Lithography is a planographic technique. The name is derived from the Greek words λίθος (lithos – stone) and γράφειν (graphein – to write or draw). In lithography the stone is not incised, scratched or cut as in the woodcut technique, for example. This technique uses the chemical properties of oil and water, which do not mix. This is the basis of lithographic printing.
To make a lithograph, the artist uses either a pen with special greasy ink to draw the image on a prepared smooth stone, or lithographic chalk on a roughened stone surface. A solution of gum arabic and nitric acid is applied over the surface, producing water-receptive non-printing areas and grease-receptive image areas. The printing surface is kept wet during this process. After chemical treatment to fix the image, ink is rolled onto the surface. Only the drawn lines accept the ink. The stone is then covered with a sheet of paper and passed through a printing press.
Since the drawing is made with a pencil, allowing variations in thickness, shading and hatching, there is more tonal gradation in a lithograph than in a woodcut. The transitions between different grey tones, for example, can be rendered with a velvety softness. Escher was a master of detail and he managed to incorporate an immense spatiality into his landscapes. Like most artists, Escher did not print his lithographs himself, but took his prepared stone to a carefully selected, high-quality lithographer. He would remain present during the entire printing process to check that the images turned out just as he intended. When the print run was finished, he would sign and date each print. Escher had experimented with lithographs in his student days, but he did not start using the technique professionally until 1929, when he was living in Italy. At first he experimented to find the right way of producing his sketch on the same scale on the lithography stone, but eventually it became second nature to him.
During his lifetime Escher used only a small number of stones. There were only ten in his studio when he died in 1972. A lithography stone can be reused many times. Once a print run was complete, he would clean the stone and grind off a thin layer, removing the drawing and the gum Arabic so that he had a pristine stone to work with again. This also meant, however, that he could never make another print of the previous lithograph, which therefore tend to exist in only small numbers. There are for example only 24 copies of Still Life with Mirror. A number of Escher’s rarest prints were therefore made using a technique which in theory allowed for mass production. The last ten lithography stones cannot be reprinted either, as all stones, mezzotint plates, linoleum blocks and most wooden blocks were destroyed after his death, at Escher’s request.
Lithography was developed by Alois Senefelder (1771-1834) between 1794 and 1798. The German actor and playwright was looking for a way of reproducing his texts. He first enjoyed commercial success in the late eighteenth century with the publication of sheet music. He discovered that Solnhofen limestone was an ideal medium for printing both images and text. Senefelder lived in Bavaria, in southern Germany, where this ‘pure’ limestone was in abundant supply.
In the early nineteenth century Romantic artists like Théodore Gericault and Eugène Delacroix discovered the fine gradations made possible by the lithographic technique. They managed to achieve dramatic effects that had previously been largely associated with charcoal drawings. The impressionists used the technique to capture the ephemerality of light, or the weather. James McNeill Whistler succeeded in evoking an almost fairytale atmosphere in his lithographs. Other well-known nineteenth-century artists who used lithography included Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin and Odilon Redon.
Lithographs can be printed in several colours, though a different stone is needed for each printing pass. The most commonly used technique is chromolithography, which became very popular in the late nineteenth century. It was used mainly for commercial purposes, as a technique for producing book illustrations, reproductions of paintings and advertising posters. The posters seen on the streets of Paris in the ‘Belle Epoque’, designed by artists like Jules Chéret and Henri de Toulouse–Lautrec, and the Art Nouveau posters of Alphonse Mucha are particularly fine examples.