Lithography  : what exactly is it?

Lithography is a printing technique which is to create or reproduce multiple copies of a path executed in ink or pencil on a limestone. This technique is based on the principle of repulsion between water and fat.

The term lithography indicates the technique and the work obtained by this process. This technique has an important place in the work of Claude Weisbuch.

Lithograph "The horseman" by Claude Weisbuch
As always Weisbuch plays on color sparingly. The line remains a key element.

The lithograph should not be confused with lithogravure the lithograph, which is to burn stone plates. This technique is relatively little used to produce prints. It is essentially a process that allows electronic components. Compared to the techniques of engraving, lithography success to its ease of implementation.

Indeed, the artist can draw on the stone as he used to do on paper. There is essentially a technical constraint: draw by reversing the right and the left and also the use of different colours.

The lithographic stone

Support of excellence of the lithography is very fine-grained limestone. This grain must be perfectly homogeneous and no defects. Indeed, an imperfection can weaken the stone and lead to cracks, making it unfit to print.

The quarries providing sufficient quality for lithography stones are rare: we use in general of the stones of Bavaria of Solnhofen, Rhineland, Saxony, France (runner-up) and Switzerland.

Inking of stone for lithography
A lithographic stone being inked. Nantes Printing Museum

Lithographic matrices generally have a thickness of 7 to 10 centimeters. The two faces must be perfectly parallel (because final passage to the press).

The surface is sanded, grained or polished using abrasives, soap and water. A smooth stone makes it possible to obtain deep lines and flat areas; a grained stone allows a half-tone impression.

Well treated, a lithographic stone can be kept for a long time and can be removed several times. Indeed, because of their cost, it is common to erase the composition by polishing and to reuse the stone. It is essential that the surface be preserved from all traces of grease.


The outline is executed directly on the stone in pencil or lithographic ink, applied with a pen or brush. The use of lithographic ink makes it possible to obtain wash effects. You can scrape off certain parts of the drawing to reveal deep whites (Daumier used this technique a lot).

It is also possible to transfer a drawing using a tracing paper or a “transfer paper”.

The artist or the craftsman must make sure not to put his hand on the surface of the stone, so as not to deposit grease, which would appear at the time of the print.


In order to be able to print, the composition must be fixed in stone. To do this, it is chalked and covered with a mixture of acid and gum.

A lithograph at the end of printing

Claude Weisbuch, shows us the realization of a lithograph… Click HERE to see (3 min 30 sec )

Once the line has been drawn, the stone is moistened for printing; Being porous, limestone retains water. The greasy ink is then deposited using a rubber roller. The ink remains on the stone in places impregnated with the fat of the drawing while it is repelled by humidity everywhere else (oily ink is hydrophobic). When the stone is sufficiently inked, we put down the paper and go to press.

To print in color, you have to start printing again, re-preparing the stone and redrawing each new color on it. To this end, we base ourselves on the “ghost image” of the first drawing that remains on the stone. In this case, a new draw cannot be made, the stone having been modified for each successive color.

According to other techniques, the printing of each color is done on a different stone. Indeed on each stone the pattern is drawn taking into account its color, and superimpositions which will give mixed shades. The difficulty is to identify the position of the sheet on the successive stones. We usually start with the lightest shades, to finish with the darkest, usually black.

For limited editions, once the number of copies is obtained, the stones are treated and polished. Thus, the design having completely disappeared, this guarantees the regularity of the official draw and the stones can be used again indefinitely as long as they are polished and treated properly.

Assessment of the draw

The value of a lithography depends on the number drawn copies, on the rating of the artist and the involvement of the artist during the draw. Depending on the case, the lithographies are carried out directly by the artist or may be the interpretation by a lithographer of a pre-existing work.

Roman numerals of an artist's proof
Here it is a artist’s proof, the numbering is in Roman numerals.

The first copy validated by the artist at the exit of the press is annotated “Fighting” (for “good shooting”).  Before being numbered and signed by the artist, each copy is compared to the BAT. A few copies are annotated “EA” (“artist’s proof”) and “HC” (‘off-trade’) these copies are reserved for the artist and the printer.

Therefore, it is necessary to inform buyers, scoring on each draw, with the signature of the artist, the copy number and total circulation, which is called “justification of the draw.” For limited editions, once the number of copies is obtained, the stones are processed and polished.

The drawing had totally disappeared, this ensures the regularity of the official draw. The stones can be reused indefinitely once they are polished and processed properly.

Lithography: history

The invention of lithography would be due to a combination of circumstances. In 1796, Aloys Senefelder can’t find a Publisher for his scores and decides to burn them himself. Due to the price of copper, it folds down on a stone, tender and smooth. He discovers that the action of an acid on the stone, creates a form in very low relief, usable for printing.

He will later discover the principle current lithography, based on the repulsion of water by the fat.

His method is used primarily to print sheet music, usually carved in intaglio. However, the Senefelder technique is much more economical.

Lithographic press 19th century
As the sweet size lithography uses a press. Here a lithographic press of the 19th century. Museum of Printing.

Lithography became popular at the beginning of the 19ᵉ century with the publication of collections illustrating travel accounts corresponding to the ‘invention’ of tourism.

Lithographic printing of Godefroy Engelmann will take, a marked ascendancy, with notably the spread of picturesque and Romantic travel in ancient France.

In 1839, the lithographic printing in color becomes popular.

Technical development

End of the 19ᵉ and at the beginning of the 20ᵉ century, advertising is the process used. Produces collectible images, calendars, or all sorts of chromos. Furthermore, artists like Toulouse-Lautrec and Géricault, Bonington, left an abundant production.

In the middle of the same century, the woodcuts of Épinal imagery give way to lithographs. During the 20ᵉ century, lithography will be used as an advertising medium, for, in particular, the realization of posters. Highest rated are those created by the artists such as Miró, Picasso, Rebeyrolles.

While the word “lithography” means a technique based on the stone, this support could be quickly replaced by metal plates without radically changing the technique. A recent application, called kitchen litho, even using household aluminum and current products, non-toxic, for educational purposes.

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