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Blotting and Blurring Demons”? The Paradoxical Place of Colour Printing in Blake’s Theory of Art

Hélène Ibata


Lorsque son œuvre est évaluée à l’aune de la querelle classique du dessin et de la couleur, il est généralement tenu pour acquis que William Blake se situe parmi les tenants du premier. Une telle interprétation est étayée par ses écrits sur l’art, qui font à plusieurs reprises de l’acte de dessiner l’expression de pouvoirs intellectuels supérieurs, et dénigrent les effets de couleur comme autant de manifestations de faiblesse intellectuelle et de manque d’imagination. Toutefois, son utilisation de l’impression en couleur dans les années 1794 et 1795 révèle une sensibilité à la couleur et aux effets de texture qu’il est difficile d’associer à une démarche principalement linéaire. Si cette tension apparente entre les écrits de Blake sur l’art et une période importante de sa production a déjà été expliquée par une évolution de la perception de l’artiste, la présente étude insiste sur la continuité de sa pensée. Elle suggère notamment que le lien principal entre sa théorie de l’art et son travail d’impression en couleur est sa conviction que la production artistique doit être unifiée et immédiate, afin d’être authentique.

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  • 1 As Anne K. Mellor or David Bindman point out, the two styles were compatible: Flaxman and Fuseli fu (...)

1Confronted with the unique graphic style of William Blake’s prophetic books, many of the artist’s early biographers and critics depicted an outsider, alienated from the art world of his time, and without parallel or precedent. Alexander Gilchrist thus famously described Blake’s unique manner as “a style sui generis as no other artist’s ever was” (Gilchrist 1:3). Since then, however, art historians have been able to place his work within broader pictorial and graphic traditions, and even to highlight the conservatism of his production. They have most specifically emphasised connections between Blake’s style and Florentine/Roman disegno (notably Michelangelo’s), the neoclassical linearism of his contemporaries Cumberland, Flaxman and Fuseli, as well as the English Gothic style.1 As Morris Eaves puts it: “Blake has been placed correctly in art history, with the two-dimensional linearists […] in the old aesthetic battle between linear and painterly schools” (Eaves 19).

2Such an interpretation, to a great extent, is bolstered by the artist’s statements on art, his promotional prospectuses and descriptions of his work of the years 1809-10, his annotations to Reynolds’s discourses, as well as part of his correspondence. In these, he argues that line is the expression of the intellect, more specifically of the imagination, and therefore of the true self, while colour without line is the expression of a weak intellect and inauthenticity. Thus in the Descriptive Catalogue of his 1809 solo exhibition, he writes, in defence of his own practice:

  • 2 Quotations are from David Erdman’s edition of Blake’s Complete Poetry and Prose, hereafter Erdman.

The great and golden rule of art, as well as of life, is this: That the more distinct, sharp, and wirey the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art; and the less keen and sharp, the greater is the evidence of weak imitation, plagiarism, and bungling. […] The want of this determinate and bounding form evidences the want of idea in the artist’s mind, and the pretence of the plagiary in all its branches. […] Leave out this l[i]ne and you leave out life itself: all is chaos again. […] Talk no more then of Correggio, or Rembrandt, or any other of those plagiaries of Venice or Flanders. They were but the lame imitators of lines drawn by their predecessors, and their works prove themselves contemptible dis-arranged imitations and blundering misapplied copies. (Erdman 550) 2

3By investing line with the imaginary energy and authenticity that are according to him the basis of true art, and violently denigrating the colourism of the Venetians and Rembrandt, Blake was taking to extremes some of the arguments that had animated the Renaissance dispute of disegno against colore, and suggesting that he especially disliked the Venetian painterly and expressive use of colour that had exacerbated the quarrel in the sixteenth century. Firmness and accuracy of line rather than the rich and warm handling of colour seemed to guide his own artistic choices.

4His uncompromising and unequivocal defence of line and drawing as the expression of the artist’s intellectual integrity, however, is far from accounting for all of his own output. It seems, in fact, to be contradicted by some of his most personal and innovative graphic experiments, in the production of his illuminated books notably. More specifically, between 1794 and 1796, and also around the year 1805, Blake experimented with a method of colour printing which was meant to convey the originality of his conceptions, but whose painterly, rough and textural colour effects force us to reconsider the primacy given to line in his explicit statements about art.

  • 3 Morris Eaves was the first to argue convincingly for a coherent Blakean theory of art in his study (...)

5The intentions of the following analysis are to explore this paradox, to argue that it cannot just be explained away by an evolution in Blake’s conception of art and perception, and to contend that the experiments with colour of the years 1794-96 were not just a form of artistic fall from vision into materiality, but fit easily into a coherent “theory of art”3 and an ambitious artistic project that remained constant throughout his career.

A linearist theory of art

  • 4 For a full discussion of these arguments, see especially Gage 117-38.

