What is Preseparated Art?


The Kerlan Collection of Children's Literature holds thousands of pieces of production materials and original artwork. Collectively these materials contain the history of modern children's book publishing. Many of the pieces of artwork in the collection bear little resemblance to the art on the page of the final printed book. Take, for example, these two pages from The Chick and the Duckling, written by Mirra Ginsburg and illustrated by Jose Aruego and Ariane Dewey.

No original color version of this artwork ever existed.  Instead, the artists created four separate pieces of grey and black art which were combined during the printing process to create this full color illustration.

Four pieces used in the production of the above artwork - click to view

While these pieces may appear rather drab and unattractive, they are responsible for a remarkable transformation. Each piece represents a single color of ink used in the printing of the book. In this case, the inks--cyan, magenta, yellow, and black--were chosen for a very important reason. These four inks are known as the process colors and they have a special characteristic. When they are printed on top of one another they can create a broad range of new colors, and a vibrant piece of full color artwork is created. It was not until the book came off the printing press that the artist's vision was realized. How is this transformation possible?

This artwork is an example of a technique known as preseparation. For much of the twentieth century the ability to produce preseparated art was a necessity for artists who wanted to create illustrations for children's books. The story of children's book publishing during this period is the story of preseparated artwork; it was by far the most commonly used method for producing children's books until advances in photography, scanning, and computer technology eventually rendered it obsolete.

This technical skill imposed limitations on artists--and provided some advantages as well. Preseparation was deeply influential on the style and appearance of children's literature, and its legacy can still be seen nearly thirty years after it was rendered obsolete by technological advances. It was also difficult. "One must be a masochist to do color separations" wrote Ariane Dewey, and "also have endless patience."1 Why, then, was it so prevalent? The simple answer is that it was cheaper than the alternatives.2 But what exactly is it? 

On June 10, 2015, former Greenwillow Books Art Director Ava Weiss and illustrators Ariane Dewey and Paul Zelinsky visited the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota Archives and Special Collections (ASC) to discuss preseparated art. Excerpts from their visit will be included throughout this exhibit. In this clip Ava Weiss introduces preseparated art.

Preseparated art involved the creation of separate pieces of art for each color of ink that would be used to print the book. It varied in complexity from simple two color pieces to complicated four color illustrations that used process color inks--cyan, magenta, yellow, and black--to simulate full color artwork.  This exhibit will guide the reader from the simple to the complex in order to show the history and influence of this once common technique. To understand preseparated art we must first look at how books are printed.

1. Dewey, Ariane. Personal notes. Box 10, Folder 2. CLRC 2161 Ariane Dewey Papers. Kerlan Collection, Children's Literature Research Collection, University of Minnesota Libraries, Minneapolis, MN. 29 October 2015. 

2. Gates, Frieda. How to Write, Illustrate, and Design Children's Books. Monsey, N.Y.: Lloyd-Simone Pub., 1986. Print. 85 

What is Preseparated Art?