The process of making a lithograph was created in 1796 by German author and actor, Alois Senefelder.
The entire principle of lithography is based on the idea that water and grease do not mix. Lithography takes advantage of this rule by using greasy drawing materials to make an image and then chemically etching the image into the stone for printing. Later, the white areas of the drawing retain water and a greasy ink is added to the stone. This ink is repelled by the water on the white areas of the image, and sticks to the original greasy drawing so it can be printed.
The process of lithography takes on the lithographic stone. These stones are quarried specifically for their hardness, fine-grain and homogeneous texture.
For more details, keep reading beyond the infographic below...
Grain the Lithographic Stone
In order to prepare the stone's surface to draw on, you must first grain the stone down to a smooth surface. Basically, the stone is sanded down enough to level out the stone and remove any old drawing materials that might affect the new image. I usually use different grits of carborundum and another stone to accomplish this so I can prepare two at one time!
Draw Image on the Stone
Using oil-based lithography crayons and other greasy materials the image is drawn onto a smoothed slab of limestone. It’s important to remember that the drawing will be reversed when printed, so you have to draw it backwards on the stone!
Etch Image Into the Stone
Etching the stone “fixes” the greasy image into the stone’s surface. A chemical solution including nitric acid is massaged into the stone, then the extra is wiped away and the stone is left to sit for several hours.
After the stone is etched, the image will attract the greasy ink while the white areas attract water and therefore repel the ink. The chemical makeup of the stone’s surface has now been altered so that the image can be printed hundreds of times if needed. (Fancy right?!)
Tear Paper and Mix Ink
Quality, archival paper is torn down by hand to the size of the image. The size of the edition (the final number of matching prints) determines how many sheets must be torn down to size.
Ink is usually mixed now as well. Lithographic inks of various colors are combined and ink modifiers are added to change the viscosity, tackiness and overall quality of the ink before it is applied to the stone.
Print the Stone
Oil-based printing ink is applied to the stone using a roller. The stone is kept damp while it is being inked up. Because grease and water don’t mix, the ink adheres to the greasy drawing but is repelled by the damp blank areas.
The inked stone is placed on the bed of a lithographic press. A sheet of paper is placed on the surface of the stone, it is protected by a flat plastic board and manually cranked through a printing press. This transfers the image from the stone onto the piece of paper.
If more than one color is needed for a print, multiple stones are used at once and/or another chemical process is used on the original stone to reverse the etching process so that the stone is open to receive a new drawing. This process of drawing, etching, inking and printing is repeated for each individual color layer.
Edition the Image
Once you feel good about the way the print is looking, edition it!
An edition is a set of prints that are consistently printed. The edition size can be small or large and is indicated at the bottom of the print as a fraction. The bottom numeral is the number of copies in that edition. The top numeral is the number of that particular copy.
For example, if you had an edition of 50, they would be numbered 1/50, 2/50, 3/50 and so on. After the edition is complete, the block will never ever be printed again!
This is a general overview of the lithography process. For in depth looks at the process behind specific lithographs featured in this post and in the shop, plus a visual walkthrough of the steps involved visit my process posts for some of the following prints:
Next, check out all of the tools it takes to make a lithograph.