6Blake’s conception of line and colour owed much to traditional linearist arguments according to which drawing and line, being the expression of the intellect, should be the primary components of artistic composition, while colours, being steeped in the sensual world or associated with luxury, are suspicious, or at best secondary.4 He undoubtedly endorses this position, and sides with the disegno schools, when he writes that “Painting is Drawing on Canvas & Engraving is Drawing on Copper […] & he who Draws best must be the best Artist” (Erdman 582), when he wonders "What kind of Intellects must he have who sees only the Colours of things & not the Forms of Thingsˮ (578), claims that “Fine Tints without Fine Forms are always the Subterfuge of the Blockhead” (571), or argues in the Preface to his Descriptive Catalogue:

The eye that can prefer the Colouring of Titian and Rubens to that of Michael Angelo and Rafael, ought to be modest and to doubt its own powers. […] Colouring does not depend on where the Colours are put, but on where the lights and darks are put, and all depends on Form or Outline. On where that is put; where that is wrong, the Colouring never can be right; and it is always wrong in Titian and Correggio, Rubens and Rembrandt. (Erdman 529-30)

7Such a conception, however, was adapted by Blake in significant ways. It was first of all transformed by a new Romantic insistence on the artistic act of drawing as the unmediated expression of the artist’s self and imagination. As Morris Eaves argues, Blake “incorporates intellect and line into an expressive theory of art, opposed at all essential points to classical and neoclassical mimesis” (Eaves 23). It was also considerably compounded by the artist’s commitment to undivided artistic production. Thus, an unbroken line, according to Blake, was evidence of the artist’s complete mastery of his production: “Every Line is the Line of Beauty it is only fumble & Bungle which cannot draw a Line this only is Ugliness […] That is not a Line which Doubts & Hesitates in the Midst of its Course” (Erdman 575). For the same reason, Blake’s dislike of the painterly schools was considerably enhanced by the fact that he associated them with a division of labour that threatened the integrity of artistic production.

8This personal adaptation of traditional linearist arguments leads to unprecedented attacks against the painterly schools, which favoured the definition of forms through brushwork, colour and tone rather than line. Blake’s writings on art are filled with recurrent and indiscriminate criticism of the “Venetian and Flemish,” as he repeatedly calls them (although his contempt also applies to Rembrandt), rejecting en bloc all the practices which according to him undermine the integrity of line: Venetian colourism, the use of chiaroscuro, and perhaps even more the use of oil as a medium. He called oil “a fetter to genius” (Erdman 531), a “cloggy vehicle” which “deadens every colour it is mixed with, at its first mixture, and in little time becomes a yellow mask over all that it touches,” while Rubens and Vandyke are “guilty of th[e] villany” of having “first brought oil Painting into general opinion and practice” (530). Blake’s comments on oil allude to the well-known imperfections of the medium, the alteration of colours with time and the darkening effect of varnish; but they also point to the fact that it prevents the immediate expression of artistic genius. Blake accuses it not only of hiding form, but also of allowing artists to work in several layers and stages, without visionary guidance, which results in “broken colours” as well as “broken lines” (Erdman 652; 538). Together with chiaroscuro, this method is accused of allowing weak-minded artists, incapable of energetic and original thought, to produce forms which they cannot conceive clearly in their minds. But the discerning eye recognises them for what they are: “Blots & Blurs,” as Blake recurrently exclaims. Thus, “The unorganized Blots & Blurs of Rubens & Titian are not Art nor can their Method ever express Ideas or Imaginations” (Erdman 576).

9Blake’s contempt for these unimaginative productions culminates in a violent attack against Rubens, in which he implies that what was supposed to be the forte of the painterly schools was in fact another expression of their intellectual failure:

To My Eye Rubens’s Colouring is most Contemptible His Shadows are of a Filthy Brown somewhat of the Colour of Excrement these are filld with tints & messes of yellow & red His lights are all the Colours of the Rainbow laid on Indiscriminately & broken one into another. Altogether his Colouring is Contrary to The Colouring. of Real Art & Science (Erdman 655).

10In this response to Reynolds’s praise of Rubens’s eminent colouring skills, Blake may have had in mind Rubens’ practice of colouring his shadows, as well as his use of a yellow-brown striped imprimatura to build his colours upon (Plesters 30-49).

11Beyond his criticism of weak individual productions, Blake associates the painterly schools with division of labour, made possible by the absence of imaginative purpose in their productions. Thus, in his annotations to Reynolds’s discourses, he criticises “The Labourd Works of Journeymen employed by Correggio,” adding: “Titian, Veronese & all the Venetians ought not to be shewn to the Young Artist as the Works of original Conception any more than the Engravings of Strange Bartollozzi or Woollett. They are Works of Manual Labour” (Erdman 644). The same criticism appears in the Descriptive Catalogue, where Blake claims that Correggio “employed numerous Journeymen in manufacturing (as Rubens and Titian did) the Pictures that go under his name” (548).

12As should appear in this account, Blake’s arguments against “the Venetian and the Flemish” were not a denigration of colouring, but of painterly practices that he associated with the unimaginative and the inauthentic because to him they reflected the fragmentation and indeterminacy of the artist’s conception. As was to be expected, his theoretical writings defended his own artistic production by presenting it as the very opposite of these practices:

The Venetian and Flemish practice is broken lines, broken masses, and broken colours. Mr. B.’s practice is unbroken lines, unbroken masses, and unbroken colours. Their art is to lose form, his art is to find form, and to keep it. His arts are opposite to theirs in all things. (Erdman 538)

I do not pretend to Paint better than Rafael or Mch Anglo <or Julio Romano or Alb Durer> but I do Pretend to Paint finer than Rubens or Rembt or Correggio or Titian […] because I understand Drawing which they understand not (Erdman 574)

Theory versus the practice of colour printing

  • 5 Concerning this category of paintings, see Bindman, “Blake as a painter” 85-109.

