A technical dictionary of printmaking, André Béguin.

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Lithography is a printing technique that gives multiple reproductions of an image drawn with ink or crayon on a certain type of limestone. The image must be prepared with a chemical process so that the grease contained in the ink or crayon (both being specially made for lithographic work) becomes permanently fixed to the stone. When the naturally absorbant stone is wetted before printing the lithographic ink will be retained in all areas containing grease and repelled in all other areas. The characteristic of this printing technique lies in the fact that the image area and the non-image area react differently to the presence of ink.
Lithography became, as of the beginning of the 19th century, the third printing technique coming after the more ancient
relief plate printing and intaglio printing. It wilt be remembered that relief printing is the method in which only the raised surface of the plate (the image) is printed whereas intaglio printing is just the opposite since ink is stuffed into lines cut into the plate and thus the image lies below its surface. In order to differentiate lithographic printing from intaglio and relief printing it has also been termed planographic printing. Lithography has sometimes been considered as a type of engraving technique but this is hardly justified since the etching that the stone undergoes, when being prepared, produces only a microscopic relief.
Relief printing can be said to have produced the invention and development of
typography on an industrial level. Intaglio printing can be said to have produced photogravure. Lithography, on the other hand, can be said to have been at the root of offset which is one of three most important printing techniques used today.
Contrary to intaglio and relief printing, the origins of lithography are very well known. to fact, the inventor of lithography,
Aloys Senefelder ( 1771-1834), left a detailed description of the birth of this technique. His discovery originated in his need to find a cheap way of printing his own literary work (plays). At first Senefelder tried to cut relief letters into copper plates (in reverse, so that when printed they would be right side up) but the difficulties encountered were such that he soon turned to a kind of stone easily found where he lived. This stone, called Solenhofen stone after a town near Munich, was a very dense limestone. This stone took very well to being polished, being etched in order to bear letters, and even to being used to print with. It was pure chance that caused Senefelder to discover that this stone could also be used for relief work, a method which turned out to be much better for inking and printing. In order to work in relief he used an ink that he had invented to make corrections and which contained wax, soap, and lamp black. The printing press he used was what he called a "stangen oder Galgen-presse". These discoveries were all made in 1796 but for the time being his technique was hardly more than an adaptation or variant of the traditional relief techniques. Senefelder proceded to use this method to print "with uneven results", some adresses and visiting cards. By experimenting he managed to improve his invention and by 1799 he had perfected his "chemical" method.



Birth of Senefelder


Senefelder first tries to engrave on stones.


Senefelder discovers "chemical" lithography. 15 year exclusive printing rights given to him by the Prince of Bavaria.


Senefelder asks for a patent in London.


On the 11th of February, André of Offenback, obtains a 10 year patent in Paris for lithographic reproduction.


Founding of the Senefelder, Gleissher and Co. printing establishment.


On the 27th of April Duplat obtains a 15 year patent for engraving on stone.


Lasteyrie sets up his lithographic printing shop in Paris. Experiments by Lasteyrie and Engelman in colour printing using two stones.


Lithography is introduced to Belgium by Ambroise Jobard.


On the third of March Guillaud and Laprévotte obtain a five year patent for making and using artificial stones for lithographic work.


Engelman obtains a five year patent for his wash process on October 27.


On the 2nd of November Seib takes out a five year patent for printing lithographs on cloth.


On the 22nd of June Paulmier takes out a patent for his scrape board lithographic process.


Malapeau perfects his lithochrome process.


First lithographies by Goya "Les taureaux de Bordeaux".


On the 10th of November Didot and Motte take out a five year patent in Paris for their process of lithography.


Colour lithography derived from mezzotint by Didot.


Colour lithography using several plates invented by Hildebrand in Berlin.


Death of Senefelder, ruined and blind.


On the 4th of June Breugnot obtains a 15 year patent for a new lithographic process in which zinc plates replace the more traditional stones. The new process is called zincography.


On the 31th of July, the Engelmanns, father and son, obtain a ten year patent for a new lithographic colour printing technique called chromolithographie.


P. and A. Dupont invent a new transfer technique for printing ancient texts by lithographic means.


Tissier first engraves lithographic stones that can be used as matrixes for typography, this invention being based on previous work done by Girardet.


Gillot begins to make transfers on zinc plates which become relief blocks. He calls this technique "paniconographie"


L.A. Poitevin invents photolithography.


The American Rubel invents the offset technique.

