Sunday, May 31, 2009

Dead Tech: Zipatone

Zipatone is an obsolete graphic design material that would let you place a halftone dot screen across an area of a black and white illustration. Also marketed as Letratone, it came a thin plastic film with a slight adhesive over a backing sheet.


The dot pattern came in a variety of gray-tone percentages and in different sizes of dots, measured as lines per inch. The one shown here was a very sophisticated gradated tone.

The way you used it was to place it over your drawing on a light table, cut out the shape with a very sharp knife, carefully lift it, and place it over the drawing. For a very complicated shape, you could place a larger piece over the drawing and cut away what you didn't want.

There were a lot of pitfalls to those steps: cutting through the drawing, getting the stuff to fold up on itself, getting a speck of junk behind it, where it attracted a noticeable shadow. My memories of the stuff aren't that happy and glowing.

Previous Dead Tech post on waxers.

30 comments:

Pat said...

I think Manga artists still use that or something similar.

Judith Hunt said...

Your Dead Tech posts are interesting in that they cover material no artist/graphic designer in countries with access to computers will ever use/ever know the frustration of using.
How often and how much of this material did you use yourself and where?

Drew said...

There are still some places that carry zipatone for some reason or another. I remember a local art store back in Florida had a small shelf space reserved for the stuff.

It was priced though I think at a crazy price of $13.00-$16.00 though, which made me wonder if it was far cheaper way back when.

James Gurney said...

Judith, I grew up in northern California, and started out as a freelancer doing lettering, comics, and illustration in high school (mid-1970s). I also worked in paste-up at small advertising agencies and newspapers before I headed off to college. For all of those jobs, I did a lot of pen and ink work for print.

jeff jordan said...

What I remember most about this stuff was finding a bag of partially used sheets several years after I had stopped doing commercial graphics. Early 80s I think. Stuck together, tiny parts of a page you'd never be able to find a way to use, but you never knew if it might come in handy. Dead or hardened adhesive, on and on.
A MESS, in other words. Good to move on.......

Jean Spitzer said...

Very optimistic name: zipatone. From your description, sounds like much skill is necessary to use the stuff well.

Madeline Carol Matz said...

Indeed, manga has resurrected the devilish stuff. I was surprised to see it reappear a bit ago: letraset at dickblick

Brine Blank said...

Still know some silk screeners that use the stuff...

Great posts on the subject...I came in at the transition period on some of these things in college...which actually makes me a bit grateful...doing things the old way helped hone my skills and be able to envision things better...even going through the delicate process of rubylithe only to find out I was so focused I did all my cutting on the wrong side...I relate that to the way sometimes people screw things up on the computer...so focused on the minutia that you overlook the basic baby steps and end up with major disasters...but you only do it once or twice...kind of like sticking a key in an outlet...

Erik Bongers said...

I used it too a couple of times.
But abandonned it quickly for the reasons you mentioned.
And also, the result never really looked pleasing.

Drew said...

Incidentally, if anyone still pines for the look that zipatone can give, it's quite possible to do it up in photoshop authentically.

Basically, make a new document whatever size you'd like in grayscale, make it the gradation, pattern, or flat color you'd like, then switch Image Modes to bitmap. I believe as you switch to bitmap, you select halftone from the choices, and it creates the dot-tone look that zipatone has.

From there, it's a matter of saving the document as is, then when you have your artwork ready for toning, just drag and drop the stuff onto your art, and erase what you don't need.

Nina Johansson said...

Deleter is one brand that started making these screens again, for Manga artists. I think they are rather complicated to use, but they do give a cool effect to ink drawings.

Carolyn Ann Pappas said...

I have been interested in primitive techniques lately and love inking. I'm glad the manga people have kept it in production because I think I might just try it...

DavidStill said...

Could you manipulate the dots somehow? Scrape off a few where you wanted a slightly lighter tone? I imagine it would be a bit limiting otherwise, if you wanted to make something a bit more complex, where the gradation follows the form...

kev ferrara said...

Even though I dislike the stuff, it does give a very good mechanical-ness to play against the organic-ness of normal ink work. But if the work isn't organic and flowing, zipatone's mechanical-ness can really clash with it.

The more organic zipatone patterns seemed to be cheating, to me. And didn't actually save any time because the patterns were just as easy to draw as cut and paste on.

Kev

P.S. Roy Lichtenstein.

Smurfswacker said...

I was another one who used this "primitive" technique. Except for expensive and hard-to-find Craftint paper, Zip was about the only cheap way to put a gray tone onto line art. You could make a rubylith overlay and specify a percentage for the printer to add to the negative, but that cost extra and syndicates, comics publishers etc. didn't want to pay for it.

Personally I liked Zipatone...just the grays, not the odd patterns. It added extra "zip" (har har) to b&w comics like the Undergrounds. If you were careful it could look good under comic book color, too. Wallace Wood's and Al Williamson's work are the best examples. To answer David Still's question, Certain brands of shading film (e.g. Letratone) were top-printed. You could scrape the dots away with an X-acto knife. It was possible to soften a tone's edge this way by "hatching" with the blade. However it was easy to press too hard and rip the film. I found Zip was best for separating levels in a drawing: a light gray over a complicated background, for instance, to make the foreground pop.

The biggest problem with Zip (as with Prestype) was deadline night when you ran out of 20% gray with an inch left to cover. Then you had to use scraps to fill the area. Trying to line up the dots was a bitch.

dzart said...

I think there are quite a few number of manga artists who still use this stuff.
It looks like a nightmare to me. Thank god for Photoshop.

Steven K said...

I did one project with zipatone and swore I'd retire before I ever used it again.