13Given Blake’s self-assurance at the time he was writing his Descriptive Catalogue and his Public Address, one may wonder to what extent this theoretical stance was confirmed by his practice. That his art was characterised by original and confident drawing is undeniable, especially if one examines his more conventional work, his illustrations of biblical and literary subjects, and those of his paintings that aspired to the status of history painting.5 The masterful linearity of his work is naturally most evident in his works in line engraving, and perhaps nowhere as noticeably as in his illustrations of the Book of Job (1826), where flowing lines rather than mechanical hatchings or stipple provide the vitality that Blake associates with the act of drawing. It is also the most striking stylistic feature of his watercolour paintings, which clearly subordinate colour to line, combining fine and nevertheless expressive outlines with faint, luminous and delicately nuanced colours. Thus, in his watercolour illustrations to Milton’s Paradise Lost (1807, 1808 and c. 1822) – “the high point of Blake’s ‘outline’ style” according to David Bindman (“Blake as a Painter” 98) – or to Dante’s Divine Comedy (1824-27), the subdued colouring mostly serves to provide tone and volume to confidently and minutely delineated forms. Both media reveal a firmness and a dynamism of drawing that concur with Blake’s conviction that lines are “the receptacles of intellect” (Erdman 544) and that “the less keen and sharp [the bounding line], the greater is the evidence of imitation, plagiarism, and bungling” (550).

14The artist’s love of linearity, however, is contradicted by much of his production for his illuminated books, in which the techniques of relief etching and colour printing as he devised and used them seem to have made it impossible to meet these stylistic standards. In these designs, a roughness of line and colouring, instead of a sharp bounding line, reveals the artist’s difficult control of his medium at the same time as it displays the authenticity of his work.

15The discrepancy is especially noticeable in the colour printed work of the years 1794-96, which includes several versions of Songs of Experience, most versions of Europe: A Prophecy, The First Book of Urizen, The Song of Los, The Book of Los, The Book of Ahania, new versions of Songs of Innocence and of Visions of the Daughters of Albion, as well as twelve large colour prints, produced in 1795 and 1805, which a number of commentators consider to be one of Blake’s most outstanding accomplishments in the visual arts. These productions not only seem to contain many of the “blots” and “blurs” that Blake criticised in the work of Venetian or Flemish painters, but also reveal a sensitivity to the texture of pigment and its expressive potential that would not readily be associated with a linearist approach. With their opaque and deep colours, their “peaks and shallows” and “extraordinary impasto surfaces” (Phillips, “Printing” 29), they differ sharply from Blake’s watercolour paintings and illuminations, and suggest that he was seeking a medium that could express his conception of art and rival the effects of oil painting at the same time.

  • 6 Frederick Tatham, Letter to William Michael Rossetti, Nov. 6, 1862 (see Rossetti 16-17).

16Blake’s colour printing technique, which was first described by Frederick Tatham in a 1862 letter to William Michael Rossetti,6 has so puzzled and fascinated artists and scholars that a number of them have felt it necessary to provide experimental reconstructions of the process. Among them should especially be mentioned W. Graham Robertson, Stanley William Hayter, Juan Miró, Ruthven Todd, Joseph Viscomi and Michael Phillips. Their experiments have not only made it obvious that Blake’s production is steeped in the very materiality that his visionary poetry seems to preclude, they have also provided a valuable insight into the process of pigment making, inking and printing that gave the resulting prints their unique visual and textural quality. Thus, there is general agreement that the mottled appearance of the colour areas resulted from Blake’s use of opaque pigments mixed with water and ground with size (glue) (Viscomi, Idea; Phillips, Creation 95; Essick, Printmaker 126). According to Joseph Viscomi, this reticulated appearance also partly resulted from the combination of the medium with oil-based inks:

Technically, oil-based inks and Blake’s water-miscible paints could be combined in this manner because size is an oil-in-water emulsion […] The mottled texture characteristic of color prints was caused partly by the watercolors interacting with an oily surface and attaching to the exposed paper pulling away from a buttery size-color on the plate […] The surface tension between the oil-based ink and water/oil-based paint was also deliberately manipulated to create new kinds of tactile surface. (Viscomi Idea 121; see also Essick & Viscomi 78)

  • 7 Other supporters of the two-pull theory include Martin Butlin and Raymond Lister.

17There is disagreement, however, concerning the colouring and printing process itself. Among the most recent accounts of it, Joseph Viscomi and Robert Essick have described the technique as a variation of the existing à la poupée method, which consisted in inking a single plate with several colours, arguing that it allowed the artist to apply the colours of his designs and lettering at the same time, and print them all in one pull, even though in most cases some degree of hand finishing was necessary (Essick & Viscomi 73-103). Michael Phillips, on the other hand, argues for a process in two stages, with the artist printing the design and lettering in a first, monochrome impression and applying the colours à la poupée in a second stage (Creation 95-108).7

  • 8 For more detail, see especially Essick, Printmaker 125-35; Viscomi, Idea of the Book 119-28; Essick (...)

18Viscomi and Essick also draw attention to the fact that in several plates Blake applied colours simultaneously to his relief plateaus and his etched shallows (Essick, Printmaker 127; Viscomi, Idea 121-23), or even resorted to planographic printing – that is to say printing the outlines and colours from the same flat surface – for example in the Song of Los or in the large colour plates (Viscomi, Idea 287; “Annus Mirabilis” 63-4; Essick, Plates 10). This process, combined with the viscosity of his medium, created unpredictable painterly effects and prevented sharp separations between the various colour areas. Even though form was “brought back through finishing” (Viscomi, Idea 121) nothing could have been further from his conception of line as spelt out in his theoretical writings.8

A change in perception?

