Line Art – colorizing engravings

Each year I create a ticket. It’s a personal project, and in recent years it has become something of a personal challenge.

I recently read a book about security printing. It was simply awful. Bad illustrations, meaningless text, too much information about commercial products, and not enough information about the subject of the book. After I read it, I put it in the recycling bin; it will come to better use there than in my library.

Despite my distaste for that book, I decided to practice some security printing techniques on this year’s ticket – just to see what I could do.

This is roughly what this year’s ticket looks like. It has one of my engravings as the base art, a simple guilloche pattern created in Adobe Illustrator, and type fonts of my own design. Just above the word “Managing” is a line of one-point Helvetica Neue Medium type (which becomes microprinting in the finished ticket). This image is about 2X normal size.

The ticket is a method for giving extra credit to my students for attending presentations during Cal Poly’s International Graphic Communication Week events. During this week we cancel most of our classes, and students attend lectures and presentations by industry experts, graduates of our program, technical innovators, and futurists. All of these fine people tell the students about their part in our industry – and these are some impressive presenters! This year we learned about the success that has been seen by Scodix with their impressive post-press technology for foil stamping, embossing and decorating of printed materials. We also learned how Steven Label Company (Santa Fe Springs, California) makes printed electronics for medical devices and for consumer electronics. We learned about Americhip’s work to put electronics into printed products, and how those electronic additions are making their customers look great in the eyes of their customers. We saw the beautiful books published by Chronicle Books, America’s largest independently owned publisher.

As always, it was an extraordinary week.

The students are required to attend lectures during normal class hours. Outside of those required times, though, I give extra credit for each hour a student participates in our activities. At the end of each presentation the students come up to me, and I hand them a ticket. Later, they write their name on the back and give their collection of tickets back to me. I add them up and assign extra credit points. The total of all the tickets turned in tells me how many total student-hours were earned (It’s over 225 this year).

The tickets create a buzz among the students because they are well-made and they are funny. I am amused that they like them so much.

This year and last I have used very-high resolution images of copper engravings as the art on the ticket. I add some text and I print them on our Konica-Minolta C1100 digital press on a nice satin-finish cover stock. This year I added microprinting. Both last year and this year I have included a guilloche pattern created in Adobe Illustrator to make the tickets look even better.

It would be impossible to photocopy one of my tickets successfully (though I don’t expect anyone to try).

Both years I colorized my engravings to add some personality to the art. That required me to develop a technique for colorizing that does not cause the illustration to be turned into a halftone pattern when printed (See my blog from last week for more on avoiding halftones). The technique allows me to paint with color “on top” of the black-only line art of the engraving.

I learned this technique from a friend who draws an internationally-syndicated cartoon. That gentleman showed me how his line art illustrations are colorized in Adobe Photoshop as a color overlay layer which can be used by newspapers that print in color, and ignored by those papers that print his cartoon in black only. It’s a great technique, and it works well for my engravings.

This is a cropped view of the colorized illustration. Click on the image to see it larger.

I start by scanning at 2400 ppi, and I convert to grayscale then to BMP using the 50% Threshold technique (described in my last blog). This results in a one-bit file – strictly black or white. Then I convert the image back to CMYK, which technically changes it from a bitmap image to a tonal image. But – there is no tonality in the image. (I have not had a chance to print this type of image on the Heidelberg press yet; it will be interesting to see if the bitmap remains strictly black and white, or if it turns into a halftone).

From the CMYK image I copy the black information into the clipboard. Then I create a new CMYK document (Photoshop already knows the pixel dimensions). Choosing the Black Channel in the Channels pane, I then paste the black art onto the black channel – only.

On the left is the scan, in the middle is the color Layer (no black) which is created in Multiply Mode. On the right is the composite of the two layers.

Then I create a new Layer, and define that layer to be in Multiply Mode. This is the layer on which I put the color. I paint with the brush tool mostly, setting the Opacity of the brush (in the title bar) to about 20%. This makes it possible to paint in small increments over the black image, building the color gradually and very nicely.

In Adobe Photoshop: this shows Layer 1 (containing all the color) superimposed on the Background (containing the black line art). I have ellipsed (that’s like encircling) the Multiply Mode to show where it’s located.

The quality of the painting is delightful. It looks like art from another century, and in part – it is!

The final photo-illustration exists as two Photoshop Layers – one for the color, and one for the black. If I save the file as a PSD or TIFF file, it will reproduce nicely on the Konica-Minolta machine, making very convincing line art and color.By changing the Mode of the color Layer, I am in effect printing all the color in overprint mode. This eliminates any problems with register or fit, making the printing easy.

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Line Art – the One and Only True Bitmap format

This is the second of several blogs about scanning and reproducing line art from 19th century copper engravings and similar artwork.

When converting scanned line art into printable line art there is only one file format that will work without causing the art to be turned into halftone patterns.

That format is the Bitmap format (.bmp).

