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COLORIZING 19th CENTURY LITHOGRAPHS

One of our big projects in 1995 was the development and graphic design of the card game Quest for the Grail (Stone Ring Games, 1996). This was a project uniquely suited to our knowledge and abilities because the publishers wanted a game with a genuinely antique look, including using a lot of 19th century art. Ultimately we selected all of the art and used nothing but Scriptorium fonts and textures to produce a product with a rich and unusual look very appropriate to the literary and artistic traditions of Arthurian legend.

While working on Quest for the Grail we found it quite frustrating that we had all these great 19th century lithographs of Gustav Dore's illustrations for Tennyson's Idylls of the King in our library, but because they were in black and white we couldn't use them in an all-color publication, despite the quality of the art and the appropriateness of the themes.

One day I was playing around with a Dore illustration in Adobe Photoshop and discovered that with a little work and the application of the right filters and patterns I could introduce color to the picture, preserve all the details and produce a very impressive result.

A traditional lithograph is made to be printed in black and white without modern halftone screening, using patterns of lines to create textures and the appearance of shades of gray when viewed from a distance. As the detail to the left shows there are not actually any gradations in shade, just fine lines. Victorian publishers would commission artists to paint full-color illustrations and they would then have a lithographer convert the color painting to a lithograph, preserving the shading and details, but essentially creating an entirely new image based on the original. In some cases the lithographer's signature will appear on the final print along with that of the original artist. Other artists like Gustav Dore and William Hogarth worked specifically for publication and did their own conversion from painting or sketches to lithograph. In many cases Dore actually painted in india ink on the wood block which would become the engraving from which the image would be printed. This is one of the reasons why his work is so highly prized, because he did an exceptional job of conveying the complexity and depth of shading of his images in a very limiting format.

The high level of detail in Dore's work and that of the best illustrators of the period is what makes colorization practical, because it makes it allows you to tint already existing textures rather than having to actually add color from scratch. As you can see from the example to thw right, when reduced to a small size the details in a Dore engraving start to merge together and blur. While this tends to gray out details and make the image indistinct, it can be used advantageously in the colorization process so that the lines of the lithograph vanish and are replaced by smooth, solid color.

To colorize an image you need a good, comprehensive paint program, such as Adobe Photoshop or ColorIt. It is particularly important that the program you use has the ability to select irregularly shaped areas and fill them with patterns and colors, as well as some pixel-manipulation ability for blurring and sharpening images. You also need to start with a fairly large original. Most of the Dore pieces collected in the Dore Gallery series in the 1890s are excellent, as are prints from the Illustrated London News of that period, which published many excellent lithographs on historical and contemporary topics. Basically you need an original which is about four-times the area of the final piece you want to produce. If you are colorizing something for use in print this is a pretty severe limitation, because of the high resolution (300dpi minimum) you will need to be able to output. If you are colorizing for online use you have much more flexibility, and should be able to colorize an image and keep it more or less the same size as the original at 72dpi resolution. In order to be able to colorize anything you want, you need to have a scanner, but even without a scanner you can use lithographs which are already digitized like the many Dore pieces in the Scriptorium Image Library.

Colorization may be difficult when working with an unmodified image of a lithograph, because the image will be very rough with high contrasts which may make it hard to differentiate objects. This can be dealt with by blurring the image slightly, either using a blurring or pixelating filter. You should not blur too much. Limit yourself to no more than 3 pixels of offset or mosaic tiling. Blurring is similar to reducing the resolution of the image, so you want to be careful. You can achieve the same result by actually reducing the size of the image while maintaining the same resolution or reducing the resolution while maintaining the same size. If you use this technique do not reduce size or resolution by more than 50%. In Photoshop my preference is to use a 2 pixel mosaic filter. Although these changes make the image less sharp, because of the way the lithograph is broken down into lines it will actually seem to become much clearer on your screen. If these techniques do not result in an apparent sharpening then the image you are working with may not be well suited to this colorization technique.

The best way to introduce color is through the use of color textures. You should choose several textures which are appropriate to the major areas of the image which you are going to color. For most images you will probably only need a few textures. For example, with the Dore image shown above I used a foliage texture (to right), a grass texture and a wood texture (see below). In general the textures you use should have relatively small areas of color and the variations from one area to another should not be too intense. For smaller areas (faces, clothing, rocks, etc.), you can do a reasonable job with simple colors, but the result will be less impressive. The use of textures is an important element of the process, because the combination of the light and dark patterns of the texture with the patterns in the image produce an effect of depth and enhance details.

