Lithography – Reproduction and Art

In 1791 Senefelder accidentally invented ‘stone’ lithography as a reproduction technique. The technology was very artisan intensive, even though the materials science was remarkably simple.

Lithography is based on the fact that oil and water do not mix. So a drawing done in wax will reproduce accurately if the background is washed with water and soap and the inks used are oil based.

The challenge of lithography was the use of relatively thick limestone slabs, so often the set up was a two men job. Obviously, the thick stone had less risk of breakage. The top surface was polished with another stone to achieve a smooth flat finish on which the drawing negative master was created.The elegance of lithography was that the quality of the works depended on quality of the materials and accuracy of the fine waxy pencils and crayons used by the artist to create the mirror image. While, originally, lithography was a black and white printing technique, in 1837 Godefroy Engelmann, in France, introduced a technique to create coloured lithographs. The technique requires multiple stages of production, one for each colour. In lithography, patience is a virtue as up to 40 days may be required to create the works.

Lithography produces high quality artworks without the ‘embossing’ effects of other techniques,so it has remained in the printer’s portfolio till today with several modern variants even for microelectronics masks. The peak of lithography for art was between 1850 and 1950 when many great artists such as Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso and Salvador Dali produced lithographs, as did Nelson Mandela.

The artist would either create the replica (or original) of a sketch or painting in mirror image on the stone and then authorise the printer to make a certain number of copies which would be signed. Picasso and Dali went so far as to commission others to produce the copies. The availability of up to 100 copies created a lucrative market for the artist, the copiers and the lithographers.

From the 1880’s the technique was used to produce colour advertisements particularly for shows and exhibitions. Each lithograph is, in effect, an original work of art produced with great artistic and artisanal care, and each may have minor variations of resolution discretion and tone as the number of prints increases, creating novel artistic effects, so for the collector, a lithograph may be very valuable while being a small percentage of the cost of the original artwork.

The limitation of stone lithography is the number of prints, so galleries that have high volume print sales have turned to photography. In addition, the public are not educated in the value of stone lithographs. A renaissance is needed so that this wonderful printing technology is maintained by families of lithography printers with traditional printing presses.

Hidden away in the heart of Vicenza is a wonderful lithography artisans’ workshop owned and operated by Giancarlo Busato, a man who is better known out of his home town, in Mexico, Brazil and even Australia. How to find him and thrill to his art? That is another story.