Artist Essay: What is a Lithograph?

Lithography (from the Greek words for “stone” and “writing”) is a type of printmaking using stones (Bavarian limestone) or metal plates (aluminum or zinc.) It is a planographic medium, meaning that the stone or plate is left completely flat, not carved (as with relief printing) or etched (as with intaglio.) Aloys Senefelder (1771-1834.) the German author who invented lithography, initially called his new process chemical printing, for it is based upon the principle that grease and water repel each other.
When making a lithograph the artist draws the image directly on to the stone with a greasy material (litho crayons or pencils of varying densities made from a mixture of grease and wax, or tusche for more painterly affects.) When the drawing is completed the surface is treated with a chemical etch (gum arabic with varying drops of nitric acid), which serves to bond the greasy drawing materials to the surface while making the open areas grease-repellent, or water-loving.

Once the stone is processed it’s ready to make prints. The image is washed out with a solvent called lithotine and replaced with asphaltum (a greasy, printing base that ink will adhere to.) Then the water-soluble gum arabic coating is washed off with water. While the stone is still damp it is rolled up with ink (the ink roller is generally made of leather-covered wood, resembling a rolling pin.) The greasy ink adheres to the grease-loving image while the water repels it from the undrawn, open areas.

Once the image is fully inked, the stone is dried, paper is laid over it and covered with a tympan. Then the stone, paper and tympan are passed under the scraper bar of the litho press (enormous pressure is used, so the stone must be thick enough to withstand it.) Once it passes through the press the tympan is removed and the paper is carefully pulled off, revealing a mirror-image of the inked drawing on the stone. The stone is then dampened again and re-inked for the next print. By repeating this process the artist can make as many prints as he or she desires.

Sometimes, after pulling some initial proofs, the artist may want to make changes to the image. Deletions can be made by scratching or honing (stone only) or by acid tinting (stone or plate.) Additions can be made by counter-etching the stone or plate, which allows new information to be added. Once the artist is fully satisfied with the image an edition of prints is made. The size of the edition is up to the artist, but it?s usually limited to less than a hundred (each print is considered an original lithograph however, whether printed by the artist or a collaborating printmaker.) Once the edition is completed the old image is removed from the stone by grinding it off with a levegator, allowing a new image to be drawn (only a paper-thin layer is removed, so litho stones can last long enough to make hundreds of prints.)

The first lithographs were printed with black ink only, but soon colored ink was added. Because of its planographic character, lithography was an ideal medium for making prints with multiple colors (each color must be printed separately however, layered on top of each other.) This attracted advertisers as well as well-known artists in the 19th and 20th centuries, who viewed the medium as a way to expand the possibilities of their art and make it available to a wider audience (thus printmaking came to be known as the “democratic art”.) Goya, Delacroix, Daumier, Degas, Munch, Manet, Miro, Bonnard, Whistler, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso and Chagall all made lithographs, as well as George Bellows, Arthur B. Davies, Joseph Pennell, Grant Wood, Currier and Ives, Rockwell Kent, John Sloan, Marsden Hartley, Raphael Soyer, John Steuart Curry, Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton, Stow Wengenroth, Wanda Gag and Jasper Johns in the U.S.