Converting to bitmap requires attention to detail, as it can easily go wrong. It starts with scanning, which I recommend be made to a grayscale file. Some scanners can scan directly to bitmap, but that seldom works well because the scan appears too harsh, and much of the fine detail in an image can be lost. Instead, I recommend scanning as an 8-bit grayscale image at a resolution of 2,400 pixels per inch (ppi). This will be a fairly slow scan because the scanner will be working at such fine resolution.

Once the grayscale image is acquired, open it in Adobe Photoshop and create a Curve Adjustment Layer. On the curve layer, try adjusting the white point and black point (black and white indicators at the bottom) to maximize the detail in the image while darkening the blacks and opening up the whites. Be careful not to cause pinching of the lines and leave some of the gray in the lightest areas.

If the image needs retouching to correct for mechanical damage, fix it while the image is in grayscale mode. That makes a smoother correction that is not obvious in the final image.

After retouching, save the file in TIFF (the scanner created a TIFF) or change the format to PSD. This will become your master file. The final bitmap file will be a derivative file.

This is an engraving scanned from a Dover book of line art at 2400 ppi. It is represented here as a tonal grayscale image (modified with an Adjustment Layer in Photoshop).

Change the mode from grayscale to BMP (Image>Mode>Bitmap). This, curiously, is the only file format that will keep the line art as line matter and not convert it to halftone dots (or other halftone patterns) in the final reproduction. There are four primary methods of conversion in the menu. Choose 50% Threshold as the method; the others create unnecessary noise and other patterns. The result will be a clean, line illustration that will translate into line-only matter on the final plate (this works well on digital printing machines also). I used a Kodak Trendsetter to make aluminum printing plates for my tests. That machine has a native resolution of 2400 spi, which matches the resolution of our BMP file. The results are extraordinarily sharp. On a different test on a Konica-Minolta C1100 digital press I also obtained excellent results printing through an EFI Fiery RIP as BMP. The resolution of the Konica-Minolta (1200 spi) was adequate to make excellent images of the same art, though obviously at half the resolution of the offset process I tested.

This is a photomicrograph of the same image printed by offset lithography at 2400 spi. Notice the effect of the halftone pattern on the engraved lines. Click on the image to see an enlarged view. 

The halftone pattern is especially destructive to the fine lines in the engraving that are designed to provide tonality. By using the BMP file format, this can be avoided (see images below). Click on the image to see an enlarged view.

With the line art image in-hand, proceed as normal with page layout. BMP files are effective in Adobe InDesign and Illustrator. Both applications support placing these illustrations. Scaling is important! You should try to reproduce engraved illustrations at their original size. Making them smaller increases the resolution of the engraving (the distance between the engraved tonal lines of the original), and that will challenge most printing processes. It’s acceptable to increase the size of the illustration in the final layout, but be very careful reducing these illustrations.

This photomicrograph shows how clearly the image is reproduced when saved as a BMP file. The lines on the right are clear, and have not been turned into halftone patterns. Click on the image to see an enlarged view.

This photomicrograph shows the quality of the engraved lines when printed from the BMP file on the offset lithographic version of the job. Click on the image to see an enlarged view.

For output I created CMYK Adobe PDF files. These were processed through Prinergy for the Trendsetter, and through the Fiery RIP for the Konica-Minolta. In both cases the BMP data is treated as line art, and no attempt is made to change it to halftone patterns.

In my next blog I will discuss ways to colorize engraved illustrations.

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Reproducing line art with digital technology

In the pre-halftone era (printing before the 20th century), illustrations printed by letterpress (relief printing) were made by engraving into wood or copper to make an image. It was a laborious task, and the quality was determined by the skills of the artisan who made the engraving. This process is distinctly different from hand engraving a copper plate for printing by intaglio (where the image to be printed is engraved into the plate).

The engraving process done with wood blocks – dating back many centuries – is one of carving the non-image areas of a block of wood while leaving behind the wood for the printing surface.

This image of the famous typographer A. P. Luse was published in the Inland Printer in February, 1891. The illustration is typical of copper engravings of the day. Reproduced here for online viewing, it is just 144 pixels per inch. For it to be printed adequately that resolution should be as high as 2,400 pixels per inch. Click on the image to see a larger version with more detail.

With copper engraving, which became popular in the second half of the 19th century, the process was to paint a sheet of copper with a coating of asphaltum, a derivative of coal tar. When the asphaltum was dry, the artist would scratch through the asphaltum to reveal the copper surface. The artwork had to be drawn in reverse, with the non-image area revealed, and the artwork area protected by the dry asphaltum. The artist could make mistakes while working this way, and retouch those mistakes with a small brush, adding more asphaltum. In the end, only the copper non-image area would be exposed.

When the illustration was completed, a solution of hydrochloric acid was poured over surface of the copper plate (the back of the plate was also masked), and the plate was agitated in the acid solution until the exposed copper areas were etched away by the acid, making them deeper than the surface covered by the asphaltum resist.

