Setting the Right Tone

Setting the Right Tone

Commercial art is forever at the mercy of the axiom “Fast, Cheap, Good: Pick Two.” That is to say, if you want it fast and cheap, you’re going to sacrifice quality. If you want it cheap and good, it’s going to take a while—and if you want it good and fast, you’re going to pay through the nose.

As you read the following condensed history, keep that formulation in the back of your head, as you’ll see it driving the history of printing, leading to the invention of Roy Lichtenstein’s bread and butter, the printed dot.

The History of Halftones | Detail from

Detail from “Bathroom,” 1961, by Roy Lichtenstein

The Origin of Halftone Printing

For most of the 19th and 20th century, printing was so prohibitively expensive that most of the work done has been in a single color, usually black (as black has the widest tonal range).


DupliTone halftone brushes make it easy to add authentic halftones and shading that look like they came straight off a 1950s printing press.

But it wasn’t just the daily newspaper that was drab and monochromatic — but the farmer’s almanac, or maybe a mechanic’s guide to engine repair, or any other of a thousand-thousand instances where the use of additional colors would have been seen, especially through the eyes of Puritanical capitalists, as an excessive or impossible extravagance.

The History of Halftones | Old Farmers Almanac

Cover of the Old Farmer's Almanac, 1909

Prior to the 19th century, images in print were not common. They took a lot of extra effort, requiring the engraving of metal plates by hand. These plates were typically made of copper. These engravings took a lot of skill and a long time to make and wore down with use and required replacement. 

With the development of the use of end-grain wood blocks by Thomas Bewick in England at the start of the 19th century, the wood engraving became the preferred method throughout the 19th century. The durability of end-grain engravings outstripped that of metal plates.

With the wood engraving, the print is produced under low pressure. The ink is applied to the surface. The flat areas carry ink, while the incised or engraved or recessed lines do not. This meant carving the images in the negative - carving a line created a “white” line in the final print.

Portrait of Bernhard Aloys von Gudden. Wood engraving, 1886.

From Engraving to Photo Plates

As with any engraving, if the artist wanted to produce a gray tone, they were left with the choice of hatching and crosshatching lines — a time consuming process. End-grain wood was hard, and it meant long hours using sharp tools to cut away the material in order to produce a graphic.

The addition of tone wasn’t simply an aesthetic choice but also practical. For instance, technical or mechanical drawings were built using these gray tones to help identify parts or materials separately.

Detail from a drawing of a self-acting grain scale, 1857

Of course, time is money. Commercial artists were under immense pressure to deliver a quality product as quickly as possible. If you’ve ever attempted a pen and ink drawing featuring cross-hatching, you can lose hours during the process as you painstakingly scratch away at your work. But remember that wood engraving requires the use of sharp wood carving tools with the added caveat that mistakes were impossible to correct.

However, capitalism to the rescue! The halftone process that evolved slowly through the mid to late 1900s involved exposing images onto a metal photo plate through a course screen, resulting in an image consisting of dots of various sizes. This plate would then be processed and etched and ready for the press.


DupliTone halftone brushes make it easy to add authentic halftones and shading that look like they came straight off a 1950s printing press.

The development of the halftone allowed for the reproduction of photographs. Goodbye, wood engraving! The wood engraving was thrown over in favor of photographically shooting black and white artwork or photographs and pouring lead plates. In the highest speed presses, these plates were curved and fit around a cylinder in pieces.

The History of Halftones | Detail from “This Magazine is Crazy,” 1957

Detail from “This Magazine is Crazy,” 1957

The size of the screen used to produce the halftone is directly related to the kind of paper on which it is printed.

Newsprint, which is cheap and prone to ink bleeding through the paper, could only support a very coarse line screen of 75 dots per inch horizontally by 75 dots vertically, for a total of 5625 dots in an inch square.

Printing cheap inks on cheap paper created the conditions of dot gain, where the dots of ink spread as they dried, clogging up images, making images darker giving a filled in appearance. Higher quality paper and inks allowed for tighter line screens of 150 dots per inch or more with much less dot gain.

