The captivating beauty of “test” press sheets

Services, image by Lonnie Busch, Crater Line Design, Franklin, North Carolina

What are test press sheets? Years ago I worked for a design studio called Steven Blives and Associates in St. Louis, MO. As one of the senior designers there, I occasionally had the responsibility of “following” a media job through the printing process, which meant, making sure that the first bunch of sheets off the press looked correct. This was long before home computers or digital printing. Back then, most everything was printed by the “offset” method, on presses that were often bigger than a mobile home. That’s where I first discovered “test” press sheets— multi-layered, richly-colored, almost dimensional works of art. Or at least they were to me.

Test press sheets have remarkable dimension

Looking down “into” these sheets opened up a world of complex design that intrigues and inspires me to this day. I won’t go into great detail about the offset printing process, but it required a great deal of set-up time. One of the early important steps revolved around the press operator running paper through the press. He did this in order to adjust the ink coverage. And he used test press sheets for this process to avoid wasting the actual paper.

A visual “history” of advertising ideas

But these sheets weren’t used once and thrown away. Instead, they were saved in stacks. Then used over and over, on myriad different jobs, creating a visual “history” of advertising ideas. Moreover, the press operators switched the sheets around, turning them backward and forward before feeding them through the press. This process sandwiched compositions together in haphazard and unpredictable ways. Consequently, this repeat usage  of sheets created tapestries of information both unique and remarkable.

…sandwiched together in such haphazard and unpredictable ways as to create tapestries of information…

But the test press sheets were not static. They changed over time. Offset printing employs the technique of combining yellow, cyan, magenta, and black together to create “full” color images. So, during the early “life” of the test sheet, the colors spanned the spectrum of greens, purples, oranges, ochres, deep blues, and so on. But as pressmen used the sheets over time, the colors deepened, usually toward dark reds, maroons, and purples due to the dominance of magenta and black. Not all though. Often bright colors shown through, which created motifs similar to the image I used for this post.

But what can you do with test press sheets?

Memory of this phenomenon inspired the artwork for the Featured Images on my Crater Line Design website. These printing test sheets were so visually appealing that we at Steve Blives and Associates used them as cover flaps to protect the finished art, paste-ups and layouts we presented to clients. The test press sheets were very impressive and made for unusual artwork flaps. But I often wondered if the press sheet flap was more captivating than the artwork it protected.

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