Wednesday, January 19, 2011

High Kicks & Low Life: Lithography explained.....

To many people the idea of an original print can seem like a contradiction, with the connotation that, somewhere, there must be an ‘original’ work of art from which a reproduction has been made.
As we are currently hosting the British Museum’s touring exhibition of graphic works by Toulouse-Lautrec, I thought it would be a good idea to post about what we mean by the term ‘artist’s original print’ and to explain the process Lautrec used to create many of his most enduring images: stone lithography.

 Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) Marcelle Lender, en buste, 1895. Colour crayon lithograph
© The Trusttes of the British Museum

When making an original print, an artist will first choose the medium they want to work in. This could be lithography, etching, woodcut, or any one of a number of other methods, depending on the desired effect.

Marks are then made directly onto the printing surface and an impression is taken. The important thing here is that the resulting print is an original work of art – not a copy of an already existing image – which will be printed in an edition size chosen by the artist or a publisher.

Lithography is a very expressive form of printmaking. Artists can use materials that are very close to those they might choose for other mediums, which has made it popular as a technique since its invention at the end of the 18th century.

The original method, as discovered by Alois Senefelder, uses limestone blocks that are ground down to make a smooth, flat surface and relies on the interaction of two incompatible surfaces: grease and water. Marks are made directly onto the surface of the stone using grease-based substances, such as special lithographic crayons. With chemical treatment, the areas that have been marked will accept printing ink while the undrawn areas, dampened with water, remain free of ink. Finally, the image is transferred to paper by passing the stone through a printing press.

 Example of a stone prepared for a lithographic print.
This Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons image is from the user Chris 73 and is freely available at Wikipedia

Lautrec’s first lithograph was Moulin Rouge – La Goulue, which used four separate stones for the four main colours. He quickly mastered the technique and began to experiment with a range of techniques, including spatter, where paint is sprayed onto the surface of the stone by running a knife along the edge of a brush.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) Moulin Rouge –La Goulue, 1890. Colour brush and spatter lithograph © The Trustees of the British Museum
From this early use of stone, other lithographic techniques have developed, including grained zinc plates and light-sensitive translucent film. For a glimpse of this magical printing technique being carried out today, you can’t do much better than this film showing Paula Rego at work with our friends at the Curwen Studio.

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