This chemical method was a fullfledged discovery as the inked and the uninked areas remained on the same surface as opposed to intaglio and relief printing. All that had to be done was to make the stone surface react differently to water and to greasy substances. Senefelder wrote in his book "L'art de la lithographie" (published in Munich in 1819 but written in French) : "I took a well polished stone on which I drew with a little piece of soap. Next I put on the surface of the stone a light solution of rubber and then I rubbed the surface of the stone with a sponge dipped in some oily colour. When this was done all of the areas that had been touched with the greasy substance turned black whereas the others stayed white." The process he described was soon improved upon. Three days later Senefelder printed such: "beautiful, precise , and clear" work that he never needed to make it any better.
The practical applications of lithography developed very quickly. As of 1799 Senefelder was given exclusive printing rights by the king of Bavaria and in 1800 he claimed a patent from the British Patent Office in London. In actual fact Senefelder invented several things. First he invented lithography, then his chemical ink and a suitable press, then a
transfer method from paper onto stone, then a metal plate substitute for stone, "stone paper", a colour process, etc. Some years later there were lithographic printing establishments in Munich, Vienna, Paris, and London. The Munich and Vienna plants developed most of all and it was from these that lithography spread to France. Lithography offered two distinct advantages: first of all the rapidity with which the original could be made and, secondly, the fact that the work involved was much less than in other printing techniques.
In the mind of its inventor lithography was not meant to be used for print making but rather for printing texts and music. However, Senefelder "timidly slipped an illustration" into a book of songs and his business partner, Steiner, was convinced that lithography could also be used to print images. In 1805 the Duke of Montpensier, then a refugee in England, drew the profiles of Louis-Philippe, his brother, and his own. These portraits were then printed by Senefelder who was also living in England at the time. Henri Bouchot speaks of these portraits in the following manner: "Despite the difference in quality these portraits are representative of Senefelder 's art much the same as the saint Christopher of Lord Spencer (1423) is representative of the technique of woodcutting " [
wood]. Various trials were made with lithographic reproduction at this time including a drawing done of a Cossack by General Lejeune. The drawing and the lithograph made from it were shown to the Emperor to convince him of the value of this new technique. As a result Napoleon helped develop lithography in France.
Two names are important in 19th century lithography: Gabriel Engelmann of Mulhouse and Count Lasteyrie of Paris. Engelmano was the author of "
Traité théorique et pratique de la lithographie" (Theoretical and Practical Treatise on Lithography) published in Mulhouse in 1840. It was thanks to this treatise above all that lithography was used for reproducing images as a pastime and soon became a fad. Because of this artists began to be interested by the technique. At the time of Senefelder's death (who was a typical case of an inventor who did not know how to make the most of his work) lithography was already a popular art and Gericault, Gros, Charlet , Goya, Delacroix, and Daumier had already done some drawing on lithographic stones.
Senefelder had made some colour lithography experiments as of 1810. In 1816 Lasteyrie had made an "etruscan" drawing on a black and red background but the
registering was far from perfect. In 1837 Fngelmann took out a patent for a process of "lithocolour printing or lithographic colour imitating painting" [imitation, reproduction] His process marked the birth of chromolithography a term which was later abbreviated to chromo . This technique was to be used for many years to reproduce works of art and commercial drawings.
At present print makers use colour lithography a great deal. Colour lithography must, however, be distinguished from chromolithography even though the principle used by both is much the same. Chromolithography was based on the process that we now cyall
three colour process and which has since become a highly perfected technique. The principle of the three colour process is based on mixing three basic colours in order to obtain the full range of colours. Colour lithography, on the other hand, is not based on the mixture of colours.
During the first half of the 19th century lithography was the technique preferred for printing all kinds of pictures: edifying imagery, portraits, caricatures, landscapes., reproductions, vignettes, fashion drawings, posters, labels, medalions, letters, etc. This "first generation" underwent a serious crisis around 1860 with the development of
photography and the new photomechanical processes. By the end of the century the crisis developed into total collapse insofar as commercial drawing reproduction was concerned. Lithography was increasingly taken over by artists whose work on stone was certainly much more personal than what had been done by the artisanal lithographers. On the other hand it must he said that the artists working in lithography did not equal the artisans from a technical point of view. Furthermore the competence of the lithographic artisans in the 19th century (and even at the beginning of the 20th century) was quite exceptional [lithographer].
The role of the lithographic printer was -and still is - of great importance. Moreover, the work done by these printers has been of capital importance in the history of print making. Not only must the printer guide the artist but he must also complete the artist's work in this branch of the graphic arts. This task is harder than it may seem. For example, the stones used in lithography are not neutral supports (as paper is) since they must be penetrated or scraped to a very precise degree for proper use.
It is true that photomechanical processes meant the death of industrial lithography as of the end of the 19th century but, on the other hand, it is also true that photomechanical processes forced lithography to develop yet further. In 1855 L.A.Poitevin had invented
photolithography or a photographic reproduction technique on stone using bichromated gelatin and a chemical printing method. However, photolithography had less success than photometallography which worked on the same principle but used the more manageable and lighter zinc plates. The photographer Niepce knew lithography quite well and had tried to make photographs using stone and zinc as early as 1815. His process came to be known as heliographie (not to be mistaken with the English term heliography) a term which (as far as Niepce was concerned) included the reproduction of an image by photographic means whether the printing was intaglio or planographic [heliography, photo-engraving, photography].
Senefelder soon realized the advantages of using zinc plates and proceeded to prepare such plates chemically. Thus it was not a big step when photography came along and added its precision to the zinc lithography process. Above and beyond the advantage of its light weight zinc could be curved without any problems and could therefore be used on the rotary presses that became ubiquitous as of the 1880's. (the first
stone printing machine was built in 1863 by H.Voirin. Others were later built by Brisset and Narinon. See printing presses ).
In 1904 Rubel, an American, perfected this type of zinc plate printing by interposing, between the chemically prepared plates and the paper, a roller covered with rubber. This roller, called a
blanket -roller, carried the image to be printed from the plate to the paper with greater fidelity. A further advantage was that the plate did not need to carry an inverted image since the two-fold transposition (first onto the blancket, then onto the paper) made the image come out in the right direction. This new printing system was called offset in most countries but, curiously enough, in North America it was stilt called "lithography".
Another process derived from lithography is
phototype. This technique uses the properties of bichromated gelatine which is applied to a sheet of glass. The next step is to expose this glass to light shining through a reversed negative. The glass is then wetted and the areas that were not exposed or only very little e exposed will swell up. The damp swollen areas will refuse the oily ink used in this process whereas the hollows will retain the ink .

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