Coloring of Antique Maps

Some maps were never meant to be colored, like most of the woodcuts or the early copper engravings of people like Ruscelli, but most antique maps look better with appropriate hand color. It was not until the 17th Century, when the superb maps by Blaeu and others were individually colored by hand at that time. The depth and splendor of some of the early colors was based on the preparation of pigments, some of which are not now available – a lost art.

Ideally one would like to find a map with original hand color, also know as contemporary color, that was applied at the time it was printed. However, not all original hand color was well done or even applied correctly. So-called ‘later’ or ‘modern’ hand color, skillfully applied, can be aesthetically pleasing, but only if done in a style appropriate to the mapmaker or the map’s period.

Maps were originally colored to enhance appearance and readability. Generally three or four colors (green, pink, orange and yellow) distinguished political subdivisions, black was used for names, red colored cathedrals or other buildings distinguish large cities and blue stands for water.

Many maps and prints were colored at the time of printing. Some care must be taken when buying these, to ensure that no oxidization has taken place – Greens and browns in particular tend to ‘burn’ through the paper. Burning may be an unavoidable blemish in some maps from the 1600’s You should always hold any item you are interested in up to the light, to check not just for any such ‘burning’, but also to see whether there are any defects, such as small worm holes, evidence of repairs, etc.

Modern Color. Often older maps issued without color have color added in whole or in part. Any color added long after the map was issued is referred to as modern color. Modern color can be skillfully applied. If it is skillfully applied and historically correct it is often difficult to distinguish from contemporary color. If you are in doubt you can ask us, for we can usually distinguish between the two.

Many antique maps or prints that were originally published uncolored, have had modern coloring applied, or can be colored to order. Normally sizing” will be applied to the surface of the print before coloring, to prevent the paint from “burning” the paper.

Whether or not you decide to have a map colored is very much a matter of personal taste. The purists will argue that the map or engraving should be left in its original state. Others may prefer the added enjoyment of seeing their collection in attractive colors, particularly when the intention is to mate and frame them for display in the home or work place.

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