Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Technique Talk--5

How They Did It!
I have a big collection of early 20th-century how-to books on commercial art. One of my favorites is Fashion Drawing--How They Do It! by Hazel Doten and Constance Boulard. It was published in 1939 by Harper Brothers. This book has a special appeal because the publishers bound samples of drawing papers right into the book. Among them are Whatman paper, bristol board, coquille paper, and two dead technologies: Contak shading sheets and Craftint Doubletone drawing board.

From the invention of photo-engraving well into the 1960s, commercial art was obsessed with finding ways to obtain shades of grey in drawings without using halftone screens. The cost difference between a line cut and a halftone cut was substantial. Furthermore cheaper publications like newspapers and farm journals used low-grade paper on which it was difficult, if not impossible, to print good halftones.

One reason pen and ink drawings were popular was that they almost always reproduced well. Flat grey tones could be added to ink drawings using Ben Day, a process by which dot or line patterns were overlaid photographically during negative-making. The illustrator showed the engraver where to put the pattern by attaching a tracing paper overlay or by painting on the drawing with non-reproducing blue watercolor.

Of course since the Ben Day process added an extra production step, it increased costs. Materials like Contak sheets and Doubletone board allowed an illustrator to add Ben Day-like tones directly to his original. The drawing was then shot as a line cut.

I believe Contak sheets were the first self-adhesive tone sheets. These were thin transparent plastic sheets upon which was printed a line or dot pattern. The backs were coated with adhesive. To apply a tone the artist placed a sheet over his drawing and trimmed it to the proper shape with a knife. He peeled away the excess film, then rubbed the remaining piece with his fingernail or a burnisher to set the adhesive. In the 1950s Zip-A-Tone became leading brand in the shading-film field; for years illustrators used its trademark as a generic name for this type of product.

The piece of Contak film in Fashion Drawing is somewhat thicker than later Zip-A-Tone sheets, with a glossy surface. The adhesive back is covered by what appears to be extra-thin tracing paper. The artist peeled away this backing to expose the stickum, which according to the book was wax. The text explains that the top-printed pattern was easily scraped off with a blade or a matchstick, allowing the artist to remove tone from small areas. After the drawing was finished it was brushed with a fixatif to prevent further scratching. The fixed part of the sample in the book appears glossier and thicker than the rest of the sheet. The scan below includes a Contak-shaded drawing.Craftint paper was a unique item. It came in two flavors: Singletone and Doubletone. A Craftint sheet was a heavy piece of bristol board upon which a pattern was printed in almost-invisible blue ink. When the sheet was brushed with developer, a clear liquid smelling of ammonia, the pattern turned black (dark brown, really) anywhere the developer touched. Doubletone sheets used two developers. If the pattern were crossing parallel lines, Light Developer exposed only "uphill" lines while Dark Developer exposed both sets to produce a darker tone. [Note: I scanned the sample sheet and the color didn't show up, but for history's sake I'll post it anyway.]Craftint paper was expensive, but its convenience and tonal range appealed to newspaper comic artists. Noel Sickles, Roy Crane, and Mel Graff used Craftint extensively. Craftint paper was essential to Crane's style; he used it through the 60s until the shrinking size both of printed comics and of original drawings rendered the process impractical. Crane once complained that in later years his originals were so small that Craftint tones looked like chicken wire. Here are some Craftint-shaded drawings.
A sheet of Ross board was not bound into the book, probably because Ross board was thick and didn't bend well. Ross sheets were covered with a raised pattern made of a chalk-like material which could be scraped off if desired. The artist drew lines in brush and ink, then added grey tones by rubbing a lithograph crayon or a grease pencil over the surface. The surface pattern broke crayon strokes into dots which would reproduce as a line cut.

Apparently there were many varieties of Ross board. White-surfaced boards came in numerous patterns. Others were coated with black ink which could be scraped away scratchboard-fashion. The only sheet of Ross board I've ever seen was a Gray Morrow original from the black-and-white Space: 1999 comic. Its pattern was so coarse it brought memories of Roy Crane's chicken wire. I don't know how Morrow applied his usual delicate penwork without his pen constantly "falling into the holes." A drawing on Ross board is to the right of the Contak drawing above.

Ross board's younger cousin was coquille paper, which is still available. This thin drawing paper is stamped with a random granular pattern. It accepts ink, pencil, and chalk. Black Prismacolor pencil on coquille paper looks weak to the eye, but reproduces beautifully in a line cut. Almost all of the black-and-white drawings in Andrew Loomis' art instruction books were drawn this way. Combining Prismacolor (or litho crayon) with brush and ink permits a startling range of tones. The large smiling girl on the first scan was drawn on coquille paper.

Fashion Drawing provides rare insight into art materials of 70 years ago. I'm sure many other essential items vanished into time even before computers came along and finished off the whole lot.

By the way, if anyone has some Ross board lying about I'd love to give it a try.