Though it’s a bit difficult to display the quality differences here, the image on the left part above is scanned at 300 ppm, while the image with the tan underlay was scanned at 2,400 ppi. On careful examination, one can see the quality difference between the tonal area on the right of the face, and that on the left. Click on the image to see a larger version with more detail.

When the etching was deep enough to form a good relief, the acid was washed off with fresh water, stopping the etching process. A dilute solution of bicarbonate of soda in water would also occasionally be used to slow or stop the etching process.

The artist then removed the asphaltum with a solvent like benzene or paint thinner, leaving the image raised, and the non-image area etched away below it. This plate was then mounted on a wooden base of a thickness to create a type-high (0.918 in.) plate for relief printing. The plate could be mounted with type and other materials to make a printing job with an illustration in-place.

Resolution differences are especially visible when reproducing fine lines – like type. On the left the scan was made at 300 ppi while on the right it was made at 2,400 ppi. This is typically the problem with scanning line art at too low a resolution. Click on the image to see a larger version with more detail.

Copper engravers used a variety of tools to scratch their images into the asphaltum, with some of the more popular being a series of blades that were used to draw parallel lines in the resist. In copper engravings of the late 19th century, these thin lines provided tonality and detail in the image.

Since printing was (and still is) a binary process – ink or no ink – the entire image printed as black, and the delicate line patterns and cross-hatching created the illusion of tonality in the image.

With the invention of the photographic halftone in 1878 by Frederic Ives, the art of illustration engraving using this technique began to fade. It was henceforth possible to photochemically create and then print actual photographs by relief printing. The need for these elegant engraved copper illustrations was gone.

The legacy of copper engravings is tremendous, with beautifully printed books, and collections of the original printing plates still in existence. Thumb through any early edition of The Inland Printer, or any of the 19th century Penrose annuals of printing, and you will see hundreds of illustrations and advertisements made with beautiful engraved illustrations. These illustrations reproduce very nicely with a photographic negative made from the printed page using lithographic film and a process camera.

But in the era of scanning, we have lost something that was easy to do with litho film and traditional (analog) printing plates for offset printing. Line art in the 1970s was easy to reproduce. Today it is very difficult to do. In the next few blogs I will discuss techniques for making the best possible line illustrations for both digital (toner and ink-jet) and offset printing.

This is a copper engraved illustration mounted on a block of hardwood. This image is from the collection of the Shakespeare Press Museum at California Polytechnic State University. We don’t know the provenance of this engraving. It’s likely more than 100 years old. This could also have been a mass-produced plate. It’s impossible to know.

One of a thousand reasons to get this right
It’s often said that to scan line art (usually a business card that must be converted to digital form) one should scan that card at 1,000 ppi. Though this is usually adequate for the typical awful business card, it falls way short of being acceptable for a quality reproduction of 19th century copper engravings. For that we need much more resolution – as much as 2,400 ppi.

I have conducted a series of tests on this, going all the way from the original to an offset sheet printed on a Heidelberg press. Microscopic analysis shows the results of my tests. I have learned a lot, and will show the results in the coming blogs.

We’re not making halftones!
In fact, to reproduce line art effectively, you want to avoid allowing any illustration to become a halftone. The halftone process, where tones are reduced to various size dots, is destructive to copper engravings. It results in severe damage to the fine lines that are the very essence of these illustrations. Curiously, there is just one file format that supports line engravings and prevents them from being converted to halftones – BMP. That format, called Bitmap, supports the reproduction of line art at any resolution.

Most desktop scanners have enough resolution to capably scan a line engraving at high enough resolution for excellent reproduction. Scanning at high resolution is a slow process, but it’s important to maintain the quality we need for acceptable reproduction. Scanners convert line art into raster art, converting a work of analog art into the same image broken up into a grid of pixels. The secret is to scan enough of those pixels to disguise the digitization process and print the original faithfully.

In the coming days I will post a second story about how to get the best quality reproduction of line art using digital technologies.

Posted in Art, History, Photography, Photoshop techniques, Printing and Printing Processes, Scanning, Software | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

A photography day at the Monarch Grove in Pismo Beach

Last week my wife and I with our cousins visited the famous Monarch Grove in Pismo Beach State Park. This is the site where twice each year thousands of Monarch butterflies gather to mate, and to impress visitors with their beauty.

We used two Canon full-frame cameras: a 5D and a 6D, and we used a long, long combination of optics: a Canon 100-400 lens with two 2X telextenders attached to make the equivalent of a 1600mm lens! The maximum aperture was f11, but with a good tripod from Really Right Stuff, we were able to make some lovely portraits of Monarchs in the wild.

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Out with Barracuda and in with SpamExperts

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I have my own e-mail server, hosted by an ISP in Michigan. I have been a customer of theirs for many years and they have treated me very professionally.

A couple of years back I asked them for help with incoming spam e-mails. It was getting out of control. We were receiving hundreds of spam e-mails every day, and we were getting buried. We created local and server-wide filters to kill as many as we could, but it proved to be too much for me.


