The process for reproducing Gray's Watercolors known
as pochoir (po-shwah) (literally, the use of stencils)
has been in use for centuries, and although the word 'stencil'
often conjures an image of bold outlines and singular colors,
it is from an old French word meaning 'to sparkle' - quite
a different image.
A Gray's pochoir, The Courthouse,
Flemington, N.J. Late 1800's, shown above in process,
top to bottom: stencil preparation, testing, initial
watercolor application, and finished watercolor print.
The word itself came into being as late as 1874, but the
process has been in use for coloring monochrome prints since
the 15th century in the West and much earlier in the Far East,
and, historically, its applications have been widespread
from 18th century fabric decoration in Japan to fine art books
in France to the work of Braque and Utrillo in the 19th and
20th centuries. The process was introduced in England in 1926
by a printer named Curwen, who initially used copper for stencils,
then celluloid, and in 20th century America in the studio
of Martha Berrien, who also used celluloid for stencils.
According to Elizabeth Harris of the National Museum of History
and Technology, "Pochoir is hard to classify
is a sort of anomaly today. It is not strictly printing, nor
is it just hand-coloring; it is not 'original' by the definition
of the Print Council (which stipulates an original print as
one printed by the artist or under his supervision from a
master image made on plate, stone, or block by the artist
himself); equally it is not mechanical because the colorists
.Pochoir fits none of the conventional categories
Interestingly, Gray's pochoir process evolved independently
- and finally incorporated elements not generally associated
with the process, before or since. Although Gray's
founder, Paul McConaughy, had been an Art History major, and
although during the 1950's and '60's he had searched for a
cost-efficient way of producing watercolor prints in limited
numbers, the pochoir process and its history remained unknown
to him during all the developmental years, only coming to
his attention in the late '80s. It was Currier & Ives,
the 19th century print makers, who had given him the idea
of hand coloring monograph prints, but it was his own trial
and error experimentation, first with stencils of unstable
plastics and inexact cutting tools, that finally led him to
mylar of a specific gauge and a significantly modified soldering
iron that produced the highly effective stencils used by Gray's.
Additionally, where other pochoir processes used fuzzy, thick
brushes for color application with the stencils, McConaughy
developed modified spray equipment for application of actual
premium-grade watercolor paints.
Traditionally, pochoir is employed by an artist who draws
the pen line of the subject, then uses a series of stencils
as guides in adding color. In the art reproduction process
used by Gray's, the original piece of artwork was drawn
and painted by hand, then reproduced as a black and white
lithograph on which watercolor was overlaid by skilled artisans.
The earliest Gray's pochoirs - using stencils almost
exclusively and in relatively limited numbers - are markedly
different from the later ones in which the pochoir process
had evolved into a far more sophisticated system of color
overlay, using a series of many stencils and hand detailing,
a process which produced an extraordinary range and subtlety
of color, giving a sense of 'original' to each reproduction.
Gray's use of pochoir has been unique in the United
States, both in the quantity and sophistication of the reproductions.
Upwards of a million prints were created in Gray's
studios, and some years ago when attempts were made to copy
its specific pochoir technique, the courts declared Gray's
process to be legally 'secret ' and one that could not be
appropriated by others at will.
With the death in the late '90's of Gray's stencil
artist, Mary Elizabeth Johnson, an extraordinary talent was
lost; however, her gifts live on in the legacy of Gray's
sparkling watercolor pochoir prints, created in large part
by her magic.
Detailed hand finishing of pochoir
prints in the studios of Gray's Watercolors
With the advent of new technologies, approaching the year
2000 the pochoir method was retired by Gray's - and
with the closing of another chapter of pochoir history, the
start of another innovative chapter of Gray's Watercolors.