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My Favorite Federal Duck Stamp – Part Four

As we learned in Part One, the medium Edwin Kalmbach chose for his original artwork in 1941 was tempera with a black and white wash. For most collectors, the closest we can get to enjoying our favorite artists’ work is through a print copied from the original art and reproduced in an edition size that was (usually) predetermined by the artist. These are better known today as limited edition prints.

The vast majority of the early (black and white, pre-1970) federal waterfowl stamp prints were created by one of two processes, engraving or stone lithography. The images for the first five prints (1934 through 1938) were engraved, while the images for the next two (1939 and 1940) plus the first edition of Kalmbach’s print in 1941 were lithographed.

Such prints share a fundamental characteristic with the original art – the unadulterated image, free from the stamp designer’s cropping, frame lines, lettering and numerals that make up the denomination tablet. Therefore, it is through the limited edition print that we can best experience the original concept that inspired our favorite stamps.

In the case of Edwin Kalmbach, the image that we see on the stamp – with the ducks swimming toward the right – may be the mirror image of his favored conceptualization of the Ruddy duck family. Before we get into that, I would like to take some time to review the processes of engraving vs lithography.



An engraving is a print that was made using an engraved printing plate. In printing, to engrave means to carve or etch a pattern in a printing plate. The earliest recorded engraving is from 1446, so the technique is at least 570 years old. The basic process is to engrave the image on a metal plate (usually copper or steel), apply ink to the plate, wipe it so the ink remains only in the engraved lines, then press it into paper to produce a print of the image.

Using engraving, an artist can make either highly detailed images or images with a sketch-like quality, depending on the number, thickness and depth of the engraved lines. Skilled engravers frequently vary the angles and thickness of their lines to produce exceptional art.

The first step is to choose a material for the printing plate. Originally (in the 15th and 16th centuries), the material was often wood. Copper was the most popular material used from 1600 to 1850. Copper is easy to work with as it is soft. However, since it is soft, the printing plates wear out quickly and each time the plate is used to create a batch of prints, the engraved lines become less sharp. Therefore, when a copper plate is used, the image quality can be seen to change through the print run.

Starting in 1850, steel engraving came into widespread use. Steel is a lot harder than copper so the printing plates last a lot longer. Also, the lines can be carved a lot closer together than on a copper plate (the copper burrs impede detailed work). This allows for a more finely engraved print. When a steel plate is used, there is often a nearly undetectable change in the image quality through the print run.

In an engraving, each image is made up of hundreds of engraved lines. Traditionally, the engraved lines are carved in copper plates with an engraving tool called a burin (see Figure 1). A burin is a very fine chisel with a sharp v-shaped point. The engraver holds the burin almost parallel with the plate, then pushes its point into the plate and moves it along, carving out a groove.



Figure 1. Engraving a copper plate with a burin.



Steel plates are often too hard to use a burin alone, so the image is created with the aid of an acid to etch the plate and /or roulettes. Roulettes are small wheels mounted on handles which create different patterns in the steel plate by using sharp projections arranged in various ways. In contemporary engraving, a (laser) machine is often employed to create the plate.

Once the plate is finished, it is inked, wiped and laid on a printing press. Printing presses come in a wide range of sizes. Paper that has been dampened with water to weaken its chemical bonds (make it softer) is laid over the plate. Felt padding is laid on top of the dampened paper. Finally, the printing press rollers force the paper onto the engraved plate, printing the image onto the paper.



Stone Lithography

Lithography is a word that comes from Greek, meaning “to write or draw on stone”. It is thought to have been developed in Germany by playwright Alois Senefelder (1771-1834) using limestone to transfer an image onto paper. It was originally used to create illustrations for books. Artists soon realized that the technique was also an excellent way to create multiple images.

Most litho stones used throughout the world come from a quarry north of Munich, Germany known for limestone of superior quality. A new litho stone is about 10 cm. (four inches) thick and can be reused for many years (see Figure 2). After each use, a litho stone must be grained or ground with a stainless steel disk and a mixture of water and abrasive grit to leave the stone smooth and flat so that the next image can be drawn or painted on the stone. Each graining results in only about one millimeter being removed from the top surface of the stone.



