Sunday, May 3, 2009

The color of old prints

Many antique prints were initially issued with color, but many have been colored subsequent to their original publication. How does one distinguish between original color and new color? Does it matter? Here is brief guide to what you should know about the color of old prints.


Prints have been issued with color ever since they first appeared. Color was used for two main purposes; decoration and information. Generally, color made prints more attractive, which was an aid in selling as well as an end in itself. Color also served the function of conveying information, for instance for identification of species in botanical and ornithological prints.

Prior to the nineteenth century, the application of color was almost always done by hand. There were some examples of printed color before 1800, where, say, multiple wood blocks were used, each inked with a different color, but on the whole, early woodcuts and engravings, when issued with color, were watercolored by hand.

For the most part (and excluding many fine art prints), color made prints more desirable, but the expense of labor and materials made colored prints more costly to produce. Thus some series of prints were issued by publishers uncolored simply as a matter of economics. Also, other series of prints were issued in both uncolored and colored versions, with the latter selling for a premium.

Sometimes a purchaser might hire an independent colorist to embellish a print issued in black & white. Also, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, coloring of prints became a popular pastime for cultured amateurs, with instructions printed in helpful guides for young men and women. The coloring of prints was also part of the standard education for aspiring artists. In this time period, many bookshops, framers, and printsellers kept a stock of uncolored prints and coloring materials specifically for this purpose.

Beginning in the late eighteenth and then increasingly in the nineteenth century, more and more prints were issued in color. Print publishers developed efficient procedures for hand coloring prints, adding only a small amount to the cost of production. Also, new processes of printing with color were developed, especially chromolithography which appeared around the middle of the nineteenth century.

Original Color

Strictly speaking, original color is color added to a print at the time of its publication, by or under the direction of the print publisher. However, in the broader sense implied by the alternative terms “contemporary color” and “period color,” the concept encompasses color added by the original print seller or by the initial purchaser, either by hiring a professional colorist or adding his own color.

New color is that which is added to a print after publication. Most new color was added to prints originally issued in black & white, but some was applied to prints which already had original color. This was done either for the purpose of enhancing limited or pale color, or in order to replace original color which was washed out or faded. New color has been added by owners, by professional illuminators, and by dealers. New color has been added in order to enhance decorative appearance, for the pleasure of coloring, to replace lost original color, and for increased saleability.

The first issue which a purchaser faces is how to tell the difference between original and new color. The most important way to do this is to learn about the history of the print in question. Some series of prints (such as Hogarth’s engravings) were never issued with color and some series (such as Audubon’s quadruped prints) were always issued with color. It is possible for a print to have become faded and subsequently recolored, but for many prints, a knowledge of the history of the series in question can provide an easy answer to the question of the authenticity of their color.

The problem comes with prints that were sometimes issued colored and sometimes uncolored (and there are many of these). There one needs to fall back on experience. Different types of prints and prints from different periods each tend to exhibit a typical style of color and often new color is not done in the original style. Thus a familiarity with what original color looks like for a particular series of prints can provide a determination for a particular example in question.

Modern colorist-—sometimes in an attempt to be authentic but also sometimes in an attempt to deceive-—have become proficient at coloring prints to look the same as original colored ones. As print collectors becomes more sophisticated, they are becoming more familiar with what original color looks like, so those coloring a print now take special care to do so “authentically.” This sometimes includes even the application of gum arabic (a gummy substance used in conjunction with hand coloring in order to add depth/texture to the image), the presence of which is often incorrectly thought to be proof of original color.

The Hue Over New Color

There is universal agreement that prints with original color are more desirable than prints with new color, but there is considerable disagreement concerning the relative desirability of uncolored prints compared to prints with new color. If a series of prints was never issued with color, should a collector eschew any that are now colored? If a series of prints was issued both with color and without, how much does it matter that a print originally issued uncolored is now colored, especially if done to match those which were issued with color? Is it better to have a print with poorly done or faded original color or one with attractive and appropriate new color? Are there any types of prints on which color of any sort is inappropriate? In order to clarify the issues involved, it helps to break them down into four general types: financial, historical, aesthetic, and collecting.

