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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing: Halftone Dots vs. Aboriginal Dot Painting

I was recently preparing a lesson for my fiancee’s and my art therapy work with the autistic. We are going to do Aboriginal dot paintings on paper plates that we have made into tambourines (with washers and bells for the tinkling sound). They will be used in the group’s music class.

In my research and consideration for the background part of the lesson, I had noted the similarities between the Aboriginal dot paintings, the pointillist paintings of such artists as Seurat, halftone images produced for offset commercial printing, and the Ben-Day color screens that appear in both comic books (to simulate halftones) and in the Pop Art images of Roy Lichtenstein (to simulate the comics themselves, but on huge canvases).

Wow. I’m not saying that these disparate art movements are connected. Rather I am noting a fact about the human eye. Our eyes will connect and (along with our brains) make sense out of patterns of dots, such that we will see images of actual things when all that exists is the dots.

Halftone Dots

Let’s start with halftone dots because that’s what we all see whenever we look at a full-color poster, brochure, or print book produced via the offset lithographic custom printing process.

Offset printing is a binary process. You can print magenta or not print magenta, but you cannot print lighter or darker shades of magenta on a 4-color offset lithographic press. Therefore, the process of halftoning images was created. Photos are broken down into a series of smaller or larger dots (that will print in magenta, for instance) to simulate lighter or darker colors. When you add cyan, yellow, and black halftone dots to the magenta dots (and turn the halftone screens at angles to one another), you can produce full-color imagery from the four process colors.

And all of this rests on the ability of the human eye to group together all of these dots into recognizable items within a photograph.

Aboriginal Dot Painting

With this knowledge of the workings of the human eye, let’s jump back in time to the indigenous residents of Australia, the Aborigines, who used dotting sticks and paint to create images of animals, lakes, and the “Dreamtime” (the “world-dawn” in which their ancestors lived).

If you look at dot paintings of these lizards and snakes, you will see flat patterns of dots that may “read” as the back or tail of a creature, or even a light or shaded area like a lake. The body of the snake may just be multitudes of green dots surrounded by a line of white dots that constitute the outline of the snake, but the human eye nevertheless merges the dots into flat areas of color and distinct outlines.

Seurat and Pointillism

Now let’s jump ahead to France, to the Post-Impressionist painter Georges-Pierre Seurat, who placed dots of pure color side by side with painstaking detail.

Seurat put into practice the scientific discoveries of a French chemist who restored tapestries, Michel Eugène Chevreul. According to Wikipedia, he “discovered that two colors juxtaposed, slightly overlapping or very close together, would have the effect of another color when seen from a distance.”

Sounds a lot like the halftoning process.

If you look at the “Pointillist” paintings of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, you will see exactly this process in action. By placing discrete dots of color side by side, both painters were able to create colors that the viewer’s eye understood to be grass, trees, people, and boats on a lake.

Ben-Day Dots and Pop Art

Similar to the halftoning process are Ben-Day screens, which were named after Benjamin Henry Day, Jr., an illustrator and printer.

Accorrding to Wikipedia,

“Depending on the effect, color and optical illusion needed, small colored dots are closely spaced, widely spaced or overlapping. Magenta dots, for example, are widely spaced to create pink. Pulp comic books of the 1950s and 1960s used Ben-Day dots in the four process colors (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) to inexpensively create shading and secondary colors such as green, purple, orange and flesh tones.”

Unlike halftone dots, Ben-Day dots were all the same size and the same distance apart. You could buy Ben-Day overlay sheets with larger or smaller dots placed closer together or farther apart depending on the shade or hue you wanted to simulate. Then, using a burnisher, you would rub the back of the sheet to transfer the dots to the original art. Using different screens, you could create backgrounds, shadows, or surface treatments (of a face or body, or an area of grass—or anything).

Once photographed for use in either letterpress or offset printing, these screens of dot patterns would provide shading for the final printing plate (and final commercial printing product). And like all the other examples above, the concept was based on the principle that the human eye turns patterns of dots into recognizable objects.

Taken one step further than the comics or illustrations to which the Ben-Day dot screens were applied, within the field of graphic arts, is the fine art of Roy Lichtenstein. An American Pop Artist, Lichtenstein based the imagery for his paintings on American advertising and comic books, capturing in meticulous, hard-edged detail the faces and “word-bubbles” viewers were used to seeing in comic books (but presented in the grand scale of his huge canvasses).

For instance, instead of painting a wall, or face, or hair in one of these comic-book “cells” using a flat, single color, Lichtenstein would use a pattern of equally spaced dots to simulate the color. He would do this as a reference, or homage, to the comic books (with the tongue-in-cheek approach of parody).

What You Can Learn

So—you might be asking–what?

As graphic designers and buyers of commercial printing, it is helpful to understand both the history of the “dot” and the optical principles behind its use in graphic design and the fine arts.

The eye makes patterns into recognizable objects. The eye connects things that are separate into groups to make sense of them.

You can use this information to solve design problems, reference older styles of design to make an artistic statement, or just to have an additional set of tools to incorporate into your own design work for commercial printing projects.

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