate Annuals in the early noughties, but that was about it. Over the years I have rather randomly seen the occasional issue of Reset and Apocalypse Nerd but not followed them — as I can’t remember much about those comics, I must assume they didn’t grab me the way Buddy & co did. I did enjoy one of Bagge’s DC comics, Sweatshop but initially missed out on his childrens’ comic Yeah! (drawn by Gilbert Hernandez).

I was barely aware of his Spider-man and Hulk contributions, and here in the UK Bagge’s contributions to libertarian magazine Reason and other US publications have been easy to miss.

I am guilty of locating Peter Bagge’s work in the past, when as this book makes clear, he continues to write and draw interesting material. Thanks to Conversations, I now know a lot more about this later work, and I’m grateful for it.

Secondly, I have to confess that I am a contributor to this book. The second of its fifteen conversations is with me “and others”. As an avid reader of his at the time, I interviewed Peter Bagge on stage with an audience at the Glasgow Comic Art Convention, GlasCAC, in 1992, and wrote it up for a zine I edited, Comics Forum. Audience questions were included and I also spoke to Bagge with his wife Joanne, and two friends of mine, Jenni Scott and Andy Roberts, after the public event. Conversations reprints the piece as it appeared in Forum, with those others’ contributions intact.

Comics Forum 2   144_P Bagge and J Scott

Jenni is seen in the photo above talking to Bagge at the convention (photo by Matt “D’Israeli” Brooker — thanks to Jenni for the photo and to both for permission to post it.) Andy Roberts, very sadly, was knocked down by a motorcyclist in 2005 and died from his injuries. I am reminded of him often by one thing or another, and intensely so by reading these words in print.

Which brings me to my third confession: when I agreed to the interview being used in Conversations, I didn’t think twice, and didn’t look at the original magazine version. I didn’t remember that Andy and Jenni had been involved. I couldn’t ask his permission, but I should have contacted Jenni. Apologies are due and hereby given.

So, to the book itself. Editor Kent Worcester has chosen very well indeed from the available material (previously published interviews with Bagge) and also provides an excellent introduction and Peter Bagge timeline. Worcester also brings this up to date as of 2014 with a new, unpublished interview.

Conversations runs its interviews in chronological order. Many of them go back over Bagge’s earlier days, but often from different angles, so there is more new information than straight repetition. The cumulative effect is of moving onward through his career as the book goes on. There is no doubt that Bagge’s work has evolved over time, in both words and pictures. This book is excellent in mapping the changing territory of his stories and ideas.

For a sense of his artwork’s parallel evolution, the reader will have to supplement Conversations with other input — like my Bagge gallery below — because like all the volumes in this series (AFAIK) the book is black and white, and text-heavy. In discussing a medium with such a visual element as comics, this is something of a weakness. There are a few pictures — panels and full page strips — but a magnifying glass will be helpful in trying to read them. However, as the publisher’s name suggests, it is a quasi-academic text, aimed partly at students who wish to read up on Bagge in libraries. Budgetary considerations doubtless preclude any full-colour printing. A few larger pages of B&W art could perhaps  have been included, but possibly only by sacrificing text pages.

Having said that, Conversations is not in any sense a “difficult” read. The interviews are often almost as entertaining as Bagge’s comics. They are taken from diverse general — i.e non-academic — sources. There is no thesis-speak or surfeit of polysyallables. Indeed these texts present such a complete “picture” of Peter Bagge that I barely missed the illustrational side of his work while reading. Afterwards I did Google up some pictures, mainly to look at some of what I’d missed over the last ten or so years. Using the wonders of modern blognology I can of course give you more pictures than University Press of Mississippi can — and I will, at the end of my review.

I won’t dwell on Bagge’s childhood and personal life, though you will find them discussed here, including how they influenced his work. Nor on his progression from punky New York City self-publication, via collaboration with underground comix legend Robert Crumb, indie hit-dom with Seattle publisher Fantagraphics (with Neat Stuff and Hate) and points between, to in-demand political commentator and biographer. All this is covered very well in Conversations, and the accompanying changes in drawing style are discussed, if not shown.

Two things stand out from the rich and varied subject matter of this book.

Firstly, Bagge is a unique talent who draws like no-one else. He discusses various possible roots of this style (Charles M. Schulz, Harvey Kurtzman) but it is clear that there is also some individual, indefinable something at work in the eye, mind and hand of an artist like Bagge which makes his work solely his own. Unlike other stand-out artists in the comics field, Bagge has not spawned a legion of imitators.

