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The man who spoke to colors

Posted by Alberto Bertolazzi on
L'uomo che parlava ai colori

Jacob Christoph Le Blon was a perfectionist, and all printers today must be grateful to him for that. If he hadn't been so precise, attentive to details and minutiae, color printing as we know it wouldn't exist today. On the other hand, he was born a painter and miniaturist: a good part of his training took place at the school of the engraver Conrad Meyer, a Swiss artist/craftsman who had the same fame in Europe in the seventeenth century that we today attribute to Picasso. The good Jacob was born in Frankfurt: it means that he breathed the effervescent German culture of the post-reform period, made up of bold considerations on the "new science" and the diffusion of knowledge. But in his blood circulated the love for art and for color inherited from his family, whose roots went back almost as far as Gutenberg. To be precise, to the Belgian typographer Theodor de Bry, one of the most famous map producers, friend of geographers and travellers, and in many ways a revolutionary publisher.


Placed at the meeting point of these different flows, Le Blon was able to create something new, which was the basis of a crucial technological leap, bringing together philosophy and science. In a world that was spreading culture to an ever-increasing number of people and that was seeing the birth of a class of nouveau riche (the bourgeoisie), it was necessary to extend the consumption of art. How to do? The painter-typographer's response: proposing an alternative to manual copying, and creating a "image printing" technique that did not yet exist. Le Blon was an Aristotelian: he believed that science could solve most problems. And he had followed Newton's studies on light. Science then came to his aid thanks to the doctrine of trichrome.

In painting, three colors – blue, yellow, red – can recreate almost the entire chromatic range. Therefore, by finding the most efficient way to transfer, with the right transparency, the three inks onto the paper, it would have been possible to create a printing "machine" capable of reproducing in various copies any painting, miniature or graphic element well beyond simple white and black of the engravings. Thanks to a scraper and a burner, he worked three copper plates, one for each color, and added a fourth: it was dedicated to mezzotint black, an idea that turned out to be as successful as it was revolutionary. Just as movable type allowed serial reproduction of text, Le Blon's "four-color process" would realize the dream of creating color copies of any illustration. The "grandmother" of CMYK was born.


The images accompanying the article are taken from the book  Printing Colors in Graphic Design - CMYK&PMS , which illustrates printing techniques through some of the most sophisticated projects developed in recent years.

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