How Does Lithography Work?
The lithographic printing process was invented in the 1790s by Johann Alois Senefelder; what does it involve? How did it change the lives of people at the time? What are some of the famous artists who use this process?
Read on to find out!
Johann Alois Senefelder was a German actor and playwright. He wanted to print a new play he had written, but at the time, printing was very expensive. It is said that necessity is the mother of invention, and he ended up inventing the lithographic process, but how does it work?
First, draw an image using an oil-based pen, pencil or ink onto a smooth, flat lithographic stone or plate. Then cover the area in powdered rosin and talc.
Paint a solution of gum arabic (possibly mixed with a mild acid) onto the plate; this chemical reaction fixes the drawing and ensures that the blank areas repel ink and absorb water. Next, apply a solvent called lithotine to the ink drawing - this will wipe away the ink and leave a faint trace on the plate. To provide a base for the ink, coat the plate with asphaltum (bitumen) and leave it to dry.
Dampen the stone with water to absorb in the blank sections. Then use a roller to apply the oil-based ink, which will adhere to the drawn areas and be repelled by the damp parts. Once fully inked, place the plate on a flatbed lithographic press under a sheet of damp paper. Put a board on top to provide a base for the pressure bar to roll and ensure even pressure across the page. The paper will reveal a reversed image of the drawing on the stone.
Printing workshop with a lithographer and a plate printer - V. Janson
Why Was Lithographic Printing So Impactful?
Lithography quickly became a popular printing method. It allowed for more intricate designs and easier printing in colour and different tones. Lithography quickly grew in popularity because it was easy to create beautiful, printed products such as books, newspapers, and art prints. It was a crucial development in the printing industry and significantly impacted society. The printing press made it possible for people to mass-produce printed materials, which made them more affordable and accessible. The mass production of books led to a surge in literacy rates. It also enabled newspapers to reach a wider audience, disseminating information on a previously unheard-of scale. Lithography also significantly impacted the art world, allowing artists to mass-produce prints of their work, making art more accessible to the general public, and spreading different artistic styles across the globe.
Sharpener of litho stones - Engelmann & Cie
Man in an apron behind a workbench, busy sharpening a lithograph. Against the wall next to him a print with a scene from La Fontaine's Fables: The Milkmaid and the Milkpot. Possibly from a series of prints.
What Is Offset Lithography?
In 1875 offset lithography was invented by Robert Barclay. Offset lithography is a printing process that starts off with images on aluminium lithographic plates, which are transferred onto special rollers covered in rubber (early versions used treated cardboard). The rollers then transfer the image to the substrate
which can be a variety of materials including paper, cardboard, plastic, and metal. Offset lithography is used for printing books, magazines, newspapers, packaging, and other commercial products. The main advantage of offset lithography is that it can print on both sides of the paper at once, which reduces printing time and cost.
Famous Artists Who Used Lithography
Pablo Picasso experimented with printing techniques, including etching, lithograph and linocut. He began printmaking as a teenager and created approximately 2,400 prints throughout his life.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's artwork is often described as among the most fashionable and influential in art history, having created nearly 350 lithographs that depicted life during Belle Époque Paris.
Henry Fuseli was an artist known for fantastic interpretations of classical themes. This pen and ink lithograph is titled 'Evening Thou Bringest All (Lady at a Window)'. He is best known for his painting, 'The Nightmare', which depicts an evil incubus atop a sleeping woman.
Interested in Learning More?
Fancy learning printmaking techniques?
We've collated some resources to help you get started.
The Lemonade Press (UK)
St Barnabas Press (UK)
Australian Print Workshop (AU)
Duck Print Fine Art (AU)
Print Workers Barcelona (ES)
Screen Printing (DE)
Hadass Gilboa (DE)
Chicago Printmakers (USA)
Tamarind Institute (USA)
Essdee Lino Cutting & Printing Kit (23 Pieces)