Art Term Tuesday: Stone Lithography

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

Printmaking is the process of making artworks by printing, normally on paper. I know what you’re thinking, I could look at the word—Printmaking—and deduce that it’s an art method that results in the making of prints. Why does this warrant an entire Art Term Tuesday post? It’s because printmaking encompasses various techniques that are applied by artists depending on what they want to express in their print. We’ve already discussed one technique in a previous Art Term Tuesday: Engraving. In addition to engraving, printmakers can create prints using techniques like intaglio, relief, lithography, screenprinting, and monotype. Each process and technique produces a unique, original image that can be printed multiple times to create an edition. Begun as a commercial art, printmakers like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and his commissions for the Moulin Rouge, which captured the revelry and debauchery of the Parisian dance hall, helped launch printmaking into the Fine Art world. Lautrec’s introduction of color helped move lithography from a fast, high yield marketing tool into the world of fine art. Other artists like Edgar Degas, Pablo Picasso, and Helen Frankenthaler followed suit, exploring how to express their art through printmaking. Today, we are going to focus on a specific process and technique: stone lithography.

A chalkboard like background creates the feel for this print as six flowers, three in two rows, appear to be drawn with chalk.
Betty Hahn, American, b. 1940. Cut Flowers #6. Lithograph and pastel, 1979. Gift of the Artist in Memory of Diana Okon, 2014.26. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Lithography is derived from the Greek, “litho” meaning stone and “graphy” referring to writing. Invented by Alois Senefelder in the late 1790s, lithography is based upon the chemical repulsion of oil and water, like when you wash dishes in the sink. Though the technique varies with each individual artist because they have a preference for specific tools, papers, and inks; the process itself is straightforward. Stone lithography is a transfer method wherein an image is drawn directly onto a piece of limestone with a grease-based drawing ink or pencil, like a lithographic crayon. The ability to finely control the placement of grease makes lithography the most “autographic” of printmaking processes—meaning that it captures the exact movement and flow of the artists’ hand. Since the image is drawn directly onto the stone it remains largely unchanged, despite the various steps it undergoes. For this reason, it is a printing process favored by drawers. The grease-based image is transferred to the limestone using acid, which essentially “burns” or etches the image onto the limestone. The stone is then treated with chemicals like rosin, talc, and gum arabic to establish the areas where water goes and seal the image inside the stone. Once the grease is engrained into the stone, the drawing material can be replaced with any color grease ink. Next, the stone is “proved”, or the drawing material is removed and printing ink is applied. Gum arabic is sponged across the surface to establish the image area to receive water, remember our chemical repulsion of oil and grease, and then the stone is wetted to draw up the “ghost image” of the original drawing. The surface of the stone is wetted again and printing ink is forced into the stone, bringing up the image to be printed, or the “memory in the stone”.  Now the image can be transferred to the paper via a printing press and voila! You have a print! When an artist has exhausted a stone, the stone is ground down for reuse. So, when an artist uses a stone who knows what artists before them have also used it!

A Black man pulls prints off his printing machine. His hands are exaggerated to show their importance in his work. A white man stands behind him, in topcoat and hat, holding a can, and looks at the prints he has completed. We can see the printer, Blackburn, pulling another print off his press. Behind him are the tools used in lithography. Outside the window cut into his brick wall is the New York skyline.
A Master Printer at work! Note the tools of his trade behind him.

Ron Adams, American, b. 1934. Blackburn. Lithograph, 2002. Museum Purchase with funds provided by the McMurray Family Endowment, 2009.02. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

The artist can now make multiple images, or an edition, and each one is still considered an original work. When you see an artist’s signature followed by two numbers, like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec 5/20, you read that as the fifth print out of twenty. The earlier numbers are valued higher because the details become less defined the more the plate is used. Lithographic stones, however, do not experience degradation in the same way a copper etching plate would, for example, which is why it was first popularized as a commercial art. By artist, we are often referring to a Master Printmaker. Many famous artists in other mediums, such as painting or sculpture, have created prints thanks to Master Printmakers. These artists, like Frank Stella and Joan Mitchell, are able to draw directly onto the stone or plate but the technical complexities of printing require assistance to ensure their work is transferred from one medium to another correctly. It is the printmaker that troubleshoots and develops ways to ensure the end print satisfies the artist. This collaboration makes printmaking a unique art form, as printmaker and artist work together to bring forth the artist’s vision. Today, printmakers continue to innovate, using technology and combining printing with other mediums to push the boundaries and versatility of lithographic art.

Come visit FWMoA between January 19, 2019 and April 14, 2019 to see our newest exhibition, Stone Truths: Lithographs from the Collection, that features a wide range of artists and their lithographs!

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