J. Gilbert Johnston’s




The history of hand color in Natural History prints began in the 17th Century and flourished in the 18th to mid 19th Century. The main application of color to black & white prints was with delicate watercolor brushes. Hand coloring was extremely costly, often tripling or quadrupling the price of the work, so that many early botanicals were offered with or without hand-coloring.

It is rewarding to look at a hand-colored print with a 10x magnifier. You may observe where the watercolor ran outside the printed line. You will always see broad bands of color, never a matrix of dots which is a telltale sign of modern photo-offset printing. Many reproductions of antique prints use this method. Modern copies of original antique prints are ubiquitous and becoming more difficult to discern, especially if the print is behind glass. 20th Century copying methods range from the collo-type process which looks like colored-felt under 10X magnification to photo-off-set and computer scanning. None of these modern copies, however, look like hand-water-coloring under magnification.

Many uncolored antique prints are now being colored. These prints would be said to have modern color, not original color. Early botanicals are especially susceptible to modern hand-coloring since almost all up to the mid-18th century were published without color.

Prints with original color, that is prints colored at the time of publication, are of course more valuable. Some of the first botanicals to receive hand color were Basiluis Besler’s large plates from the Hortus Eystettensis.1613, only a few copies of which were published with color-plates, those copies being reserved for people of importance. Most copies of his work were published uncolored, thus, almost all of the large Basilius Besler botanical prints on the market today bear modern color. Eleazar Albin’s A Natural History of Birds 1731-38 was the first English book with hand colored bird prints followed closely by the great work by Mark Catesby. Johann W. Weinmann’s Phytanthoza Iconographia 1735-1745 was one of the earliest 18th century botanical works to be published totally with colored plates. Today many original antique black and white prints are sold with modern hand coloring.


Some original natural history prints were color printed by directly applying colors to the etched metal plate just before it was run through the press. This method was often referred to as the a la poupee process, a French description of the color dauber which looks like a small doll.

One method favored by the English would apply all the colors of the print to the engraved metal plate. The French, however, would often apply different colors to identical copper plates (as in a chromolithograph) printing them onto the paper one after another. The great works of Levaillant, Thornton and Redoute were partially color printed and finished by hand. If you look at these prints under magnification you will often see areas of solid color without the underlying black lines of the etching.


With the flood of modern reproductions of most antique nature prints, it becomes important to discuss the difference between an original antique print and a modern reproduction. The 10x loupe or magnifier (available at most camera stores) is an essential tool, as is an understanding of paper and watermarks. Often early antique prints were made using handmade paper bearing watermarks or counter-marks. The watermark could be images, names with dates or abbreviations of the paper-makers, made by placing a wire shape against the paper mould. The great folio Birds of America prints used paper bearing the watermark, J. Whatman (and a date) or J. Whatman, Turkey Mill (and a date). Not all antique prints were on watermark paper.

The paper itself can give an indication of age. Early paper before the 19th century was called “laid”. When held up to the light, this handmade paper exhibits lines called “chain lines”, where the larger wires of the paper mould bound its smaller mould wires together.

Wove paper was introduced at the end of the 18th century. It does not exhibit chain lines. This paper was 100% cotton rag as was laid paper and sometimes bears a watermark as in the Double Elephant Audubon work.

By the mid 19th century, pulp paper (made from trees) was beginning to be commercially produced. This cheaper paper unfortunately exhibits acidic qualities, which, over time, weaken the paper and make it brittle. Some of Audubon’s Double Elephant Chromolithographs by Julius Bien were printed on pulp paper. Many of these prints have been lined with acid free paper to strengthen the print.


Color-plate books were exceedingly costly and therefore, usually the provenance of the aristocracy and institutions. The laborious work of etching metal plates and individually hand-coloring each print took years to complete. Mark Catesby’s Natural History took 18 years to complete. At a cost of 22 guineas for a complete set, it was one of the most expensive publications of the 18th century.

