The History and Process of Lithograph Art

Stone lithograph of a woman and a monkey with a red background entitled Sacred Fire I by Michael Parkes.

Lithography is a medium that has dominated printmaking since the 18th century, but its defining principle is rather simple: oil repels water. By inscribing an oil-repellent image onto a flat, porous stone, one can use the stone to create thousands of near-identical prints and spread their words and images far and wide.

But what is lithography in art? Lithography has applications in advertising, wallpaper production, computer printing, and even nanotechnology, but it is also an intricate art medium if you have the patience for it. 

Discover how lithograph art works and heighten your appreciation for the craft at Marcus Ashley Gallery.

The Origins of Lithograph Art

The first mention of the word lithography comes from Germany in 1796, when author and actor Alois Senefelder wished for an inexpensive method of printing his theater materials. Lithography comes from the Ancient Greek lithos, ‘stone’, and graphein, ‘to write’. German limestone, known for its hardness, porous qualities, and fine grain, was the first stone used to create the smooth surface required for a perfect print.

Senefelder used pencils made of fat or resin, then treated it with a special chemical process that could be washed and reused a great number of times without reducing the quality of the drawing, unlike the cumbersome woodblock printing process that was customary back then. 

Essentially, lithography art is the process of creating an image that ink can adhere to in order to make a large number of near-identical prints. Lithography was an early printmaking method devised for a simple purpose that has had a monumental impact that persists to this day.

How Does Lithography Work?

The process of how lithography works can vary widely from artist to artist, but typically, the process of creating a lithograph goes as follows:

  • An artist draws the design onto flat stone (usually limestone) using oil-based ink.
  • The completed design is then processed, or etched, using layers of talc and rosin.
  • Acid and/or gum arabic mixed with acid is brushed onto the stone to create a chemical reaction, fixing the oil drawing into the stone.
  • A solvent removes the drawing, and a material is applied that etches the stone into place. 

Modern lithography can often skip some of this process, utilizing polymer coatings and metal or plastic plates to achieve a similar result. Additionally, a derivative method called offset lithography uses sheets of rubber and the same concept of oil and water in order to print large amounts of paper, and it has persisted as the most popular printing method since the 1960s. Photolithography also plays a part in the mass production of electronics and other technology.

What Is Lithography in Art?

Lithography is a highly technical form of creating prints, but it doesn’t just have technical uses. After overcoming technical difficulties in the medium’s initial stages, inventors were able to develop a way of adding artwork to paper and newspaper prints, allowing for one of the world’s first simple mass production of artists’ works. 

Soon, lithography art could also be produced in color. An artist creates a different stone for each additional color and a separate layer of ink would be applied to the paper for each stone. The artist must take great care to align the etchings perfectly so that the colors do not overlap.

Artists began to use lithography about a century after it became a popular printmaking method, and in the mid-1800s, it became a trend amongst popular artists like Delacroix, Géricault, and Goya. 

Lithography allowed artists to achieve renown and recognizability like never before. For the first time, the masses could see masterful, gorgeous works of art in books or newspapers, making art much more accessible to the average person and different social classes.

Lithography fell out of favor as an art medium for a while, but it was revived when a new generation of famous artists including Picasso, Matisse, and Miró were encouraged to pursue it. New and easier methods were refined in this time, which made lithography popular for wallpaper, printing, and of course, art.

Michael Parkes: A Famous Contemporary Lithograph Artist

Michael Parkes has reached a near-legendary status in the art world for his mastery of stone lithograph art. He has spent decades learning this difficult technique, and an understanding of what is involved in his artwork’s creation makes his result even more impressive.

His meticulous art style lends well to the incredibly precise and detailed technique required for lithography, and he can create fantastical, intricate scenes with the same refined quality as his paintings. His lithographs are hardly sought after, and Marcus Ashley Gallery is fortunate to offer many pieces from his collection on our online gallery, which you can peruse at your leisure.

Discover Masterful Lithography Art at Marcus Ashley Gallery

If you have any questions about purchasing limited edition print artwork for your collection, what lithography art is, or other fine mediums on display in our collection, one of our experienced art consultants would be happy to help you. Contact us anytime. Browse our gallery online or visit our vast gallery in person at South Lake Tahoe