Perhaps this is because his artwork has never been bland or eager to please. Bagge’s first decade or more was spent being actively confrontational, and that includes both his subject matter and his actual style itself. The self-portrait on the cover of this book is a choice example. At first glance simply hideous, I have to say that this drawing would not have been my first choice as cover art. It repays further scrutiny, however.

144dpi SelfP

Bagge portrays himself as one of those Margaret Keane-type Big-Eyed Kids which are hideous enough in themselves — the more so as this one has scars, a Catholic bleeding heart on his shirt, and a tarnished halo. He is the artist as martyr to the various forces working to finish him off — stabbed by the knife of Public Preconceptions and Apathy, drinking from the bottle of Bitterness and Resentment. He is even being given a hot-foot by Demanding Fanzine Publishers. (Oops. Mea Culpa.)

This single picture tells us far more about Bagge than many a more “attractive” picture would. Not only in its overt content, but also in its multi-levelled parody of the confessional underground comic, the Big-Eyed Kid painting and the political cartoon. It seems to raise the question: does Peter Bagge — at least, the Bagge of 1988 when it was drawn — take anything seriously?

Well, that is the Second Thing that leaps out from the pages of Conversations: Bagge’s progress as political and social commentator. In his earlier days Bagge was keen to distance himself from any political implications of this work, though by 1992 he was almost ready to concede that there might just be some:

Interviewer: Do you see the strips you’ve done until now as having a political dimension?

Peter Bagge: This is kind of a cop-out answer, but… I’ve now learned, thanks to my British friends — and this is something that I think applies to a lot of Europeans in general — that everything is political [laughs]. But I do see that now, I’m not totally disagreeing with that at all.

Later in the same piece he appears to retreat into a more strongly apolitical stance:

Interviewer: You’ve said that you want to do stuff about blue-collar life in America […]. There’s a political dimension right there isn’t there? Do you see yourself as part of a tradition of dissent in American fiction or cartooning?

PB: It’s not a clearly defined tradition. […] I don’t think anything in my work has ever been overtly political. I certainly wouldn’t want it to be.

Interviewer: But it definitely challenges the phony American myth of “the family” and the whole self-image of American society […] Undermining that is in itself a political statement.

PB: But I’m not consciously doing that. I’m just trying to tell you stories, as they come to me […] about the way things are in day-to-day existence […] And Americans will say, “Oh, that’s funny” and “I can relate to that.” But it’s always Europeans who’ll say what you said. “Exposing the myth of American culture, this is the ugly underbelly” and all that kind of thing.

In recent years Bagge has done strips for a libertarian magazine, Reason, and has said that his own politics can be considered libertarian (with caveats, for example, about the kind of libertarians who run for office, or have the name Ayn Rand). Here is Kent Worcester from the previously unpublished 2014 interview which closes the book:

KW: Have your politics fundamentally changed since the 1970s-1980s or were you always a libertarian, even before you had the vocabulary to articulate it?

PB: The latter. I always believed in freedom and autonomy for all […] In my younger days I described myself as a liberal, and I still think that word applies to me […]

And later:

KW: Do you look back fondly on the days when your work was 100% laugh-oriented, or do you feel that it’s important to make readers think?

PB: Everything has political content to some degree if you look for it, including my own work. […] I started writing overtly political work when I was specifically asked to do so, in my case by Reason magazine.

In between these poles, other interviews touch on Bagge’s journey towards maturity and/or explicitly political work (which includes convention reportage). I’m also intrigued by the revelation that, in more recent strips, Buddy Bradley has gone from marginally hip seller of collectibles (Star Wars toys etc.) to the more mundane (and blue-collar) role of scrap metal dealer.

And so to Bagge’s recent contribution to the growing field of Graphic Biography. Others have tackled Bertrand Russell, Richard Feynman, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh and Sally Heathcote, to name but five. Bagge has taken on the life of Margaret Sanger (1879 – 1966), feminist, educator and birth control pioneer.

sanger bagge

His route to this book is in itself intriguing, as he tells Derek Parker Royal in the interview here from 2013:

PB: I was primarily interested in female literary figures from the mid-twentieth century, specifically Rose Wilder Lane (daughter of Laura Inglis Wilder), Zora Neale Hurston, and Isabel Paterson […] Besides being talented writers, these women also helped define a political philosophy—one that celebrates freedom and autonomy—that I very much share, and they also lived their lives accordingly. […] These women weren’t encumbered by unwanted pregnancies either. So that got me interested in what kind of birth control was available at the time, and how available it was. This research led me to Sanger.

