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TGR, Gutenberg, Rubric

March 2015



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TGR, Gutenberg, Rubric

Ink: The Secret is in the Black River

Even in our digital age, we see it every day. Newspapers, magazines, books, advertising flyers, spreadsheets, and just about anything that comes to us on paper. We’re talking about ink, of course.

At one time, printing ink was primarily black. Within ten years of the invention of the printing press, Gutenberg’s former journeyman and business partner, Schoeffer and Fust, were printing with what we now call “spot color.” They actually inked red and blue plates for the printing of capitals in The Mainz Psalter. When offset lithography arrived, artists were still making dozens of impressions on lithographic stones to fill the colors in their paintings, but commercial printing had to come up with a more economical way of printing color. And at that point we arrived at 4-color process inks in which the majority of today’s color printing is done with just four ink colors: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black.

But underlying it all over the centuries, has been the Black River. Black text is the easiest for people to read, so, with the exception of some artistic works, most text is still printed in black ink. For centuries, the ink on the page has been referred to as the Black River, and lent printing its nickname of “the black art.”

Of course, scribes had been flowing rivers of ink onto pages with a stylus or pen for millennia before the press, but the printing press required a different kind of ink. The pen requires a liquid that flows through the nib. But such an ink would simply run off the surface of lead type and pool in the spaces between the letters. So one of Gutenberg’s tasks was to develop a viscous solution that would adhere to the surface of the metal long enough to be transferred to the paper.

To accomplish this task, Gutenberg turned not to the scribes, but to the artists. The ink that he developed was based on boiled linseed oil mixed with lampblack (carbon), common elements in oil paints. In the 1980s, however, analysis of a page of the Gutenberg Bible using the cyclotron at the University of California, Davis, showed significant traces of metal components, including gold, copper, and lead.

Whatever the exact composition of the printing ink Gutenberg used, it is generally accepted that the ink has never been surpassed for depth of blackness or durability. Pages that are 500 years old still show no signs of the ink fading.

In The Gutenberg Rubric, incunabulist Keith Drucker uses x-ray spectrography to analyze the inks on various pages to confirm that the work he is examining comes from the era he suspects, and to determine whether the ink is consistent with the formula that Gutenberg used.

(The Gutenberg Rubric, a novel by Nathan Everett, will be released on July 28. Order your copy today!)