What is a Lithograph - A Particular Kind of Print

October 19, 2016

In an era besieged by 3D printers and virtual reality, lithograph to us appears as an antiquated concept belonging to times long passed. Once a popular technique, it has now almost completely disappeared from sight, giving space to new ideas and methods. Yet printing itself is not a new concept by any means. It first appeared as early 3000 BCE in what is considered the cradle of human civilization - Mesopotamia, where the use of round seals for rolling impressions into clay tablets seems the earliest material evidence of printmaking. After stencils which were widely used in ancient Egypt for decorating fabrics, woodblock printing came next, around 220 CE, first appearing in China and soon spreading throughout most of Asia and eventually Europe. Over 800 years later, in 1040 CE, movable type printing emerged, again in China, which was to revolutionize the spreading of printed information forever. It was essentially a system of printing and typography that used movable pieces of metal type (which were made by casting from matrices struck by letterpunches).

Quicker and more durable, the technology was a basis for the printing press that was to come into being in 1439, under the hand of Johannes Gutenberg of the German city of Mainz.[1] Along with the innovation of making and using oil-based ink (which lasted longer than the previously used water-based product), printing presses sprang up all over Europe, accelerating the spread of knowledge and thus becoming a major fuel behind the Renaissance movement. As far as the creation of images - engraving, etching and mezzotint remained the norm for several centuries. Each relied on a different method of creating indentations on the (usually metal) printing plate which were then to be covered with ink and used to create multiple images of the original design. In engraving, a sharp needle was used to create cleanly defined lines on a copper surface. Etching relied on having the ground covered in wax which was then drawn on, submerged in acid that would "bite" into the uncovered metal, leaving behind lines sunk into the hard material of lithograph. Mezzotint was the first to enable half-tones to be produced without using line- or dot-based techniques. The string of innovations continued and, in 1796, a new technique emerged that was to dominate the scene for at least a century - lithography.

what it a lithograph ? Find an answer here
Lithographic Press in Elisha Noyce - The Boy’s Book of Industrial Information, 1858 - image via librarycompany.org

So, What is a Lithograph ?

The word Lithography comes from Ancient Greek "lithos", meaning "stone", and "graphein", meaning "to write". It denotes a planographic (flat surface) method and process of printing that makes use of the immiscibility of grease and water, which come to a contact. Lithographs were invented by Alois Senefelder in the Kingdom of Bavaria at the end of the 18th century.[2] Unlike previous methods that relied on various forms of etching, lithography is a more "painterly" medium. Using a set of greasy crayons, the artist draws a mirrored image of the original artwork onto a smooth stone (traditionally limestone) tablet. After the image is recreated to the satisfaction of the artist, this drawing is covered with ink - nonimage (blank) areas, which attract moisture to the plate and repel the lithographic ink, while those that were drawn on - hold it. Water is then wiped onto the unpainted areas as to discourage the ink from smearing. As the tusche (ink) dries, it reticulates. Net-like features are left on the stone and usually show on the final print, a visual feature unique to stone lithography. In order to fixate the image, to make it one with the stone, a solution of gum arabic and nitric acid is prepared on a plate. Applied to the stone, the nitric acid reacts with oleic acid (grease) to create oleomagnate of lime. The acid makes the dark areas sensitized enough to accept ink and reject water, while at the same time does the opposite with the light areas of the surface.[3] A sheet of paper with a high cotton content is then placed over the entire surface by means of a special press. In case of an elaborate color lithograph, this tends to require several different runs with (up to) four different color inks - yellow, red, blue and black.[4] The same paper then needs to be placed over the re-inked plates in a very precise manner as to create a satisfactory lithograph copy. The original method has since evolved quite a bit, but the idea behind it has remained basically the same since the invention of lithograph.

John James Audubon - Louisiana Heron (Detail), 1844 - image via hyperallergic.com

History of Lithography - 19th Century

1796 marks the beginning of the new, revolutionary method that was to hold sway over the printing industry and prints for the next century or so. Created by Alois Senefelder who used the best limestone from the quarry in Solenhofen, Bavaria, lithography at first only enabled monochromatic (single color) printing. It was still groundbreaking as it allowed the traditional artist to use traditional techniques innate to their trade, creating prints that could easily rival original paintings in terms of detail, tone and color variations. Initially, the only way to bring color to the image was for the artist to manually add a few washes of watercolor. After the printing method became wildly popular in the 1820's, around 1830 chromolithography emerged which allowed for a wealth of new color effects and an impression that was as close to painting as possible at the time. It was a laborious process, often involving multiple printing stones that needed to be carefully aligned in order for all the lines and tones to match. The new method spread like wildfire and soon reproductions and prints of famous paintings, book illustrations, vivid botanical studies, posters and hand fans were all done in the form of lithograph. Goya was the first major artist to explore the possibilities of the medium, soon followed by Géricault and Delacroix. In an attempt to paint every bird in North America, naturalist and painter John James Audubon created The Birds of America which, when reissued as a limited collection of chromo lithographs and prints in 1844, achieved tremendous popularity. Toulouse-Lautrec's posters for Folies Bergere and Moulin Rouge done in the 1890's remain iconic images of fin-de-siecle decadence, while Mucha's elegant designs are the epitome of Art Nouveau glamor.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec - Jane Avril at the Jardin de Paris (Detail), 1893 - image via openlettersmonthly.com