Financial Issues

The financial issues raised by new color are not greatly problematic. Well-done color, whether original or new, almost always increases and certainly does not diminish the value of a print. Original color carries a premium over new color, sometimes significantly so, but while some buyers will not knowingly purchase prints with new color, nonetheless these prints are generally easier to sell than uncolored prints, even at higher prices. A purchaser should be careful to acquire only prints with “good” color, for poorly done or inappropriate color can detract from the value of a print, but assuming good quality and appropriateness, a buyer is financially safe in purchasing a print with new color.

Historical Issues

There are powerful historical arguments against adding color to prints after publication. Antique prints are historic artifacts, surviving documents from our history. One can argue that we should be caretakers of our past and should treat its artifacts with respect, preserving them in as close to their original form as possible rather than modifying them to suit our purposes. Professional curators and historians are usually amenable to some restoration and to minor, reversible modifications of original state, but adding color to a print is a major, irreversible change to original condition, and as such, it is argued, should never be done.

It can also be argued that the publisher of a print made an intentional decision about whether or not to add color, and if color was added, about how it was to be applied. If we add new color to a print, we are subverting the original intent of the publisher and seriously distorting the historic meaning of that print. Original color not only provides us with specific, intended information, but it also provides us with oblique, unintended information, for the absence of color or the manner in which color was applied can give us knowledge of the publisher and his environment, about styles and tastes, about what information was considered important enough to highlight, and so forth. Adding new color can both eradicate this historical information and distort our understanding by adding false clues to the past.

The historical arguments against adding new color are persuasive, but there are mitigating considerations. As long as there are some prints by each publisher known to be in their original state, we can extract historic information about that publisher and his period from those examples. No historical knowledge will be lost and the modified prints will not provide us with false information, as long as we realize they have new color. Further, if new color is closely copied from a known original-color example, the new-color print can be used to glean historic content, the same way that an accurate facsimile of an original document can be used by scholars for research.

It can also be argued that as long as one carefully replaces lost or enhances faded original color, this is restoration rather than a distorting modification of the print. And finally, if it is known that a particular black & white print was also issued with original color in other instances, its lack of color is something of an historical accident. Coloring such a print to match the original-color examples would not seem inappropriate.

It is compelling to argue that historic artifacts should not be meddled with, but history is not an independent entity which can be segregated from our daily lives and preserved in ideal form. Assuredly our history should be respected, but we also have to be willing to give up parts of our history in order to make our future. If one takes the preservation argument too far, old buildings, laws, customs, language uses, cultural habits, and indeed all aspects of our past would be protected from change. Anyone interested in antique prints would certainly agree that we must preserve and record our history, but it is impractical and undesirable to try to preserve all of our history without modification.
With reference to antique prints, it seems reasonable that as long as some examples of the prints of any particular publisher are preserved in their original state, it is not improper to modify other examples of his prints by adding new color. Indeed, this has been done ever since prints were first published, so the addition of “new” color is itself a part of our history. While a Johannes Kip country estate print colored in the nineteenth century by an English collector does not have original color, it is an historical artifact and provides us with insights different from those provided by a Kip print with period color. If we accept such colored prints as legitimate artifacts, it would be problematic to maintain that it is not legitimate to color a Johannes Kip print today.

Looking at the historic issues, I would say that generally the more a print has its value in its nature as an historic artifact (for instance with a contemporary portrait of Washington or the first print of an American bird), and where the lack of color is part of the history of that type of print (as opposed to an historic accident), then the more important it is not to add new color. In contrast, it is not such a bad thing to add color to a print where its value is mostly based on its decorative appearance and where its lack of color was not particularly important to its intended character.

