Printing fingerprints

For most printed material, the method of printing is the means to the end. As long as the result looks good it doesn’t really matter how things were actually printed. Heck, from a printing point of view, noticing how something was printed is arguably a production failure since the standard processes are intended to make the printer’s hand as invisible as possible.

As a print and design geek though, one of my favorite things are designs that not only do something interesting with the printing but use the printing as a design feature in and of itself. Designs where I not only notice the printing method but which highlight the fingerprints of the printer.

There are actually two baseball card designs from my youth which do this. The first is 1985 Fleer. Lots of people love this set for the colorful borders and interesting photography. I admit that I like it for this as well. What is especially interesting to me though are the grey borders. I’ve seen some people call them grey. I’ve seen others call them burlap and compare them to the textured borders on 1983 Fleer or 1968 Topps.

So let’s take a closer look. On the left, 1985 Fleer. On the right, 1970 Topps. Both borders are basically the exact same color: just black ink printed at close to 40%. The only difference? The way the dots are arranged on the paper, specifically the angle of the dots.

Traditionally, when a halftone* is printed by itself it’s printed at a 45° angle.** This minimizes the screen pattern and results in a color that we tend to view as solid and patternless. 1970 Topps’s border is a textbook example of how this works. Zoom in on the photo and, if you can get your brain to not see things as just grey,*** you can see that the rows of dots are at 45° angles and produce somewhat of a checkerboard effect.

*Previous posts about halftones on this blog look at 2017 Topps releases, 2018 Heritage, and 2019 Flagship and Heritage

**I could write a post just about traditionally-printed screen angles but there’s already a good one on the web.

***Something my brain has a hard enough time doing since the entire point of the 45° angle/screen is to confuse your brain.

1985 Fleer though is printed at 0°—instead of a checkboard effect we have a clear grid of dots in rows and columns. This creates an effect where many people notice the actual pattern of the dots rather than treating the area as a flat grey color. I was unaware of this as a kid but it’s something I love about the design now. It’s an elegantly simple approach which uses the actual mechanics of printing to produce an effect that didn’t have to be designed.

Another thing worth pointing out about 1985 Fleer is the composition of the colored borders. As you can see in the sample above, there’s no screening pattern at all in the blue. This is because it’s being printed as 100% Cyan (one of the four standard printing inks).* One ink. No screen pattern of dots. No registration to worry about.

*Why yes a previous post starts off with a brief primer on Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black and the standard “process color” inks.

The red and green borders are similarly solid. This time though they consist of two inks. Red is 100% Magenta and 100% Yellow while green is 100% Cyan and 100% Yellow.* The three colors we’ve covered so far are some of the simplest colors to print and as a result are colors that come up frequently on baseball card designs.**

*You can see a bit of misregistration in the red border as there’s some Yellow fringing on the bottom edge and Magenta fringing on the top edge of the red elements.

**The other simple colors are the pink (100% Magenta), yellow (100% Yellow), black (100% Black), and dark blue/purple (100% Cyan plus 100% Magenta).

The other three colors show that Fleer’s screen choices were intentional. All three borders here feature a Magenta screen at 45° mixed with either 100% Yellow or 100% Cyan. It’s worth noting here that these screen angles are only being used for the borders too. The photos appear to be printed using the traditional angles.*

*Magenta can be seen at 75° in a couple of the zoomed in images—specifically green-bordered Essien and light-blue-bordered Teufel. And for anyone who didn’t read the link provided earlier, the traditional angles are Cyan 15°, Magenta 75°, Black 45°, and Yellow 0°.

Why am I looking at the screen angles for the solid colors? Two reasons but for now the only important one is that the other set which is about print screens happens to be about colored screens. Once we start looking at this set the screen angles become part of the design.

Yup. Come on down 1990 Topps. I’ve seen this one referred to as the Lichtenstein set since the screens look like the Ben-day dots that dominated comic book shading and which Roy Lichtenstein referenced in his pop art paintings. This is an appropriate name even though 1990 Topps’s design is still a halftone screen rather than Ben-Day dots.

So let’s dig in, starting off with the simplest of the color options in the base set, the light blue gradient. This should look somewhat familiar. Just Cyan ink. A screen angle of 45°. Up close it’s just dots but at arm’s-length it’s still a somewhat smooth gradation from almost white to 100% Cyan.

The crop above is a half-inch square from the middle of the gradient Comparing the sizes of the dots on the top of the crop to the bottom shows how halftone screens work in general and how the gradient effect works specifically. In a halftone, the size of the dot changes as a color gets lighter or darker. Larger dots are darker colors, smaller dots are lighter ones*. In the gradient here as the dots get smaller the color approaches white and as the dots get larger the colors approach turquoise/cyan.

*Compare to stochastic FM screens where the dots are all the same size and it’s frequency/quantity of the dots which changes as colors get lighter or darker. 

