So, what’s up with the crocodile mystery for March? As I said in the comments, Tom Reedy was verrrrry close with “It looks like some sort of device using punctures along a line to allow powder or ink to pass through and transfer the outline of a drawing to another surface.” It isn’t itself such a device. Rather, it is evidence of such a device having been made. It is an extreme close-up of the back of an early 17th-century print that was used to create a pin-prick stencil:
Back of plate 20 of Folger copy of Crispijn van de Passe, Hortus floridus, 1615
Front of plate 20 from Folger copy of Crispijn van de Passe, Hortus floridus, 1615
From the front, you can see that it’s an engraving of two carnations. The one on the left has been “pricked for transfer,” as art historians would say, perhaps to make an embroidery pattern.
Transferring the design so that the original print isn’t partially obliterated is a multi-step process:
- Place a sturdy piece of paper or vellum under the original print.
- Poke holes along the design lines, pressing hard enough to poke through the paper or vellum underneath, turning it into a stencil.
- Place the stencil (sometimes called a “pounce”) on top of the fabric or other surface that will receive the design.
- “Pounce” the template by taking fine powder (sometimes called “pounce”) in a contrasting shade and forcing it through the pin holes using a dabber (sometimes called a “pounce”) made from a tightly rolled bundle of fabric or from a dowel with a cloth pad on the bottom. Alternatively, take a fabric bag filled with powder (a “pounce-bag”) and dab that along the pin holes.
- Remove the stencil, then blow or shake any excess powder off the fabric, revealing the dotted lines of the pattern.
I’ll admit that the carnation on the left looks grubbier than the one on the right, so it’s possible that the print itself was pounced, then cleaned up. I think the extent of the shadowing and the weight of the paper makes it unlikely, but please accept my apologies if that isn’t the case. Maybe I just can’t bear the thought of someone covering a Crispijn van de Passe engraving with charcoal dust.
Modern embroiderers still sometimes use this “prick and pounce” method to transfer images. Mary Corbet has a blog post that clearly illustrates the technique (note that the “vellum” mentioned in the post isn’t animal skin, but modern drafting vellum, the smooth, sturdy, translucent paper commonly used for architectural plans). Pouncing is also a traditional way to transfer actual-size designs for oil paintings and frescoes onto the working surface. Not surprisingly, a Google Image search for “pouncing” brings up lions and tigers rather than artists using pin-pricked images; the Italian term “spolvero” works much better if you’d like to see some modern examples.
One curious thing about the crocodile image itself: it looks to many (most?) people like the pin-pricks were made from the unprinted side of the paper.
If I stare at it long enough, the optical illusion reverses itself. The pin holes suddenly “pop out” in the correct direction, where they look (to me) like little open mouths poking up through the surface. But if I look away, they return to the poked-in illusion as soon as I look back. The same thing happens in real life when you look at the ceiling of the Exhibition Hall at the Folger:
Detail of the Folger Exhibition Hall ceiling.
Is the design carved into the surface, or does it stick out?