On the other hand, there were comics artists list Marchall Rogers, Wally Wood, and Terry Austin who worked wonders with that stuff.

Roy Crane, of course, was famous for his use of Craftint paper on "Buzz Sawyer" to effectively create monochrome paintings in dot patterns that printed beautifully at the time but have since been a nightmare to reprint.

inkdestroyedmybrush said...

Used the stuff for years, and, shockingly, still have some here in my studio! Yes, i declined to actually throw the remnants out, even though i should have years ago.

I actually really like the look of the stuff when used properly. gave you the option to add some tints and techniques that you couldn't get otherwise, and you knew that it would actually reproduce.

James Gurney said...

J Stremikis emailed me with a fascinating blog comment that he had trouble posting for some technical reason, but here it is:

"Zipatone was used by the ton by tv meteorologists in the late 70's/early 80's - for cloud shapes, radar mapping, and for temperature band mapping. The shapes were applied to base maps - preparation took many hours prior to the broadcast. And, these finished maps were very difficult to update.

Typically, a map would be enlarged about 20 times bigger than the original 8 x 10 in. map, and placed behind the weathercaster, on-air. So, mistakes and moire patterns (overlapping Zipatone fields) were highly exaggerated. Moire patterns often made a field "crawl" when
broadcast.

Zipatone (and tape) was also used by the ton in weather graphics prepared for print - for publishing research articles (such as in Monthly Weather Review), or for graduate theses. The Moire patterns could result in enormous headaches - and "redo's" - in order to reach MWR editorial print standards.

It seemed the weather-graphics industry supported the Zipatone Corp., at least prior to computerized weather graphics coming on the scene in (in early 1979).

I remember the sheets surface took Rapidograph inks very very well. It was a real pleasure to work with.

I also remember that this Zipatone stuff was obsoleted in about 5 years.

It's easy to understand why Manga artists are keeping this stuff alive - I'd expect comics and graphic-novel folks are, too.

Photoshop still leaves a lot to be desired. Much as difference between Painter and real watercolors. Or sketching on a computer screen with a Wacom tablet, vs. using real pens or pencils."

Thanks, J. Stremikis!

DavidStill said...

Wow, as a son of the Digital Age, it's easy to forget that everything really had to be made by hand before, even weather maps! Long live craftsmanship!

Andrew Wales said...

I've only used this once, but I really enjoyed it. I wouldn't mind getting my hands on some. I know that things can be done on Photoshop. I still enjoy the art making process better when I can do things by hand.

Random York said...

I have always loved the look of this stuff in comics, I love the way it looks in the old cyberpunk manga of the '80s too.

Beth said...

Yep. Manga artists use this quite frequently, although it should be noted that most of the professionals have at least a small staff of assistants who are the ones who have to deal with all the painstaking process that the screen tones entail.

However, there are also a number of manga-making programs specifically designed to create manga pages, which have a large bank of screen tones installed. You can, of course, also download digital tones for use in Photoshop, since a lot of the specialty programs aren't sold outside Japan.

It's definitely become part of the trademark look of manga, whether it's done digitally or in the old-fashioned way. Greyscale comics might save on printing costs, but they've also certainly become an art form of their own, sometimes even beating out the fully colored comics we get here in the US, I think.

Paul said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul said...

I learned how to use tone in Japan. Their speciality manga tones were much easier to scrape with the back of a knife than the US brands. You could get great results layering various types over a pen and ink drawing.

Manga Studio ( http://my.smithmicro.com/win/mangaex/index.html ) offers a huge variety of tones in an electronic format.

(Reposted with better link)

treplovski said...

I love the stuff, I've probably used a cubic acre of it in my lifetime and would love to get my hands on some more. As a screenprint designer, I used it in the darkroom, sandwiched between film negatives to create eye-bending Moscoso-like effects.
Rick Griffin used to sand layers of Zipatone to create a feathered look.

The first time I truly felt my age was when I was showing a young colleague some late 1970s work by William Stout. He said, "WOW, is that all done on the computer?" I said, no, that's done with Zipatone. His reply: "Zipatone? ...What is THAT?"

-AO said...

LOL too bad about your bad experiences with Zip-A-Tone. When I was growing up in the '80s, Marvel Comics inkers like Terry Austin, Gene Day and Bob Layton made the stuff sing. It's an art unto itself and I still prefer it to any digital solutions, the least of which being the tone is directly on your line art for sale or display later, rather than big white spaces where you added tones digitally. I could probably lay it faster by hand, as well. Digital solutions often entail many frustrating and unnecessary steps IMO (the nerds who design programs make then complicated on purpose) and I try to avoid Photoshop as much as possible. You can still find the stuff at old mom and pop art supply stores here and there, off in a corner along with Presstype. (it's a hell of a lot easier to lay type on a Mac than tones). I found a cache of old Zip for $1 a page where I live. As the other commenter Madeline pointed out it has also been repackaged as "manga screen tones" and can be found at places like Blick.

PS: Is that the Judith Hunt who used to do a comic called "Evangeline" back in the day????

Maurice said...

I used to use something called "Cat's Paw" zipatone, which had an irregular, "organic" look to it, ie the dots weren't laid out in straight rows. It could give a very nice effect. Can't find it anywhere online for love nor money, not even a mention... Anyone know what I'm talking about?

James Gurney said...

Maurice, I remember that pattern, but I didn't know it had a name.

extremophile said...

When I was about 6 or 7 I thought for a while that the inkers did some sort of insanely regular hatching, when I saw that other sort of linear zip-a-tones that Severin (I don't know which one) used to use on Cracked magazine. Gene Ha does almost that, however.