lithography

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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All About Printmaking

The art of printmaking is comprised of a variety of techniques and materials and has ancient roots in many cultures. A discipline central to the history of art as well as contemporary art, we encounter fine art prints in many--if not most--of our clients' corporate and private collections, and we often get questions about the types, care and terminology surrounding the field of printmaking. While printmaking is an incredibly historic, diverse and deep field of study that can't be summarized in one blog post, here are some responses and resources addressing just a few of the questions we receive the most. 

What is a print? 

The Tate Modern website defines a print as "...an impression made by any method involving transfer from one surface to another." The image is created when ink is transferred onto paper, cloth, or another surface using one of a variety of materials and methods. A printed impression can be unique (monoprint/ monotype) or part of a limited edition of prints. 

https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/p/print

What types of prints are there? 

Printmakers use many techniques and often combine techniques to achieve their desired impression. The most common types of printing techniques we encounter are Lithography, Intaglio, Relief, Screenprinting and Digital printing. Within these broad categories are a plethora of techniques and materials. 

You can find some great explanations and examples of different printmaking techniques here: http://www.paceprints.com/techniques

Is a print a reproduction or an original work of art?

Fine art prints are original works of art created using methods and techniques of printmaking. A limited edition results from an artist using the same plate or block to create multiple identical impressions of the same image, and each impression is recorded with an edition number.  

A print is not a reproduction of an existing painting or drawing. 

How should I display or store my print? 

Because many prints are printed with ink on paper, great care should be taken in storing and displaying prints. To prevent common conservation issues such as paper deterioration, discoloration, buckling and fading, prints should always be stored and displayed in archival, acid-free materials, with protection from excess humidity and ultraviolet light. Learn more about our recommendations for storing and displaying artwork here.

What do the numbers and markings on my print mean?

Along with signing and titling their prints, artists mark their prints in pencil with an edition number. Prints are labeled with the impression number and a slash indicating the total number of prints in the edition (ie. 5/10). There are other markings designating the type of impression in an edition, such as A/P (Artist's Proof), B.A.T (Bon a Tirer) or T/P (Trial Proof).

Here is a helpful link explaining different conventions artists use to label a print as well as common printmaking terminology. https://www.nga.gov/gemini/glossary.htm

Happy collecting! 

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