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What's a Lithograph?

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What is Lithography?


Lithography is a relatively young form of printmaking.  An amateur comedic playwright named Alois Senefelder in 1798 invented it when he was looking for a way to publish multiple copies of his plays and songs.  A complete account of the invention of this process is given in Senefelder's Complete Course of Lithography.  With the incredible commercial possibilities of the technique in mind, Senefelder had it patented in Munich in 1799.  In 1837, Godefroy Engelmann patented a color printing technique called "Lithocolourprinting or Lithographs in color imitating painting."  His use of the phrase "imitating painting" shows that printmaking was to some extent not yet considered an autonomous medium of fine art.


Lithography had a difficult enough time being accepted as a legitimate technique, let alone as a "high" art form.  In 1825, Goya produced a series of lithographs titled The Bulls of Bordeaux that was very successful. 

Goya lithograph - The Bulls of Bordeaux Goya lithograph - The Bulls of Bordeaux

Use of the technique by other European artists of the nineteenth century, such as Gericault and Delacroix, brought some prestige and acceptance to lithography in the world of fine art. 


Still many people saw it merely as a less expensive means to own a work of art by a renowned painter.  It also was commonly used for commercial and popular purposes such as advertisement posters.  At the beginning of the 20th century lithography again fell into disfavor among the art world, but its commercial uses were still exploited.  More recently in the 20th century it found a well-respected place among fine art techniques, and now is seen as an important technique with unique expressive capabilities.


The technique of lithography (from the Greek for "stone drawing") relies on "the principle of the antipathy of grease and water."  Generally, the stone on which the image is initially created is limestone.  The image is drawn on the stone with some greasy material.  After the image is drawn, the stone is dampened and ink is applied with a roller.  The greasy image repels the water and holds the oily ink while the rest of the stone's surface does the opposite.  The stone is chemically treated after the image is created in order to enhance this effect.  Some materials for drawing the image are litho crayons and pencils (containing wax, pigment, soap and shellac), liquid tusche (similar in composition to the crayons but water soluble), stick tusche (a solid form), conte crayons, pens and graphite pencils to name a few.


The finished stone is placed on a bed that carries it through the press.  The paper is placed on top of the stone with some backing papers to protect it.  A sheet of metal or plastic is placed on top of all the materials and they are braced together.  A roller underneath that is turned by a handle moves the bed.  This is similar to the intaglio press except that a scraper bar instead of a roller applies the pressure from above.  The scraper bar slides along the greased metal plate pressing the paper against the stone so that it lifts the ink from where the greasy drawing material holds it on the stone.


Color lithography is a more complex process that usually involves multiple pressings, one for each color in the image.  This requires an extensive knowledge of color theory because the process requires the mixing of colors on the final image itself.  According to one book on lithography technique, "The original color drawing should be treated as a guide for the final print, not as a finished work to be duplicated exactly."  Different stones are sometimes used for each color but the same stone can be used for multiple colors.


Because of the equipment used and the knowledge and skill required for the printing process, lithography lends itself to collaboration between an artist and a printer.  Even pulling a proof of a large lithograph requires two people.  A recent exhibit at a gallery focuses on collaboration as an important aspect of the production of prints.  Working with a skilled printer the artist can know exactly how to achieve certain effects and how the print can benefit most from the chosen medium.


As a result of the variety of the materials that can be used and the versatility of the imagery that can be represented as the artist creates directly on the stone, lithography is an excellent medium for modern artistic expression.  What other printmaking technique could allow Willem De Kooning to create such expressive sweeping forms as in his Untitled lithograph from 1970?

Robert Rauschenberg's lithograph - Accident
                           Willem De Kooning - lithograph Untitled

Robert Rauschenberg's lithograph Accident is an example of the dialogue between modern imagery and the technological advances in the artistic world.  In this case the stone broke during the trial proofing.  He created another version of the work that also broke.  He proceeded to print final proofs from the broken stone anyway.  The break and some pieces that were a result of it are clearly visible in the final print.  The accidental occurrence has been incorporated into the art, and the piece carries an appropriate name.  Lithography provides an opportunity to reproduce the completely original and spontaneous creation of an artist.

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