Figure 2. A typical litho stone.



The image to be created may be from a sketch, a photograph or a picture int he artists’ mind. Before the artist begins to draw or paint on the stone, a line drawing or outline is usually first drawn on a piece of tracing paper or, in recent years, a piece of acetate. Some artists prefer to draw their outline directly on the stone.

The art work on the stone must be a mirror image of the original, thus the need for making a drawing on transparent material. The outline is placed face down on the stone. A sheet of paper smeared with iron oxide is placed between the tracing paper and the stone, with the powdered side down to act like carbon paper. Using a pointed instrument, the artist traces over the outline. The iron oxide leaves a red outline on the stone, which serves as a guide to fill in the detail of the drawing.

The artist removes the two sheets of paper from the stone, then draws over the outline and begins adding the detail with anything containing grease, for the fresh ground limestone is highly sensitive to grease. Artists often use special litho pencils which are basically a kind of grease pencil. A sharp point is needed to create fine lines and litho pencils are very soft, so it is necessary to keep filing a sharp point with sandpaper.

The time required to create the image depends on how complex it is and how much detail is involved. I estimate that one of the early black and white federal duck stamp prints would take an artist approximately 20-30 hours to draw. A lithograph with multiple colors would take much longer as each color requires a separate drawing. Once the image is completed, it is fixed on the stone.

The next step is complex. Keep in mind that in engraving the image and the non-printed area are on different planes, whereas in lithography – they are on the same plane. Therefore, the image area must be separated from the non image area on the stone via a chemical process called an etch. An etch is a water soluble solution made up of a mixture of gum arabic and nitric acid.

The grease based image is resistant to the water soluble etch solution. Therefore, only the non image area of the stone accepts the solution and a chemical reaction takes place. The etch solution is left on the stone for about five minutes and then removed by buffing vigorously with a cheesecloth – leaving a thin, dry layer of gum.

The grease based drawing material is then removed by pouring an oil based solvent over the entire stone and rubbing with a clean rag until the entire image is completely washed off. A thin layer of oil based ink is then wiped across the entire image area with another  clean rag. Next, all the water soluble gum is removed from the non image area using a sponge and water.

The chemical process resulting from the application of the etch permits the image area to receive the oil based ink and to repel water, whereas it is the reverse with the non image area – it accepts water and repels the ink. A leather roller is rolled on the ink slab, then rolled over the surface of the stone repeatedly (see Figure 3).



Figure 3. Inking a litho stone with a roller. Note that this step is repeated until the ink builds up to the desired level.



After several more steps, the lithograph is printed by pressing a piece of paper onto the stone – transferring the ink from the the stone onto the paper. Many more steps are involved to make a color lithograph (chromolithograph). Traditionally, the prints are then numbered, titled and signed in pencil. Rarely would an artist pull more than 50 to 100 prints at one time and more like 5 to 10 at a time is not uncommon.

The time it takes to complete an edition may vary from several days to months, depending on the complexity of the image and how many batches are undertaken to make up the total number.



The 1941 Federal Print – First Edition

There were two print editions of Kalmbach’s Ruddy duck family image. The first edition was a lithograph, pulled from a stone in the manner described above. The image was 6.5″ x 8.75″. The litho was printed in black ink on white paper and was titled and signed by E.R. Kalmbach in pencil. The print was not numbered, therefore, the exact edition size is is unknown. The estimated figure that has been bounced around for decades is “100-110”. The image on the first edition print is a mirror image of the original art (see Figures 4 and 5).



Figure 4. Framed 1941-42 federal waterfowl stamp print, first edition.



Figure 5. Enlargement of the print of above, clearly showing that Kalmbach personally signed the first edition.



It has been stated by knowledgable people that the first edition with reversed or flopped image was an “error that was soon discovered” and that “the plate was then turned over and printing resumed, thus creating the second edition of the print” (in which the image matches the stamp). One of the reasons for explaining the process of stone lithography is so that you can see this was clearly not the case.

