Lithography in Art: Definition, History, and Artwork

What is Lithography?

Lithography is a printmaking process dating back to the late eighteenth century. The lithographic process relies on a chemical process and the inability to blend together water and grease. To create a lithograph, a design is drawn onto a flat slab of limestone or a metal plate using a grease pencil and etched into the flat stone using a chemical mixture. Ink is then rolled onto the limestone slab. The design is transferred to paper by running the inked limestone slab through a printing press.

Notable Lithography Artwork

Enoch, William Blake (British, London 1757–1827 London), Modified lithograph printed in relief from a stone; one state

William Blake, Enoch, 1806-7, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.*&offset=0&rpp=20&pos=2

Vincent van Gogh, At Eternity’s Gate, 1882, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Moulin Rouge: La Goulue, 1891, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril, 1893,  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Mabel Dwight Houston Street Burlesque, 1928 Lithograph Image: 9 3/4 × 7 15/16 inches (24.8 × 20.2 cm) Paper: 16 × 11 1/2 inches (40.6 × 29.2 cm) Edition of 50

Mabel Dwight, Houston Street Burlesque, 1929, Whitney Museum of Art, New York.

Still Life with Spherical Mirror

M.C. Escher, Still Life with Spherical Mirror, 1934, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C..

Kiki Smith My Blue Lake, 1995 Photogravure with a la poupée inking and lithograph, on mould-made En Tout Cas paper 43 3/4 x 54 3/4 inches (111.1 x 139.1 cm) Edition of 41

Kiki Smith, My Blue Lake, 1995. Albright-Knox Gallery, New York.

History of Lithography

Lithography is one of the earliest forms of printmaking. The word lithography is based on the Greek lithos, for “stone,”and graphein “to write.”

The invention of the lithographic printing process is commonly credited to Alois Senefelder, a Bavarian playwright. Senefelder’s discovery of the lithographic process in 1796 is widely understood to have been unintentional. Senefelder accidentally discovered that he could make copies of his theatrical works by writing on a slab of Bavarian limestone using an oil-based crayon, rolling over the writing with ink, and pressing paper onto the surface of the ink. The ability to print text and images rapidly using this printing process revolutionized how much of the art in the twentieth century was made.

Thanks to the durability of limestone, lithographic printing became a favored process for its capacity to print in large quantities and withstand hundreds of rounds of printing using the same design.

Lithography was originally used for reproducing musical scores, maps, and scientific illustrations, but was quickly adopted for commercial use. Illustrators and graphic artists were among the first to bring art and mass-produced printed media together in the form of newspapers and other popular print publications using printing processes such as lithography.

Germany became the center of lithograph production in the early nineteenth century and quickly rose in popularity in metropolitan cities such as London, England and Paris, France. Lithography was used as a fine art medium for a few years before technical difficulties contributed to a dip in popularity.

Around 1820, lithography reemerged in the context of the Romanticism movement, where painters such as French artist Théodore Géricault and French artist Eugène Delacroix began to experiment with the complex printing technique. Soon after, lithography was embraced by Impressionist, post-Impressionist, Realist, and Expressionist artists.

Artists Honoré Daumier, Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Jean-François Millet, and Francisco Goya, more popularly known as painters, even embraced the lithographic process. Many painters were particularly keen on the wide range of tonal variation that lithography could achieve, which lent itself well to the emotional intensity or atmospheric subject matter they aimed to convey in their artwork.

Lithography achieved peak fine art status when artists challenged the reproducibility of the medium by printing limited editions. Master printer M.C. Escher would often print editions of up to ten lithographs, such as Still Life with Spherical Mirror, from 1934, to increase the value of the prints. Printing limited editions also conveyed a greater sense of scarcity, similar to the one-of-a-kind value of a painting.

Lithography and Modernism

In the 1890s, lithography, once only one color or black ink, began to incorporate multiple layers and colors. French artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec made use of multicolor lithographs in works such as Jane Avril, from 1893. In Jane Avril, Toulouse-Lautrec depicts a scene of urban nightlife, which many painters were also doing at the time. Toulouse-Lautrec produced an array of lithographs using the same graphic advertisement-like style of Jane Avril, in which Toulouse-Lautrec’s painterly style and appreciation of color are apparent.

As the twentieth century began, lithography continued to gain momentum as an artistic process, especially among avant-garde artists. Dadaists such as Man Ray and Max Ernst, for example, embraced the reproducibility of lithography to illustrate and distribute many of the Dadaist publications. Lithography’s commercial use and capability for mass production complemented Dada’s rebellious, anti-art spirit.

Following World War I, lithographic printing was popular among German Expressionists because of its accessible nature and the ability to rapidly distribute prints. German Expressionist prints by artists such as Käthe Kollwitz and Otto Dix were fueled by the atrocities that many artists witnessed in the war and were, as a result, highly political and emotionally intense.