More about Sanger and Bagge’s book here:

In both Parker Royal’s piece and editor Kent Worcester’s 2014 interview, Bagge discusses how his idiosyncratic style can be seen as unsuitable for a serious biographical book. The pages reproduced in Conversations show that Bagge can carry it off, no problem. Words and pictures work seamlessly together. There is no lack of storytelling clarity, and the shifting emotional states of his characters come across effectively.

No abrupt compromise of Bagge’s individualist style has been needed to achieve this. He retains his truly unique way of seeing the world, in particular us awkward humans who populate it — rarely so awkward, perhaps, as when drawn by Peter Bagge.

Finally, a word about what a splendid achievement this book is. Kent Worcester has assembled an excellent collection here. He brings to the subject a perspective which is arguably as unique as Bagge’s own — Worcester is not only a professor of political science with a deep and abiding interest in the comics medium but, like Bagge, also a guitar player. This musical bent informs Worcester’s questions too. His own conversation with Bagge is perhaps the best interview I can remember reading with a comics creator, and the outstanding contribution to an outstanding book about an outstanding artist.


Comical Funnies Studs 1980

Comical Funnies Junior 1980

The scratchy thin pen lines of the early strips which introduced Studs Kirby and Junior (in Comical Funnies 1, 1980) were those of an artist waiting to discover the right tool for his job — the brush pen.

Neat Stuff 2 1985Neat Stuff 6 1987

Neat Stuff 9 1988hate-bagge

This new tool gave Bagge a thicker and more varied line. Along with thinner pen lines for shading and detail, this came to define the Bagge style, as in Neat Stuff in the 1980s, and Buddy Bradley’s 1990s star vehicle, Hate. At times on Hate Bagge had an inking assistant. Latterly he seems to have simplified his overall look, losing many of those thin line details. Particularly for colour strips this has been a fruitful approach.

Martini Baton b Weirdo 28 1993

Bagge’s early confrontational years… I can’t show you the top tier of the last Martini Baton strip from the last Weirdo (no. 28, 1993) as it is rude. I even censored this part of the strip. My changes are very subtle; you probably won’t be able to spot them. By this time Bagge’s editorship of Weirdo had ended, and Aline Crumb was in the chair for this final issue. Bagge did Martini Baton from drawings by New York artist David Carrino.

Sweatshop 3Yeah 1

Bagge takes his humour mainstream, and indeed to kid level, with mixed results. Sweatshop, 2003, may have toned down the confront-o-meter, but it was a very funny take on the world of newspaper cartooning (and the youngsters who slave for the crotchety “Man”). Yeah! (1999) has had a book collection, though I bought the comics out of a bargain bin in 2014.


He did both Spider-man and Hulk comics for Marvel, given pretty free rein — though the Hulk strip took years to see print.

bagge randReason bagge1

Strips from Reason. More here:

Th-th-th-that’s all, folks.

Posted in Comic-book art, Comics, Comics criticism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON—Hail the Vision! But will we see Adam Warlock in the MCU?

Warning: MAJOR SPOILERS (later—I’ll warn you when) for AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

This is not a review of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the latest offering from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There have been more than enough reviews. This is more of a personal response.

AOU poster screen

But firstly… about those reviews. A fair few critics have disliked this film, the second in the Avengers series. Rotten Tomatoes, summing up, reckons it scores 74% positive, averaging 6.7/10, with the “professionals”.

The first one, in 2012, got an impressive 91%, or 8/10.

The figures from the viewing public are more consistent. 91% liked the first Avengers flick, only dropping to 89% this time around.

While I still think the first one has a massive amount to recommend it, Age of Ultron seems like the better film to me. Maybe the critics are getting superhero fatigue.

AoU is admittedly a bit overstuffed. There are just too many good things in it, and the length had to be trimmed back, so a few scenes feel truncated and crammed in. It’s a bit of a bludgeon first time around too. Possibly 3D did the film no favours. It may have contributed to the disorienting effect of the fast-paced action scenes. It was at my second viewing, in 2D, a week or so later, that I really fell in love with the film.

One of the best things in what could be the best Marvel film yet is the origin of the Vision.

