What exactly is a lithograph and what makes it unique as compared to other art prints? The answer to that has to do with a technique developed way back in the 1700s. This technique was based on a process of repelling oil and water. It was developed by Alois Senefelder who was an actor by profession and needed an inexpensive means of publishing scripts.
Originally a lithograph was created by applying oil or wax to a smooth stone. You have undoubtedly heard the expression “etched in stone”? It emphasizes the permanence of something. In the case of lithography that “stone” was traditionally limestone treated with an acidic gum. This gum seeped into the pores of the portion of the stone not protected by the oil based image or etching.
The stone was then made wet during the printing process, then an oil-based ink was applied. The ink adhered to the oil based image, but was repelled in the etched areas. Finally, the inked image was transferred onto paper, creating a permanent image or print.
Senefelder saw the potential for his lithographic process in other areas, such as in reprinting fine works of art. So after first developing the process in 1796, he continued to improve on it on into the nineteenth century, creating the multi-coloured printing technique now known as lithography.
Later, around 1837, Godfroy Engelman further developed lithography. Engelman’s process, known as chromolithography, required each colour to have its own stone, with the image being pressed again with each stone.
Lithographic techniques became very popular, especially with the British Army which, during the Peninsula War, found the technique very useful for inexpensively mass-producing military maps and drawings.
“Lithography is still used today in the production of maps and drawings as well as creating posters and reproducing artwork” explains Paul Batey from Showcase Creative, a printing specialist based in Surrey. Most text based publications are also reproduced by means of offset lithography. Most of today’s books and magazines, in fact, are produced by this means.
In this modern version of lithography, however, the “stone” is now an aluminum printing plate or some other similar material. The plate has a brushed texture and is covered with an emulsion that is photosensitive. A photo negative is thus created, which is then exposed to the emulsion and finally to an ultraviolet light.
Through this process, a reverse image is created which is a perfect replica of the original. This image is transferred onto a cylinder and dampened by water. Just as in the case of the original lithographic process, the ink is attracted to the emulsified area which at the same time is repelling water.
That image gets transferred to a second cylinder, one which is coated with a rubber blanket. Then it is dried. In the final step, paper is fed through the cylinder as well as through a counter-weighted cylinder, leaving an impression on the dry image.
Lithography and Art
Today with modern printing and computer technology, a digitized form of lithography is still being used in commercial printing. Lithography in all its various forms has contributed to the printing of some of the greatest and most well-known and well-loved works of art.
Such masters as Manet, Degas and Toulouse Lautrec are just a few of the artists from nineteenth century France who have availed themselves of the lithographic process to produce high quality, limited edition prints of their works.
Later, in the 1900s, Chagall and Picasso also made use of the process of lithography to print copies of their works, and, in fact, lithography itself has since taken its place in the modern art world as its own technique of fine art.