I’ve been involved in selling art books for over thirty years and, while I can’t recall every one of the thousands of titles I’ve seen over that time, there are some that stand out in memory. What makes a book a classic is indefinable. Some we can probably all agree on and some will cause debate, but that’s how it should be – everyone’s desert island list will be different.

Some books are classics because of their subject, some because of their author and some are milestones in the development of book production. On thing that has stood out while I’ve been looking for books to include in this series has been the speed with which book production has developed over this time.

When printing was first invented, the wooden blocks from which the impressions were made were individually carved for each page. The initial process took longer than writing the whole thing out by hand, but then hundreds of copies could be turned out by a moderately skilled operator (who certainly didn’t have to be able to read) in a few hours. Illustrations, such as they were, were a part of the same process – the blockmaker simply made a woodcut in the appropriate place and it reproduced rather like a line drawing.

The next major development was moveable type, where the letters were made individually and assembled to form the appropriate words and layout. Once the letters had been made, the wood carver’s job was finished and a new skill emerged, that of the compositor who assembled the blocks. Illustrations were, at this stage, still woodcuts, but they could be made separately, inserted where they were required and, crucially, re-used.

In time, metal replaced wood. Letters were now carved only once and then type was cast from moulds. Because metal can take finer detail than wood, illustrations were engraved or etched and quickly became much less crude.

The illustrated book was made possible with the invention of the half-tone block. In this, instead of being made up of blocks and lines, an illustration is broken down into a series of dots using a screen. Seen in close-up, these appear as clumps of black ink with white areas between them, but as you go back, say to normal reading distance, the detail becomes sharp and a realistic image appears. Varying densities of black dots against white paper produce an appearance of tones of grey.

The colour plates you see in a book now are made up by the same process, except that four colours (plus the white of the paper) are used and the actual dots are now so small that they can only be seen with a powerful magnifier. It has become possible to reproduce a painting at a level of quality that is very nearly as good as seeing the original.

Colour work is not cheap, but technological advances have brought the cost down considerably and also put the control of production far further up the chain. Making and assembling colour plates, even in photo litho, used to be a skilled and jealously guarded job involving manipulating four different sets of film negative (one for each colour) and physically cutting and pasting type and illustrations in each one so that the right colours appeared in the right places and the whole set lined up – otherwise everything would be out of register and out of focus.

What has speeded the development process up in recent years is the advances in computer technology. Only a few years ago, a machine which would handle any kind of page makeup could cost over £20,000 and only offer very rudimentary facilities. Now that we have more power on our desks than was available to the first moon mission, whole books can be put together on something you can buy in the high street and software has made assembly as simple as cutting and pasting with a mouse, in all four colours at once.

This is not to say that design has been de-skilled, far from it. Graphic design has always been about controlling the flow of information in a limited space and is as important as composition to a painter. Bad layout remains bad layout, it’s just that now anyone can do it! The real advantage is that all of the control is now put in one place, rather than complex instructions, which can easily be misunderstood, having to be passed down a chain of command. The computer also provides the advantage of being able to view the finished layout as soon as it’s done, rather than waiting for printer’s proofs several weeks later. Amendments and corrections can be made immediately at virtually no cost, too, so improving quality control. At least, that’s the idea!

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