Who wouldn’t like a nice Picasso or Jackson Pollock hanging in his or her living room? Unfortunately we don’t all have the means to obtain one. But that’s not to say we can’t get our art-loving hands on something almost as good.
Lithographic printing is a process that makes it possible to create faithful copies of drawings and paintings en masse. It’s distinct from other printing processes because it makes use of chemical reactions rather than etched and cut materials, so it’s especially useful in the copying of delicate planar works of art.
Invention of the Lithograph
The story of the lithograph centers on Alois Senefelder, a German actor and playwright born in 1771 who dabbled in inventing. He was confident that he had big potential as a writer of comedic plays, but he found that he couldn’t write copies of his works fast enough to make them profitable. Eventually, he started experimenting with methods for making mechanical copies.
In time he developed the litho method of printing, using cheap limestone from Bavaria to practice a technique called reverse imaging, to transfer his plays from copper plates. He also developed a correction fluid using soap, wax, lamp black, and rainwater, and discovered through careful experimentation that this fluid created a water-resistant image when painted onto the limestone. He patented the technique called lithography in 1799.
In 1817, Senefelder designed a press that would perform the process automatically. The first of these to come to the United States arrived two years later. The genius of this invention was that transfer of an image or text no longer required the employment of someone skilled in reverse imaging. The process had been democratized.
Photolithography was born a little later, in the mid-1800s, under the auspices of French chemist Alphonse Louis Poitevi. The process became widespread in the 1870s with the invention of the lithographic offset press.
How are Lithographs Made?
Unlike linoleum cuts and woodcuts, lithography does not depend on variations in the surface of the printing material. Instead, it makes use of chemistry (Senefelder originally called it “chemical printing”) and the proclivities of different materials with regard to grease and water.
An artist draws a complete picture with a greasy material on a limestone surface, and then chemically treats the stone with rosin and talc – which embed the drawing into the stone – and gum Arabic. Next, the stone is buffed with cheese cloth and the drawing material is washed off the stone with the grease solvent lithotine. At this point the drawing disappears from the stone, or seems to; in fact, a ghost image of it remains.
The original drawing material is then replaced with asphaltum, which is ink-receptive; then the stone is wet and covered with a colored greasing ink, spread over the image using an ink roller. The stone is then put through a press several times to set the ink into it, and finally the stone is ready to make copies of the original drawing. It’s best if the paper used for printing has a high cotton content.
The widespread use of Bavarian limestone ended in the 1920s or 30s; today the process is performed commercially on specially made textured aluminum plates. Limestone is still used, however, in special boutique printing shops and at art schools.
Senefelder may have invented the process to make a quicker buck (or Deutschmark) on his plays, but he performed the added good deed of democratizing the art world. It’s a whole lot easier to get a hold of a Dali or a Van Gogh thanks to lithographic printing.