My ISP suggested that we sign up for their Barracuda e-mail filtering service, at about $50.00 per year. I signed up immediately.

And immediately the flow of spams dropped from hundreds every day to just a few.

I was a happy camper.

When my wife and I bought airline tickets for a trip from Buenos Aires to Iguazu Falls, I purchased them from a travel agent in Argentina, using their web site. Within weeks of making this transaction, Argentine spammers began an outright assault on my e-mail server, sending sometimes hundreds of spam e-mails every day. I wrote local spam filters that would kill any e-mail with the .ar suffix. That lasted for a while, but then that spammer sold my address to a Brazilian spammer, who sold it to a Mexican spammer, who sold it to a Russian spammer, who sold it to any number of other spammers who spoof e-mail addresses in many countries.

The most upsetting event was when they started using my e-mail address to send hundreds of thousands of spam e-mails around the world. I was banned by AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo, and blacklisted by my own university for a while due to my “bad reputation.”

I started receiving e-mails for erectile dysfunction medicines from myself.

The Barracuda system helped a lot, and our e-mail distress was reduced to nearly nothing. I still got a quite a few in Spanish and Portugues, a few from Argentina, and a few from other Latin American senders. For those I just used the delete key.

Barracuda was successful in blocking most spams, but it suddenly started allowing a lot (a lot!) of spam e-mails through to my wife’s account. On one day last week she received dozens and dozens of e-mails from all over the world. The only thing they had in common was the “sender” was “contact” at some Here are about 60 percent of those she received in just one day:

Every one of these is fake, stolen or spoofed.

What had happened? Why didn’t the Barracuda anti-spam server catch these? And why did these arrive as a torrent of e-mails?

Curiously, these spam e-mails can easily be detected and deleted with a local rule. Apple’s Mail program has rules-based filters that can be set to make Boolean decisions about incoming mail. In this case, a rule set to find the word “contact” followed by the @ sign can move these mails into the Junk folder, or (if you’re feeling confident) delete them altogether. But, this would not solve the bigger problem, which was that these were just a few in a morning’s deluge of spam that had gotten past the Barracuda server.

I contacted my ISP and asked for tech support. They were not sure why it was happening, but they suggested that the Barracuda system – though still supported – was not nearly as good as their new SpamExperts server that would work much better. It’s about the same price as Barracuda ($60 per year). I decided to take the leap and switched my MX path to send all of my incoming e-mails to the SpamExperts server, which will then forward them to my e-mail server.

I have now gone three days with the new spam server in place, and I can tell you that it’s working well. In that time, the new system has not delivered a single Argentine or Brazilian e-mail message to me or to my wife. No pharmaceuticals. No hotel ads – nothing. In the first 48 hours, SpamExperts filtered has over 160 bad e-mails. I’m impressed.

Looking at the final tally of the work that Barracuda did in the year that I used that service shows just how big a problem spam e-mail is. When I look at the individual e-mails I wonder why spammers bother to do it. There simply must be enough people who are duped by spam, or who respond to phishing scams, or who get caught by malware and hostage-ware attacks to make this criminal activity worthwhile. Otherwise why would they do it?

Mine is just a two-person organization. In 12 months, the Barracuda spam server filtered a total of 340,314 incoming e-mails. Of those there were 209 that contained viruses (thank you, Barracuda!), 4,683 with damaged structure, of suspicious construction, or with empty fields. Barracuda deleted 170,178 spam e-mails that we never saw.

82,623 e-mails were delivered.

I don’t remember reading 82,000 e-mails, but then only about half of them were addressed to me. I don’t remember reading 41,000 e-mails!

I do remember deleting about a dozen Spanish, Portuguese and other non-English e-mails that made it past the Barracuda server every day (that’s about 4,000), and I will not miss that daily routine. I am really excited that I will not have to filter my incoming e-mail for much of anything with the new SpamExperts service. I’m looking forward to a quieter e-mail experience.

A sadistic note to spammers:
When your bots scan this blog, and harvest the long list of e-mail addresses above, you will be adding spammers’ e-mails into your spam attacks. That makes me smile.

And a follow-up note:
I have been using SpamExperts since writing this blog. I check every few days to see if any non-spam messages are being trapped by the system. In the first few visits I found a few in quarantine, and I “whitelisted” them.

Since then I have had none. The number of spam e-mails coming into my server is stunning. Sometimes I get 200-300 in a single day. SpamExperts is doing a yeoman’s job of preventing those from getting to my in box.

Posted in Mistakes you can avoid, Software, Technology, Web | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Printing on a 126-year-old press, and loving it!

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I am engaged as a human printing engine this week (and next). The president of our university and his wife want a letterpress Christmas card this year, so have engaged the design and production forces at-hand to produce these cards. It’s a handsome design made by my friend Kara Suzuki, who is the University’s senior graphic designer.

