Lithography: on stone and metal

In past blogs, I have shown examples of various forms of etching. In this one, I’ll talk about a completely different form of printmaking – lithography. Of all the printing techniques, lithography comes closest to painting in the marks that can be made.

Etching is an intaglio technique where the image is recessed into a plate. In lithography, the image is drawn onto a prepared flat surface with a greasy material and depends on the incompatibility of water and this grease. The greasy marks of the drawing can be made with crayons, special inks and diluted washes of grease-based materials applied with a nib or brush.

A stone can also be etched with acid, engraved or photo-sensitised.

Bavaria has the finest quality of fine-grained limestone in the world and it was here that Alois Sennefelder discovered the process of lithography in 1793. His experiments showed that by chemically treating the greasy marks of a drawing made on the stone, they could be made to accept printing ink while the areas with no drawing would, if dampened with water, stay ink-free.

The stones are usually about 3–4 inches thick, and therefore extremely heavy. The first stage of preparation is to remove any existing image on the stone by grinding it away with grit, and then polishing the whole surface with water of Ayr (a very hard stone) to remove any scratches. Next, the artist, choosing a size of grit suitable for the delicacy of the image, grains the surface of the stone with carborundum grit. The stone is then prepared for drawing by treating it with acetic acid. The image is drawn directly onto the stone, then treated with a mixture of gum arabic and nitric acid; and then left overnight to ‘cure’.

After several more operations, a non-setting ink is rolled onto the stone and proofed up to five times onto newsprint to achieve full strength of the image. If no alterations or adjustments are necessary, the stone is treated again with the gum-acid mixture and, after a further hour, the edition may be printed. Hand-made paper is carefully placed over the stone and above this, you place a make-ready of newsprint – to ensure an even surface. The stone, with paper in place, is wound through the special lithographic press and then the resulting print is hung up to dry.

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Once the printing of the edition is complete, the image will be erased from the stone by grinding it away, and thus the stone can be re-used over and over. All this grinding is done by hand, using a heavy steel device called a levigator and lots of water. It’s a very physical and messy business.

The technique was very popular in the nineteenth century for producing posters. Much of Toulouse Lautrec’s work was produced using this technique. It was normal to use several colours for these posters, each one requiring a separate stone. They were always printed by specialist workshops.

The more recent availability of pre-textured zinc and aluminium plates widens the scope of the technique and also allows for printing on a normal etching press. Printing from these plates uses similar techniques to printing from stone but is less arduous. The plates can be re-used up to five times before re-graining by a specialist becomes necessary. Together with the stones, each surface offers the artist its own advantages and limitations.

I have shown examples of lithographs taken from stones, from zinc, and also from aluminium plates. Sometimes, I have added to the print: by drawing with charcoal or pastel; by monoprinting over the lithograph from a separate sheet; or by adding watercolour. There is also an example of a lithograph printed on chine collé.

The stone of St. David‘s Cathedral was drawn with lithographic crayons in varying degrees of hardness and with lithographic ink applied with a dip pen.

The lightning in the print of Torcello shows an example of a mark made by engraving into the stone. You couldn’t make this mark on a lithographic plate.

Torcello – lithograph on stone (see stone marks around the edge)

S. Giorgio Maggiore is a two-plate lithograph. The Blue plate was drawn/painted with tusche mixed with distilled water.

San Giorgio Maggiore: two-plate lithograph with added pastel
San Giorgio Maggiore: the Blue plate












As you can gather, preparing and printing a lithograph takes time and physical effort but it does produce results, which are different to intaglio.

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©Henry Hagger 2019

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