For a lot of comics fans of my generation, the character has been quite a favourite. Roy Thomas’s original stories—starting in 1968—were good, classic superhero stuff when I was a kid. Steve Englehart developed the Vision later, as he did so many other Marvel mainstays, keeping them interesting for maturing readers.

When I found out the Vision was going to be in the second Avengers film, I sent Joss Whedon a tweet: “Thanks for putting the Vision in your film. Now please don’t f*ck him up.”

And Joss didn’t.

(He usually listens to me, I find.)

AOU Vis 01

The Vision’s origin story in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is similar to its comic-book sources in many ways. This being the MCU, it is also substantially different. As they often do, Marvel has struck a good balance here. They may change the facts of a story quite substantially, but they manage to remain faithful to the spirit of the comics. As with the first Avengers film, I don’t think anyone but Whedon could have pulled this particular one off—or nowhere near so well.

A possible point of contention: no Hank Pym in Age of Ultron. This bothered me when I heard the news, which was long before seeing the film of course. Teaser images and mini-trailers showed pretty clearly that, in the MCU, Tony Stark was Ultron’s “dad.” How could Ultron be created by anyone other than his comic-book “father,” super-hero science whizz Dr Henry (Ant-Man, Giant Man, etc.) Pym?

Yes, it bothered me. For about five minutes. Maybe a few days, in real time.

A little reflection and it became clear why it had to be Tony “I am Iron Man” Stark who creates the MCU’s Ultron.

It was clear that there would be, could be, no Hank Pym involved because there are already two super-hero-scientists in the MCU’s Avengers—Tony Stark and Bruce Banner. No room for another one. It’s that simple, it seems to me. It was OK to fill up the pages of Marvel’s ever-expanding (at the time—the 1960s) comic-book line with super-scientists, both heroic and villainous. The repetitive trope would have worn pretty thin with MCU audiences. And the Avengers films couldn’t afford any more clutter. Joss Whedon was already juggling a large cast, and not without some difficulty.

(Also, as Whedon has said recently, Hank Pym was already taken, by Edgar Wright—at least, back then he was; Peyton Reed is director of the Ant-Man film which will be out soon—which must have made Whedon’s decision easier.)

So I relaxed and figured that Joss Whedon would find a way to make it work without Pym.

And yes, the MCU Vision’s new origin is extraordinarily well done. Better than I could have hoped for. It’s still tied in inextricably with Ultron’s origin, as in the comics. But it is both more credible than the comics, in a general sense, and more satisfying, specifically, in how it ties in with the MCU’s meta-story in unforeseen (exciting!) ways.

And that’s where things get really interesting. That’s where my narrative shifts to another old favourite character, Adam Warlock. Many of us have been led to believe that we will be seeing Warlock in the Marvel films sooner rather than later. Bear with me while I rehearse some background material, before getting to the meat of this.

(No film spoilers in this section. Maybe a hint of one…)

Warlock crucified 02 Starlin

Like the Black Panther, the Inhumans and the Silver Surfer, Warlock started out as a supporting character in the Fantastic Four comic of the 1960s.

The credits of Fantastic Four 66, September 1967, simply informed readers that “Stan (The Man) Lee and Jack (King) Kirby have done it again!” Scripter/editor Lee was blurring the distinction between writer and artist, partly to acknowledge what a large contribution penciller Jack Kirby was making to the plots of the stories. In many cases Kirby was also creating those new supporting characters, both the endless stream of new bad guys the comics obviously required, and others. Some of these others were a lot more ambiguous—they might fight against the heroes at first, only to switch sides later.

The major new character in FF 66 & 67 does something new in the Marvel universe—though quite similar to the Silver Surfer some months before. He fights against his creators, but not against the Fantastic Four. Uniquely, our heroes don’t even meet him.

In FF 66 we meet those creators, the Enclave—a bunch of sinister scientists who have hidden themselves away in order to create a perfect new artificial being. Having kidnapped Alicia Masters, the blind sculptor, they tell her that their motives are noble. In fact they wish to use their new creation to rule mankind.

Here they are in flashback, next to the creature’s gestation chamber. Doesn’t it look a lot like the one the Vision emerges from in Age of Ultron? Hmm…

FF 66 cradle

In FF 66, their super-powered creature has woken and emerged from his Life-Cell Tank too soon, before the Enclave could establish control over him. He has been fighting off their attempts to recapture him. They can’t even get near him. Neither the Enclave crew nor we, the readers, get to see this being until a long way into the story. He is also nameless, being referred to only as “Him”.

