WARNING: this Blog is didactic, but please don’t let this stop you reading on to the end. It will be heavily illustrated!
For my own part, when I know what is involved in the process of creating or making a thing, I find I can appreciate it in a qualitatively different way. Stone Lithography is a complicated process that many people, even those who are keen art lovers, know little or nothing about, and yet it is one that can yield some exquisite artworks that have a quality all of their own.
I cannot really explain why I felt drawn to working on the lithography stones when I came across them during the printmaking module of my Degree course, but once I started working on them I was hooked. There is magic here, and it has much to do with the unpredictability that you have to face, however much you want to exert control. The stones, the tusches, the acid etch, the ink, the paper, the press all want to have their say too, so by the time you peel the paper off the stone after it has come through the press, you could say that you have a work that is the product of a collaboration.
So, here comes the lesson part:
Lithography (Greek lithos - stone, graphein - write) was developed in 1798 by the German map illustrator Aloys Senefelder. He found that, by drawing on a flat piece of limestone with a greasy crayon, the marks would attract and hold an oily or greasy ink or crayon, while other parts of the stone would hold no ink, provided they were kept wet. The drawing could then be reproduced on paper that was pressed into contact with the drawing on the stone. As long as the drawing remained on the stone, it could be used over and over again to repeat the same image many times.
So, that’s the principle of the process of stone lithography, stated simply. Of course, as in everything, it does get more complicated. The artist has many things to bear in mind: the quality of the mark of the drawing, the strength of the nitric acid/gum arabic etch medium that is used to fix the image to the stone, the length of time the etch is left on (both of these elements must be adjusted to suit the strength of the mark - fine lines need a gentler etch medium than heavy marks), the wetness of the stone when inking up, the wetness of the paper before it goes through the press, the pressure of the press…….!
First the stone has to be cleaned using to remove any old image from it. This is done using carborundum and a very heavy grinder called a levigator. The carborundum comes in different grades, from coarse to fine, used in succession until a smooth surface is obtained.
Once the stone is clean, the artist can draw on it (Below) using a greasy ink called tusche or special lithography crayons, which are also oily.
The drawing is covered with a layer of French chalk and left to dry thoroughly. After that the nitric acid/gum arabic etch is applied. This fixes the image to the stone. The etch can be stronger or milder, depending whether the drawing is fine or more robust . A fine drawing requires a gentler strength otherwise it will be completely obliterated.
After a period of time when the etch has been doing its work (how long depends, again, on the quality of the drawing), it is time to remove the drawing medium. First, though, the stone must be protected with a layer of gum arabic. (Below). The reason for this is that you have to use white spirit or turpentine to clean the medium off, (see below, right) and both those solvents are also greasy. It is essential to keep all grease and oil off the stone. Any greasy marks will be picked up by the printing ink.
Once the drawing medium has been cleaned off, it is time to also wash off the layer of gum arabic. Now the stone is wetted so that the ink can be rolled on. (Below). The greasy printing ink will only adhere to the area that has been etched and drawn on with the oil-based drawing medium, provided the stone is wet. If there are any dry areas, or places where maybe a greasy finger has wandered, there is a possibility that the ink will adhere there too!
Once you are satisfied that it is well inked up, the stone can be put in the press ready for printing.
The pressure of the press needs to be set to suit the thickness of the stone in order to get the best possible print quality. Too little pressure will mean that the paper doesn't take up the image well. Too much pressure can result in a broken stone - something which I also managed to do once. It gave an interesting effect, but it meant one fewer good sized stones - and they are not cheap!
And so the artist finally has a print (Right).
If another colour is going to be added to the work, the whole process, from start to finish, has to be repeated - and then repeated for every additional colour. Adding colours introduces something else to take into consideration - registration - making sure that you print the new colour in the area that you want it to be properly placed....
Lithography made it possible for people to print colour images. Up until that point printed images were etchings and engravings that could only be reproduced in one colour - usually black. If they wanted to add colour, it had to be done by hand. The lithography process meant that an artist could build up a colour image by drawing the various elements of an illustration separately, and then print each one in its own colour over the previous printed layers to produce a complex printed image in colour. Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters are probably our most familiar examples of lithographic prints, but before each colour element could be printed the stone had to be prepared anew - cleaned, drawn, etched…….!
During the nineteenth century lithography became an important way of reproducing works of art and of illustrating books and magazines, and became a favoured technique for many renowned artists (Daumier, Toulouse-Lautrec, Bonnard, Degas to name a few). Subsequently a more complex offset process using metal plate was developed, but artists such as William Scott and Helen Frankenthaler continued to work on stone through the twentieth century.
Now, if you are interested in seeing my own portfolio of stone lithographs you can visit my website page here https://www.marylynnestadler.com/stone-lithographs
I never produced any long print runs. That did not interest me. In fact some of my lithographs are actually unique. I was more interested in building up layers and exploring compositional variations. Seeing the prints through a computer screen doesn't do justice to the experience of seeing one 'in the flesh,' seeing the way the ink has landed on the paper, understanding the tactile quality of the paper.....
Finally, many of them can be bought now as part of the #artistsupportpledge that I wrote about last time. Please do get in touch if you are interested.