The design is a complex illustration, made in Adobe Illustrator, and then converted to a magnesium printing plate by Owosso Graphic Arts in Owosso, Michigan. Printing from magnesium plates like this makes letterpress printing relatively easy because of the perfection of the printing surface. Little or no make-ready adjustments are needed, and the plates generally print perfectly without the small fixes needed for type and other mixed sources of relief images.


This is the 8 x 14 inch Peerless Jobber press we are using this week to print 5,000 impressions on green paper with gold ink. It’s a 19th century experience, and one that has been fun and productive.

The project began with an inquiry earlier in the fall. Did we have an interest in participating in this project? “We” in this case is me. I am the faculty advisor to the Shakespeare Press Museum, Cal Poly’s wonderful letterpress museum. In that museum we have 19 presses and over 500 fonts of letterpress type in both metal and wood. The presses are mostly in working order, with some that are used constantly and others that are more for looks.

When I was told that the press run would be 2,500 impressions, printed two sides, I realized that it would be impractical to print these cards on one of our four “snapper” lever presses (more correctly called Chandler & Price platen presses). These presses use the left arm of the operator as motive force, with a pull of the long lever to make each impression. It’s a nice way to print small quantities of sheets, but not the right way to print 5,000 impressions (plus extras). I decided to prepare one of our treadle presses to earn more productivity.


Here you can see the ink distribution plate, at top, and the rollers that transfer the ink from that plate to the printing type (silver plates behind the rollers). In the foreground is the tympan, paper that supports the gauge pins (visible on the left and at the bottom of that sheet). The gauge pins hold the paper in place while it is printed. Feeding is done by hand, and the press is powered by foot power.

We have five foot-powered presses in the museum inventory, each with an interesting story. Most are of the early 20th century, while two of them come from the last decade of the 19th century. I had restored another of these a year ago for a similar project, and it worked quite well. But we had one jewel in the collection that had not been used in many years, and it needed our attention for this project. Called the Peerless Jobber, the press is a small machine, about 800 lbs., that can print a maximum image area of 8 x 14 inches. It was perfect for this project which is 7 x 10 inches, trimmed.

I began by getting new ink rollers made for the press, a process done by our friend Julain Ramos in southern California. His firm, Ramco Rollers, specializes in making rubber rollers for a variety of machines – including letterpress machines. His work is spectacular, and he provided quick turn-around for this project. The beautiful new black rubber rollers arrived last week, and I installed them on the press. Then I began the process of adjusting and getting the press running perfectly while we ordered the magnesium plates from Owosso.


Here are some of the cards spread out on drying tables in our photo studio. As you can see, it takes a lot of tables to support 2,500 cards (there are only a few dozen in this photo). We ended up taking every horizontal surface on the first floor of our building to dry half the run.

The press was make by Peerless, a company based in Palmyra, New York, in 1890. It is a beautiful amalgamation of steel and cast iron parts, extraordinary machining quality, and the precision of a Swiss watch (on an industrial scale). Some rather sloppy repairs have been made to the press over the years, but most of it is today as it was built 126 years ago. I wonder if the Peerless workers said, as this one came off the line, “I’m sure that this press will still be in use in 2016!” That would be like making a machine today that will be working in 2132, an almost unimaginable time in the future. Will my iPhone 6 still work next Thursday? Will my Volkswagen “clean diesel” Toureg still work in 2018? The fact that this press still turns and prints like the day it was built is really impressive (if you’ll excuse the pun).

And, it doesn’t just print like it did in 1890, it hums with precision and efficiency. There is a wonderful mechanical music to this machine, the whirring of its gears, cams and followers all moving in a concert of near-perfection. And it is all powered by foot. You can pump the treadle with either foot. I prefer my right, while I stand on my left. In this stork-like pose, one powers the press by pumping the treadle, which with an eccentric arm on the main crankshaft, transfers the foot power into rotational power, which causes the platen to reciprocate, which causes the press to close cyclically, which creates printing. This is a rare experience.

It didn’t make this music at first, as it had sat idle for many years. I had to oil and cajole, and crank and push and turn the press until it was happy again. Those years of idleness were overcome with some love and a lot of lubricating oil. The platen depth adjustments on this press are made with two very large threaded bolts that have threads coming out both ends from a hex-head in the middle. These had become mired in ink and dust and were immovable when I began the restoration. I removed the entire platen from the press, removed those bolts, then cleaned them, rethreaded them (and their companion threaded receptacles) and put the machine back together. The result was very satisfying. I was able to adjust the printing gap to perfection with very small turns of a pair of very large wrenches. Now the press is set to industry standard printing depth, and it will not need adjustment again for some time. The most satisfying part of this is seeing the two shiny steel bolts sitting in their nest of flat black cast iron neighbors. They gleam in contrast to their surroundings.

