What is a lithograph?

Lithography is a technique which dates from 1796 which involves printing a design that is drawn directly on a stone. Not every type of stone is suitable however. The best material is limestone because of its hard, chemically-attackable, microporous and pressure-resistant properties.

The lithographic process relies on the mutually repelling qualities of oil and water. An image is drawn with a greasy substance onto the smooth surface of a limestone. The stone is then treated with acid so that the sections that are not covered by the design (and are acid-resistant due to the grease) are etched. The stone is then moistened, and the oil-based design repels the water whilst the etched sections retain it. An oil-based ink is then applied, which adheres only to the original design to be printed.

The lithograph was invented by German actor and playwright Alois Senefelder. It was the only printing technique in the 19th century that made large print runs possible. From the middle of the 20th century, lithography was gradually replaced by the more economical offset printing (see Offset Print). The lithography technique was quickly adopted by artists as it made it possible to paint directly onto the stone slab and rendered the final design in stunning detail. Artists continue to use the technique to this day, in spite of its expensive cost.

For examples of lithographs see at Eric Fischl’s CAC, 2009, Antoni Tàpies’ Llambrec 8, 1975 or Philip Guston’s Remains, 1980.

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