University of Delaware Library
Color Printing: Nature Printing



Capturing the exact details of a plant or insect by printing directly from the natural object has been a goal of printers for hundreds of years. Eighteenth century attempts to print directly from dried plants failed because the material was too fragile to withstand the printing process. In the nineteenth century, printers realized that they could first impress the object into another, harder material which could then be used to make the printing surface. Wood, softened by steam, and various types of metal were used to make a mold from the plants.

A successful process was developed in 1853 by Alois Auer, Director of the Government Printing Office of Vienna, and brought to England by Henry Bradbury. Termed "nature printing," the process involved passing the object to be reproduced between a steel plate and a lead plate, through two rollers closely screwed together. The high pressure imbeds the object--for example a leaf--into the lead plate. When colored ink is applied to this stamped lead plate, a copy can be produced. Several colors could be applied individually, by hand, to appropriate areas of the plate and all colors printed together from one pull of the press.

Very few books were actually printed by this method during the nineteenth century, with Henry Bradbury continuing to be the leading proponent. The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland, published in 1857 and The Nature-printed British Sea-weeds, published 1859-60 are the primary examples of the process. Both books are scientific in approach and include engraved diagrams in addition to the nature printing. The process was ideal for showing the thin two-dimensional fronds of ferns and seaweed, but less successful with more fleshy plants. Bradbury's death in 1860, at the age of twenty-nine, seeded to end major interest in the process.

Also referred to as "nature printing" was a different process used specifically for making impressions of butterfly wings. In 1731, The Art of Drawing described a process for sandwiching butterfly wings between two pieces of paper and, by exerting pressure through a press, producing the colored image of the wings. Similar methods were employed at the end of the nineteenth century. The most successful was As Nature Shows Them: Moths and Butterflies of the United States, published in Boston in 1900 by Sherman F. Denton..

Auer, Alois.
The Discovery of the Natural Printing Process: an Invention [Etc.]. Vienna, 1853.

While Auer claimed credit for inventing this process, a number of others had been working toward the same goal as early as the seventeenth century. In addition to plant forms, Auer shows impressions of lace, fossil fish and a bat's wing produced by the natural printing process.

Denton, Sherman Foote
As Nature Shows Them: Moths and Butterflies of the United States, East of the Rocky Mountains: with over 400 Photographic Illustrations in the Text and Many Transfers of Species from Life ... Boston: J. B. Millet, 1900.

The bodies of the insects are engraved and colored by hand, but the wings are actual insect's wings pressed onto the paper. One reason that butterfly printing is a lost art is the amount of time and patience it takes. In the book, Denton describes capturing some 50,000 insects for the project.

Johnstone, William Grosart.
The Nature-printed British Sea-weeds: a History, Accompanied by Figures and Dissections of the Algae of the British Isles. Nature Printed by Henry Bradbury. London: Bradbury and Evans [1859-1860].

Only four books appear to have been executed in nature printing in England during the 1850s; and three of them were the work of Henry Bradbury. Bradbury's death in 1860, brought an end to the popular interest in the process.

Moore, Thomas, 1821-1887.
The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland; Edited by John Lindley. Nature-printed by Henry Bradbury. London: Bradbury and Evans, 1857.

The large, generally flat fern frond was ideally suited to the nature printing process. Three-dimentional or solid structures, such as thick stems or fleshy leaves, are unprintable by this method, producing only an indistinguishable blob when put under the pressure of the printing press.


All of the reproductive processes discussed to this point depend on the skill of a craftsman--an engraver or a lithographer--to reproduce faithfully the artist's image. The development of photomechanical processes at the end of the nineteenth century removed the human element from color printing. Each of the older processes could be wedded to photography to produce fast and faithful reproduction when used in conjunction with the other great advance of the end of the century: the high speed power-driven cylinder printing press.

A number of processes were rapidly developed around the turn of the century--photogravure, photolithography, photo-engraving, and others--which allowed the image to be transferred from the original drawing to the printing surface photographically. These processes, however, transferred only the outline, not the color. The invention of the trichromic halftone solved the problem of color reproduction by using film which was sensitive to color and a series of filters for the camera lens which filtered out all but either the red, yellow, or blue section of the spectrum. The result was a wide color palette with the colors appearing bright and true to the original. Numerous refinements were developed during this century, but the combination of photography and color separation was the primary printing process until the computer revolutionized the entire printing process in the 1980s.

Austin, Arthur C.
Practical Half-tone and Tri-color Engraving. Buffalo, N.Y.: The Professional Photographer Publishing Co., 1898.

This is a step-by-step guide for producing black and white and colored illustrations using the half-tone and tri-color methods.

Drummond, William Henry, 1854-1907.
Montreal in Halftone: a Souvenir Giving over One Hundred Illustrations, Plain and Colored, Showing the Great Progress Which the City Has Made During the past Seventy Years with historical description by Dr. W. H. Drummond ... Montreal: W. J. Clarke, 1900.

Montreal in Halftone is typical of the thousands of postcards, viewbooks, and souvenirs produced at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Some Illustrations of Process Printing: with a Few Practical Remarks. London: C. Hentschel [circa 1890].

The Hentschel Company issued this book to show off the various printing techniques that could be produced by the company. Included are individual prints, reproductions of photographs, book illustrations, and advertising material.

Waterlow and Sons.
Collotype: with a Forword and Specimens Showing the Unique Range of the Process. London: The Company [1890].

Invented in 1855, the collotype process is based on the action of light on a solution of specially treated gelatin. Collotype produced the highest quality of photo-mechanical reproduction of photographs. The best collotypes are virtually indistinguishable from original photographs.

Zander, C. G.
Photo-trichromatic Printing: in Theory and Practice. Leicester: Raithby, Lawrence & Co. [1896].

Photo-Trichromatic Printing is the first technical manual, written in English, describing the three-color photo-mechanical printing process. The book focuses on the visual color spectrum and the mixing of colors for printing.

Color Printing: Introduction Intaglio Processes Relief Processes Lithography

Back to Special Collections Home Page
This page is maintained by Special Collections

Last modified: 12/21/10
  • UD Library Special Collections  •   181 South College Avenue  •   Newark, DE 19717-5267  •   USA
    Phone: USA +1 302-831-2229  •   ©2014