art advisory

The Ins and Outs of Lithography

Robert Cottingham,  An American Alphabet: L , Lithograph, 2005

Robert Cottingham, An American Alphabet: L, Lithograph, 2005

Written by Brontë Mansfield and Emily Cheetham, Summer 2019 Intern

There are many forms of printing, like etching, screenprinting, and woodcut printing–but lithography is a particularly complex and versatile medium. Lithography literally means “an image from stone.” As the Tate Modern explains, “Lithography is a printing process that uses a flat stone or metal plate on which the image areas are worked using a greasy substance so that the ink will adhere to them by, while the non-image areas are made ink-repellent.” Limestone was originally used as the stone when lithography was first created. Today, the types of stones and metals used have widened.

Lithography was invented in the 18th century to distribute sheet music to orchestras, but was quickly picked up by artists. The creation of lithography allowed for images to be mass-produced in more colors and more quickly than prior printmaking techniques. The creation of lithography was hugely impactful to culture: art could be distributed more cheaply to the masses. Lithography is taught in MFA programs around the country and is a medium used by many prominent contemporary artists, including Robert Cottingham in his series An American Alphabet . Lithographs are often an excellent option for those looking to collect prints for their corporate space or home.

There are several different types of lithography: original stone, original plate, lithographic reproductions, and offset prints. Understanding the different types of lithography fosters a deeper understanding of art making, helps viewers identify prints, and lays a foundation for building an art collection.

Original Stone Lithography

The original stone lithograph is the oldest and most identifiable form of lithography—when you think of a lithograph, this is most likely the kind you are thinking of. These lithographs are drawn onto limestone by the artist using a waxy or greasy medium. The grease repels water and is used by the printmaker to transfer ink from the stone to paper. Original stone lithography captures the marks made by the drawer’s hand with more fidelity than any other form of printmaking. These prints are often more expensive and highly prized due to the mastery of the medium required to print them.

Since the creation of lithography in 1796, the medium has been instrumental in creating the aesthetics of several major artistic movements. In the late 19th century, Toulouse-Lautrec used lithography to make 350 original posters and advertisements that are now emblematic of bohemian Paris. Then, in the early 20th century, German Expressionists like Edvard Munch used the gestural marks of lithography to capture their inner turmoil during World War I.

To see original stone lithography in action, watch MoMA’s video, “Pressure + Ink: Introduction to Lithography.”

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec,  Divan Japonais , Lithograph printed in four colors, 1892-93

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Divan Japonais, Lithograph printed in four colors, 1892-93

Edvard Munch,  Anxiety , Color lithograph in black and red on card, 1896

Edvard Munch, Anxiety, Color lithograph in black and red on card, 1896

Original Plate Lithography 

Original plate lithographs differ from original stone lithographs with the material used. Here, the artist is draws onto aluminum rather than limestone. A favored option to stone lithographs, these lithograph matrixes are easier to move. Litho stones can be incredibly heavy and while limestone is a common type of stone, limestone that is of high enough quality to produce prints is harder to source, leading to the creation of alternative methods.

Lithographic Reproductions

Lithographic reproductions can be copies of any work of art. A photograph is taken of the piece and used to create more copies of the piece. These images are not drawn directly onto a lithography stone and are often not created by the original artist. Lithographic reproductions are not original works of art, but are affordable ways to disseminate an image.

Victor Moscoso, Lithographic poster, 1967

Victor Moscoso, Lithographic poster, 1967

Offset Lithography 

Offset lithography is mostly commonly associated with posters. An iconic example is the two-toned or rainbow psychedelic posters of the 1960s. Offset lithography is not done by hand, but with a flexible aluminum plate incorporated in a large printing press. The term “offset” refers to the transfer or offsetting of pigment onto a “rubber blanket” before it is then printed on a piece of paper. This is a difficult process to describe in writing, but the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco created this excellent video that demonstrates the technique. Not only is offset lithography cheap and easy, it also results in a consistent, high quality image. Similar to a lithographic reproduction, the resulting artwork is not often considered an original piece.

Understanding the different types of lithographs can help individuals or companies looking to establish or expand their art collections. With a deeper knowledge of printmaking techniques comes a deeper appreciation for the finished work. Rather than seeing prints as mere reproductions of art, viewers can see lithographs as works of art unto themselves.

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Five Takeaways From a Decade in Art Consulting

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Over the past 10 years, I have managed art collections for a diverse group of clients, ranging from large, international banks and law firms, to manufacturing and industrial companies, to small family businesses and private residences. Naturally, every one of these clients has a different method of operating and a different process for building an art collection. Some collections are committee-managed, some are executive-managed, and all are influenced by unique culture and goals. Despite the differences I've encountered, there are five central points to keep in mind while navigating the world of art collecting.  

