Tips of the Trade
Bill Lagattuta of the Tamarind Institute demonstrates a step in the lithography process to host Dan Elias.
The lithographic process is carried out on a large limestone slab.
The artist executes directly onto the stone the drawing he intends to print.
Prior to printing, lithotine is applied to the surface of the stone, creating a ghost-image of the artist's drawing, which ink will then adhere to.
Lithography's inventor, Alois Senefelder, was originally a Munich writer who had little success finding a publisher. He considered self-publishing, but engraving his books was beyond his means. One day, so the story goes, Senefelder picked up a grease pencil and wrote a laundry list on a piece of Bavarian limestone. And that act inspired the discovery of flat-surface printing—or lithography—in 1796, the first major printing innovation since the development of relief printing in the 15th century.
You've heard of lithography. But do you know how it's done? Here's a primer on this versatile art form
When ANTIQUES ROADSHOW visited Albuquerque, Bill Lagattuta, shop manager of the Tamarind Institute, a fine-art lithography center, showed the lithography process to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW host Dan Elias.
"In lithography, everything happens on the surface," Bill explains. "The principle behind it is that water and grease don't mix. In an etching or woodcarving you cut away the surface, but in lithography it's a chemical reaction that produces the image." Senefelder himself preferred to call lithography "chemical printing."
In lithography, the artist's canvas is a blank, flat piece of limestone. "It's like drawing on the most beautiful piece of paper you ever saw," Dan says. Artists usually prefer limestone over metal plates or plastic ones, which are more common in commercial lithography. "Stone is a lot more versatile than metal plates," says Bill, who notes that with stone, artists can "scratch back" into an image to create lines and textures. "Limestone also has a much greater tonal range." Bill says that the limestone of choice still comes from the same Bavarian quarry that Senefelder got his limestone from over 200 years ago. "The Bavarian limestone just doesn't have as many fossils or other imperfections," Bill says.
Another advantage of limestone is that it can be ground down to a clean surface and reused repeatedly. "We have stones that are close to 100 years old," Bill says. Because new stones are so expensive—a 24-inch by 30-inch stone can cost several thousand dollars to purchase and ship—Bill says printers often buy used stones from each other at a discount.
Artists have long been enamored with lithography because it's a painterly process that produces painting-like results. Artists draw their designs on the stone with litho crayons or a greasy black ink called tuscheboth familiar cousins to the pencils, chalk and brushes other artists traditionally use, and in lithography the tools mimic the lines of a pencil, pen, crayon, or brush.
"Etching and woodcuts feel much more stiff and static," says Bill. "The lithographic process seems to suit painters well because it's more fluid and spontaneous." Dan Elias puts it this way: "If you take a brush full of ink and splash it on a stone, that's what you'll get in the finished print."
In the mid-1800s, lithography attracted the talents of artists working in France, such as Francisco de Goya, Theodore Gericault, Eugene Delacroix, and Honore Daumier. In the United States around the same time, the now-famous firm of Currier & Ives began selling commercial lithographs.
At the end of the 19th-century, the art form took a big leap forward with the development of color lithography. This process was embraced by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gauguin, Pierre Bonnard, and Edouard Vuillard. In color lithography, a different stone is created for each color, so colors can be layered on top of each other. In order to create vibrant yet subtly colored prints, artists would draw on 10 or more stones to create a single work.
Then, during the early part of the 20th century, artists largely abandoned lithography, as it became more of a commercial process used to color movie posters, tin toys, and other products. By the 1960s, however, Pop artists such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were resurrecting lithography as a fine-art form once again.
Help from Experts
An artist who decides she wants to make lithographs, however, will not generally be able to do it alone. Bill is one of the skilled artisan printers who advise artists during the process. "Artists know what they want the result to look like," Bill says. "How do they achieve that? That's my job." Bill and others like him work with the artist to figure out how many layers to create in a lithograph, what colors to mix, and how opaque or transparent to make each layer.
The technician's ally in this process is chemistry. After the image is drawn, the technician protects it by rubbing rosin and then talc on the stone. Then the technician brushes on nitric acid diluted in gum arabic. "This makes the image grease-receptive and makes the stone water-receptive," says Bill, who explains that this solution is buffed in with cheesecloth. Lithotine, a kind of turpentine, is then applied to the stone to "wash out" the drawing, leaving a ghost of the image in the stone that the ink will adhere to.
Finally, the stone is ready to be inked, or "rolled up." After it's dampened with a wet sponge, the stone is rolled with ink, which adheres to the oil-based ghost image and is repelled by the water around the image. A sheet of paper is laid on the stone and then run through the press under considerable pressure. The resulting lithographic image won't wear out as quickly as do most carved or etched images—another advantage of lithography's flat template.
And that means that today, lithographs of varying sorts surround us. "Lithography was one of the earliest ways to make numerous copies with a high fidelity to the original," Dan explains, "That's why it's used for mechanical offset printing today. Every newspaper that gets read and every art catalogue that gets mailed is done with an offset lithography process."
For more information on lithography, see:
The Web site for the Tamarind Institute
More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Tips from the Prints & Posters category:
Finding a One-of-a-Kind Map (Tucson, 2007)
WPA: Putting Art to Work (Houston, 2006)
Chromolithography: Bringing Color to the Masses
Jules Chéret: Elevating Ads to an Art Form (St. Paul, 2005)
Who Were the Prairie Print Makers? (Portland, 2005)
Verifying Antique Maps
World War One Posters: Easy Targets
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.