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A contemporary 'copier' of a XIX century mural

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(Aug. 31, 2011) — There was a time when, lacking skyscrapers from which to view great vistas, it was fashionable to paint panoramic murals. These were mural paintings on paper that represented anything from a city's monuments to countryside landscapes, including hunting scenes and other events. One of the decisive moments of this artistic expression took place in France in the first third of the XIX century, with xylography (wood engraving).

This is the period that Alfredo Gil has taken as reference in order to recreate these paintings -- but with more modern techniques, looking for a balance between faithfulness and efficacy. His PhD thesis, defended at the University of the Basque Country, is entitled Adapting engraving systems applied to panoramic wall paintings on paper in the first third of the XIX century.

Mr Gil studied the development of printing systems for paper wall paintings, paying particular attention to xylography. He has also worked to emulate this technique with more modern and rapid ones, while preserving the quality and attributes of those times gone by. To this end, he opted for serigraphy, the modern system that, according to the researcher, best emulates the panoramic xylographies of the first third of the XIX century. He combined this technique with the use of the computer in the first stages of the engraving, thanks to which he has reconstructed panoramas much more rapidly and with equal precision. Finally, the methodology was applied to the mural Monuments de Paris, painted in 1814.

Xylography, until the end of the XIX century

As explained in the thesis, the manufacture of panoramas of this nature was traditionally printed using xylography. This involved carving a figure on a plank of wood and impregnating the resulting relief with ink, in such a way that the outline of the figure could be printed or stamped on paper or other medium. In the case of panoramas, due to their great size, complexity and need to superimpose colours, 3,500 blocks of wood and 90 colours could be used just for one work. With industrialisation other techniques arose which enabled the reproducing of greater numbers of hues, but the quality of the image obtained with a xylographic matrix continued to be high, and so the old technique withstood such changes. It was not until the arrival of serigraphy, at the end of the XIX century, that results started to rank equally.

With serigraphy, printing is carried out using a mesh, whereby the ink is blocked at certain areas, depending on the final picture desired. Mr Gil opted for this technique in order to reproduce a 1.5 x 1.5 metre fragment of the Monuments de Paris xylographic panorama; although with the prior aid of a computer reconstruction. The researcher undertook tests with more modern techniques such as digital printing, but he stresses that it is serigraphy that most faithfully reproduces the quality of the original xylography technique. In fact, he came to the conclusion that the new technologies improve on the old as regards optimising the pre-impression, but that, regarding the printing, none has managed to achieve the quality and characteristics of the panoramas of the early XIX century as has serigraphy.

Digital printing -- totally different

Looking more closely at the comparative study, Mr Gil explained that, at first sight, results from xylographic and serigraphic printing are the same. But if binocular magnifying glasses are used, one can see that xylography provides a uniform printing, with a compact although textured surface; while serigraphy presents a net of points -- due to the mesh technique used. Nevertheless, at a visual level, this difference is imperceptible.

On the other hand, the case of digital inks is quite different. With digital printing, the variation of hues depends on the concentration of points: the closer they are together, the greater the density of colour. Digital inks give an increasingly enhanced image quality, but not of the type that emulates a panoramic paper painted using xylography. In the words of Mr Gil, the differences between xylography and digital inks are ostensible, given that the colouring material has a density considerably inferior in the latter case, the thickness and polychromic layer being much less.

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The above story is reprinted (with editorial adaptations by staff) from materials provided by Elhuyar Fundazioa.

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