The Process of Illustration
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For centuries, from Gutenberg’s time until after World War II, the majority of illustrations were produced by relief blocks such as wood engravings and metal cuts printed along with the letterpress text. Intaglio-printed illustrations, such as etchings and engravings made from the incised surface of a metal plate, had to be printed separately and bound into the book. Lithography, printing from the flat surface of a prepared stone or metal plate, came into use about 1800 and also was used for artwork printed separately from the text. Over time these traditional processes have been replaced by photographic formats and new digital imaging methods. Today most illustrations and text are printed together by offset lithography prepared from digital files.

  • Printing Matrices for Narrative of the U.S. Exploring Expedition
    The printing matrices—either engraved plates and blocks or lithographic stones—used to print the Narrative of the U.S. Exploring Expedition and its accompanying volumes are housed in the Graphic Arts Collection of the National Museum of American History. This collection includes 309 engraved wood blocks, 133 engraved copper and steel-faced plates, with an additional presentation card plate, and 19 lithographic stones.

The Narrative of the U.S. Exploring Expedition during the years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842.
Charles Wilkes (1798-1877)
Philadelphia: Printed by C. Sherman 1844-1874

Printed by an Act of Congress, the multi-volume set represents some of the most important American scientific scholarship of the 19th century and was modeled on European publications, using several printing techniques to produce high quality illustrations. Hundreds of engraved wood blocks provided relief illustrations to be printed directly with the text. Larger and more elaborate intaglio illustrations were printed and bound separately. Engraved steel and copper plates, some prepared with color inks, were used to illustrate scientific specimens and maps. Lithography was considered a useful medium to represent the tonal variation of geological specimens.

About the image to the right: Engraved wood block, tatooings of Pacific islanders, pp. 60-61, Narrative…, Vol. I, 1845.

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About the image to the left: Engraved plate, 34, Pleiodus strigirostris
Vol. VIII, 1858, Mammalia and Ornithology.

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About the image to the right: Lithographic stone, plate 9, fossils, Vol. X, 1849, Geology.

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