  • 9 See especially the writings of Robert Essick; Joseph Viscomi; Martin Butlin; and Michael Phillips.

19This apparently paradoxical phase in Blake’s production has received much critical attention from specialists of the artist’s printing and engraving work.9 In fact, as claimed by Mei-Ying Sung, their concentration on Blake’s production in colour printing and relief etching is such that it has distracted from the “linear” engraving work that was more in keeping with the artist’s theory of art (1). But it is difficult not to be struck by this “painterly” dimension of Blake’s work and not to attempt to confront it with his linearist statements and production.

20The most common explanations for what appears to be an inconsistency in Blake’s conception of art highlight an evolution in Blake’s perceptual, stylistic and theoretical approaches, together with a discrepancy between the artist’s theory and practice which is related to this evolution.

21Thus Essick considers that

the dark, encrusted world created in the color prints of the mid-1790s and the characteristics of the Burkean sublime they exemplify were not consistent with Blake’s aesthetic and spiritual principles from about 1805 to the end of his life. In his comments on Reynolds’ Discourses, Blake redefines the sublime as the art of distinct line and formal clarity ‒ the very antithesis to the blurred patches of color printing. (Essick, Printmaker 150)

22It is indeed important to point out that Blake’s most developed statements on art were produced mostly in the years 1809-10, about a decade after the bulk of his colour printed books had been produced. One should also note that when he defended line over colour, he was looking back on years of laborious experiments with colour, which he considered as years of struggle against the painterly “demons.” That is, at least, what is suggested in his Descriptive catalogue, where he complains of having been “molested continually by blotting and blurring demons” in the production of some of his paintings (Erdman 546) and argues about his tempera paintings – whose deep colours and textural effects are reminiscent of the colour prints – :

These Pictures, among numerous others painted for experiment, were the results of temptations and perturbations, labouring to destroy Imaginative power, by means of that infernal machine, called Chiaro Oscuro, in the hands of Venetian and Flemish Demons; whose enmity to the Painter himself, and to all Artists who study in the Florentine and Roman Schools, may be removed by an exhibition and exposure of their vile tricks. […] They cause that the execution shall be all blocked up with brown shadows. They put the original Artist in fear and doubt of his own conception. (Erdman 547)

23While Blake considered that he had strayed and been tempted, he also seems to have believed he had overcome this period of artistic error, when he claimed, in his description of his painting A Vision of the Last Judgment: “No man can Embrace True Art till he has Explord & Cast out False Art” (Erdman 562).

24Butlin suggests that this aesthetic revelation had occurred during his stay at Felpham, from 1800 to 1803 (6; see also Paley 174), but critics also point to Blake’s discovery of the Truchsessian Gallery in the autumn of 1804 (Paley 165-77; Erle), which the artist himself saw as a central moment in his artistic redemption. In a letter to his patron William Hayley, he wrote: “Suddenly, on the day after visiting the Truchsessian Gallery of pictures, I was again enlightened with the light I enjoyed in my youth, and which has for exactly twenty years been closed from me as by a door and by window-shutters” (Erdman 756). According to Paley, the Truchsessian gallery had allowed Blake to see for the first time in his life “many examples of the type of art he was coming to regard as the only art: painting which subordinated color to form” (Paley 169), thus serving as a catalyst for Blake’s choice of disegno over colore, after “an eclectic middle period” (Paley 173).

25Blake’s own words suggest a major perceptual evolution, possibly implying a dismissal of his painterly productions of the 1790s as the product of experiments in colour which had led him astray from his true artistic purpose. But were these artistic productions fully inconsistent with his more linear work, and more specifically was Blake criticising his own work in colour printing when he mentioned the “blurring demons” that had besieged him?

26Essick, Butlin, Viscomi and Phillips all argue that Blake’s choice of colour printing and its effects was deliberate and even “confrontational” (Essick & Viscomi 78), and that Blake valued the aesthetic originality obtained through the process. They also insist that Blake was attracted to “the textural qualities and the dense coloring made possible by the process” (Butlin 4). This deliberate use of the physicality of the medium is confirmed by Blake’s contemporaries, and in particular by Tatham’s account:

They were printed in a loose press from an outline sketched on paste-board; the oil colour was blotted on, which gave the sort of impression you will get by taking the impression of anything wet. There was a look of accident about this mode which he afterwards availed of, and tinted so as to bring out and favour what was there rather blurred. (Butlin 16-17)

27What is more, the artistic revelation mentioned by Blake in his correspondence did not lead to an immediate rejection of colour printing. Essick and Viscomi point out that he produced colour prints as late as 1808, as some Jerusalem proofs and some plates of America copy M attest. Perhaps most significantly, Blake returned to his large colour prints soon after his visit to the Truchsessian gallery (Butlin 6-12; Erle) and after he had claimed to have overcome his colourist demons. Erle argues that the reason for this return to colour printing in 1805 “reflects his continued interest in the wide-ranging contemporary debates about the qualities and characteristics of colour,” and was a way for him to explore the dual nature of colour,” as fascinating physical phenomenon and obstacle to intellectual intention at the same time (§ 8). There is definitely a tension between the rich sensory experience which is suggested by the complex colour effects of the prints, and the heaviness and opacity of the medium, which connote immersion within the material world and the absence of visionary dynamism. Colour printing could thus have visualised a struggle between two conceptions of colour which would have been resolved by the time Blake put his own “theory of art” onto paper.

