July 2010

Lithographs: a confusing term for prints

Lithographs are a type of printing used in fine art prints as well as commercial printing. Therefore there is confusion about the term lithograph when used to describe prints and a world of difference when considering a piece of art as investment or collectible. It is important to know how the processes work and how to recognize the commercial from the original, fine art print.

Lithography is a planographic process. It is a type of printmaking from a flat surface rather than a raised surface in relief printing (woodcut or block prints) or the incised surface of an intaglio (etching or engraving) print process. The resisting of water and oil is the principle used and the process depends on the chemical interaction of grease, nitric acid, gum arabic, and water. Aloys Senefelder, who invented lithography in 1798, called it chemical-printing rather than the reference of the stone (litho) matrix.

Designs are drawn or painted in reverse with greasy ink or crayons on specially prepared limestone. Rosin is sprinkled on the surface to protect the drawing. Then the surface is powdered with talc. Etch, a solution of gum arabic and nitric acid, is then applied to the stone and left for about an hour to combine with the greasy substance and the calcium carbonate of the stone.

A solvent is used to remove the original drawing, leaving the greasy image barely visible on the stone. Water is applied to the surface, which the stone accepts in areas not covered by the crayon. An oily ink, applied with a roller, adheres only to the drawing and is repelled by the wet parts of the stone. The print is made by pressing paper against the inked drawing.

Each color in a fine art lithograph requires a separate stone and printing. Once the edition has been printed, the stones are destroyed or erased, ensuring that no more impressions can be printed. Then the artist signs and numbers the edition.

There is no plate mark or indentation like in the intaglio process. Usually the image is in a painterly or free form drawing style. Fine art original lithographs are identified as hand pulled or as stone lithographs. The editions are usually smaller than 250 prints.

Commercial lithographs are created by off set printing or photo-mechanical processes that have nothing to do with stones anymore. Offset printing is where an image is transferred from a plate to a rubber blanket, then to the printing surface. This is how books, posters, magazines and most all commercial prints are made. It involves making a photo of artwork or text and the finished print will contain dots from the half tones.

The confusion arises when artists make offset lithographic prints from their paintings or artwork. These are not fine art prints or originals, they are reproductions or posters and they have little monetary value. The editions are usually larger, the papers are usually not thick or made of rag, and although they are signed and marketed as collectible, they are not an artistic process like the hand pulled stone lithography described above.

Stone lithographs are good investments for art collectors on a budget. Many masters have chosen to make prints in this process: Miro, Picasso, Toulouse Lautrec and Diego Rivera are just a few. However, offset lithographs even when they are embellished or numbered do not hold their value and are usually worth less than their purchase price.

Suzanne Snider, July 2010

Fuga   David Alfaro Siqueiros
stone lithograph
16" x 22"

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