Lithography is a planographic printmaking process invented in 1798 by Alois Senefelder and based on the chemical repulsion of oil and water, in which a design is drawn onto a flat stone (or prepared metal plate, usually zinc or aluminum) and affixed by means of a chemical reaction.

A porous surface, normally limestone, is used; the image is drawn on the limestone with a greasy medium. Acid is applied, transferring the grease-protected design to the limestone, leaving the image ‘burned’ into the surface. Gum arabic, a water-soluble substance, is then applied, sealing the surface of the stone not covered with the drawing medium.

The stone is wetted, with water staying only on the surface not covered in the grease-based residue of the drawing; the stone is then ‘rolled up’, meaning oil ink is applied with a roller covering the entire surface; since water repels the oil in the ink, the ink adheres only to the greasy parts, perfectly inking the image. A sheet of dry paper is placed on the surface, and the image is transferred to the paper by the pressure of the printing press. Lithography is known for its ability to capture fine gradations in shading and very small detail.

See also: Lithography process explained by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Historical notes

Lithography, introduced by A. Senefelder in 1796, utilizes the property of lithographic stone to retain fatty inks, which, in turn, have the characteristic of repelling water. The drawing to be reproduced can be made directly on the stone or by means of a special fat pencil (lithographic pencil), and in this case the stone must be perfectly smooth, dry and clean, or by engraving with a burin, and in this case the stone is first blackened with special substances. The drawing can also be made on special paper (autolithographic paper) and then transported on the stone with a special procedure (autolithography). The next step is the preparation of the stone for printing.

Keeping the non-printing parts continuously wet, the printing parts are impregnated with fatty ink mixed with bitumen, and finally covered with a layer of gum arabic. Printing is carried out with a special flat machine similar to the typographic one. Even during printing the stone is kept constantly wet by special rollers so that the parts not printing are always free from ink. The procedure described is used today only for art lithography, for the immediacy with which it allows to translate the creative idea into the fluency of the stroke. In the industrial field, the metal matrix has replaced the stone one, the transport and the preparation make use of photographic procedures and the printing is carried out with the indirect system (see offset).

Lithography spread rapidly first in Germany and then throughout Europe, both as an original artistic manifestation and as an application to illustration and art translation. Although lithography cannot be isolated from the succession of contemporary stylistic currents, it is nevertheless possible to identify, in the work of some great graphic artists, those episodes which, due to the perfect coherence between technique and inspiration, assume an exemplary character.

Among the most valid and precocious proofs are the 22 lithographs of Goya, among which the famous 4 plates of the Bulls of Bordeaux, the refined and technically elaborated ones of T. Géricault, of E. Delacroix, who reached very happy results in the plates for the Faust (1828), of P. Prudhon, Bresdin, Millet. Maximum technical and expressive results were achieved in the lithographic series of G. Gavarni (Les Lorettes, 1841-43; Masques et Visages, 1852-53), whose pleasant immediacy is not separated from the intentions of social satire and custom, and in the impressive lithographic work (4000 plates) of H. Daumier (Caricaturana, 1836-38; Bas Bleus and Pastorales, 1845; Bons Bourgeois, 1846-47), which combines a high but never virtuosic technique with an impetuous and plebeian satirical vein; Daumier collaborated as a lithographer to the newspaper Le Charivari, as Gavarni, and La Caricature.

From O. Redon to A. Sisley, from E. Manet to P. Gauguin and P.-A. Renoir, from E. Bernard to the Belgian F. Rops, many were the artists of the second half of the 19th century who expressed themselves occasionally or prevalently in lithography; but the true innovator of black and white lithography and of color lithography (chromolithography) for posters, in which J. Chéret had already successfully engaged, was H. de Toulouse-Lautrec, who was the first to use lithography. de Toulouse-Lautrec, whose graphic activity was concentrated between 1891 and 1899: from Moulin Rouge (1891) and the Café Concert series (1893) and Elles (1896), to the plates for Renard’s Histoires naturelles, published in 1900, in his most beautiful sheets he achieved, through the acrid and tense simplification of the stroke and the summary drafting of color, guided by an immediate and at the same time wise formal intuition, and the astuteness of the layout, a stylistic-expressive synthesis that applies the liberty sign to a corrosive and fantastic image of human reality.

While in England the translation lithography and the “picturesque” view flourished (R. P. Bonington, J. A. Whistler), in Germany F. Piloty and A. Menzel applied themselves to it, then Thoma and Slevogt, in Italy V. Camuccini, B. Pinelli, F. Hayez, brilliant in the portrait and in the illustration (I lombardi alla prima crociata, Ivanhoe), then A. Fontanesi, who dedicated himself to the landscape in the taste of the Swiss A. Calame, and G. Fattori. Fundamental was the lithographic work of the Norwegian E.. Munch, all played on tragic and clever contrasts of white and black (Scream, Madonna, Vampire, 1895), from which descended the tests of the German expressionists from Nolde to Käthe Kollwitz.

Remarkable lithographic activity by Bonnard, Vuillard, Matisse, Dufy, Dunoyer de Segonzac, Derain, Braque, Léger, Rouault, Kandinskij, Kokoschka and Picasso, in whose impressive graphic activity lithography occupied an important place from 1945 onwards. In Italy Casorati prepared the lithographs for Le Grazie by Foscolo (1945-47), for Les colonnes by P. Valery (1961); G. Viviani and Marino Marini, Campigli, Carrà, Maccari, Vellani-Marchi, De Chirico, Severini also dedicated themselves to lithography with excellent results.

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