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Nov
05
2010

How Does CMYK Printing Work? Find out From a Children’s Book…

It’s curious how a certain concepts will wind up on my mind simultaneously as a result of thinking about seemingly disparate things.  In this case, I’ve been thinking a lot about printed layers, transparencies, and cutouts.

The first thing that got me on this track was talking with my agent about potentially putting together a proposal for a graphic novel adaptation of Robert Charles Wilson’s amazing SF novel, DarwiniaDarwinia is an alternate history novel that deals with two separate divergent realities (one our own) which sort of “leak” into one another. Some of the characters are able to move from our reality to this new, alternate reality. If this sounds just a little like a Philip K. Dick-type premise (a la The Man in the High Castle, etc.) you’re not too far off base–and you’ve nailed down the book’s appeal to me: I don’t read a lot of SF, but when I do, the stuff I enjoy tends to be more cerebral stuff along these lines.  Ultimately, we abandoned the idea of putting this together, but in hashing out how I would handle some of the more challenging parts of such an adaptation, it occurred to me that the two overlapping realities in this book might be represented visually with things like transparent overlays and/or pages that show through die cuts. Imagine, for example, lifting a page of panels printed on a transparency depicting the alternate history reality from the book and seeing beneath a corresponding “reveal” of a page printed on regular paper that shows an underlying scene that’s from our timeline, but exactly the same layout.  Or similarly, imagine lifting a die cut page and seeing that parts of one timeline have been “showing through” into another.  It’s a concept that’s hard to describe verbally, but it for sure got me thinking about overlays and cutouts.

At the same time, I wound up reading a children’s book that was based on overlapping transparent layers. If you have a child that likes to read, you know that they fixate on particular books for seemingly no reason and then want to have them read over and over.  About the time I was stewing on this Darwinia stuff, my daughter decided that her new favorite book was going to be The Adventures of the Three Colors by Annette Tison and Talus Taylor. I Googled this book and couldn’t find much written about it. It was a book of mine from when I was a kid and the inscription in the front is from my father’s trip in 1977 to the Hirshhorne where he presumably purchased the book in the gift shop. The copyright though, is 1971.

The book’s premise is simple: the main character, Herbie, sees a rainbow and then wants to paint a picture using all the colors he’s just seen.  He finds though, that he only has three colors available: yellow, pink and blue. The book then shows how he can use these three colors in combination to create a full spectrum of colors. If you know anything about printing, you’ll immediately recognize these three colors as the CMY of CMYK printing: cyan, magenta, yellow and key (black). In these days of digital printing, unless you work in a print shop, you’ve probably never seen a CMYK color separation–and certainly not the actual inked plates.  I’ve had a basic understanding of the theory, but I’ve never really seen it up close and in action until I re-read this book.

What’s novel about Adventures of the Three Colors is how this is demonstrated. The book uses sets of transparent overlays in each of the three colors– and each with an animal drawn on it– which combine such that they overlap forming another animal in a new color. It makes more sense to see than to describe.  Here’s an example of the first (and most basic) animal/color combo:

Cyan elephant on the first page, yellow dog on the right.  Overlay them and…

Green fish! Okay, that’s pretty basic stuff–but as the book moves on the examples become more and more complex.  Here’s one with one image on white paper (a hippo) and two (a hippo and a kangaroo) on overlays:

When all three images are overlaid, you get an orange hippo, the cyan kangaroo, and a new brown crocodile:

The text then asks whether you can find a “hidden” green crocodile, which you get by flipping the first two layers back to the left:

The color/animal combos eventually get pretty complex. I won’t scan every layer, but here’s the last animal image in the book, an undersea scene with a combination octopus/seahorse/hermit crab:

While probably the least interesting to the young me (no animals?!) the last set of overlays is likely the most interesting in terms of getting a handle on how CMYK printing works.  The image uses two shades of each color (looks like 100% and maybe 40%?) to create Herbie’s final “color tree.” Looking at this, it’s easy to see how full variation in shading levels plus the addition of black ink for things other than outlines can get you the full color palate that CMYK process printing achieves:

While it doesn’t look like this Darwinia thing’s going anywhere, I’m still intrigued by the idea of using layers and overlays in comics–something I don’t think I’ve seen done much before.  In fact, the only example I can really recall is a “filmstrip”-style minicomic (of Scandinavian origin, if I’m remembering correctly) I saw at an ICAF back in 2000 maybe. It was a transparent comic that was printed with a different color ink on each side and yet somehow made sense read as a continuous story along both sides. At any rate, whether or not I wind up finding a good excuse to explore this kind of thing in my own comics, I’m glad I serendipitously got reacquainted with The Adventures of the Three Colors.

5 comments

2 pings

  1. talus says:

    Dear Ben,
    I’m happy that you apppreciated Adventures of Three Colors!
    I like your stuff too!
    Best wishes
    Talus

  2. caryn says:

    YES! I’ve been searching for these books and somehow landed on your page. THANK YOU! This series was my absolute favorite in elementary school. I would check them out so much that the librarian actually had to ask me to give them a break so others could read them. I had long forgotten about these books and went on to get a degree in painting. Looking back I think these books may have encouraged my exploration of color.
    Now I know the name and the author and can better hunt for a copy of my own.
    Thanks again for sharing and reuniting me with my favorite lost books.

  3. Ben says:

    @Caryn – I’m glad my post was of help! I wasn’t aware that this was a series. If so, I’d love to track down the rest of them. Out of curiosity I looked around to see how much copies of the book were going for and although there were for sure copies that were priced pretty steep, I found one or two in the $30-ish range. Hope you can track one down!

  4. talus taylor says:

    I am very pleased to read the compliments from children:. We worked very hard to make those books. .
    At the first printing in 1971, we received a most magnificent review, in the Irish Times. They said, “It is pure and simple and yet a work of genius. After careful consideration I have decided that this is the best children’s book I have ever seen!”
    But compliments from the children themselves are even nicer for us to hear!
    There are four titles
    Adventures of Three Colors
    Animal Hide and Seek
    Inisde and Outside
    Animals in color Magic.
    Of course that was in the days before the home computers!
    I am happy to say our French publisher are planning a reprint of these this year.
    Talus

  5. Ben says:

    Thanks for commenting! This book was one of my favorites as a child and is now one of my daughter’s favorites. I’ll try to track down the others. I’m glad to hear they’re being reprinted!

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