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Gorilla - Lithograph

Gorilla Lithograph

Lithography - literally "stone writing" - was a revolutionary way to create reproductions when it first discovered in 1798. No longer did you have to etch a metal plate (either by physically scoring the plate with an engraving tool or by acid treatment) or laboriously carve the (reverse) image onto a wood block. Instead, you simply made the drawing on a piece of limestone with an oil based crayon, put water on the surface, inked it, and hey, presto!, the ink stuck to the drawing and not the stone. You could then run off as many copies as you liked.

Of course it's not quite that simple, and you have to treat the stone with various chemicals (some which can be hazardous), and include other steps during the process to insure you have a stable stone image with the wherewithal for making multiple copies. But in principle a lithograph is created using the age-old adage that oil (the ink) and water (i. e., a wet surface) don't mix. Or rather, if you try to ink a wet surface using an oil based ink, you won't get much ink on the surface. But if you have areas where there is no water and are "oil-compatible", then the ink will stick and can be transferred to paper.

Like bronze casting, hearing a description of lithography makes a lot of people wonder exactly what the hey is going on. You really do have to see it done to appreciate the process. But then you realize - like they say in the commercials - it really, really works.

This lithograph, though, was done with a much simplified procedure. Simple household materials and supplies were used, and there really was nothing more involved than drawing the image, wetting and inking the surface, and making the print. And no, unlike some demonstrations where the artists say you use simple household items and then run the copy off on a $15,000 press, this image was made totally sans la presse lithographique. The simple procedure employed is also (partly) the reason why we have this simple high-contrast, sketchy, and almost abstract image. The other part of the reason is the drawing was made quickly using a high-contrast marker. You can, if you wish, also cite the lack of experience of the artist - limited to a few hours of diddling around - with lithography.

Honesty also compels the artist to admit there was also good luck involved that the image came out pretty much as drawn. The ink of the marker used to draw the image happened to be made from just the right chemicals - not all markers will work. Also the "ink" used for the print also just happened have a pigment which had no affinity for the image itself. Other "inks" - and we do have to use quotes - turned out to dissolve the image from the surface, and so, of course, rendered the plate useless.

Lithography was discovered by the German (Bavarian, actually) actor and playwright, Alois Senefelder. He was not having much luck as an actor or playwright and was learning printing so he could print his own plays. But at that time printing required the hand setting of movable type or etching the words into a metal plate, neither of which Alois could afford. But one day he was jotting down a laundry list with a grease pencil on a piece of limestone. It occurred to him that if he wrote the plays on the stone the grease would act as a mask, and he could etch away the bare stone leaving the words in relief. Although this didn't work out as he expected (etching the stone deep enough to make a true relief might also etch underneath the lettering), he found that using the oil and water procedure you could reproduce the image from what was essentially a flat surface.

Alois set up his printing shop and kept the method secret for 20 years. He finally published his how-to book in 1818. The process was quickly adopted by printers who needed to reproduce works where moveable type was not readily available or relied on cumbersome and inconveniently prepared plates (such as music publishers). Alois worked particularly close with the Offenbach music publishers, and he made a good income teaching printers the technique. Eventually an appreciative King of Bavaria granted Alois a more than adequate pension for his contribution to the Bavarian economy (even today the best lithographic limestone comes from Germany).

Lithography was a major improvement over the older methods. In the hands of a good artist it was rapid and inexpensive. You could reproduce handwriting, manuscripts, and even ancient documents. Best of all, you could mass produce pictures.

Lithographers (including Alois) realized you did not need to draw the image on the stone directly - although this is often done. Instead you can make a drawing on specially treated paper with the lithographic crayons or inks and then transfer the image to the stone. So the original drawing did not need to be reversed and you don't need to worry about messing up the stone surface before the drawing is complete (correcting the mistakes on the stone isn't easy). But a true innovation came when it was found that you could make the "transfer paper" light sensitive. So by laying a photograph (usually on glass) on the paper and exposing it to light you could transfer the image of the photograph to the stone. Using this "photolithography" you could mass produce books with photographs. Not bad for what began as the writing of a laundry list.

Although originally intended as a way to print copies of books and such stuff, artists like Francisco de Goya, Eugène Delacroix, Honoré Daumier. Edgar Degas. Édouard Manet, and Henri Toulouse-Latrec, saw it as an artistic innovation in its own right. Henri was one of the artists to bring color lithography - which requires the use of separate stones for each color - to a true fine art.

Although digital printing for small numbers of brochures and booklets is now common, for mass producing paper products, offset printing is still more economical. Offset is nothing more than automated lithography on metal plates and works by the same principles.



The Invention of Lithography, Alois Senefelder (L. W. Muller, Translator), English Reprint of 1818 German Publication, Fuchs and Lang, 1911. Some people doubt lithography was discovered by writing a laundry list on a bit of stone, but here Alois himself tells the story.

Stone Lithography, Paul Croft, Watson-Guptill, 2003. A modern text.