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Red Frisket Sheets, c. 1490-1700: The Earliest Artefacts of Colour Printing in the West

The earliest published instructions for printing text in colors (red and black) famously appeared in Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises (1683), over two hundred years after text had first been printed in color in some copies of the Gutenberg Bible (c.1457). Due to the absence of written information, the understanding of the earliest color printing techniques and methods was based on the analysis of the printed material itself.

This changed in 2000, when Margaret Smith described a fragment of a frisket sheet (a mask that protects unprinted areas of a sheet from stray ink) that was used to print selected text in red in the early sixteenth century. This complex object, a manuscript leaf that was re-used first as a frisket sheet for printing selected text in red in one book and then in the pasteboard in the binding of another, is the earliest artifact of any color printing process in the West.

This paper presents two dozen other early modern frisket sheets for color printing that have recently been identified. As they were used over a period of almost 150 years across several countries, it argues that their common features revise the understanding of common workshop practices for early color printing in both Bibliography and Art History. It proposes that their tripartite material history points to a previously unknown cycle of the exchange of materials within the book trade across early modern Europe. Finally, it suggests that these chance survivals are not as rare as they seem.