Refresher Course

Printing methods and design styles influence stamps' appeal

By Janet Klug

Most stamp collectors have favorite stamps. A favorite stamp might be one that appeals to a collector because of the story behind the stamp, because the topic depicted is of interest, or simply because it is beautiful.

Figure 1. The intaglio-printed Mozambique Company 20-centavo Zebra stamp (Scott 179). Click on image to enlarge.
Figure 2. The Greek 10-drachma Flying Boat Seen through Colonnade airmail stamp (Scott C4), printed by lithography. Click on image to enlarge.
Figure 3. A 1938 Ecuadoran 2-centavo Portrait of George Washington, American Eagle and Flags airmail stamp (Scott C57). Click on image to enlarge.
Figure 4. A British 3-penny violet-on-yellow Queen Victoria stamp (Scott 115) issued in 1887. Click on image to enlarge.
Figure 5. This Austrian 72-heller Mercury newspaper stamp (Scott P43) has a bold graphic design. Click on image to enlarge.
Figure 6. New Caledonia's 1942 5-centime Kagu stamp (Scott 252), has an Art Deco influence. Click on image to enlarge.
Figure 7. A 2008 United States 42¢ Poster for Hallelujah stamp (Scott 4340). Click on image to enlarge.
Figure 8. Hungary's 1980 1-forint Margit Kaffka stamp (Scott 2650). Click on image to enlarge.

A stamp chosen as a favorite because of its beauty is a matter of personal opinion, but how that stamp was designed and printed can have an enormous effect on how attractive it is in the eye of the beholder.

Engraving, also called line engraving, intaglio or recess printing, is a labor-intensive process where a design is etched into a metal plate called a master die. In a multistep process, this die is used to create a printing plate from which stamps are printed. Engraved stamps are characterized by slightly raised ink and crisp detail.

A Mozambique Company 20-centavo Zebra stamp (Scott 179) is shown in Figure 1. The Mozambique Company was chartered by the Portuguese government in 1891 and directly administered the Manica and Sofala territories in the Portuguese colony of Mozambique until 1941.

The Zebra stamp was printed in two colors and thus is described as a bicolor stamp. The central portion of the design that shows the zebra is called the vignette. It is printed in ultramarine. The outer portion of the stamp with palmlike leaves is called the frame and it is printed in green.

Because it was printed in two colors, the stamp required two passes through the printing press: one to print the ultramarine vignette and a second pass to print the green frame.

Lithography is another printing process used with great effect in stamp printing. In this process the stamp design is transferred to a printing plate or lithographic stone using a greasy substance. The plate is wetted. The wet areas reject the oily ink, whereas the greasy areas attract the ink and thus the design is transferred to the paper.

A Greek 10-drachma Flying Boat Seen through Colonnade airmail stamp (Scott C4) is shown in Figure 2.

This stamp was printed by lithography, and the soft colors give it the appearance of a watercolor painting. It is certain to be someone's favorite stamp.

Some stamps use two types of printing with great effect. Figure 3 shows a 1938 Ecuadoran 2-centavo Portrait of George Washington, American Eagle and Flags airmail stamp (Scott C57) issued to honor the 150th anniversary of the United States Constitution.

The flags on the stamp and the background were printed by lithography. The remaining design elements – the eagle, President Washington, the coat of arms and the lettering – were printed by engraving. The result is a striking stamp, more colorful than most of its time and yet containing amazing, crisp detail.

These are not the only printing processes used to create stamps, and new creative methods are being developed and used all the time.

Printing methods do affect how stamps look, but the design of the stamp can also make the difference between a strong, attractive appearance or one that is more or less ordinary looking. Stamps are small, and too much detail can result in a stamp that is not visually appealing or, even worse, not understood.

Stamps were first issued in 1840, early in the Victorian era, which began when Queen Victoria ascended the throne of England in 1837.

Great Britain's Penny Black stamp (Scott 1), bearing the portrait of the young Queen Victoria, was a relatively simple design. Late in Victoria's reign, as the 20th century approached, stamp ornamentation became heavy and ornate to match the styles exemplified by the queen and her court.

Figure 4 shows a British 3-penny violet-on-yellow-paper Queen Victoria stamp (Scott 115) issued in 1887. There is hardly a millimeter of unadorned space on the stamp.

Shown in Figure 5 is what could have been a fairly boring Austrian newspaper stamp. The 1921 72-heller Mercury stamp (Scott P43) was printed by lithography and is made exciting by the bold graphic design that was a forerunner to the Art Deco style.

The 1942 New Caledonian 5-centime Kagu stamp (Scott 252) shown in Figure 6 illustrates the Art Deco school in a more fully developed geometric style. This stamp was printed by photogravure, a recess printing process in which the design is applied to the printing plate by a photographic process. It uses dots of color to form the design, much like the screened dots in a newspaper photo.

This is visible on the New Caledonia stamp by using a magnifying glass. Other photogravure stamps are printed in multiple colors and it is easy to see how dots of different colors work together to create even more colors.

Shown in Figure 7 is a U.S. 42¢ Poster for Hallelujah stamp (Scott 4340) from the 2008 Vintage Black Cinema set. The stamp shows a movie poster that advertised the film. The mid-20th century graphics on this stamp offers a bold design that make you want to see the movie all these decades later.

Another example of this is shown in Figure 8. The portrait on Hungary's 1980 1-forint Margit Kaffka stamp (Scott 2650) is in the Art Nouveau style popular during Kaffka's lifetime. Art Nouveau is characterized by sinuous, organic lines. It was popular from the 1890s to the beginning of World War I.

The next time you look at your favorite stamps, consider how the stamp was printed and designed and how that affects why you like the stamps.