28It is also possible to argue that Blake’s interest in colour printing and in the very “physicality” of the medium was far from incompatible with his broader conception of art or even with his later emphasis on line. Morris Eaves acknowledges this coherence by including a few remarks on colour printing in his study of Blake’s theory:

With the word “line” Blake designates the autographic component in art. When he asserts that line is the golden rule of art, he is asserting that art is founded on its autographic component […] If the color prints reveal the true imaginative identity of the artist William Blake […] then they may be more linear in Blake’s sense of the term than Flaxman’s outlines, which by and large seem far less autographic than Blake’s colour prints (Eaves 41-42)

29This acknowledgement of the importance of colour printing in Blake’s “theory of art,” however, is only based on what Eaves sees as “the metaphorical scope of Blake’s concept of line” (Eaves 41), and Eaves does not develop the argument, which only briefly complements his analysis of the theoretical writings. I would like to go further and argue that Blake’s experiments with colour prints partake more fully of his conception of art, if one considers it to be driven not so much by devotion to line as by overarching principles of immediacy, unity and integrity of artistic production.

30Even though Blake seems to have looked back on this period of his practice with disapproval, his writings on art are not to be read as a rejection of the physicality and sensuality of colour as much as a rejection of what he conceived as a deadly division of form and colour. At several points, he makes it clear that “Living Form” results from the true artist’s combination of design and colour:

I do not condemn Rubens Rembrandt or Titian because they did not understand Drawing but because they did not Understand Colouring […] He who makes a Design must know the Effect & Colouring Proper to be put to that Design & will never take that of Rubens Rembrandt or Titian to [put] <turn> that which is Soul & Life into a Mill or Machine (Erdman 575)

31Against the painterly artists whom he considered poor colourists because of their inability to conceive forms, he presented his own art as an example of the life-giving combination of colour and design that resulted from vision and imagination:

Rubens, Titian, Correggio, and all of that class, are like leather and chalk; their men are like leather, and their women like chalk, for the disposition of their forms will not admit of grand colouring; in Mr. B.’s Britons, the blood is seen to circulate in their limbs; he defies competition in colouring. (Erdman 545)

  • 10 On this subject, see for example Mitchell “Blake’s composite art” 75-76; and Damrosch 174.

32The same conviction that living form results from the imaginative and therefore energetic combination of colour and outline finds its way into the visionary universe of the prophecies, whose central subject is redemption through the reunification of divided and antagonistic faculties. In Jerusalem and The Four Zoas, this dialogue is expressed as the interaction between Los, Blake’s alter ego and laborious producer of forms against the chaos of Ulro (the fallen world created through the selfish exertion of reason), and his emanation Enitharmon, who is associated with colour and compared to a “faint rainbow” (Blake, Jerusalem 86: 50). Just as Enitharmon’s femininity completes Los’s masculinity, her colours and light fill his forms with life, allowing him to overcome Ulro and recover the world of imagination. While this conception confirms to some extent the primacy of design over colour, it also makes it clear that the two are organically connected: it is only as the two work together that artistic production can transcend the divisions of the fallen world, notably between the intellectual and the material, and become truly visionary.10

33By admitting that Blake’s conception of art as a unifying visionary process is as important as his defence of line, and that colour plays an essential part in giving life to design, it is possible to see his prolonged experiments with colour printing in a different light. Blake’s commitment to the technique throughout the production of several of his illuminated books is likely to have stemmed from a desire to fuse in one single moment all stages and agents of artistic production: the body and the imagination, the physical and the intellectual, colour and design, conception and execution, etching, printing and colouring. In this view, the necessity to unify the creative process for the sake of original creation would have superseded the distrust of the materiality of colour that is expressed in his writings on art. The colour prints of the years 1794-1805 are so remarkable because they allow such a convergence. The artist’s visible enjoyment of the textural and “physical” effects of colour printing may be due to his awareness that he had reconciled these various “contraries” without which he had earlier claimed there was no progression (Marriage of Heaven and Hell 34).

Colour printing as a unified production process

34More specifically, his practice with colour printing allowed him to overcome the mechanical divisions that he saw at work in the productions of the artists he most disliked: the painterly schools and the fashionable engravers of his time. His criticism of the “Venetian and Flemish” and of contemporary engravers who worked in mezzotint in order to reproduce painterly effects focused mostly on the fact that they undermined the integrity of the artistic process by dividing conception from execution, by working in several stages, and by employing “journeymen” for the more mechanical parts of the production process. By unifying drawing, colouring and printing through his method of colour printing, Blake was precisely hoping to go against these divided modes of production.

35The Descriptive Catalogue, Public Address and annotations to Reynolds argued that a sharp and continuous bounding line was evidence of original, unmediated, undivided and consequently masterful work. But so was colour printing as conceived by Blake. All scholars who have analysed the colour printed books agree that their production allowed Blake to overcome the division of labour that was characteristic of contemporary illustration, whether they argue for a one-pull or a two-pull process. The single-pull interpretation makes a stronger case for Blake’s unification in one single moment of the various stages of his production, which makes him truly the complete artist – poet, painter and printer – that he ambitioned to be. But those who argue for a two-pull process similarly insist on the fact that Blake “unified the relationship of the poet and painter with that of the book producer” (Phillips, Creation 16). Blake’s intention, in either case, is understood to have been to preserve the initial clarity of his conception by removing many of the mediations and intermediary stages that could be found in both painterly and printing practices in his time. His colour printing method allowed him to fuse the various tasks of book illustration, but it was also meant to enable the immediacy of image production. Thus, even though finishing in tempera and watercolour was necessary, colour printing would have allowed Blake to avoid layering pigments, which was one of his main objections to oil painting. And in the case of planographic printing, it would even have allowed him to print painted images, removing one further mediation between design and coloured print. In other words, in a daring challenge of artistic hierarchies, Blake was aiming to achieve through colour printing as a unified medium of creation an integrity and mastery of creation that he considered to be beyond the reach of oil painting.

