There are many art mediums available to people exploring their creative side. Some of these options may be new to you, but could give you a unique spin on drawing and design work. One such example is lithography. 

“Lithograph” comes from two Greek words: “lithos”, which translates to “stones” and “graphien,” which translates to “to write.” Lithographs, however, involve more than drawing onto a stone surface. The design process for a lithograph relies on the fact that when water and grease are combined, they don’t mix fully together. Lithography is a distinct arm form because while other printing methods rely on etching, the process and finished product is more similar to painting in the way that the artist gives the lithograph definition and depth.  

What is a Lithograph?

Art lithographs go back to Germany in the 1800s, when a playwright discovered a way to copy his scripts with greasy crayons, ink, and limestone. The word spread about the repeated use opportunities available with lithography, and it was picked up as a popular medium among local artisans. Today lithograph printing is still used for everything from amateur designs to fine art pieces. 

A lithograph is an art piece made when someone etches a design on a flat stone which is then affixed to a print through a chemical reaction. Beyond flat stones, lithography artists may also use aluminum or zinc metal plates to create their work. Most original lithographs are reproduced through printing with other metal plates or flat stones. Lithograph artists create the original piece using tools like greasy pencils, special tusche ink, or litho crayons. Much like other mediums, artists find inspiration for lithographs from nature, people, and abstract concepts. 

Three black painted rocks sit on a tan mat. They have little flower designs painted on them.
Still from Skillshare Class: The Art of Stone Painting by Lucie D. 
Stone provides a strong backdrop for artwork like painting and lithography. 

Lithograph vs. Print 

If purchasing art, it’s very important to know the difference between an original lithograph and a print. Original lithographs are more valuable than prints. A magnifying glass examination of the piece may reveal more details to help determine if a lithograph is worth anything. Most auction houses or reputable art dealers will do their due diligence to ensure that they’re selling original plate or stone lithographs, but a buyer should also know how to spot originals. 

Unlike originals, print lithographs usually have: 

  • No signature on the back (most original lithographs have a real signature) 
  • Rows of dotted circles from the offset printing process 
  • Blemishes or oxidation issues in non-print areas of the piece 
  • Flat ink (on original pieces, the ink is somewhat raised) 

Lithograph vs. Serigraph 

Serigraphs are made with a silk-screen printing process. Serigraph artists use stencil to create a print of a design or image. Lithographs, however, do not use silk screens for art printmaking and instead use stones or metal plates. 

Lithograph vs. Etching 

Etching and lithography share some things in common. Both use stones and ink, for example. However, no carving is needed for lithographs as they are only created based on the repellent properties of oil and water. Etching requires carving directly into a stone and then the application of ink to make prints. 

Lithograph Art 

Lithography required such specific materials that it took some time to gain popularity in other regions outside Germany. However, professional artists soon discovered that the impact of lithographic art mirrored the dramatic look of black chalk or charcoal. Here are some examples of famous lithographs. 

Boxers By Théodore Gericault

Boxers features incredible detail for a black and white art piece that transports the reader to the sidelines of this fight. Gericault is a famous oil painter who has works hanging in the Louvre, but his art talent also shines through with lithography. 

Two shirtless men stand at odds with their fists up. The white man leans to the right and the black man, who's back is to us, leans to the left. They are standing on a circular raised dirt area and men in top hats and fancy clothe sbut also shirtless stand around watching and gesturing. The whole picture is in black and white and you can see the fine line work of all the shading.
Source: Wikimedia Commons 
Romantic painter Theodore Gericault made one of the most famous lithograph art pieces featuring two boxers. 

Minnie Mouse by Willem de Kooning

Lithographs are a rare art form, but remain popular for professional artists who want to experiment with new mediums. Even abstract pieces like Minnie Mouse look sharp as lithographs. 

An abstract print of squiggles. Black squiggly lines of various thickness and feelings cover a cream page. The image is vertically rectangular.
Source: Moma.org
Minnie Mouse is a 1971 abstract lithograph piece by Willem de Kooning  Source: Moma.org

The Races by Eduard Manet 

A charcoal sketch on cream paper. Very gestural and scibbly lines depicting a crowd on the left that disappears into the distance. Horses with jockeys on them race towards us from the back left area of the image.
Source: Wikimedia Commons 
Eduard Manet’s The Races captures the movement and excitement of horse racing.

Artist Eduard Manet enjoyed not only creating his original lithographs, but printing them as well. Most of his produced lithographs are made from originals, generating a mirror image of the first version. 

How to Make a Lithograph 

To make art lithographs, the designer must have the proper tools and a stone surface to work on. The printing process for lithograph art requires extreme pressure, so choosing a study stone is necessary. With the tools and a clear concept in mind, a lithographer is ready to create and affix their art. 

Two hands hold a charcoal stick above a blank piece of paper.
Still from Skillshare Class: Charcoal Drawing Basics for Beginners by Messner Creations
Artists with skills in charcoal or grease pencil may enjoy trying new techniques with lithographs. 

Step 1: Create and Adhere the Art  

Lock into your creative flow with a drawing challenge and you’ll have lithographic source material for days. Choose your favorite, and then apply a chemical etch treatment in order to attach the drawing to the rock surface. This starts with one layer of powdered rosin and another layer of powdered talc applied to the stone. 

An acid solution called gum arabic is brushed on top of the powder layers, causing a chemical reaction. 

Step 2: Remove the Original Drawing 

A lithotine solvent can be used to eliminate the original drawing, although you may still see a light trace of the original art on the stone. Once this solvent has dried, buff on an asphaltum layer to the full stone surface. 

Step 3: Ink the Stone 

This phase of making lithograph art is known as “inking”. Dampen the now-dry layer of asphaltum. Then use a roller to apply ink to the full stone. Repeat the roller until all of the image is inked. 

Any untouched areas on the drawing repel lithographic ink, but areas where the artist has drawn will collect the ink. To stop any smearing, add wiped water on any untouched surfaces next. Allow that to dry. 

Step 4: Apply Pressure on a Lithographic Press 

Once inked, art lithographs go through a pressing process. Lithograph printing usually involves a packing layer known as tympan that is set between the paper and the plate. Newspaper sheets may also be used for additional padding. 

 A lithographic press uses a component known as a scraper bar to process all these materials together. The scraper bar applies even pressure to capture the full image. 

Step 5: Review the Replica 

Once the machine has pressurized the original stone art, the tympan is removed to reveal a duplicate or mirror of the stone drawing. This paper can be reused multiple times since it only retains the exact crayon work from the artist. 

Design Your Own Lithograph Concept 

Lithograph art requires some unique supplies you might not have on hand. However, because of this original process, you can create rare, beautiful, and long-lasting artwork. You might discover that it’s your new favorite medium!

Written By

Laura Briggs

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