What is a Lithograph? Understanding Different Types of Printing

Alexander CALDER (1898 - 1976) Tank traps - circa 1975, sold for €2,730 via Artcurial (March 2018).

Whether you are a first-time collector or an avid prints enthusiast, many people experience some level of confusion regarding what exactly a real lithograph is and how it is different than other types of prints on the market. Distinguishing lithographs from other printmaking processes can be especially difficult given the wide variety of prints available in the market.

Given the many types of prints available, if you’ve ever found yourself wondering “What is a lithograph?” you are not alone. Understanding the key characteristics that make this printmaking process different from others is essential for those considering collecting lithographs.

What is a lithograph?

The word “lithograph” is derived from two ancient Greek words: “lithos” meaning “stones,” and “graphien” meaning “to write.” The practice is defined as a style of printing that makes use of the immiscibility of grease and water when they come into contact with one another. While other printing methods require etching and other forms of imprints, lithography is unique because it more closely resembles painting.

How is a lithograph created?

To create a lithograph, original works of art are printed and reproduced, most often using flat stones or metal plates. The artist makes the lithograph by drawing an image directly onto the printing element using materials like litho crayons or specialized greasy pencils.

When the artist is satisfied with the drawing on the stone, the surface is then treated with a chemical etch. The treatment bonds the greasy drawing materials to the surface. With this process, the blank areas will attract moisture to the plate and repel the lithographic ink, while the areas that are drawn on will hold the ink. Water is then wiped onto the unpainted areas to help prevent the ink from smearing.

Once the image is inked, paper is laid over the stone and it is covered with a tympan, a layer of packing that is typically placed between the plate and paper to help equalize the pressure. Next, these materials pass through the scraper bar of the litho press. When creating a lithograph, it is crucial that the stone that is used is properly thick enough, as this machine provides enormous pressure.

After the stone passes through the machine, the tympan is removed and the paper is pulled off to reveal a mirror-image of the drawing on the stone. The paper will retain whatever was drawn by the crayon, creating a perfect replica that can be repeated as often as needed.

What is the difference between a lithograph and a print?

If you are unsure whether you are looking at a real lithograph or a particular type of print, it can be helpful to take a closer look with a magnifying glass and an informed eye. Use the following tips to help you determine whether you are looking at a hand-pulled or offset lithograph.

  1. Look for a signature. Hand-pulled lithographs will typically have a signature on the back while offset lithography prints and reproductions will not.
  2. Use a magnifying glass to look for rows of dots. Offset lithography will leave a dotted circular pattern in rows. If the lithograph was created by hand, there will likely be random ink dotting or discoloration on the print.
  3. Check for discoloration. Look for signs of chemical oxidation or blemishes in non-image areas, as these can occur when the aluminum printing plates used in offset lithography are not properly maintained.

  4. Carefully feel the thickness of the ink. In original stone lithography, the ink will be slightly raised on the surface of the print in contrast to the flatness of the ink seen on offset lithographs. To avoid smearing the ink, it can be helpful to wear gloves and proceed with caution.

If you acquired the lithograph from a reputable art dealer or auction house, it’s most likely an original stone or plate lithograph. However, make sure to use the tips above to verify the seller’s cataloguing.

Who invented lithography?

The practice of lithography dates back to the 18th century, when a little-known Bavarian playwright in Germany named Alois Senefelder accidentally learned that he could duplicate his scripts by writing them on slabs of limestone with greasy crayons and printing them using rolled-on ink. He quickly realized lithographs could be created in almost unlimited quantities due to this material’s ability to repeatedly retain crayon marks applied to its surface.

Lithography soon became a popular practice used artists and artisans. The evolution of the lithographic plate has been ongoing, and today there exists a variety of types of lithography, from fine art lithographs to offset printing.

Types of lithograph art

As the technologies of printing continue to become more advanced and reproducing images becomes more streamlined, those who are unfamiliar with printmaking have trouble distinguishing different variations of lithographs. The list below outlines the types of lithographs that you are most likely to encounter in the market.

1. Original stone lithographs

The original stone lithograph is the oldest and greatest lithography technique. This method is what most people think of when they are referring to a traditional lithograph. Original stone lithographs can also be referred to as hand-pulled lithographs and are hand-drawn on limestone or marble. To incorporate more than one color, multiple stones must be used. After each edition is hand-printed, the artist will sign and number each print.

Each addition of original stone lithographs is carefully documented and imperfect impressions are destroyed. This type of lithograph is unique in that it is hand-made by an artist who draws directly onto a stone or other similar material. These lithographs are typically valued more highly due to their quality and the fact that a lower run of prints is usually made.

2. Original plate lithographs

An original plate lithograph involves the artist hand drawing the image that is being reproduced onto aluminum plates. These plates are cheaper than the stones used in original stone lithography and they are easier to transport, making them a popular alternative to stone lithography for original printing.

3. Lithographic reproductions

Lithographic reproductions can be copies of any type of art across any medium. To create a lithographic reproduction the artist will take a photo of the original piece. Then, a color separation is produced using the photograph and this information is transferred to lithographic plates that are photosensitive. These reproductions are often referred to as posters.

4. Mylar plate lithographs

To create the mylar plate lithograph, an artist draws on a mylar sheet, which is a material similar to a polyester film or plastic sheet. Once the drawing is completed, the image is transferred onto a photosensitive lithographic plate and printed like an original plate lithograph.

5. Offset print

An offset print is any type of lithograph that is created using an offset press. Offset lithography uses a similar tactic as original hand lithography based on oil-and-water repulsion; however, with an offset press, the ink is transferred first to a rubber blanket and then directly applied to either stone or paper. With offset lithographs, the color often varies from the original piece, but this technique has still become quite popular due to its affordability, quality, and speed of production. These pieces are not handcrafted like fine art lithography is, making them a more affordable option.

While identifying and acquiring lithographs can seem complex, understanding the history of these pieces and the different types of lithographs available will help collectors know what to look for. Before visiting an auction or a gallery, do your homework to better understand the type of print you’d like to add to your collection. If you’re interested in acquiring lithographs, it’s best to approach these pieces with reverence for their unique characteristics, rather than viewing them solely as reproductions of paintings or other works of art.

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Sources: Stones Crayons | eHow | Our Pastimes | Kurt Seaburg | The Met | Our Pastimes | Widewalls | Our Pastimes