The first edition was a lithograph, pulled from a stone – not a plate. Now it is true that some people, when discussing stone lithography, occasionally refer to the stone as a plate. However, part of the reason for describing the litho process in detail above is so that you can see it is not possible to simply “turn it over” and produce a corrected image. You would have to go through all of the steps outlined above (and I left some out for the sake of brevity, believe it or not) and completely recreate the design on the stone.

At the time of the prints’ release, Edwin Kalmbach was living in Colorado, serving as the Director of the Denver Wildlife Research Laboratory (see Part One). The first edition was printed by George C. Miller and Son in New York. As Kalmbach was in Colorado and Miller was in New York, it is believed that Kalmbach did not draw the stone for the first edition. Rather, Miller or one of his staff drew the stone.

It has been speculated that Miller and Son made a mistake and did not create a mirror image when drawing on the stone. Granted, this was only the second time they had produced a federal waterfowl stamp print; the first was the year before with Jaques’ Black ducks and Jaques drew the stone – Miller just pulled the prints. However, George C. Miller and Son were very accomplished lithographers and I find it somewhat unbelievable they would make a colossal mistake like this twice in four years.

You see, in 1944 Miller and Sons did actually make this kind of error, on the first edition of Walter Webber’s federal waterfowl stamp print. It seems to me that if Edwin Kalmabach would have been greatly upset with the first edition of the 1941 print – that this would have been fresh in their minds and never allowed to happen again. George Miller and Son was a highly respected firm that specialized in creating stone lithographs for artists.

After the 1941 first edition was completed, they must have been shipped to Colorado for Kalmbach to inspect before releasing them to the public – for Kalmbach titled and signed them. I have given this a lot of thought over the years and I believe it is possible that the first edition was, in fact, not an error and that Kalmbach may have preferred the ducks swimming to the left. Further, he quite possibly requested that Miller draw the stone that way. He certainly signed off on it (couldn’t resist).

In any event, there must have been a public outcry when collectors and wildlife enthusiasts went to have the print framed in the traditional manner (with the stamp mounted beneath the print) and the images were not in accord. This necessitated Kalmbach coming out with a second edition of his print, with the image orientation matching the stamp.



The 1941 Federal Print – Second Edition

For the second edition, Kalmbach chose to produce the prints using the fine grain gravure technique, better known as photogravure. The process dates back to the early 1800s, when Joeph-Nicephore Niepce began experimenting with a light-sensitive varnish used in the new art of lithography.

The first step in making a photogravure print is preparing the copper printing plate. The plate must be throughly cleaned, its surface highly polished and its edges beveled to avoid damaging the paper during printing. Next the plate is evenly dusted or sprayed with an acid resist of rosin or asphaltum and heated to make the resist adhere. This procedure is identical to that of aquatint print making, so early photogravures were sometimes called photo-acquatints.

To prepare the image, a positive transparency is made from either an original negative or a copy negative. This film positive, which must be made the same size as the final print, is then contact-printed under ultraviolet light to a gelatin coated paper known as carbon tissue.

Next the image is transferred to the copper plate. The carbon tissue is adhered to the plate and the plate/tissue is soaked in hot water to soften the gelatin and allow the the paper base of the tissue to separate. The portions of the gelatin that received little or no light during exposure to the transparency remain soluble and wash away, leaving a gelatin image that will act as an an acid resist when the plate is etched.

The plate is then placed in a succession of etching baths. The eventual result is a copper plate with many tiny depressions or cells of varying depths. During printing, the deeper cells hold more ink and thus transfer more ink to the paper, creating the darker areas of the image. After the plate has been thoroughly washed, the gravure is printed on an etching press similar to which is used to produce an engraving.

Ink is spread over the plate, wiped and positioned face up on the press. High quality paper which has been dampened is placed over the plate, followed by felt padding. This is all fed through the press, where the rollers force the paper into the small depressions that hold the ink, creating the image.

This process produces grain gravures, so called because of the random dots created by the dusted rosin. Photogravure is a time consuming, labor-intensive, costly process used today only by fine art photographer-printmakers.

