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What Exactly is a Lithography Print?
A closer look 05 Sep 2022

What Exactly is a Lithography Print?

lithography print
La Fouise, Maurice Estève, 1973, available on Artsper

A true work of art, yet reproducible by the hundreds, and even thousands, lithography is the most popular print method known. Despite this undeniable popularity, few people really know what the process is or how one is made. Artsper offers to demystify this process, so that lithography prints will no longer be a mystery to you!

The birth of the lithography print

Invented in 1796, lithography is a Greek word combining lithos which means stone and graphein which means writing. As its name indicates it, it consists in marking a stone in order to carry out the printing process. We owe this invention to the German actor and playwright Aloys Senefelder. Annoyed at not finding a publisher for his texts, he decided to engrave them himself on stone in order to reproduce many copies.

This was followed by numerous experiments where he discovered the formular for making lithography prints. The process must be carried out on a limestone having a very fine grain, smooth and without the slightest hitch. The ideal stone is that of the quarries of Solnhofen, in Bavaria. It must be between 7 and 10 centimeters thick and its two sides must be perfectly parallel. Although the classic lithography print is done with stone, new techniques have also emerged over the decades. It is now possible to use aluminum or zinc plates, which are easier to find than limestone.

Incantation, Alphons Mucha, 1987
Alphons Mucha, Incantation, 1987

The use of basic chemistry principles

So, how exactly does the lithography print process work? The principle is simple: draw on a stone, then duplicate the image by pressing it against a sheet of paper. But in reality, it is a much more complex process. To understand it, remember this basic rule of chemistry: water does not mix with greasy or oily substances. In order to prepare the stone, it must first be sanded with abrasives, water and soap.

Then comes the fateful step of drawing directly on the stone with grease pencils or lithographic ink. The latter can be applied with a brush or a pen. There are two major technical constraints for artists who make lithography. First, they must draw upside down, in view of the future printing. Secondly, they must not put their hand on the printing surface, in order to avoid any risk of grease smudges. To facilitate this complex step, it is possible to use tracing paper.

lithography print
Michel Delacroix, Metropolitain, 1986, available on Artsper

Lithography print: the art of printing

After the drawing phase, the talcum is applied to the image, then covered with gum arabic and acetic acid. This makes it possible to bring out the composition and to fix it on the stone. Then the surface is moistened so that only the greasy areas are printed on the paper. Finally, the composition is transferred by pressing a sheet against the stone with a rubber roller.

Going Out, David Hockney, 1993
David Hockney, Going Out, 1993

Chromolithography, an additional challenge

Already a complex process, the lithography process described above only offers monochromatic results. However, there are lithographs in color, up to 30 different shades. So, how does it work? Well, it is a matter of using a different stone for each shade, starting with the lightest shade. This is a meticulous and laborious technique, requiring the ability to cut by color or reproduce the work to the nearest millimeter. In addition, if one color overlaps another, a third shade is created. A real headache, made easier thanks to the help of chromists, who support some artists in their lithographic printing.

lithography print
Georges Braque, L’Iris, 1963, available on Artsper

Lithography printing is old, but never out of fashion

Lithography is a two-century-old process that is still very popular. But this is no coincidence: despite its initial complexity, it offers the possibility of printing infinitely. It allowed artists such as Salvador Dalí, Toulouse-Lautrec, Georges Braque, Joan Miró, among others, to diffuse their work on a large scale. And today, artists like JR, Laksamana Ryo or Felipe Pantone continue to offer wonderful lithographs!