Print as an Artwork in its Own Right - 20th Century

Hand-made lithographs went through their heyday between 1820-1900. The creative process required an immense amount of time and was by no means cheap. The expanding publishing industry needed a more affordable alternative and soon new photomechanical printing techniques were adopted to suit the needs of the time. WWI made a break with the old in many ways and lithography was yet another relic of the past left behind. For a while the most popular printing method, it quickly disappeared from the scene, withdrawing to its last stronghold - the artist's studio. It has remained there ever since, not as a commercially viable outlet, but only as an end in itself, as another medium for artistic expression. Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, and Pablo Picasso all explored it to great effect, discovering new techniques to suit their own visual languages.[5] Matisse's planes of color contrasted with Picasso's more monochromatic, linear yet raw lithograph style, while M.C. Escher brought his tight, elaborately constructed surrealism to the walls of galleries. David Hockney, in addition to his immense output in painting, has for decades been one of the most prolific lithographers. Nelson Mandela, a name mostly associated with the anti-apartheid, an important political figure and philanthropist, also had a creative streak and his prints and lithographs nowadays seem to be fetching high prices on the market, even if they are often difficult to identify correctly.

Pablo Picasso - The Bull, 1945 - image via moma.org

Nanolithography - Bringing an Old Technology Into the New Millennium

In most cases, it is byproducts of technological advancement that end up being adopted by the creative world as new techniques and methods. Yet the opposite sometimes can be the case, where science can take a time-tested method from the arts and develop it further in pursuit of a thoroughly un-artistic goal. In addition to some commercially well-established techniques, a number of promising new technologies are being developed. Plunging into the world of micro- and nano-particles, study and application of fabricating microscopic structures is on the rise as a very active area of research in academia and in industry. Nanoimprint lithography is used to make nanometer scale patterns, while the same can be achieved through interference lithography but without the use of complex optical systems or photomasks. X-ray lithography is used to selectively remove parts of a thin film, transferring a geometric pattern from a so-called mask to a light-sensitive chemical photoresist on the substrate.[6] Extreme ultraviolet lithography, magnetolithography, molecular self-assembly, proton beam writing and scanning probe lithography (also known as dip-pen nanolithography) are too at the cutting-edge of current scientific research. Many of these new methods are now being used successfully for small-scale commercial, as well as important research applications.

to answer the question - what it a lithograph ? - we must look at the most famous examples of these prints
Dip-pen nanolithography - Molecular ink diffusing from a nanoscale tip to a surface through a water meniscus - image via wikimedia.org

A Print as a Collectible Work of Art

Bearing in mind all the revolutionary new ways in which the theory behind the method can be applied in scientific research, lithography still remains a topic firmly rooted in artistic matters. In a time when mass production, giclée prints of dubious quality, and quick fixes are the norm, a time-consuming medium of this kind can immediately bring value to an artwork. Add to that the level of fame the name of the author carries with it, the quality of the work, type of ink used, the rarity of the print etc. - and the value (and the resale value) on the market might be higher than one initially expects. Of course, as there are plenty of other ways of duplicating the original artwork, it is important not to automatically assume that any print on the market is indeed a limited edition lithograph. Yet, a keen eye and taking all the variables into consideration can pay off. An authorized copy of an original work is rarely worth more than the original artwork, so it can be a good starting point for a beginner looking to build their collection. The last (and sometimes the most important) aspect to consider might be the level of involvement of the artist himself in the process. Recognizing this, at least in the UK, a British Standard BS 7876:1996 was established to differentiate between the levels of participation of the original artist. Category A thus means that the artist created the matrix and printed the work, while a few spots down the line Category F signifies the artist's agent authorized the making of the print from an existing piece of artwork and had no further involvement. Bearing all this in mind, lithography is definitely an exciting and varied scene to be involved in, both as a visual artist, and as a collector.

what it a lithograph ? Editors’ Tip: Tamarind Techniques for Fine Art Lithography

Covering a wide range of printmaking techniques, this exhaustive technical resource was first published almost half a century ago. In its newest edition, it remains the most comprehensive reference in the field to date. Containing a detailed and thorough account on all aspects of lithography, including step-by-step directions, the book offers guidance for establishing a print studio, advice about maintaining quality, documenting editions, and caring for works on paper, as well as safety and storage information on chemicals. A true classic in the field, it easily covers the interests of the collector, the artist, the historian, and the printmaker, never failing in any of the topics it so ambitiously tries (and succeeds) to give thorough and well-researched information on.


  1. Febvre, L., The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing, Verso, 2010.
  2. Croft, P., Stone Lithography, Watson-Guptill, 2003.
  3. Wenniger, M., Lithography: A complete Guide, Prentice-Hall, 1983.
  4. Cliffe, H., Lithography: A Complete Handbook of Modern Techniques of Lithography,Watson-Guptill, 1967.
  5. Tabanelli, R., Lithography: 200 Years of Art, History and Technique, Harry N. Abrams, 1983.
  6. Covey, S., Modern Printmaking: A Guide to Traditional and Digital Techniques, Watson-Guptill, 2016.

Featured images: Georges Braque - Les Martinets, 1959 - image via original-prints.com; Alphonse Mucha - Reverie (Detail), 1898 - image via contentmenthealth.com; Joan Miro - The Lizard with Golden Feathers, 1971 - image via spaightwoodgalleries.com; M.C. Escher - Magic Mirror, 1946 - image via tumblr.com; All images used for illustrative purposes only.

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