After World War II lithographic prints maintained their popularity and were embraced by artists who were active into the 1950s and 1960s. Surrealist artists such as Dorothea Tanning, Leonor Fini and Rene Magritte created many color lithographs. Famed Cubist artist Pablo Picasso even experimented with lithography, applying his fragmented style of portraiture to print works such as La Femme à la Fenêtre, from 1952.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Fluxus artists embraced lithography as part of the highly experimental and performance-based movement. Various printmaking techniques, including lithography, supported the Fluxus fondness for everyday objects and print ephemera. Lithographic posters, a cross between promotional material and artwork, were often distributed before Fluxus events.

Contemporary Uses of Lithography

While many printing processes have emerged since the advent of lithography in the eighteenth century, lithography is still a popular commercial printing process. Printed matter such as posters, books, and packaging are commonly mass-produced using the lithographic process, specifically offset lithography. Offset lithography became popular in the 1980s with artists such as Robert Rauschenberg.

The process of printing using offset lithography is very similar to the original method of lithography. The most significant difference is the use of photographic processes to expose and develop the desired image onto the metal plate instead of the more traditional hand drawn image on a litho stone.

Offset lithography eliminates the need for a cumbersome limestone slab and instead makes use of metal printing plates. Popular metals include aluminum and zinc, though some flexible plastics can be used in this process as well. Offset lithography is able to achieve a high level of detail and can produce a high-quality print.

For this reason, many contemporary artists including Kiki Smith, Kara Walker, and Gerhard Richter often make use of the offset printing process in their artistic practices. Kiki Smith’s My Blue Lake from 1995 is an example of how lithography lends itself well to multimedia artwork, as it is a hand-colored photogravure and lithograph.

How Does Lithography Work?

Lithography is a labor intensive printmaking technique. A lithograph print is rendered first by drawing on a stone slab, usually lithographic limestone or a metal plate with a grained surface, using a grease pencil, oil based ink, or other greasy medium. Lithographs can be hand drawn or an image can be transferred to the stone using a solvent. Once the image is drawn directly on the lithographic stone, a layer of powdered talc is rubbed onto the stone to protect it from over-etching.

The drawing is etched using a combination of gum arabic and nitric acid, which is brushed onto the stone. Darker areas require a stronger formula of acid and gum arabic, whereas lighter areas require a milder solution. The mixture of gum arabic and nitric acid will also ensure that blank areas of the stone hold water and repel ink. Only the etched areas will accept ink.

A separate stone, or aluminum plate, can be used to print more than one layer of color. The ability to produce an image using the lithographic process is largely based on chemical reaction and the fact that water and grease naturally repel each other.

After etching is complete, the original image is wiped away and printing ink can be rolled onto the stone using a roller that resembles a rubber cylinder. It is important that the stone is not completely dry when rolling ink, or else ink will adhere to unwanted areas outside of the image area and will transfer to the final print.

After rolling, the slab is ready to receive paper and is run through a printing press. The printing surface of the limestone slab must be flat and level so that the ink will transfer evenly onto a blank sheet of paper, creating a viable print.

The lithographic stone can then be sanded down in a graining sink, using an abrasive agent called carborundum, so that the original drawing is rubbed away and the surface of the stone is ready for a fresh design.

Notable Lithography Artists

  • Odilon Redon, 1840-1916, French
  • M.C. Escher, 1898-1972, Dutch
  • Honoré Daumier, 1808-1879, French
  • Francisco Goya, 1746-1828, Spanish
  • Henri Matisse, 1869-1954, French
  • Joan Miró, 1893-1983, Spanish
  • Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973, Spanish
  • Mabel Dwight, 1875-1955, American
  • Grant Wood, 1891-1942, American
  • Georges Braque, 1882-1963, French
  • George Bellows, 1882-1925, American
  • Alexander Calder, 1898-1976, American
  • Marc Chagall, 1887-1985, Russian-French
  • Jasper Johns, b. 1930, American
  • Robert Rauschenberg, 1925-2008, American

Related Art Terms

  • Woodblock Printing
  • Intaglio
  • Etching
  • Mezzotint
  • Relief Printing
  • Aquatint
  • Screen Printing
  • Japonisme
  • Dadaism
  • Surrealism
  • Modernism
  • Mixed Media
  • Pop Art

About Amy Meleca, M.A.

Amy Meleca is an artist and educator based in Toronto, Canada. She holds a MA degree in Interdisciplinary Art history from OCAD University and a MA in Education from the University of Toronto. Her experience in the arts includes working as an art writer, researcher, art gallery manager, arts-educator and graphic designer. When not writing or teaching, Amy continues to develop her multimedia artistic practice.