Aesthetic Issues

New color can be applied either skillfully or badly, and while judgments may vary as to the quality of any particular instance of new color, it is clear that a print beautifully illuminated with new color is preferable to one with poorly done new color. Even an uncolored print is usually more desirable than a print with inexpert new color. Over the years and up to the present day, many of the colorists who have added new color to prints were highly skilled and produced some exceptionally beautiful prints, whereas some of the colorists who did original illumination of prints were less skilled and produced rather second-rate coloring jobs. Is a beautiful example of a print with new color preferable to a print with mediocre original color? It seems to boil down to a matter of individual taste.

Indeed, most decisions concerning particular examples of new color come down to individual preference. What one person considers tasteful or attractive, another may find garish or displeasing. However, one issue concerning new color which is less subjective is that of appropriateness. Different periods and types of prints usually had a particular style of color. New color is appropriate, i.e. historically correct, if it has been added in the style of examples that were originally issued with color. While such color is certainly preferable to color applied inappropriately, this factor may vary in importance for each collector. There can be strikingly beautifully prints with historically incorrect new color. If such a print appeals to a buyer, is it important that other prints by the same publisher were not originally colored in the same manner? As in many other issues involving new color, this is a question without an absolute answer.

Collecting Issues

There is a significant difference between a print collector and a mere purchaser of prints. It is neither the amount spent, nor the number of prints purchased, nor the importance of the prints which creates the distinction, but rather the approach of each individual towards his acquisitions. The collector differs from the acquirer in pursuing his collection seriously, by having a collecting theme, and by applying a set of rigorous standards to any possible print purchase. A print collector, then, needs to develop a set of criteria for screening potential purchases, and an important aspect of these criteria must be the consideration of issues of color. (Click here for blog on the subject of collecting antique prints)

A collector must decide how these issues apply to her purposes in collecting and to the theme of her collection. If she is collecting for pleasure or decoration, then prints with attractive new color would be suitable. If, however, she is pursuing a collection with a more serious historical purpose, then new color might be inappropriate. If she is collecting for investment purposes, then original color should certainly be sought, but in many cases new color would be acceptable. If the theme of a collection is related to decorative styles of different periods, then original color would be very important, whereas new color might be fine for a collection of prints focusing on one particular type of bird or plant. Each collector must make her own decision about these issues.


The issues raised by new color on old prints are varied and complex. While original color is clearly desirable, appropriate or even merely attractive new color is considered by many to be almost as desirable. Some collectors feel that adding new color to a print is not problematic, while others feel that this should never be done. For some purposes new color is inappropriate, but one cannot say that this is always the case. It seems only reasonable to take a relativistic approach: each individual must decide for himself his purposes in acquiring prints and how those purposes relate to the issues of new color.

Along with the theoretical reasons for such a relativistic approach, there is a very strong practical reason not to be dogmatic regarding new color on prints, viz. the difficulty in some cases of distinguishing between original and new color. While there are clues which help to determine the originality of color, there are still instances where a definitive answer can come only through elaborate scientific means. If a print has color which appears to be original, as best can be practically determined, does it really matter whether the color is indeed original or not? And even if one knows the color on a particular print is new–-because one saw it applied, say–-, but for all appearances it looks original, does it really matter that it is not?

The historical arguments against adding new color to old prints are quite compelling. Even if they do not lead to the conclusion that all new color is bad, there are still lessons to be drawn. It is important that some examples of all prints be maintained in their original state. Thus for very rare prints it is desirable not to add color to them. It matters less whether one adds new color to a common print known to be held in its original state in a number of collections.

It is also important that, when known, the nature of the color on a particular print–-that is whether it is original or new–-should be identified. As long as this information is provided, the historic record will not become distorted. This is important not only for the prints themselves, but also for their printed images in books and magazines. Unfortunately, such print illustrations are often not labeled with this information, and there are many instances of illustrations of prints with new color which are not identified as such.

There are no simple answers to questions about new color on old prints. Each individual must decide for himself what approach to take. While one collector might avoid prints with new color, another might just as appropriately decide that prints with attractive new color are preferable to uncolored prints. The application of new color to prints is not wrong in all cases. As long as it does not destroy or distort the history of prints, new color does little harm and can add pleasure for many in their pursuit of these interesting and beautiful objects.

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