Printing the dots at a super-coarse screen of around 20 lines per inch instead of over 100 allows them to be part of the design while still conveying  the color information.

It’s in the mixed colors that things get interesting. The red, orange, and green gradients all involve mixing two inks together. In each of these cases the darker ink (Cyan or Magenta) is printed at 45° while the Yellow is printed at 15°.

The 30° difference in angle minimizes moiré effects and produces the halftone rosette pattern that we’re used to seeing. In these cases though the yellow is so light that we don’t really see it and even zoomed in it’s very easy to see these as being red or green dots a a 45° angle and not even notice the yellow ink and the fact that it’s also being screened into a gradient.*

*Sharp-eyed readers will also notice that in the orange gradient above (second image) the dark blue stripe is screened at 0° and Mike Scott’s background is Black-only at 45°. These black-only All Stars show voids when they’re from the same press sheet that the famous Frank Thomas no-name “error” is printed on.

The difference in angle is also what keeps this design from looking like Lichtenstein or Ben-day dots. With the yellow in the mix it’s easy to miss the two inks. But with the dark blue and purple cards the screening is much more obvious. These screens involve two similarly-dark inks but Topps chose to print them differently. Above on the left is dark blue which Topps chose to print Cyan is at 45° and Magenta at 75°. On the right is the purple which printed Magenta at 45° and Cyan at 75° instead.

Despite one screen being at 45° these two colors look much more halftone-like than the other four colors in the set. There’s a clear mix of colors and the 45° angle is difficult to see. Even though I know it’s there I see these as being more rosette-like.

Compared to other color choices Topps made for this design though the dark blue and purple are pretty restrained. This would change later in  1990 as Topps’s later sets—Topps Traded, the Mini Leaders, and Major League Debut—are all very different from what Flagship is doing.

Topps Traded (photo 1) is a basic red gradient except that unlike Flagship the Yellow isn’t being screened at all and the Magenta is screened at 15°. This is the only design of the nine 1990 designs where there’s a solid ink (Yellow) in the gradient.

Mini Leaders (photo 2) meanwhile feature a gradient from Cyan to Yellow so the mid-point looks green as one ink fades out and another fades in. Where all the other 1990 designs fade from a dark color to a lighter version of that color, this one features essentially two gradients. In the zoomed in image above, the Yellow ink is at 15° and goes from large dots at the top to smaller ones at the bottom. Cyan meanwhile is at 45° and goes from large dots at the bottom to smaller ones at the top.

The last image is the most-interesting sample for me. Major League Debut consists of a four-color gradient. Zooming in on this design shows all kinds of dots. Rather than looking remotely Lichtenstein this is pure halftone all the way down. Black is at 45° like it usually is. As are Cyan at 15° and Magenta at 75°. Yellow meanwhile looks like it’s at 30°—not the 0° I’d expect but slipped in between two of the other screens where it’ll result in the same kind of halftone rosette pattern.

Anyway, despite my not particularly liking the 1990 design even though it’s full of things for me to geek out about, one of the things I do love about it and 1985 Fleer is how they’re extremely hard to replicate with modern technology.

Before computer-based color separations, all the printing elements were assembled manually, stripped together, and then burned onto a printing plate. This allowed different elements to be screened at different frequencies and angles. The photo is screened differently than the borders and it doesn’t matter.

Now, everything is done on the computer and the plate is made using the same screen on all elements. This is generally better in terms of color accuracy and reproducibility but when replicating old designs runs into the issue where things that were formally-solid inks are now being screened.* Or in the case of designs like 1990 Topps, things that used to be screened are now being double screened.

*A lot of the heritage designs show how this works

This brings us to the second reason I was looking at screen angles. Modern remakes of these designs are completely different. Zooming in and comparing the Topps Archives version (left) to the dark blue screen of the 1990 design (right) shows how Topps Archives treats the halftone dots as only a pattern. Instead of two coarse Cyan and Magenta screens, there’s a light blue background color and a dark blue dot pattern, both printed with a super-fine stochastic screen. The edges of the dots aren’t crisp and, for me, the design just isn’t the same.

I get it. With today’s technology, doing this kind of thing requires you to go out of your way for an effect that’s intentionally going to make the printing look “worse.” When Fleer reprinted its 1985 design in 2001* it got hit with all kinds of moiré because Fleer couldn’t cope with changing the 0° angle to 45° (what a computer would want to print it at). Computers just don’t do this kind of thing well plus manually making your own screens means you also lose all color controls that your printing process has.

*I do not have this card and refuse to buy it just for this post but if someone supplies a 24oo DPI scan of that card I’ll edit this post to show how badly it was handled.

That’s the shame or replicating these kind of things. No one points to the 1980s and 1990s as a time of being careful about how cards were made. Despite being massively overprinted, it’s clear with sets like these that there was still some thought being paid to the nitty-gritty details of how the ink was actually going on to the paper. And that’s pretty cool to realize.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

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