© 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.
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.
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.
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.