Like the monster in a low-budget movie, he is glimpsed only as a shadow, or a burst of light and Kirby-krackle energy. But Kirby, of course, is not keeping him out of sight for budgetary reasons. It wouldn’t cost him even one new pencil to draw Him in a few panels. He is teasing his readers, having learned the value of antici…

…pation. In fact, throughout FF 66 the creature is not seen at all. Then on page 10 of no.67, Alicia confronts him—but he is now inside a cocoon, waiting to be fully born, so he remains hidden.

FF 67 page 10

Even after emerging from the cocoon, he stays off-panel as he continues to wreak destruction on the Enclave’s secret HQ. The Fantastic Four, having found their way there and rescued Alicia, escape without finding Him. On page 20, the 40th and final page of the story, the “monster” is seen at last, as he confronts the scientists who made him.

FF 67 p 20 Him

He is golden, beautiful, more of a god than a man or a monster. (In 1967, was Kirby’s imagination already turning to the creation of new gods?) After the final confrontation, having announced that our planet will not be ready for him for another millennium, he flies off into space.

He doesn’t get far.

Thor 165 cover

In Thor 165, June 1969—another Lee/Kirby production—after a mishap in outer space, Him finds himself back on Earth, in another cocoon. Waking from this, the still immature being decides he needs a mate, and fancies Thor’s lover, the Lady Sif. This provokes the god of thunder into a violent condition called the Warrior Madness, in which state Thor beats Him within an inch of his artificial life (Thor 166). He retreats into another cocoon and once again blasts off into space.

Somewhat matured mentally and emotionally, the perfect artificial man hatches again in a new comic, Marvel Premiere (1 & 2, 1972) by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane. He begins a series of adventures on a very imperfect artificial planet called Counter-Earth. It’s so imperfect it’s almost exactly the same as the world we live in. This is where Him becomes Adam Warlock, and gains the green Soul Gem in his forehead—a gift from Counter-Earth’s god-like creator, the High Evolutionary.

MPrem 1 cover

Warlock’s role on Counter-Earth is to be a super-hero Messiah, saving mankind from the satanic Man-Beast (and of course, from its own base nature). He was promoted to his own comic, but like other superhero comics which tackled the Burning Issues Of Our Time (e.g. the Silver Surfer and DC’s Green Lantern/Green Arrow) Warlock was not to last. After 8 issues, it was cancelled, and the storyline concluded in The Incredible Hulk 176-178 (1974).

Back in those far-off days, I initially fell for the messianic Warlock. In retrospect I later felt the grafting on of Silver-Surfer-like characteristics was all a bit clumsy and second-hand. Still, when Warlock was actually crucified in 1974, one had to admire Marvel’s chutzpah, and then to see him resurrected…! Subtlety was rarely a feature of Marvel comics, and they certainly didn’t want anyone to miss the Jesus comparisons here.

(How very different from the home life of our own dear Superman—before Messiah of Kleenex Man Of Steel, anyway.)

Warlock crucified

Most of all, though, I was a fan of Jim Starlin’s revived Warlock (in Strange Tales, then again in his own comic) whose adventures spanned 1975 to 1977. Here, the apparently helpful and empowering Soul Gem on his forehead was revealed to be a soul vampire. This—especially to a fan of Michael Moorcock’s Elric, and his soul-stealing sword Stormbringer, not to mention the same author’s Dorian Hawkmoon with the soul-eating jewel embedded in his forehead—should perhaps have seemed like yet more ripping off of other people’s ideas. Somehow Starlin pulled it off as what I saw more as homage (though later I was to discover that Mike Moorcock himself saw it as straightforward stealing of soul-stealing).

Warlock soul stealer

Jim Starlin took his grim Warlock through some fairly hard-hitting outer-space adventures, but there was also one detour into outright satire. How many readers spotted the parallels between this scene and the comic-book industry?

Warlock diamonds

This saga culminated in a Big Confrontation with Starlin’s purple-skinned uber-villain, Thanos, in which Warlock teamed up with the Avengers, Spider-Man and the Thing from the Fantastic Four. (Avengers Annual 7 and Marvel Two-in-One Annual 2, 1977). Warlock met Thor again, who remembered him from before—and the Thing for the first time, since they had not actually encountered each other in FF67. Warlock even met the Vision… which is moderately interesting, as we shall see below.

