Early coloured printing
Adding colour to botanical images was a natural step for publishers. From a scientific point of view, coloured plates enhanced the written descriptions of the plants, showing each species as close to lifelike as possible. From an artistic point of view, the beauty and opulence of coloured plates added to the value of a published work, making them attractive additions to the libraries of the middle and upper classes. Colour was particularly useful when producing images of the strange botany of Australia. Most readers had never seen these plants before and relied entirely on the plates and descriptions to accurately imagine how they might look in the wild.
The first coloured plates were produced by teams of artists who hand coloured the black and white engraved images after printing, usually using watercolours. This process was used for botanical illustration from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Hand coloured engravings were labour intensive, requiring the services of at least three artists – the creator of the original drawing, an engraver to create the printing plate, and a colourist (although Ferdinand Bauer took on all three roles in order to retain control of his art.) At the turn of the 19th century, technology had advanced enough to allow for printing in colour, although high-quality plates would continue to be finished by hand until the mid 19th century.
The examples below show coloured plates from botanical works from the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
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