Quality Comes in Many Styles

In working with a variety of clients, you will encounter not only a wide range of art collection goals, but also many styles of aesthetic preferences. Some clients are interested in historic maps and prints, some want a collection that reflects their company's core values, some want to use their proprietary archival material, and some want cutting-edge contemporary artwork. The good news is that the art world is large enough to account for all of these avenues. While exposing clients to the breadth of styles available is an important part of educating, our job as advisers isn't to dictate a specific taste or style, but to find the highest level of quality within the goals developed by our clients. 

Looking is Better than Talking

Communicating about art can be a challenge. Even within the academic art world, words can be interpreted to mean different things to different people. "Contemporary," "Abstract," or "Traditional" are descriptions we often encounter when speaking with clients about their preferences, and they usually mean something very specific yet different to each person. The best way to avoid confusion and effectively understand what your client is communicating? Use visual examples. Talk about specific parts of actual pieces of art, use descriptive words in conjunction with examples to create a vocabulary you both feel comfortable with. You can read more about our "tastemaker" approach to developing projects here.

Get Creative with Sources

Being an independent art advisory allows us to get creative in our search for the perfect piece of art to add to our client's collection. We are able to pursue whatever source will most successfully address the art collection needs of our clients. While I love working with galleries, auctions and art fairs, and print houses, I also love finding hidden gems from other sources off the beaten path.  

Know When to Become an Expert...and When to Find the Experts

Part of providing the highest level of advice to a client is deeply understanding their collection interests. The only way to do this is to continually educate yourself. The art world is an incredibly diverse and deep pool, and one of the joys of being a consultant is the ability to delve into that diversity to connect our clients with art, artifacts, and specific services that meet their needs. For a client specializing in aerospace technology, we dove into the history of aviation and learned to identify specific aircraft. For a client who loved the style of a particular architect, we researched many motifs in various buildings by that architect to understand and identify significant artifacts and source them. Learn as much as you can.

However, we can't be experts in every aspect of art collecting services. It is imperative to find people who have spent their life's work mastering their craft and connect them to your client's needs. Building a wide network of vendors and colleagues extends the reach of your advisory.  If we have a client that needs conservation of a historic painting, professional rigging of a large sculpture, or custom archival framing of a delicate work on paper, we rely on our community of experts to guide us through the process.

Get Out There!

The art world is constantly in motion, and by staying abreast of the trends, sales, styles, and artists, you can provide your clients with the widest range of options and the most knowledgeable recommendations. The best way to accomplish this is to go out and see the artwork in person (the best way to really experience a work of art), engage the community, meet artists and visit their studios to learn about their process, and continually explore what is being presented in galleries and sales. There is always something new to experience. 

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Presenting Artwork for Acquisition

As a corporate art advisory, recommending artwork for acquisition is a significant part of our job. It’s important to communicate what makes a work of art special, and hours of research, studio visits, and gallery attendance informs what we select for a presentation.

WHAT WE LOOK FOR

When researching artwork, our goal is to find work that will add value to a client's collection and enrich the aesthetic of their space. We pay attention to the trajectory of an artist’s career, experience, and education, as well as their motivation for art-making. We want to learn the context behind a work of art, and relaying that to a client sparks a dialogue about the deeper implications of an artwork. When clients know what motivates an artist, it gets them excited about the unique story behind art in their collection. This fosters a sense of pride and interest that leads to larger, more innovative conversations and connections within their professional environment. Exposure to an artist’s creative method facilitates out-of-the box solutions to problem-solving.

We try to learn as much as we can about an artist’s technical process and surface information in our research. In a presentation, we work to translate the intricacies of a surface or media that can only be seen in person. Taking notes and pictures of surface detail, texture, and pigment value is critical to understanding the individual presence of an artwork.

HOW WE PRESENT

Presentation Example

Nothing quite replaces seeing work in person, as color and light vary widely in presentation media. When possible, we try to bring clients to galleries and studios to see artwork, but the logistics involved are unrealistic for most situations. Each presentation is tailored to the specific client and project, and the methods we employ vary widely. One approach we include is showing high-resolution digital images. Whether streamed through a large monitor or on a hand-held iPad, we source large image files from galleries to show as much surface texture as possible.

In areas of new construction, we’ll work with CAD drawings and superimpose artwork to scale; this shows the impact the art will have, as well as how it will interact with other artwork in the space. For the final stages of many acquisition projects we’ll Photoshop artwork into the room to help our clients make decisions about style, scale, and hanging approach. This is a great tool for determining display design and framing as well. 

As technology changes, we work diligently to learn new ways to help our clients understand their options for acquiring artwork and decide what will be the best fit for the continued growth of their collection.

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