In this story, Warlock’s Soul Gem was revealed as one of the six massively powerful Infinity Gems. Thanos had stolen the power of all six gems, to use in his universe-destroying schemes.

Which brings us back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where the Infinity Gems (or Stones as they are known here) are a major plot device linking the movies together.So is Thanos, for that matter, since his teaser appearance at the end of the first Avengers.

And, among the now-traditional MCU “Easter Eggs” of recent times, we saw what seemed to be Warlock’s cocoon in the Collector’s collection as far back as the post-credits scene of Thor 2. And there it was, in the same place, in the film Guardians of the Galaxy. Warlock fans in all four corners of the internet rejoiced. Surely here we had evidence that our golden lad was heading for the big screen, perhaps in GOTG 2.

Sif n coccon

But hold on… James Gunn, director of both GOTG and the closing scene of Thor 2, has said different things about this cocoon as time has gone by. Firstly, he said that he threw a few fairly random cool things from the Marvel Universe (and elsewhere) into the Collector’s cases, and the cocoon from Warlock’s comic-book appearances was one of them. For instance, if the quotes in this article are accurate, he actually stated the cocoon was Warlock’s, at the time GOTG was released:

“There are the slither creature from my movie Slither behind The Collector, those guys are pretty obvious. You have Adam Warlock’s cocoon, you have all sorts of other characters from Marvel movies.”

Later however he pulled back from this position, saying that it was just a cocoon which resembled Warlock’s.

A quote from the second page above: ‘”You have what’s commonly known as Adam Warlock’s cocoon, which is based on Adam Warlock’s cocoon but which I really didn’t intend to be Adam Warlock,” the director admitted.’

At first, I took this with a pinch of salt. Gunn, I thought, was just teasing us. But—months before seeing Age Of Ultron—a process of niggling doubt began, and this was the sort of thing that was going through my head:

The Vision is a synthetic humanoid, resembling a human with red skin, but actually an artificial being, the product of super-advanced Earth science. Created for an evil purpose, he has developed a will of his own, rejected his creator’s designs, and is going his own way. He turns out to have emotions and ethics very similar to the best a true human could aspire to. Also, he’s a heavy hitter—Thor-type strong—and he can fly. Not only that, but he has a neat golden gem stuck in the middle of his forehead, which absorbs solar energy, and can blast it back out again as extra villain-zapping power.

Adam Warlock on the other hand is a synthetic humanoid, resembling a human with golden-orange skin, but actually an artificial being, the android product of super-advanced Earth science. Created for an evil purpose, he has developed a will of his own, rejected his creators’ designs, and is going his own way. He turns out to have emotions and ethics very similar to the best a true human could aspire to. Also, he’s a heavy hitter—Thor-type strong—and he can fly. Not only that, but he has a neat green gem stuck in the middle of his forehead, which can blast forth extra villain-zapping power.

The list of similarities, in other words, was long. Perhaps too long. As with Hank Pym and the Bruce’n’Tony team in Age of Ultron, maybe I just had to face the facts: the MCU ain’t big enough for the both of them.

Having had that thought, James Gunn’s strong denial really seemed to set the seal on it: Warlock wasn’t going to be in GOTG 2. He probably wasn’t going to be in the MCU at all.

And now, I must repeat my SPOILER WARNING! If you haven’t seen AoU yet and don’t want a major plot element revealed… come back another day.


So, if you haven’t seen the film yet, you have now gone away? Good. Let us steam into the final act of this post.

Now we have seen Age of Ultron, and we know that in the MCU, the Vision doesn’t just have a solar battery set in his forehead, he actually has an Infinity Stone. Just like Warlock has in the comics. The Vision’s Mind Stone has even been seen to steal people’s wills, not entirely dissimilar to how Warlock’s gem stole their souls.

And if logic and James Gunn’s denials had pretty much implied it before, surely we now know it’s true: the MCU definitely isn’t big enough for the both of them. The MCU Vision has just too many many things in common with the comic-book Warlock. With the addition of an Infinity Stone, he very nearly is Adam Warlock, in everything but name.

Of course, this doesn’t prevent the MCU from having a different version of Adam Warlock. But in my view, they have made him basically redundant and are not likely to go there. Anything too far removed from the “real” comic-book Warlock would probably be seen as too much of a disappointment.

