9 unknown color proof gouaches from Hergé’s hand

The history of these 9 great pictures is part of the genesis of Tintin in color. It tells us how these images were born, 9 very well known images that have influenced us generation after generation for 60 years …. We reveal here that these colouring proofs  in watercolor and gouache by Hergé himself were more important to him than the realization of the 9 corresponding ink drawings. As we unveil the importance of these color masterpieces, whose historical and artistic value should exceed that of China inks in the future, in line with the front Tintin cover’s gouaches of the 30’s…


1930-1936: 5 mythical covers of inestimable value  :

A1 4 PICouverture de l'album Tintin au Pays des Soviets

There are only 5 covers made by Hergé in the early 30’s, in « full color », painted in gouache, for the 5 first black and white albums : Soviets, Congo, America (Arcurial sold the front cover more than € 1.3 million) Cigars and Lotus. These works of Hergé are true paintings, made of drawing, gouache and watercolor. Hergé demonstrate in these artworks a mastery as a « painter », that we find only a few years later, when he work on color proofs for the 9 large images of front cover for new B&W editions.



 1937-1941: outline drawings, color on layer : Hergé is frustrated :

Procédé d’indication de couleurs par calques pour un hors texte de l’Ile Noire
Method for indicating colors by layers for a « Hors texte » from the Black Island`

From 1937, to the frustration of Hergé, another technique was used by Casterman, not only for hors-texte illustrations, but also for small cover images : outline drawings and color indications on layer for « The Broken Ear », « The Black Island », « King Ottokar’s Sceptre » , « The Crab with The Golden Claws »… Hergé was very dissatisfied with this technique as he stated in a letter on the 11th of August 1941 : about the small cover image of the Crab with the Golden Claws :

  »I do everything I can to make a colorful cover illustration, attractive and « advertising », and here’s the result : a bland drawing, without relief, with pale and faded  tones. I had indicated a more sustained blue for the sky, a lighter yellow for sand (…) nothing, or almost nothing, has been respected (…) I do not place myself only in the perspective of a betrayed designer …. « 

Hergé fut très insatisfait de la petite image du Crabe dont les couleurs furent indiquées par calque

Hergé was very dissatisfied with the small image of the Crab whose colors had been indicated by tracing on layer

1941: The color technique revelation :

If Hergé reacts, it is because he has discovered a new process 15 days earlier, when working on the 4 hors-textes for the Crab with the Golden Claws : june 29, 1941 : « One of my colleagues, who used to work for the off-set claims that the drawings must be colored with watercolor, not on a layer, but directly on the outline drawing « . Then, August 8, 1941 : Hergé wrote: » I agreed with Bindels (The photogravure) : from these drawings, he will draw a test that I will color directly in watercolor or gouache « 

Mise en couleur et tirage pour 2 des 4 hors textes du Crabe aux Pinces d’Or
Coloring and printing for 2 out of 4 hors texts from the Crab with the Golden Claws
Gouache de mise en couleur Crabe de Hergé
Colorproof’s gouache for one of the 4 « hors textes » from the Crab with the Golden Claws

This new technique obsesses Hergé throughout this period : he wrote August, 28 : « I was busy setting the colors for the hors-textes (a famous work !) I just finished » « The whole is good (…) and anyway, it looks better than the process with outline drawings « 

These four hors textes made out by Hergé will « trigger » the passage of Tintin to color. Henceforth, Hergé will continually explore the possibilities of setting color, on the one hand for a first color album, « The Shooting Star » in late 1942, but at the same time as this, on the other hand, for the redesign of 8 Black & WhiteTintin’s existing covers

A5 HT crabeHTCR3ColHTcr1

March 1942 : Hergé has only one project : remake album covers and redesign Tintin for color :

On March 3, 1942, the project is launched. Indeed, the cream paper of small picture covers cannot be replenished. It is therefore decided to carry out the covers in « full picture » and in offset for the 8 existing black and white albums and for the color novelty, that mean 9 new covers so-called « big pictures ». They will be printed on the large color « hors textes » printer. Charles Lesne had sent to Hergé an album which he considered very successful because of its drawing coverage  with semitones, gradients, shadows and light, etc … Hergé already reacts follower of the clear line : « The Louis XI album is indeed a pretty success. [...] But in this case, the importance is only given to color, unlike my drawings whose outline is the real frame. I cannot afford, and moreover, I am unable, I admit it, to do all the subtleties, midtones, gradients, light effects as the illustrator of this book, which is primarily a painter, and has managed with real happiness. »

And he recalls his experience of Crab’s « hors textes », he now wishes to renew this expérience for the next 9 covers : « The method that works best is that of a black drawing, colored afterwards on printer’s proof » (March 5, 1942).

