What is Lithography and How Has it Shaped Modern Printing?

Litography press with map of Moosburg

Last updated on March 2nd, 2022 at 04:37 pm

Lithography was invented in 1796 by German author and actor Alois Senefelder as a simple and cost-effective way to print and publish his theatrical works. Lithography is the process of printing that uses the immiscibility of grease and water to create a high-quality print and can be used to print text or artwork onto paper or various other materials. The word lithography is derived from the Greek word lithos, meaning “stone” and graphein, meaning “to write.” 

The original stone lithography method

When lithography was first invented by Alois Senefelder in 1796, the process lithographing involved using an image drawn with a grease based substance such as oil, fat, or wax onto the surface of a smooth lithographic limestone plate. The limestone plate was treated with a mixture of acid and gum arabic, etching the sections of the stone that were not covered by the image drawn in a grease based substance. You would then moisten the stone and the etched areas would retain water, and an oil-based ink could be applied. The etched areas retaining the water would repel the oil based ink, resulting in the ink only sticking to the areas with the oil based substance drawn on. Finally, the ink could be transferred to a blank sheet of paper placed over the stone, producing the printed image. With advances in modern day technology, this printing technique has changed and evolved throughout the years, though the original method is still occasionally used in some fine art printmaking applications.

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Alois Senefelder invented the lithographic process during his attempts to reduce his publication costs. Senefelder began creating his own copperplate engravings, only to quickly find that it was a very difficult and time consuming process. To practice as a lithographer, he began engraving slabs of Bavarian limestone, though he found that he needed a liquid that could be used to correct his frequent mistakes. Enter a mixture consisting of wax, soap and a few other liquids, resulting in the two materials of limestone and this oil based mixture, the two main ingredients in the lithography printing technique. Senefelder stumbled upon this chemical process, known as the principle of lithography, simply by experimenting with his engraving process and learning how to fix the mistakes that he engraved. Senefelder went on to dedicate the rest of his life to the lithographic process.

The evolution of lithographic printing

The lithography printing process has adapted to the changes in technology over the years and has become a much more efficient process, making it the ideal printing process for long printing projects such as magazines, books, posters and more.

Original plate lithography

The only difference between original stone lithography and original plate lithography is the material used. With original plate lithography, the artist draws onto aluminum as opposed to limestone. This process tends to be easier for artists as the materials are not as heavy. Litho stones can be very heavy and difficult to move, as well as harder to source.

Lithographic reproductions

Lithographic reproductions are copies of a work of art. In this process, a photograph is taken of the piece of artwork and used to create more copies of it. These images are not drawn directly onto a litho stone, are not created by the original artist and are not original works of art. Instead, they are affordable ways to easily and widely share an image.

Offset lithography

The method of offset lithography, also referred to as offset printing, was patented by John Strather in 1853 and though it did not take off immediately, it eventually became the standard method for creating large quantities of high-quality printed materials such as newspapers, magazines, and posters due to its flexibility with different materials. Offset lithography differs from the original lithography method and instead of being hand drawn onto the surface of a metal plate, offset lithographs are made with the use of a printing machine. The image area is printed onto a rubber cylinder which “offsets” the image onto paper and now other materials that the metal plate process does not allow for, such as cloth, wood, tin and more. Offset lithography has evolved into a cost-effective and easy process that consistently results in high quality printed materials. Unlike some printing processes, the lithography process enables thousands of replicas to be made without damaging the image. Other printing processes that use materials such as wood blocks, deteriorate in quality over time as the materials become worn with use.

When to use the offset lithography printing method

Even though offset lithography is one of the most popular printing processes, it is not always the right choice. Due to the time consuming setup process for offset lithograph art printing, this printing plate method is best used for high volume printing projects, because the more you print, the less you pay, as the bulk of the cost is in the setup.

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