36Recent Blake scholarship has warned against unifying interpretations of a work that resists unification, and whose reception history has been characterised by fragmentation, in particular by the separation of text and illustration. Mike Goode (10) thus argues that the critics who focus on Blake’s book-making process as evidence of his wish to integrate text and image forget that Blake expressly opposes his “vision of the infinitude of the world […] to integration, or at least to unification.” He reminds the reader of The Marriage’s final statement that “One Law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression” (Marriage of Heaven and Hell 44) and mentions The Book of Urizen, where “oneness of all kinds amounts to tyranny,” as Urizen seeks to create a world governed by “One King, one God, one Law” (Urizen 72). It is true that Blake repeatedly warns against systems of thought that suppress the expression of particularity. But the unifying impulse is also central to his philosophy: from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell to the late prophecies, Milton, The Four Zoas and Jerusalem, the redemptive reunification of contraries and faculties is the most consistent subject of his illuminated books. For this reason, not only is the integration of text and image an essential component of his conception of art, but it is intrinsically connected with the merging of the artist’s faculties in the creation process. Blake makes this ontological dimension obvious when he derides Urizen for attempting to unify text and image without resorting to imagination. On the title page of The Book of Urizen (Fig. 1), the demiurge, who embodies the blind use of reason, is shown squatting on his book with a quill in one hand, and a pencil in the other, dividing image and text as he attempts to rationally unite them.

Fig. 1 : William Blake, The First Book of Urizen, c.1794, Copy A, title page

Fig. 1 : William Blake, The First Book of Urizen, c.1794, Copy A, title page

Colour print, 14.9 cm x 10.3 cm. 

Yale Center for British Art.

37A few pages later (Fig. 2), he triumphantly displays the product of this unimaginative labour: a chaos of colours or brown blots (depending on the version), and possibly a reference to the “blots & blurs” of the colourists that Blake was to criticise for their weak conceptions. In this sequence, it is clear that the fusion of text and image has failed due to Urizen’s blind application of the same rational law to both, but also mostly because his book is the product of reason divorced from imagination.

Fig. 2 : William Blake, The Book of Urizen, Copy A, Object 8, c.1794.

Fig. 2 : William Blake, The Book of Urizen, Copy A, Object 8, c.1794.

Colour print, 14.9 cm x 10.5 cm.

Yale Center for British Art.

38The necessary fusion of the artist’s faculties in the creative process is spelt out in Blake’s writings on art, which insist on the integration of conception and execution, invention and mechanical labour, and beyond that, soul and body, in order to allow the full, unmediated expression of imagination. In these writings, Blake repeatedly argues that the creative genius must be in charge of all aspects of artistic production, including those that were considered the most “mechanical”, in order to preserve the originality of conception:

Invention depends Altogether upon Execution or Organisation. as that is right or wrong so is the Invention perfect or imperfect. Whoever is set to Undermine the Execution of Art is set to Destroy Art Michael Angelos Art Depends on Michael Angelos Execution Altogether (Erdman 637)

Mechanical Excellence is the Only Vehicle of Genius (643)

Execution is the Chariot of Genius (643)

No Man Can Improve An Original Invention […] Nor can an Original Invention Exist without Execution Organized & minutely Delineated & Articulated Either by God or Man (576)

Ideas cannot be Given but in their minutely Appropriate Words nor Can a Design be made without its minutely Appropriate Execution. […] Execution is only the result of Invention (576)

39Not only do these statements make an integrated production the overriding principle of Blake’s work; they also provide a justification for his experiments with colour printing, whose main purpose seems to have been precisely the alliance of invention and mechanical execution, and hence immediacy of production, that Blake considered necessary to visionary art. I would even say that far from invalidating these earlier experiments, as has at times been claimed, this conception of art provides a theoretical foundation for them. The colour printing process may have proven intractable, and the pigments may have resisted the artist’s stylistic intentions. Looking at the Urizen books (The First Book of Urizen, The Song of Los, The Book of Los, The Book of Ahania) Blake’s printing technique certainly seems to have prevented the “minutely Appropriate Execution” that he was to advocate more than a decade later. Nevertheless, the medium’s combination of invention and execution was unique, and Blake’s prolonged experimentations with it testify to his willingness to engage with the materiality of artistic execution in order to remain true to his imagination. I would also add that by perfecting a colour printing process that aimed for immediacy of execution, Blake was making it obvious that he valued colouring skills as much as designing skills in his notion of original artistic production. He was also striving to unite design and colour in an unprecedented manner, just as he hoped to fuse the activities of the poet and the painter in his illuminated books. The process required significant designing and colouring skills, exerted simultaneously, that the separation of tasks in more conventional practices did not permit.