To produce both the copper plates and the prints, Kalmbach selected the Bradford-Robinson Printing Company in Denver. The image was 7″ x 9″ and was printed in black ink on white paper. As with the first edition, Kalmbach titled and signed the prints but did not number them (see Figure 6). The edition size is believed to be similar to the that of the first, around 100.



Figure 6. 1941-42 federal waterfowl stamp print, second edition.



1956 Wildlife Commemorative Postage Stamps

Inspired by his involvement in wildlife art and the success of the federal waterfowl stamp program, Edwin Kalmbach promoted his idea that American wildlife should have a place on our commemorative postage stamps, to help focus public attention on the importance of the nation’s wildlife resources. He wrote several articles explaining and supporting the idea and in 1950 suggested several designs which were reproduced in Nature Magazine, volume 43; pages 317 and 332.

Edwin’s idea came to fruition in 1956, when the U.S. Post Office Department drew attention to wildlife conservation by issuing three commemoratives featuring images of a wild turkey, a Pronghorn antelope and a King Salmon (see Figure 7). As predicted by Edwin, the three stamps were tremendously successful, selling over 500 million copies combined (compared to two million or less for each of the federal waterfowl stamps).



Figure 7. 1956 Wildlife commemorative postage stamps.



Robert Hines, who was the artist for the 1946 federal waterfowl stamp and a close friend of Edwin’s, drew the art (vignettes) for all three stamps as well as another featuring a Whooping Crane that was released in 1957.  It is interesting to note that for the stamp featuring a wild turkey, Victor S. McCloskey of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing designed the stamp and Charles Brooks worked on engraving the die. These are the same BEP employees who worked on Kalmbach’s 1941 Federal waterfowl stamp.

Robert was born in Columbus, Ohio on February 26, 1912. His family moved to Fremont, Ohio in 1926 and Robert attended Fremont Ross High School. In 1939, Robert was hired as a staff artist for the Ohio Division of Conservation, located in Columbus, Ohio. Could Robert have worked on one or more of the legendary Pymatuning stamps?

In 1946, while he was still working for the Ohio Division of Conservation, Robert submitted his design (featuring Red Headed ducks) that was selected for the 13th federal waterfowl stamp (see Figure 8). In 1948 Robert went to work as an artist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, D.C. He later served as a consultant and then an administrator for the federal duck stamp contest.



Figure 8. Robert Hines working on the original art for the 1946-47 federal waterfowl stamp.



It was Robert Hines that first envisioned an open contest with a panel of judges to select each year’s federal waterfowl stamp. This is essentially the same process that is used today – and the subject of a new documentary titled The Million Dollar Duck. After Robert retired from the U.S Fish and Wildlife service in 1981, he released a limited edition print featuring artwork that was very similar to his 1956 wild turkey commemorative stamp (see Figure 9).



Figure 9. Limited edition print release by Robert Hines in 1981.




Edwin R. Kalmabach Retires

In 1954, after more than 43 years in public service, Edwin Kalmbach finally retired from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. At this time the Department of the Interior bestowed upon him their highest honor, the Distinguished Service Award. After his retirement, the University of Colorado rewarded Edwin for his outstanding record as a research biologist, conferring upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Science.

In 1958, Dr. Kalmbach attended the annual meeting of the Wildlife Society in St. Louis. There he was presented with the Society’s highest honor, the Aldo Leopold Medal, in recognition for his lifelong work in wildlife conservation and management. Edwin R. Kalmbach passed away on July 26, 1972. Few men involved with wildlife conservation have left a greater legacy.



And now, on July 26, 2016, I would like to dedicate this series of posts to Edwin R. Kalmbach in appreciation for designing the 1941-42 federal waterfowl stamp. Your family of Ruddy ducks inspired a young boy and helped to nurture his enthusiasm first for waterfowl stamps and, ultimately, for the hobby of fish and game stamps. Thank you Edwin, for helping to provide me with a lifetime of enjoyment!



Illustration from Knowing Birds Through Stories, 1922.




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