John James Audubon’s The Birds of America took 12 years to publish and cost $1000.00 in 1838, as much as the cost of a substantial house at the time. All Natural History color-plate books took long periods to produce and for that reason were usually published by subscription. Each subscriber agreed to purchase the work and periodically received a group of prints, known as a “part”. Upon receipt of the “part”, the money the subscriber paid to the publisher was then used to publish the next “part.” Color-plate books were collections of prints, often with text pages, that were accumulated over time and then privately bound for protection, storage and readability. Only a few publications have survived in their unbound state. The Audubon prints owned by Queen Adelaide, Queen of England, shown on my web site, are some of the most famous.


Plates of natural history prints usually bear legends, information under the printed image, i.e., artist, engraver, publisher, name of species, etc..

These credits are often Latin abbreviations:

Del.: delineavit – Latin for he/she/they drew. The name precedes it, usually found on the bottom left side of the plate.

Dir.: direxit – persons supervising the engraving. The name precedes it.

Exc.: excudit – engraved by.

Imp.: impressit – means printed by, often found below the title of the print.

Lith.: Lithographer, whose name follows it.

Pinx.: pinxit – means painted by.

del. Pinx.: sometimes denotes the hand-colorist.

Sculp.: sculpsit - means engraved by. It follows the engraver’s name. Usually found on the bottom right-hand side of a plate.


AQUATINT: A method of tone etching used in conjunction with etching, which creates tiny ring-like patterns of shading. Produced by covering a copperplate with resin powder and then gently heating it, to create tiny dots of particles within the resin. The interstices between the minute particles expose the metal plate allowing the etching acid to “bite” away the copper and produce small, dark, irregular circles, which create shading or tone. The shading of the aquatint also creates depth in the printed image. Audubon’s great folio work, The Birds of America (1826-38), was produced using etching and aquatint by the master engraver, Robert Havell, Jr.; thus, this edition is often referred to as the Havell edition.

CHROMOLITHOGRAPH: This is the process by which lithographs are color printed. As many lithographic stones, each with an identical image, were used as colors were needed, each stone carrying different colors on the replicated drawing. Often colors were overprinted to get different tones or colors (blue and yellow make green). While chromolithography was employed to save money over of costly hand-coloring, it was often a difficult process that required skilled “chromistes” who knew the art of color-mixing. Alignment or registration of the paper on each separate stone also required great skill so that the final printed image did not appear blurred. Sometimes as many as a dozen or more stones each bearing the same image drawn with a waxy crayon were colored and overprinted. The first large chromolithographs done in the U.S. were by Julius Bien, a German immigrant, for the sons of John James Audubon who published what is known as the Bien edition of the Birds of America 1858-60.

ENGRAVING: An intaglio process (French/Italian: meaning to engrave, cut or carve) in which a design is cut into a metal plate (often a soft metal, such as copper) by use of a tool called a burin. The artist’s original drawing was usually traced onto the metal plate and the lines dug out by hand using the burin. The sunken cut lines (similar to a plow creating a furrow in a field) hold ink that is transferred onto paper under the pressure of a press producing a black and white print. Tonal qualities are produced by cross-hatching, dots and the use of lines cut close to each other. The term engraving is often used to mean any intaglio process. Engraving was first used in an English book in 1521 and by1580 copper plate engraving was overtaking the woodcut as a method for illustrating books.. Francis Willughby and John Ray’s Ornithology (1678) was the first engraved English bird book.

ETCHING: A process to cut lines into a metal plate by the use of nitric acid instead of a tool (burin). An image is drawn, or traced, from the artist’s drawing, onto a “ground”, which is a material often containing beeswax and asphaltum to coat the metal to protect it from the acid. An etching needle is used to cut through the ground following the lines of the drawing exposing the metal plate. The plate is placed in a bath of nitric acid until the finest lines in the exposed metal were “bitten” or eaten away by the acid. To create tonal values of darker areas, portions of the etched plate which were to remain lighter were protected by varnish (stopped out) so that the plate could be immersed in acid as many times as necessary to achieve the required darker tonal values. Each time the unprotected (unvarnished) parts of the plate were exposed to the acid more of the metal would be eaten away, creating larger and deeper depressions that could hold more ink and print darker. The plate was then inked and wiped so that only the recessed areas held ink. As in an engraving, dampened paper was pressed onto the plate to pick up the ink and produce a black and white print, which then could be hand water-colored.