Once I had the press adjusted and turning well, I mounted the two magnesium printing plates into the chase, the cast iron frame that holds the image part in place for mounting it in the press. The chase was then locked in place in the press, and ink applied to the distribution plate. I made one make-ready run on the press to test its correctness and fit, then cleaned it up and got ready for the production run. A clean tympan (a special oiled paper that holds the paper to be printed) and a small amount of adjustment of the gauge pins (positioning pins for the paper), and I was ready to go. On jobs of this length I apply a few drops of sealing wax to the gauge pins to prevent them from moving during the run. It’s an arcane process, and it’s fun.

I cut the paper slightly large so that I have something to grasp when feeding the sheets into the machine. The design comes to 1/4 inch of the edge, so having a bit of paper to grab makes it easier to print these cards.

I put metallic gold ink on the press and distributed it evenly, then made a few test impressions. It looked great, and I began, working with a team from Cal Poly’s Marketing and Communications group, to produce the big run.

I set up folding tables to support the finished printing, as the gold ink needs about a day to dry. We realized soon that we didn’t have enough folding tables, so we expanded our work area to include an unused classroom (Thanksgiving holidays made this possible). Soon we had every horizontal surface on the first floor of our building covered with the President’s Christmas cards. In two days we printed about 1,300 cards and only stopped when we ran out of drying space. We’ll start again next week and print another round of as many as we can dry in a day.

At my best pace I can print seven cards every minute. It takes me just over an hour to print 500 cards. The students who are helping are scurrying up and down the halls with racks of cards, spreading them around on the desks and cabinets in the rooms we have taken for this task. This press runs adequately fast to produce this job in a reasonable amount of time.

At this rate we will probably finish by Christmas! (The cards still have to be printed on the other side.)

If I practice, I might be able to raise my output to eight per minute, and that will shave ten minutes off the total production time needed to complete this job.

Posted in History, Printing and Printing Processes, Technology, Typography | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Accidental art with my camera

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I take a lot of photos. Most of them are carefully exposed, carefully focused, and most of them are acceptable and sharp and useful images.

Once in a while I take a photo under extreme circumstances, and it doesn’t come out as I hoped it would, or as nice as it looked when I took it.

Such is the case with several photos I’ve taken this year in very low light. To my eye, the scene is lovely, but to my camera, the scene in grossly underexposed.


This was the scene at the end of a concert in July at the Serra Chapel near Shandon, California. It’s an OK photo – nothing special, and not the best of my evening’s work.

I took one of these accidental masterpieces last July at Serra Chapel in northern San Luis Obispo County after a performance of the Festival Mozaic orchestra. It was late evening, about 9:00 p.m. on a warm summer night. I was shooting with one of my Canon 5D Mark III cameras at an ISO of 3200, which, considering how extensive the ISO range is on this camera, should not have been even remarkable. On the computer later that evening, I enhanced the image in Adobe Camera Raw, boosting the exposure a stop or more. I went to the digital noise controls in Raw, and I slid the sliders to the right to reduce the visible noise in the image.


This is the finished image after I enhanced the digital sensor noise and applied a tint of cream color to the modified photo.

Instead of reducing the noise, I accidentally increased it, and what I saw inspired me. I decided to create an image that enhanced the noisiest image I could make from this master Raw file. I converted the image to grayscale, and then increased the contrast and added a duotone color of tan on top of the image. I liked the result a lot. I introduced a bit of vignetting in the corners, which made the photo slightly more mysterious. The result is much different from the original, and much more interesting.


This is my iPhone photo of the moon backlighting a tall tree in the campground at Morro Bay State Park. So-so is the best I can rate it.

This last Friday evening, while camping at Morro Bay State Park, the moon rose over the estuary, and broke through a high cloud cover to back-light a tall tree in the campground. I took several photos with the Canon camera, resulting in nothing special. I raised the ISO to 16,000 and got an acceptable image, but it was too noisy to be useful, so I left it in my folder of so-so photos from the weekend. Then I took a snap of the same scene with my iPhone 6. Its 8 Mp sensor captured a reasonable image of the scene, and it too was about to be scored a so-so rating when I decided to enhance it in Camera Raw.


This is the same image enhanced in Adobe Camera Raw. I added two stops of exposure and made a few other minor changes to the image (mostly Vibrance and Saturation). The result is an almost painterly photo that is exceptional. And, totally accidental.

By raising the exposure by two full stops, I enhanced the image in much the way that early 20th century painters did with their palettes. My image suddenly looked like an Arts & Crafts work by Maxfield Parrish.

I lowered the contrast a bit, and opened up the shadows, and I adjusted the Vibrance and the Saturation to a degree that made the image look less three-dimensional and more like a poster. The result is extraordinary.

So, these two so-so images grew out of underexposed, wholly unprofessional originals, and turned into interesting accidental masterpieces, both benefitting from low light, image sensor noise, and serendipity. I am pleased that I took a few minutes to play with these images.

Now if I could only do this on purpose, I would do it all the time.

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A hole in future history

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I took over 400 CDs and DVDs to the shredding company this week.

