Dazed and confused: lithographs vs. digital prints – I

 Lithographs have played an important role in the art world since the 19th century. Above, February Sky II (red), 22 x 30 inches, lithograph

Lithographs have played an important role in the art world since the 19th century. Above, February Sky II (red), 22 x 30 inches, lithograph

A brief history of lithography and its place in contemporary art

The first in an occasional series.

There is a lot of confusion going around today with regard to what we call prints in the art market.

I would like to offer a little insight into one printing process, lithography, that has been around for several centuries.

In spite of more recently developed and much less labor intensive printing processes, most notably digital printing, lithography continues to have a vital place in contemporary art.

Origins and uses of lithography

Lithography (so called from the Latin for stone, litho, and mark, graph) was invented in 1796 in Germany by a Bavarian author and actor named Alois Senefelder who accidentally discovered that he could duplicate his scripts by writing them in greasy crayon on slabs of limestone and then printing them with rolled-on ink.

Because the local limestone retained so relentlessly any crayon marks applied to its surface, even after repeated inking and printing, lithographs could be printed in almost unlimited quantities.

The technique developed as an inexpensive method of publishing advertisements and programs for the theater but was quickly picked by the visual artists of the time and was made quite popular in the 1800’s by the Romantic painters, Eugene Delacroix and Theodore Gericault, who appreciated the tonal shifts that could be achieved with lithography.

The Impressionist artist, John McNeil Whister – best known for his famous painting, “Whistler’s Mother” – used the medium to capture the subtle grays of seascapes veiled in fog.

Edgar Degas used the medium to explore the varied forms of natural and artificial lighting at night. Toulouse Lautrec, famous for his paintings of  prostitutes and patrons and performers at the notorious Moulin Rouge in 19th century Paris, used the medium initially to make theatrical advertisements but quickly adapted it to studies of the characters that occupied the seamier side of Parisian night life.

From this point throughout the 20th century lithography enjoyed widespread use and circulation through artists ranging from Picasso to Thomas Hart Benton and experienced a particularly high point during the period of American Regionalism.

Texas had its own brand of regionalism and its practitioners, the group known as the Dallas Nine, for example, including Alexander Hogue, Jerry Bywaters and Otis Dozier, all made exquisite black and white lithographs and for me carried this medium to a very familiar place.

The chemistry of lithography

Simply put, lithography is based on the antithesis of oil and water.

Traditionally, an image would have been drawn, using an oily, greasy or waxy pencil or crayon, onto a smooth slab of limestone which had been cut and ground to a smooth surface prepared specifically for this purpose.

The stone surface, with the drawing on it, would then be treated with a mixture of acid and gum Arabic to etch the drawing into the stone and to etch the stone exposed around the drawing.

After the etching of the stone was completed, the surface of the stone could be moistened with water sponged over the entire surface and while still damp could have ink rolled over the surface with a large roller; the areas of the stone where the drawing was would repel the water and thereby absorb the ink while the areas of the stone that remained damp repelled the ink.

Once the stone was well and evenly inked it could be printed by laying a piece of paper over the stone and running it through a press designed for this purpose.

In modern lithography, the image is made of a polymer coating applied to a flexible aluminum plate. Like traditional stone lithography, the flat surface of the aluminum plate is roughened slightly—etched—and divided into areas that accept a film of water (and thereby repel the greasy ink) and areas that repel water and accept ink because the surface tension is greater on the greasy image area, which remains dry.

The image can then be printed directly from the plate (the orientation of the image is reversed) onto paper.

A slight variation of this technique involving transferring the image onto a flexible sheet for printing and publication has been referred to as offset lithography and has been widely used in the publication of newspapers and magazines and also for posters and reproductions of original works of art.

Technology changes things

With the advent of computer technology virtually any two-dimensional visual thing can now be scanned and printed with a high degree of accuracy and this new technology has given rise to an extremely high degree of digital printing, also referred to as ink-jet prints, Iris Prints and Giclees (all the same).

The arrival of digital prints in the art market revolutionized printing and virtually replaced offset lithography which had been used years as the market standard for reproducing original artworks as posters and inexpensive reproductions.

The arrival of digital prints also added –exponentially it would seem – to the confusion on the part of the general public.

What is the difference between a real, hand-printed, collectable, fine art print and a high quality photographic reproduction?

Great controversy surrounds this subject and so will be my prime topic of a future installment.

My next installment, however, will describe specifically how I have developed my own approach to multiple color lithography in my own art and how it has become a primary medium for me, second only to oil painting, over the past 12 years.



Lithography in the Nineteenth Century – The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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