After you select a texture and define it or add it to your clipboard, use the lasso tool to select the area of the image that you want to color. You then merge the texture into the already existing image using a tinting or coloring feature. In Photoshop this would be a color fill. In other programs you may not have this feature and should experiment to see what works best. You want to use whatever fill or merge function works by altering the color of the dark part of the image. You don't want to completely replace the original black with the colors from the texture. I find that a color fill of 20 to 60 percent is usually plenty. Even if you don't have a coloring or tinting function a lightening fill at a low percentage will probably work adequately. If you examine the final image shown below you will see the results produced when the foliage texture shown above was merged into the forest backdrop and the hackberry wood texture was merged into the trunk and limbs of the tree. Most of the other colors were produced by merging in appropriate basic colors at around 30 to 50 percent. If you do a lot of colorization you may want to assemble a pallette of frequently used colors and even a pallette of favorite textures.

As you progress you repeat the coloring process for each major area of the image. If you miss small areas or have a little overlap don't worry too much, because if you are working with a detailed image small glitches in color will probably get lost in the overall effect. As you work, keep in mind that the image should always remain dominant. If you find that an area looks more like your texture than the image that was there to start with, reduce the percentage of the texture that you are merging in. The one exception to this is large blank areas, such as undifferentiated areas of sky. It is often a good technique to fill these with a dominant sky texture so that the blankness of the sky will not stand out in contrast to the color of the rest of the image. Once you have finished adding color the vital finishing step is to reduce the resolution or size of the image, either by pixilation or by actually shrinking the image. This is the same process described above for clarifying the image, but if you did it before you started colorizing you will have less latitude at the end of the process. If you have already reduced an image by 50% and you then pixilate it with a 2 or 3 pixel mosaic you will pass the threshold where the effect adds clarity and will start to actually blur the image. You may also want to run a sharpening filter like Photoshop's unsharp mask at this point to bring things back into sharper focus, or you might want to adjust the contrast a bit to accentuate differences in color. At this point, with any luck you will have gone from something like the original image above to a sharp color version as shown to the right.

There are a few things to be wary of in the colorization process. The most obvious is adding too much color or too much variety so that the image becomes a riot of conflicting textures and colors. You have to go along with what the artist put in there originally and change your technique if you are getting a jarring or muddy result. Some lithographs can be extraordinarily complex. If there are lots of figures and small details you may be overwhelmed by the process. An image of mounted royal hussars on parade from the London Illustrated News comes to mind. Trying to apply a cloth texture to dozens of uniforms, add variety to the crowd in the background, give a leather texture to belts and bandoliers, put silver on sabres and add a wood texture to lances and rifle-stocks is just too much detail to take on unless you are very dedicated or have way too much time on your hands. This colorization technique works best with landscapes with limited numbers of distinct figures in them. The process is actually one of adding color but minimizing detail to some extent, to produce a pleasing overall result.

I'm not sure who will find this colorization process most useful, but there are some excellent resources out there for this kind of print and if you have an interest in 19th century illustration or a project which might be enhanced by antique art in color, you can produce some very nice results if you have access to a good library of images, either online or in physical form.

Here are some good sources for usable illustrations. Note that some of these 19th century magazines are hard to find today, but good libraries ought to have them.

The Illustrated London News - Each issue in the 1880s and 1890s featured extensive illustrations of contemporary events and of serialized historical fiction.

Phra the Phoenician - This Donning reprint of one of the earliest fantasy novels includes all of the original plates by H. M. Paget from the London Illustrated News. The colorized version of one of these Paget illustrations is shown to right.

She - There are several reprints of this classic H. Ridder Haggard novel, including one from Donning, which include the original plates. Also look for other Haggard novels, almost all of which were serialized in the Illustrated London News with art by R. Caton Woodville and others.

The Strand - This magazine was mostly fiction and each issue includes an excellent selection of plates, though some may be small and harder to work with. Much of Arthur Conan Doyle's fiction was serialized with illustrations in The Strand.

Frank Leslie's Magazine - Another fiction magazine of the late Victorian period with a focus on outdoor life and adventure.

Munchner Jugend - A German Art Nouveau youth magazine. Many of the illustrations are quite fantastical and include great artists like Arnold Bocklin and Robert Engels. While some are poorly suited to this technique, the quality of the artwork is generally exceptional.

The Dore Gallery - This series of hardbound folios from Moxon and Sons was published in the late 1800s and includes most of Dore's major illustrations. The original volumes are expensive and fairly hard to find, but there is a 1974 reprint from Arco Publishing which may be easier to find and less costly.


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