Lithography was discovered in Germany by Aloys Senefelder in 1798. It is based on the principle that oil and water have a natural antipathy and refuse to mix. In hand-made lithographs the artist draws directly onto the printing surface with a greasy lithographic pencil. By a succession of simple chemical processes these marks are bonded to the surface and made highly receptive to oil and fully resistant to water. Upon printing the plate surface is first dampened with water, which adheres to the non-image water receptive areas. It is then charged with oily printer’s ink which is repelled by the water but accepted by the oil receptive image areas.
The great attraction of the method, for both artists and printers, is that creating an image on a lithographic stone is an action almost as natural as drawing on paper. There is no need, as in etching or engraving, to struggle against the hard unfriendly surfaces of wood or metal.
In traditional stone lithography, the image is transferred to paper through a simple flat bed screw press. The image in such cases has to be drawn in reverse on the stone so that it becomes right reading on the paper.
In modern off-set lithography, images are drawn on zinc or aluminium plates, which are easier to handle. A further advantage is that images need not be drawn in reverse because they are transferred firstly onto a rubber roller before meeting the paper surface. This intermediary stage automatically reverses the image. Artists are therefore able to draw with greater freedom and spontaneity.
Lithography differs from etching in that continuous tone can easily be achieved by the natural process of drawing, without the need for the artificial effects required of etching and engraving. A drawing produced by lithography will be virtually indistinguishable from a traditional drawing made directly on paper, and all the subtlety of tone will be preserved in the print.
Hand-made lithographs require the production of a new plate for each colour. It is not uncommon to print in up to 20 or more colours, so the artist can become involved in a long process of production, normally working in close association with a master printer.
The relationship between artist and printer is essential and famous collaborations exist where artists refuse to work with any but their favourite printer. Main historical exponents of the art of lithography include Goya, Delacroix, Daumier, Manet, Chagall and Toulouse Lautrec. Henry Moore is also well known for his use of the medium in this century.