LITHOGRAPHY: Invented by accident in 1796 by the Austrian Alois Senefelder, and based on the principle that water and oil repel each other, lithography became the primary method of producing Natural History prints in the 19th Century. Instead of a metal plate, a large smooth faced closely grained piece of limestone was used. The artist’s original drawing was traced onto the stone (the same method as the intaglio process). A waxy crayon outlined the transferred image. The stone was then wetted, the limestone absorbing water, which the waxy crayon repelled. The stone was then inked and the reverse happened. The watered stone repelled the inking while the waxy crayon drawing absorbed it. The stone could then be printed in the usual manner producing a black and white image, ready for hand coloring. Audubon’s small work, the Octavo edition of The Birds of America 1840-44 and his great Folio (1845-48) and Octavo (1849-54) works on American mammals were produced by lithography.

MEZZOTINT: An intaglio method not using acid. By this method, a metal plate is roughened in all directions by the use of a “Rocker”(a tool shaped like a half–moon and covered with teeth which was then “rocked” back and forth across the plate). The “Rocker” was manipulated to cut out bits of the plate evenly across the surface, resulting in a metal plate that would hold sufficient ink to print very dark or black. The artist’s drawing was then transferred to the plate, as in all printing always in reverse, with a scraper, which reduced the roughened areas to smooth areas. The smooth areas would not hold ink and thus print as the white space between dark areas. Mezzotinted plates were often color-printed as were stipple-etched plates. Dr. Robert J. Thornton’s great work, The Temple of Flora (1799-1807), employed mezzotint as well as aquatint and etching.

ORIGINAL PRINT: A Print is an impression made by transferring a master image onto paper by a device. And what do we mean by an “Original Print”? We mean that the artist conceived of the picture and drew it himself. Although he may have hired someone else to do the engraving, lithography or the hand-coloring, the work was always done under his supervision. Not all antique prints were signed, and those that were signed had the signature engraved in the metal or lithographed on the stone. No photographic process was ever used. Consequently the prints were limited in number merely by the wearing away of the master image on the stone or on the metal plate, and by the extensive work of the artist to hand color each individual print.

STIPPLE: A form of etching in which small dots, instead of lines, were punched through the ground of the metal plate. Shade was achieved by the close placement of dots, more widely spaced dots produced a lighter effect. Redoute’s famous flower prints employed stippling.

WOODCUT: One of the earliest intaglio methods (Chinese woodcuts were done in the 9th century) by which tools are employed to chisel away areas of wood that are to remain white. The areas remaining, which are the raised areas, will hold ink and will print the image. This is the reverse of metal engraving and etching, in which the recessed areas hold the ink. Woodcuts are thus black-line process prints.

WOOD-ENGRAVING: A white-line woodcut print where the area gouged out represents the drawing and prints white. A very hard wood, like boxwood, was often employed with the wood block cut across the grain to enhance hardness. The lines were cut into the block using tools similar to metal engraving. Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) used this method for the plates in his turn of the 18th century work, British Quadrupeds 1790 and A History of British Birds. 1797

Blunt, Wilfred & Stearn, William T., The Art of Botanical Illustration. Antique Collectors Club and The Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, 2000.

Dance, S. Peter, The Art of Natural History: Animal Illustrators and Their Work. The Overlook Press, 1978.

Desmond, Ray, Great Natural History Books & Their Creators. The British Library & Oak Knoll Press, 2003.

Graphic Arts: a selection of articles from the 14th Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1933.

Jackson, Christine E., Bird Etchings: The Illustrators and Their Books 1655-1855. Cornell University Press, 1985.

Myers, Amy R. & Pritchard, Margaret Beck, Empire’s Nature, Mark Catesby’s New World Vision. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1998.

Rhodes, Richard, John James Audubon: The Making of an American. Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.

Sitwell, Sacheverell, Great Flower Books 1700-1900. Atlantic Monthly Press, 1990.

                       Fine Bird Books. Atlantic Monthly Press, 1990.