Hergé has requested the return of his original cover’s drawings to get to work. On 15 March 1942, Hergé has finished tracing 2 drawings (The « Crab » and the « Ear ») Hergé ends on the last drawing on May 18, 1942. 9 images were thus created … in 2 months ! 22nd of may is Pentecost and Charles Lesne wrote to Hergé : « May the Holy Spirit continue to inspire you good stories, to the delight of a crowd of kids. « 

Pour la réalisation des dessins de couverture, Hergé a procédé par simple report des anciens dessins des petites images For the production of the cover drawings, Hergé proceeded by simple transfer of the old drawings of the small images

June 1942: Hergé runs out on the 9 color proof gouaches :

On May 20, the 9 drawings are submitted to photogravure Bindels. On June 8, Bindels returns to Hergé the 9 « blue proofs » for the color. It is in Hergé’s letter, 1942 june 10, (which we publish here the copy) that all lights on the extreme importance attached to this color up work.

In this letter, Hergé writes: « After the effort I have provided to finish the covers (12 hours per day) … I’m totally gutted ‘

Lettre de Hergé du 10 juin 1942

Hergé’s letter, june 10, 1942

Charles Lesne congratulates Hergé. June 11 :  » When carrying this letter, we just received from Bindels the 9 color proofs of the covers. They are gorgeous ! I return them back to Bindels this evening and ask him to work in emergency « 

 And Hergé answers on June 12 (handwritten note in the margin of his letter of june 10) : « Glad you like the covers : it already reward me for the work it required… »

And on June 20, Hergé gives to Bindels the « layouts » of the 9 covers (see for example the Shooting Star). Following this work, Hergé will fall in a first depression related to overwork, not returning to work before July 1942 …

Nevertheless, he has invested all his energy to achieve THE graphical masterpiece of his life: 9 covers in large color images, today mythical images of the twentieth century and for most, world famous !

3 gouaches de couvertures de la main d'Hergé
3 colorproof gouaches from Hergé’s hand
3 gouaches de couverture de la main d'Hergé
3 colorproof gouaches from Hergé’s hand


3 couvertures imprimées
3 printed covers

3 couvertures imprimées 2

Une des « mises en page » réalisées par Hergé pour les couvertures
One of the « layouts » made by Hergé for the covers

Unknown mastepieces :

 This covers genesis is unknown to most Hergé’s specialists. This is by putting it into perspective with Hergé’s work on color between 1930 and 1942 that suddenly we understand the extreme importance of Hergé’s creative gesture in accomplishing these nine gouaches, which succeed to the paintings of small images.

Moreover, the reading of the correspondence made us realize that to Hergé, the realization of China inks, essentially by copying the drawings of small images, is a minor work in relation to the huge investment he provided to accomplish the color proofs.

If we need to be convinced,  it is sufficient to compare Hergé’work on mushroom Shooting Star cover : between the ink drawing which is empty … and the gouache colorproof which is a masterpiece !

Paintings from the hand of Hergé :

Yet the original market undervalues ​​colorproof gouaches compared with ink drawings. The shooting star case is a perfect example : the cover ink was sold for more than € 2 Millions a few years ago… Why would the value of color gouache not be greater ? It is all painted by the artist’s hand and not copied with ink….

A droite, détail du dessin à l’encre du champignon A gauche, la mise en couleur d’Hergé d’une part, le vide du dessin à l’encre d’autre part le chatoiement de son expression en couleur, à la gouache, à l’aquarelle et aux crayons de couleur.

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