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A brief history of stone lithography

Lithography was invented and developed in Germany in the early 19th century by Aloys Senefelder, while experimenting to find a cheap method of reproducing music scores. It differed from all other known methods of printing at the time by making use of the chemical principle that oil and water will not mix. For a time it was the main method of commercial colour printing, until it was replaced by offset lithography. It is now a technique used mainly by artists to create fine art prints.

Lithographic stones are made from limestone, and are actually no longer available from source, so have to be bought second-hand. The stone surface is ground down to a fine grain using different grades of grit, and a bit of elbow grease. The stone is then drawn or painted onto using materials which contain grease, such as lithographic pencils and crayons, and lithographic tusches, (which are grease suspended in water). When applied, the grease from the drawing materials holds in the stone, and creates a water-repelling “hydrophobic” image area. When the drawing is finished, gum arabic is then applied to the stone, which creates a water-retaining, “hydrophyllic” non-image area. Sometimes a very small amount of nitric acid is added to the gum, in order to prevent the grease within the stone from spreading too far. The stone is allowed to rest overnight with the gum on it, so that the image becomes stable.

Proof prints are then taken by washing off the gum, and whist the stone is kept damp, greasy printing ink is rolled on, and adheres only to the greasy image areas. Damp paper is then laid onto the stone, and rolled through a press which applies even pressure. The paper is then pulled from the stone, and the printed image revealed.

Lithography can produce an extremely wide and diverse range of marks – from very light subtle tones through to deep, rich, velvety blacks, which possess a unique quality unachievable with any other printmaking process. In Peter Weaver’s Book ‘The Technique of Lithography’, A.J.B Sutherland talks about the ‘indivisibility and interdependence of technique and aesthetic’. The more an artist learns about the techniques involved in Lithography, the more exciting the aesthetic outcomes can be. It is not necessary for an artist to adapt their usual style of drawing or painting to create a lithograph, due to the similarity of lithographic drawing materials to everyday pencils, crayons and paints. It is also relatively easy to visualise how the final print will look, much more so than with other printmaking techniques such as etching or linocut.

It is a sad fact that many art colleges and universities are getting rid of their lithography equipment, due to a number of factors including space, and a lack of technical expertise. Despite this, exciting lithographic prints are still being made, and Leicester Print Workshop is one of the few remaining places in the UK with the facilities and expertise to be able to offer it to artists as a viable and exciting way of making print.

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