This was a collection of old System disks, software that won’t run anymore, and 828,000 photos in an archive that I once thought to be impregnable. Optical discs were the safest, most reasonable, non-volatile, non-moving storage medium in the history of civilization. What could possibly go wrong?

(I wrote about this in an earlier blog where I described the NAS server that I built, and the process of moving all of the data on my optical discs to that storage device.)

What went wrong was light. Regular white light, and some ultraviolet light that crept in, and perhaps a little bit of infrared light.

My discs were stored in clear plastic boxes on shelves in my office. I have a database of their contents, so I can find almost anything in a matter of minutes. Each disc was given a name, which was then recorded into the database, and all the contents cataloged. This worked great.

Until one day when I couldn’t read one of the discs. Its writable surface was damaged by exposure to light. It was optically erased. There might have been some data left on the disc, but the important part – the index – was erased, and short of giving the disc to the NSA, there was no way to get the information off of the disc. I was distraught.

In the end I found back-ups of most of the files on that disc, and I managed to stumble along with those files. But the finished documents were forever lost to light exposure.

In a moderate panic, I rushed to convert all of that precious data to an archive on a set of spinning hard drives, where the data exist to this day. It’s a RAID 5 array, so it’s reasonably safe. But there is only one copy of that array, and without it, I would be in big trouble. In the end I lost about five percent of my stored files to light exposure. Those irredeemable discs went into the shredder this week along with those I could read. I no longer need to store these slowly decaying plastic discs.

My NAS has worked wonderfully now for several years. Mostly I ignore it, and I use it to make archival copies of important files. It’s not a back-up, it’s an archive.

The issue at hand is whether anything can be stored forever using any technology currently available to humankind. All hard drives fail, or they become technically obsolete and need to be replaced. A friend once told me that there are two kinds of hard drives: those that have failed, and those that will fail. What can we do?

I have thought about building a “disk” array of SSD drives. Samsung makes 4TB SSD drives that are stunningly fast, and they have the physical size and the same connectors as hard drives have. They have no moving parts, they work much faster than hard drives. They are also expensive; to put four of them into a RAID array would cost about $6,000 for the drives alone.


This small package packs a punch! Four terabytes of storage with no moving parts. I would love to get four of these and build an array, but I can’t afford that. I’ll have to stick with moving drives for the short term. Image from

The problem with SSD drives, as I learned earlier this year, is that when they fail, they fail absolutely. There is no way to retrieve any data from an SSD drive that has failed. They hit bottom and they stop. End of story.

I have a MacBook Air lap-top computer. It came with 256 GB of SSD storage. I outran that storage after about two years, and had the local MacSuperstore install a 400+ GB SSD drive inside as a replacement. The SSD upgrade was manufactured by OWC, a supplier of such things (I have their 1TB SSD upgrade in my Mac Pro). That upgrade lasted over a year, but then it failed. Fortunately, OWC’s warranty covered the cost of replacement, and I was back to work shortly after the problem showed up. The problem was that its contents were lost.

Fortunately I had no data on that MacBook Air, only System and application software. So replacing the SSD was not a crisis. I lost nothing that I couldn’t replace. My personal policy is that I only use that computer for teaching and working while traveling. No documents are ever stored on the machine. Instead, I put them on a portable SSD drive (which is equally vulnerable to failure but more portable).

I sync the external SSD drive almost every day with my desktop computer, so even if it fails, everything on that drive is a copy of something stored elsewhere.

In some future era, historians will probably wonder what happened to the late 20th and early 21st centuries. There will be printed books and printed photographs, but there will be no record of much of anything that occurred in the first 50 years of the computer age.

I saw an ad the other day for a 1TB SSD card for cameras. That’s an excellent example of the extraordinary capabilities of SSD storage, and it is roughly the same technology that is packed into those Samsung SSD drives I want. It seems reasonable that storage companies like Western Digital will, quite soon, move away from spinning hard drives and convert all of us over to solid-state drives.

And as they do that, the technology will improve in integrity and safety, and we will eventually have some sort of storage device that will be indestructible, like CDs and DVDs once were.

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Phinal phase of the Bishop Peak Portrait Project

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My summer is coming to an end, and I am engaged in the phinal phase of the Bishop Peak Portrait Project (BPPP), the making of the final display panels.

On my previous large-scale photography projects, I have had the luxury to turning over the printing to a commercial provides, and the putting-up part to my friends Rob and Doug Brewster, who are geniuses at attaching my photos to the walls of the buildings at Cal Poly where they are on permanent display.

This time I am doing more of the work myself. I took responsibility for machining the large aluminum panels that will be mounted on the wall for the BPPP. I have now completed the cutting of the sheets, and I think that I would have jobbed it out to a more competent provider had I known then what I know now. But that is not possible, as the work is nearly done, and I have spent almost 50 hours standing by my CNC router over the past month preparing the shallow mortises that will hold the individual aluminum photos of each day of the BPPP.