The History of Halftones | Detail from “This Magazine is Crazy,” 1957

Detail from “This Magazine is Crazy,” 1957

Halftones for Designers and Illustrators

Eventually, it fell to the commercial artists to add tone to their drawing however they chose. They could do so as long as they knew the line screen of the art’s destination. They could cross-hatch, which was free, but laborious, or they could buy and apply tones to their drawings, using any one of a number of commercial products made specifically for the artist/designer.

One such product was CraftTone. It was a specially prepared art board printed with invisible cross-hatching. The artist would draw on the board and then “paint” in the gray tone with a clear liquid. This liquid would chemically interact with the invisible lines on the board, making them appear. One liquid summoned the lines in one direction, and another made visible the lines in the other direction. Magic.

Of course, like all magic, it comes at a great cost. The downside to CraftTone was that eventually the board would yellow and ALL the lines would begin to appear, heedless of the artists’ original intensions. It was not archival.

The History of Halftones | Detail of CraftTone in use

Detail of CraftTone in use. Notice the brushy quality of the edges.

Plastic Transfer Sheets: A Low-Budget Solution

The other option available to artists were any number of halftone dots printed on a sheet that could then be burnished onto their artwork. Not as sexy or direct as CraftTone, but effective at creating tone quickly.

Eventually, self-adhesive plastic sheets appeared on the market. Artists could simply cut the sheet to the desired shape and stick it on their art. Clumsy and unwieldy, but it created smooth looking tone, and took a lot less time than painstakingly cross-hatching their art.

Manga is one place where Zip-A-Tone™ (or Screentone™ or whatever TM-ed, name-brand you have) sheets were in heavy use. As most manga was printed in black and white, adding tone to the artwork was essential to build reader engagement. Some of these sheets even had images printed on them. Zip-A-Tone™ clouds were very popular.

The following two images are details from the original art from a late 1980s Japanese Manga. You can see the halftone sheets cut and glued to the art board.

The History of Halftones | Detail of original manga art

Detail of original manga art.

The History of Halftones | Detail of original manga art

Detail of original manga art.

Today, with the advent of digital production, the gap between artist and the printing process has widened to a gulf.

Artists can, and do, work without any knowledge of printing processes, where the printer (here referring either to the machine on your desk that spits out printed paper OR the printshop that produces thousands or hundreds of thousands of reproductions) handles the process of translating the artists’ work into a printable form through software that produces tones that are so fine that they can only be observed through a loupe or a magnifying glass.

Printing has become a lot more complicated. It’s much easier to prepare a file incorrectly, creating all sorts of opportunities for printing errors.

The History of Halftones | Details from

Detail from “This Magazine is Crazy,” 1957

The #1 Way to Learn About Vintage Printing

If simulating old printing is a desirable outcome, then understanding how print is actually produced is essential. You can certainly read about it, but here’s an idea — it’s FREE and I’ve done it myself on many occasions. Visit a printer!

Call and ask or simply pop in for a quick a tour! You’ll smell the ink, and if you’re lucky, you’ll see (and hear!) the presses running. No printer near you? The next time you’re on vacation, find a local printer at your destination!

I’ve visited printshops in Chicago, Pittsburgh, Hong Kong and more. The last one I toured was a little print shop outside Tampere, Finland. They had an Original Heidelberg Platen Press dating from 1914 and it’s still in use. The pressman started it up for me and fed it some paper so I could see it working. It was like seeing the Nessy the Loch Ness Monster cross the street in front of me. I treasure the memory of seeing that press.  So, find a print shop and (nicely) stick your foot in the door.

An Easy Way to Get Realistic Halftone Effects Digitally

In the meantime, add complex tone and variety to your art WITHOUT buying expensive boards, weird alchemical liquids or cutting and gluing fidgety bits of printed plastic. The DupliTone halftone brush pack lets you do that. Keep your destination (screen or print, high quality or low quality) in mind as you set to work so your halftones reproduce the way you intend, whether your desire is to make something smooth and clean or clogged and grungy.

The final piece of advice is to have a plan and add your tone a little at a time. A modest amount of DupliTone can go a long way. You can now easily paint whole tonal scenes – or my preference, use halftones as an accent. Any way you cut it, it’s never been cheaper or faster to add halftones. How good? That’s up to you!


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 will appear in 2021 via Follow Sperandio on Instagram, Twitter, or visit his website.


DupliTone halftone brushes make it easy to add authentic halftones and shading that look like they came straight off a 1950s printing press.