40Seeing the colour printing years as fully consistent with an artistic project that sought the integrity of the production process makes it possible to understand why Blake returned to his work on the large colour prints in 1805. His conception of art as a reunification of the artist’s faculties and activities necessarily led him beyond the polarised endorsement of disegno against colore that is implied by his writings, and meant that he could not view colour and design as antagonistic, but as complementary. One may even see the large colour prints as an attempt to reconcile opposite artistic approaches, and to fuse them in order to reach artistic wholeness. The medium reflexivity at work in a number of them suggests that Blake knowingly dramatised the encounter between the firmness of outline and mastery of form on the one hand, and the material energy of colour on the other. This is perhaps especially the case in The Good and Evil Angels Fighting over a Child, which depicts a chained and blinded figure, surrounded by flames, hovering with open arms and reaching for a child that leaps away from it in terror, into the arms of the other, apparently protective, figure (Fig. 3):

Fig. 3: William Blake, The Good and Evil Angels Fighting over a Child. 1795.

Fig. 3: William Blake, The Good and Evil Angels Fighting over a Child. 1795.

Colour print, 44.5 x 59.4 cm.

© Tate, London. 

The meaning of the print is more ambiguous than initially appears, as the composition is based on the design from plate 4 of the Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in which Blake’s Devil praises bodily energy and the fusion of Soul and Body as a means to reach total vision and “Eternal Delight”:

Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.

Energy is Eternal Delight (Marriage of Heaven and Hell 34)

The print, like the original design, may be seen as an attempt to convey visually the convergence of these opposing forces or “contraries”. The hovering and upright figures of the two angels, the red dynamic flames and the green billowy ocean, but also the unpredictable reticulations of colour printing and the sharp outlines of the figures all interact dynamically to visualise Blake’s ideal of energetic unification. In this masterful composition, Blake brings together disegno and colore, linear and painterly effect, form and chaos, Reason as “outward circumference” and Body as energy, to transcend the mechanical divisions of incomplete artistic approaches.

41Similarly, Newton (Fig. 4) may be seen as a reflection about the creative encounter of contraries and, at the same time, a questioning of overly simple oppositions between firm linearity and chaotic colourism, or at least of divisions between these two sides of artistic creation. While the figure of the scientist embodies the cold unimaginative rationality that Blake abhorred, it is the firm outline that surrounds his body that seems to close him upon himself and his sterile reasonings, folding him into a shell-like shape, curiously clinging to the rock on which he is drawing mathematical shapes, oblivious to his surroundings. On the other hand, the colour-printed areas around him, with their rich, textural and variegated effects, seem to be brimming with life and expressive potential. Even though these natural surroundings could be seen as a “coloristic chaos” (Mitchell 51) or interpreted as the ocean of materiality into which the unimaginative mind falls – the Ulro of Blake’s prophecies –, they suggest that Blake views complex painterly effects as a source of creative enjoyment.

Fig. 4: William Blake, Newton. 1795

Fig. 4: William Blake, Newton. 1795

Colour print, 46.0 x 60.0 cm.

© Tate, London.

  • 11 See for example Snart 51.

Newton has puzzled scholars both because of its dynamic contradiction between message and artistic form – its visual celebration of the physical world just as Blake criticises the rational thinking that plunges the mind into materiality and selfishness11 – and because it apparently inverts the artistic principles that Blake was just beginning to express, especially in 1805 when he returned to the print. Yet, if one recognises that Blake’s linearism is subsumed under a more encompassing conception of art, in which what matters is the dynamic interaction and reunification of creative faculties and of artistic values, the print may be seen as not only consistent with Blake’s artistic intentions, but as one of their most convincing expressions.


42Blake’s colour prints were not just meant to reconcile line and colour. They suggest an enjoyment of the material, or at least an awareness of the necessity for the artist to immerse himself within the material world, through the physicality of the medium, as a means to fuse body and reason, and reach the creative energy that he was seeking. They may have been later perceived by the artist as influenced by painterly demons from which he eventually liberated himself. But if Blake eventually gave up on colour printing, and seems to have found in it an obstacle to vision, the decision may not have been motivated by linearist principles so much as by the overriding principle of a unified, immediate and therefore authentic production, which I have presented as the main connection between his theory of art and the colour printing years. If Blake was indeed seeking an art form that reconciled contraries, fused conception and execution, and overcame the divisions at work in conventional illustration, then colour printing was as much an obstacle as an instrument towards the completion of such a goal. In the Urizen books, as Blake approached the full integration of design, colouring and printing that he was seeking, he also compromised another dimension of his unified production, the combination of text and image. The colouring and printing processes proved to be so intractable that Blake necessarily found himself separating a number of illustrations from the text. This, rather than the painterly effects of colour printing, may have caused him to renounce this medium for his illuminated book production. The fact that he returned to colour printing in 1805, only to produce separate visual works, would confirm that a unified artistic production was of more importance to him than a new commitment to linearist principles.

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Bindman, David. Blake as an Artist. Oxford: Phaidon, 1977.

Bindman, David. “Blake as a Painter.” The Cambridge Companion to William Blake. Ed. Morris Eaves. Cambridge: CUP, 2003. 85-109.

Blake, William. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, with a commentary by Harold Bloom. Ed. David V. Erdman. 1965. New York: Doubleday, 1988.

Butlin, Martin. “The Physicality of William Blake: The Large Colour Prints of 1795.” Huntington Library Quarterly 52 (1989): 1-17.

Damrosch, Leo. Eternity’s Sunrise: The Imaginative World of William Blake. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 2015.

