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The Making of Picture Book Illustrations: What is Preseparated Art?

Frequently Asked Questions



How long did it take to create preseparated artwork?

The creation of preseparated art was a laborious process that almost always took longer than camera separated art. The exact length of time depended on a variety of factors, including the number of colors, the complexity of the illustrations, and the skill of the artist.

A simple two or three color book could be done fairly quickly, though it still required more pieces of copy than camera separated art. A four color, 32 page book could take anywhere from two months to two years to produce.

When was preseparated art a commonly used technique for creating children's books?

Children's books were produced using preseparated art throughout much of the twentieth century. By the late 1980s photography, scanning, and computer technology had advanced enough to make camera separated art as affordable as pre-separated art. At that point the few advantages it provided were outweighed by the considerable time and effort it required, and it was widely abandoned as a method for preparing art for children’s books.

Does anyone use the preseparated technique today?

Yes- Stephen Savage, for one. However, it is more an aesthetic choice than a technical or financial one. He's not delivering black and white art to the publisher, for example, and his use of linoleum blocks for separate colors does not reduce the cost of printing. Today, computer programs can separate colors from full color art with little effort from either the artist or the printer.

How do the gray and black separations make color pictures?

Printing plates are like giant stamps; just like stamps, any color of ink can be applied to them. Color separations are made to tell the printer what the stamp should look like. The separation would be photographed and transferred to film, and then that film would be used to make the metal plate. The film used in this process had a hard time picking up some colors but captured black and gray quite easily. As a result, most color separations were made in shades of gray and black to make that step in the process easier. Once the final plate was made it could be inked with the color indicated by the artist.

How are printing process plates made? Are the printing plates kept? Are they reused? What does one look like?

Printing plates were made using a two step process. First, the artwork was photographed and an image of the artwork was captured on film. This film was the same size as the final printing plate would be. If the art was full color, it was necessary to photograph it four times through special filters in order to separate the artwork into color components that correspond to the process colors. If the art was preseparated, it was only necessary to photograph each piece once. It was at this stage that halftoning took place to translate any continuous tones into printable form. Color corrections or other alterations may have also been required. Once the film was complete it was transferred onto a printing plate using a chemical process that etched the image onto a metal surface. In offset printing these metal plates were wrapped around cylinders to increase the speed of printing. Printing plates were generally not retained after use and were commonly recycled.

Who would make the decision to do color separated art? The publisher? The art director? The artist?

That would depend on the circumstances surrounding the creation of any particular book. Certainly any of the three could have made that decision, but it was likely a collaborative process in most cases. A publisher might decide that they could not afford camera separated, full color art in certain situations, but they may decide that they could if they knew the artist’s work and felt strongly about a book’s sales potential. An art director might encourage an artist they knew to be capable of creating preseparated art to do so in order to reduce a book’s cost, but they could advocate for full color artwork on behalf of an artist too. An artist might offer to create preseparations in order to increase their opportunities for employment, but they might also work to establish a reputation that allowed them to create art in full color. No two situations were the same, but preseparation had enough advantages to some combination of these stakeholders that became a commonly used technique.