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What is Lithography?
by Paul Whitman
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Answer to What is Lithography?

by Paul Whitman
(Monterey Peninsula Herald, 10/31/47)

LITHOGRAPHY: The art or process of putting designs on stone with a greasy material and of producing printed impression therefrom — Webster.

Nearly all of the principles of lithography, even as they are used today, were discovered in 1796 by Alois Senefelder. He discovered that printed impressions could be obtained from a stone, the work on which was neither raised in relief nor sunk in intaglio, but consisted of a chemical action between the stone and the grease on its surface.

The commercial possibilities of this invention were immediately seen and taken advantage of. That this invention provided a vehicle for artistic expression is evidenced by the works of Goya, Daumier, Forain, Corot, Whistler, Brown, Bellows, and many other fine artists of the past and present. The impetus provided by the invention carried on until about 1850 at which time lithography, as a means of artistic expression declined. The interest in lithography has been revived by Pennell, Whistler, Brown, Bellows, Kuniyoshi, Ganso, Wengenroth, and many "Moderns." The artist of today has this heritage to fall back upon. Lithography is a fine art in the sense that the artist can use his creative vision and cratsmanship to produce hand-proven prints by this method.

A brief description of the methods used to produce a lithograph may be in order. A natural limestone (zinc, copper and other materials may by used) is grained to the desired roughness with sand or carborundum powders. The result is a flat surface which if magnified would show a great number of peaks arising from a common plane. Crayon, made of grease, is used as the marking agent. When applied with light pressure only the tops of the peaks will be covered with grease, but if applied with more force the tops of the peaks as well as the valleys between will be filled and covered. So is the drawing made.

The drawing completed, (corrections can be made) the stone is chemically treated with gum-arabic which has the effect of sealing the undrawn portion of the peaks against taking ink and at the same time making those portions which have been drawn on receptive to ink. It will be remembered that the stone, if properly treated, will take ink in exactly the proportion to which crayon was applied and will reproduce exactly as drawn.

The stone is now washed clean, gum-arabic and crayon removed. A thin film of water is put over the stone and the design is then inked with the roller. Paper and backing is placed on the inked design and all run through the press. The lithograph is made.

Lithography is a great adventure and has many possibilities hitherto unexplored, and to quote Bolton Brown, "never will a better opportunity knock at his (the artist's) door than when holding a perfect crayon, he faces a perfect stone."

Alois Senefelder Internet Links

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