Eaves, Morris. William Blake’s Theory of Art. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1982.

Erle, Sibylle. “Blake, Colour and the Truchsessian Gallery: Modelling the Mind and Liberating the Observer.” Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net 52 (2008). Accessed July 20, 2018.

Essick, Robert N. William Blake, Printmaker. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980.

Essick, Robert. The Separate Plates of William Blake: A Catalogue. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983.

Essick, Robert & Joseph Viscomi. “An Inquiry into William Blake’s Method of Color Printing.” Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly 35 (2002): 73-103.

Gage, John. Colour and Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction. London: Thames and Hudson, 1993.

Gilchrist, Alexander. Life of William Blake. London & Cambridge: Macmillan, 1863. 2 vols.

Goode, Mike. “The Joy of Looking: What Blake’s Pictures Want.” Representations 119.1 (2012): 1-36.

Lister, Raymond. Infernal Methods: A Study of William Blake’s Art Techniques. London: Bell, 1975.

Mellor, Anne. Blake’s Human Form Divine. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1974.

Mitchell, W. J. Thomas. “Blake’s Composite Art.” Blake’s Visionary Forms Dramatic. Ed. David V. Erdman & John E. Grant. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1970.

Mitchell, W. J. Thomas. Blake’s Composite Art: A Study of the Illuminated Poetry. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978.

Paley, Morton D. “The Truchsessian Gallery Revisited.” Studies in Romanticism 26 (1977): 165-77.

Phillips, Michael. The Creation of the Songs: From Manuscript to Illuminated Printing. London: The British Library, 2000.

Phillips, Michael. “Printing in the Infernal Method.” Blake Intempestif/Unruly Blake. Ed. Jean-Marie Fournier & Maurice Géracht. Spec. issue of Interfaces: Image, Texte, Language 30 (2010): 21-34.

Plesters, Joyce. “ ‘Samson and Delilah’: Rubens and the Art and Craft of Painting on Panel.” National Gallery Technical Bulletin 7 (1983): 30-49.

Rossetti, William Michael. Rossetti Papers, 1862 to 1870: A Compilation. London: Sands & Co., 1903.

Snart, Jason Allen. The Torn Book: UnReading William Blake’s Marginalia. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna UP, 2006.

Sung, Mei-Ying. William Blake and the Art of Engraving. London: Routledge, 2009.

Viscomi, Joseph. Blake and the Idea of the Book. Princeton, Princeton UP, 1993.

Viscomi, Joseph. “Blake’s Annus Mirabilis.” Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly 41:2 (2007): 52-83.

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1 As Anne K. Mellor or David Bindman point out, the two styles were compatible: Flaxman and Fuseli fused Gothic motifs into their designs and would have encouraged Blake to do the same (Mellor 132; Bindman, Blake as an Artist 129).

2 Quotations are from David Erdman’s edition of Blake’s Complete Poetry and Prose, hereafter Erdman.

3 Morris Eaves was the first to argue convincingly for a coherent Blakean theory of art in his study of Blake’s directs statements about art, and the concept is borrowed from the title of his book, Blake’s Theory of Art (see Eaves).

4 For a full discussion of these arguments, see especially Gage 117-38.

5 Concerning this category of paintings, see Bindman, “Blake as a painter” 85-109.

6 Frederick Tatham, Letter to William Michael Rossetti, Nov. 6, 1862 (see Rossetti 16-17).

7 Other supporters of the two-pull theory include Martin Butlin and Raymond Lister.

8 For more detail, see especially Essick, Printmaker 125-35; Viscomi, Idea of the Book 119-28; Essick & Viscomi 74-103.

9 See especially the writings of Robert Essick; Joseph Viscomi; Martin Butlin; and Michael Phillips.

10 On this subject, see for example Mitchell “Blake’s composite art” 75-76; and Damrosch 174.

11 See for example Snart 51.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1 : William Blake, The First Book of Urizen, c.1794, Copy A, title page
Légende Colour print, 14.9 cm x 10.3 cm. 
Crédits Yale Center for British Art.
Fichier image/png, 649k
Titre Fig. 2 : William Blake, The Book of Urizen, Copy A, Object 8, c.1794.
Légende Colour print, 14.9 cm x 10.5 cm.
Crédits Yale Center for British Art.
Fichier image/png, 741k
Titre Fig. 3: William Blake, The Good and Evil Angels Fighting over a Child. 1795.
Légende Colour print, 44.5 x 59.4 cm.
Crédits © Tate, London. 
Fichier image/png, 3,2M
Titre Fig. 4: William Blake, Newton. 1795
Légende Colour print, 46.0 x 60.0 cm.
Crédits © Tate, London.
Fichier image/png, 638k
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Hélène Ibata, « Blotting and Blurring Demons”? The Paradoxical Place of Colour Printing in Blake’s Theory of Art », XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 75 | 2018, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2018, consulté le 23 octobre 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/1718.1144

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Hélène Ibata

Hélène Ibata is Professor of English and visual studies at the Université de Strasbourg. She wrote her doctoral thesis on William Blake (William Blake: l’invention d’une esthétique) and her research focuses on British art of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. She is the author of The Challenge of the Sublime: From Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry to British Romantic Art (2018, Manchester University Press). Her work on Romantic visual culture includes articles on the sublime, early panoramas, book illustration, William Blake and J.M.W. Turner, published in Word and Image, The European Romantic Review, Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net and The British Art Journal. Email:

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