Comic History: Color and Print

Comic History: Color and Print

This is the second in a series of three articles to assist artists in creating works that simulate cheaply printed comic books using RetroSupply tools.

If you haven't yet, be sure to read Part One in the series about linework and print and be sure you don't miss the Part Three in the series where we cover how to simulate the textures of vintage artwork.

Today, we’ll look at the use of multiple colors in printing, a relatively recent development, considering the long history of the medium. Color is complicated, and paradoxically, taken for granted.

Color comic print effect by Christopher Sperandio

Lithography: The First Cheap and Fast Printing Technique

For more than a thousand years, printing meant applying ink onto a shallow carving and then pressing that carving onto another material.

In Germany in the early 1800s, Johann Alois Senefelder introduced a new form of printmaking he called Stone Printing. Lithography, as it came to be known, operates on the principal that oil and water don’t mix. Using limestone blocks quarried near Munich as the substrate, lithography became a cheaper and quicker method for printing.

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Many artists were attracted to the technology, as they could draw directly on the limestone with greasy crayons, producing a wide tonal range, a look that was very different from engraving and etching.

Once processed with chemicals, the stone blocks could be inked and printed. Hot on the heels of lithography came chromolithography, a method of layering multiple colors to create a single, rich image.

In thinking about lithography, jump over and look at images of the posters of Toulouse Lautrec, with their crayon-like quality.


How Chromolithography Helped Create High-Fidelity Prints

In the creation of a chromolithograph, there are two main considerations -- the grain of the stone, and the opacity of the inks involved.

The natural grain in the limestone, invisible to the naked eye, creates a natural dot pattern that allows for the printing of what appears to be a full range of gray tones. It’s this tonal range is what gave the chromolithograph its zing.

The other tool in the lithographer’s tool kit was the ink itself. Different layering effects were achieved by altering the relative opacity or transparency of the ink.

The combination of tonal range and ink opacity allowed artists and printers to make works approaching the fidelity of painting. The printer, working with the artist, would layer inks in order to create the maximum effect.

Chromolithography print of strawberries

A New Audience for Print

The industrial revolution meant rapid changes in technologies. Multi-color prints, at first exotic, became commonplace by the end of the 19th century.

In Leipzig, home to Germany’s printing industry, books like Meyer’s Lexicon contained dozens of color chromolithograph illustrations. As mechanization accelerated, printing technology continued to evolve as the audience for printed materials expanded. Young men were drawn to factories from farms.

As a result, literacy rates climbed as did the market for newspapers and other printed ephemera. This new audience for printed material came with an appetite for color and the sensational.

Chromolithography early comic

I have two quick digressions to make. Rather than replacing each other, subsequent printing refinements and technologies continue to coexist, even today.

Walk into any decently-sized university art department, and you’re likely to find a print shop filled with racks containing limestone blocks, where students and faculty actively engaged in stone lithography. Old technologies don’t disappear the moment new approaches appear.

Modern printer using traditional print methods

The second digression is to quickly mention the influence Japanese printmaking had on rapidly developing print technology.

Just as the Industrial Revolution was unfolding, restricted access to Japanese culture, which had been off-limits for hundreds of years, ended.

Color printmaking in Edo Period Japan was a subtle, sophisticated and fully mature art form. Japanese prints quickly made their way west to the centers of industrialization and had a tremendous impact, in spirit, if not technique.

Example of color printmaking in Edo Japan

The Origin of Halftones

Lithography, for all its nuance, was still relatively slow, and relied on skilled printers. The development of photography and photomechanical processes accelerated the speed of industrial printing. Out of this was born the halftone, an essential feature of newspapers and therefore comics.

Akin to engraving plates (that is the creation of a raised metal surface), photomechanical plates employed halftones screens that, when imposed on photographic images, created small dots of varying size that would blend together in the eye to create gray tones. The printing plates were metal, made from molds.

The printing presses are the ones we know from movies and TV -- loud, hot, and the size of small buildings. These are the kinds of printers that were used by large newspapers, and it’s these large newspapers where comic strips were born. For all its terrific visual qualities, stone lithography couldn’t complete with mechanized, photomechanical relief printing…and the halftone.

Examples of halftones on trolley photograph

Color Comics

Comic strip drawings (as well as every other part of the newspaper), were photographed to create a mold into which hot lead was poured. Alternately, the image was used to create a resist on the metal plate, which was then etched with acid. In either approach, the result was a metal printing plate with raised areas.

Color in comics (reserved solely for Sundays) was the result of the overlap of four colors, Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (also known as K, so it wouldn’t be confused with Blue). A separate metal plate was created for each of these colors and each printed in turn on every copy.

Example of CMYK color layers - Dennis the Menace

Examine an early comic closely and you’ll see the little halftone dots and color overlaps. The cheaper the printing, the bigger the dots and the less attention spent on registration, or the aligning, of the color plates.

Artists made suggestions to the pressmen as to how the color should be applied, but it was the pressmen who would actually made the color plates. The results were varied – miscommunication and color errors were common.

Movement of the paper and plates on the press were also issues. Resulting color newspaper comic strips from the early 20th century, thus, have that distinct quality of being rushed, sloppy, and frankly, delicious -- almost singular.

Example of a printing plate

Scrutinize Real Vintage Comics

In creating convincing simulations of old color halftones, then, it’s crucial to really scrutinize samples of early 20th century prints.

Archives of newspaper comic strips are available online.

Look at the color dots and see how the plates are misaligned. Try to isolate each of the four plates, and see how the combination of different sized dots creates the different colors. Colors in old comics are expeditious and gunky, sometimes there isn’t enough ink, and sometimes there’s too much. In order to achieve mimesis, we have to be faithful to the original process.

That’s where RetroSupply’s ColorLab comes in. With ColorLab, you manually build each of the colors in your work, adding Yellow, Magenta and Cyan in sympathy to get a faithful simulation of vintage color.

Comic Color kit

Capture the look of vintage comic book printing with ColorLab. Get fine-tuned control of color layers, ink textures, line work, and more

Free Library of Vintage Comics to Study

Once you “get” how early comics were printed, creating an effective simulacrum is straightforward. The tutorial that comes with ColorLab perfectly explains how to use those tools.

The essential part of the recipe is to spend a few hours dissecting old comics strips using any of the tens of thousands of digitally archived all over the world.

One such repository is the scans of hundreds of amazing US Government comics available online from the library at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

Scroll down to the topic of “Government Comics” and get prepared to be lost for hours in 4-color goodness. But as you read, notice. Look at the registration, dot patterns and ink qualities.

Example of misregistration

Final Thoughts on Color and Comic Printing

With a robust line, and the right kind of color dots, we’re almost at the point where we can make a convincing, retro-inspired “vintage” comic, but there’s one element still missing.

In the next installment, I’ll talk paper and texture. The final leg of our 3-legged milking stool. We’ll employ some textures and Photoshop trickery in order to mimic vintage comics so well that people will call you a witch, maybe ;-)

More Articles on Simulating Vintage Artwork

Now that we've covered color and printing be sure to check out the next article. It's all about how to simulate the textures you see in vintage artwork.


Christopher Sperandio is an artist, writer and university professor. In 2015, he founded the Comic Art Teaching and Study Workshop at Rice University, where he teaches art and comics.

Pinko Joe, Sperandio’s first graphic novel, was published by Argle Bargle Books in 2020 and called “laugh out loud hilarious” by Broken Pencil Magazine. Volume two of this series is available via Follow Sperandio on Instagram, Twitter, or visit his website.