This is an illustration of how I am machining the mortises. I start by cutting the outermost, final mortise using a 0.25 inch diameter end mill. I cut this mortise slightly deep to reduce burrs along the edges of the cut. Then I follow with the inner mortise, cut with a faster and larger 0.5 inch end mill. I finish by countersinking and drilling the holes which will eventually support the panels in the Baker building at Cal Poly.

I am cutting a material called Alupanel, which is made in China for a British company. Alupanel is gorgeous material. It’s a laminate made of two sheets of aluminum (each about 0.012 in. thick) with a thick layer of polyethylene plastic in the middle. The surfaces of the aluminum are available in various colors, painted, or in brushed aluminum. I purchased the gloss black material in the 0.25 inch thickness for this project. It’s strong enough to be used effectively for my project, and it allows for machining, leaving a considerable amount of the plastic layer behind to hold the flat-head screws that hold the panels to the mounting material.


This is the machining pattern for the month of March. There are two months on each panel. You can see the little dots representing the countersinks and holes for the support screws in each mortise. There are extra screw holes in the extreme corners of the month.

I recognize that this is normally a blog about graphic arts and photography, and that it has taken a few sharp turns this year for me to discuss electronic circuit board making, the construction of a weatherproof box for time-lapse photography, and the programming of a Raspberry Pi computer. But in the big picture, this is about a large-scale photography project, one with tentacles that start with photographing a mountain to assembling and mounting the final photos – 365 of them – in a public display. So it’s about photography.

And, CNC routing.

Alupanel, for all of its beauty, is cantankerous stuff. The three layers of the material each have their own dynamic stresses. When solid, prior to machining, Alupanel behaves like a solid aluminum panel. Once I cut a mortise (about one-third) into the Alupanel board, removing the aluminum and some of the polyethylene plastic from one side, the internal pressure of the aluminum on the other side exerts itself, and the board warps. And by saying that it warps, I mean is turns into a large aluminum skateboard ramp. The internal pressure is so great that it pulls the screws out of the spoil board I use on the CNC machine – which means that it pulls with 30 to 40 lbs. of upward pressure.

To say that this has been a problem is an understatement. If it were in a cartoon, the finished Alupanel material would have a caption bubble saying “SPROINGG!!” as it pops up from the machining table.


Here you can see the Alupanel sheet shouting “Sproingg!!” as it warps after machining. This isn’t funny at all because the warping is very hard to control, and it can damage the laminate in the delicate strips between each of the mortises, causing it to separate.

I had (perhaps presciently) designed countersunk screw holes inside each of the 365 photo mortises to allow for the panels to be mounted on the wall later. I had no idea that these would become so important when I finished these panels. I originally thought that we would need just a few of the screw holes to attach the panels to the wall, but now I am using all of them (about 70 screws per panel) to hold the panels flat while I prepare them for the final installation. They will probably end up being used in the final installation, which is fine; I’m glad they are available because they have become so necessary.

Another issue that I have learned to manage is the issue of aluminum burrs. The cutters I use are carbide aluminum-cutting end mills. They are designed to do this. But they get clogged by aluminum chips and they get dulled by cutting. By panel six I had it all figured out. I use a new, sharp cutter at the beginning of each panel, and I leave the protective plastic sheeting in place during the cutting. This eliminates all but the rarest burrs from being left behind along the finished edges of the mortises. Those I have to remove by scraping the mortises out with a small and very sharp chisel. It’s time-consuming, but it’s necessary.

I also learned that applying a small amount of beeswax to the cutter prior to each row of mortises makes the cutting smoother, leaving fewer burrs for me to remove. Oh, I wish I had known these things when I started!

And that is the final step that I am taking now to finish the panels for installation. I go from mortise to mortise, cleaning and inspecting each one, and I have a test photo to insert into each mortise to ensure that the photos will fit when I install them later in the project. I will turn the aluminum panels over to Cal Poly in the coming days and they will be erected in the hallway of the Baker Center. Once up, I will go over with a box of aluminum photos and some very strong industrial adhesive to install the photos into the mortise. This is an on-going process which will take me from installation to completion at the end of February, 2017 when the project is complete.

You can read the next edition of the Bishop Peak Portrait Project story here.

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Thanks to my readers, all 200,000 of you!


Five years ago I launched The Blognosticator on this site after it spent some time at What They Think, and several years on Graphic Arts Monthly magazine’s site. Today my readership passed 200,000.

I have posted 220 blog articles on this site, and have approved 409 comments that have been posted to the Blognosticator.

I have also received over 1,500,000 spam comments (probably more), almost all of which have been trapped by Akismet, a plug-in to WordPress that I subscribe to (thank you, Akismet!).

I have weathered some periods of Writer’s Blog, where I can’t think of anything to write, and I have had periods of tremendous output where I write a blog every day for several days in a row. Such is the nature of this form of journalism.

The most important part of this blog is you. Thank you for reading, and thank you for your comments. Please don’t send spam; I’m a vegetarian.

p.s. The type at the top is Ashala Light, a font I designed for my dear wife, Ashala.

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