It seems very likely that Joss Whedon and Kevin Feige planned from way back that the MCU Vision was to be an amalgam of the Vision and Warlock—and decided that this meant Warlock himself could not be in the MCU.

In which case, James Gunn may have made a bit of a mistake with that cocoon.

On the other hand, I don’t think it’s likely that an error on that scale would happen in the tightly planned MCU continuity. Isn’t it more probable that the whole thing was a big tease, a neat bit of misdirection?

I’m not the only one to see the Vision / Warlock similarities, and draw some of the same conclusions (though I would like to state that I came to my own conclusions before seeing anyone else’s). See for instance Latino Review’s Marvelous Daze, captainzach616, and a few other perspicacious commentators online.


If Warlock had arrived in GOTG 2, the combination of outer-space settings and the CGI-rich magic of the Marvel Cinematic Universe would’ve done him proud. I was looking forward to seeing him as one of the Cosmic Characters inhabiting the farther reaches of the MCU. So again, as quite the fan, after I had the Big Realisation that Warlock was not likely to appear, a feeling of disappointment descended. And this lasted longer than the five minutes allocated to Hank Pym and his non-appearance in AoU.

But that was before I saw Age of Ultron, which at the same time as twisting the knife in the wound—making it pretty certain that we really won’t be seeing Warlock on the big screen—paradoxically also takes away most of the hurt. Because having seen the MCU’s Vision portrayed so well, I am almost completely happy. If we speculators are right, and we are to have no MCU Warlock, there is still a sense of loss. But with what we have been given, I think we should feel intensely satisfied.

If it had to be either Warlock or Vision, all else being equal, I couldn’t really say which I‘d rather lose. But, with the Avengers having such primacy in the MCU, and Vison being so much a part of Avengers mythology, Whedon and Feige have probably reached the only possible conclusion. Having two such similar characters in the MCU really could not have worked. And giving the Vision an Infinity Stone was a stroke of genius. (Sadly, Joss’s parting stroke. But that’s not today’s topic.)

AOU vision 03

Finally, a few more ramblifications…

Thanos planted the Mind Stone on Earth in the sceptre he gave Loki. His original plan was that Loki would lead a successful Chitauri invasion of the planet, after which Thanos would presumably come and get what he wanted.

Whatever else Thanos wants from MCU Earth—and as far as I can recall we really haven’t had any hint of that yet—we can assume he wants his Mind Stone back. He is, after all, trying to collect the set.

So, sooner or later Thanos will be coming to get the gem out of the Vision’s head. People are already speculating that Thanos might kill the Vision. The MCU has shown that it is willing to kill off a new character pretty quickly.

Which raises another intriguing possibility…

Maybe the Vision doesn’t so much die as… goes into a cocoon and comes out… changed…?

Nah! That’s not going to happen. The Vision isn’t that similar to Warlock. I don’t believe Marvel intends to evolve him into Warlock, in any literal sense.

But maybe he will be almost dead and in need of a Warlock-style resurrection. Similar to this classic Roy Thomas / Neal Adams story in Avengers 93 (1971).

Vision dead

So… here’s a bit more speculation that might just be closer to home. Maybe the Vision looks pretty much deceased, but the Avengers figure out a way of rebooting his synthetic life-force—effectively, of bringing him back from the dead.

Conventional operating theatre techniques are useless—they can’t operate on his super-strong body, and on the inside it is nothing like a human being. Maybe if they had a super-hero who could shrink down to tiny size and actually go inside the Vision’s synthezoid body, and find the right part to repair…

He’d have to be strong and resourceful enough to fight off the automatic defence mechanisms he will meet in there. Perhaps he’d benefit from having some tiny allies…

No, that’s too crazy, isn’t it? That kind of thing might just work in a 1960s Raquel Welch movie, or a comic book like the classic Roy Thomas / Neal Adams Avengers 93, below… but in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, when are you ever going to see a tiny weeny super-hero like that? Never going to happen, surely ?!

AoU Antman

Ant-Man MCU 01

PS: Beta Ray Bill… in the Marvel comics he’s an orange skinned non-human who is so noble he can lift Thor’s hammer.

The MCU Vision is a red-skinned non-human who is so noble he can lift Thor’s hammer. You see where this is going…

Is the MCU big enough for both of them?

Anyway, this is only fun-packed speculation, and we could still see Warlock and/or BR Bill in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

But as they say in the funny papers… I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Posted in Avengers, Comics, Superhero movies | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment