term "original print" often leads to confusion. Among print
collectors, prints that were made ("struck") at the time the printing
plate was produced are considered original prints. Examples from the original
plate but printed much later are termed restrikes. Copies made by taking an
original print and producing a new printing plate are termed reproductions (or
counterfeits). Modern reproductions of pre-20th century prints usually use the
photo-offset process, which differs from the original technique and reveal
tell-tale signs when examined closely.
Stone lithography was invented by Aloys Senfelder in 1798. Senfelder was looking for a cheaper method to produce his plays than using expensive hand-engraved copper plates. After much experimentation, Senfelder achieved better results using a grease- based ink on Bavarian limestone. Senfelder called his new process chemical printing, or stone lithography.
Senfelder’s was the first, flat-surface, or planographic, printing process. This process was characterized by a printing surface on which the printed area is no higher than the non-printed area. Senfelder also found that a wet limestone surface would repel a grease-based printing ink, and that an image drawn on the surface with a grease pencil or fine brush would repel water and attract ink.
Stone lithography depends on the mutual repulsion of grease and water. Any drawing on the stone surface could be reproduced by bringing a damp sheet of paper into contact with the freshly inked image.
In 1836, a Frenchman, Godefroi Engelmann, and his son, Jean, invented a method of color printing called chromolithography. This method used red, yellow and blue pigments to produce seven stone color images.
Stone lithography became the 19th century’s chief means of inexpensively reproducing works of art in color and illustrating books and magazines. Although laborious, stone lithography, when set up, could produce thousands of images without image degradation. The new technique soon became more popular than steel or copper engravings, which lost their image sharpness after only 30 to 50 prints were struck.
The first private American concern to sell stone-produced prints was founded by Nathaniel Currier (1813-1888). Currier and his partner, James Ives (1824-1895), became print makers to the American people. [better known as Currier & Ives.]
Stone lithography in America reached its zenith with the work of Louis Prang who came to Boston from Germany. Prang made lithographs that used as many as 25 separate stones. Prang also was the first to add embossing and imitation brush strokes, and he pioneered a lacquering process for utmost realism and dimensionality.
Prang's chromolithographs were made up of intermingled solid blocks of colors placed side-by-side in small color areas, creating a complete range of hues and tints capable of reproducing the entire color spectrum. This technique was called crayon chromolithography. Most prints produced in the 1870s used this technique. Later, stone lithography be-came even more sophisticated with the use of hand-stippling. Stippling is the process of applying a series of inter-mingled dots to the image on the stone to produce variant degrees of shading. Each image would contain thousands of hand-applied stipple dots when it was finished. This concept, when used with color, produced a highly accurate rendition of the artist’s original image.
Immigrants from Germany brought their unique skills in stone lithographic printing to the U.S. and were responsible for most of the quality chromolithographed prints produced from 1860 to 1920.
Stone lithography was an expensive, labor-intensive, and time-consuming process. Each print could involve a dozen highly skilled specialists, take a month to create, and cost upwards of $6000.00 (in 1900 dollars) to produce.
Each new print required the preparation of a different Bavarian limestone for each color used. Most chromolithographs required 8-11 colors to produce a finished image. The first step in the lengthy process to create a new print began with the lithographic artist who would mentally decompose the design into its individual colors using a key-line drawing. This drawing looked like a paint-by-numbers kit. Next, the stone was carefully cleaned and polished with a thin solution of gum arabic which, when washed off, left a thin film of the gum in, rather than on, the stone, thus making the entire stone’s surface impervious to grease. The image was intensified by using a dilute nitric acid solution to etch the engraved image. The design, having been traced from the key-line sketch, was then scratched (engraved) in the film of gum using sharp pointed steel tools. Engraving the stone was a very tedious process, since practically all the work had to be done with great care under a magnifying glass. The engraved lines were made very shallow; the aim was to cut only through the prepared thin gum surface. This would uncover the absorbing qualities of the stone at these points, and then the stone would take ink.
Another method used a specially treated piece of transfer paper to apply the image with grease containing ink, in mirror reverse on the stone, one color at a time. Each transfer paper contained one of the colors in the image. This image then would be pressed on the specially prepared limestone and, using pressure, the image finally was transferred to the stone and the paper was removed.
Water was applied to the limestone and was absorbed by the etched sect-ions of the stone. When applied, printing ink for that color adhered only to the image on the stone. Damp paper was then pressed to the stone and an image was produced in the color represented by that stone. The same process was repeated for each color in the design (as many as 13 colors were used), the lithographer carefully registering the same piece of paper on each separate stone. Each separate color used in the image required its own stone!
Stone lithography’s biggest problem was the use of stones. The Bavarian limestones were 3-4 inches thick, ranged in size from 6"X 8" to 44"X 62" inches in area, super-heavy, and hard to handle. Some stones weighed as much as 600 pounds, and the stones broke easily. Unfortunately, the stone lithography process could be auto-mated only to a point; the process was filled with too much stop- and-return motion to be a truly efficient.
Even with the inherent inefficiencies and waste in the process, so great was the lithographer’s skill, even after 10 or more trips to separate stones, the registration of the same piece of paper to the other stones was within the diameter of a pin hole. Still, on a good day, thousands of these multi-colored beauties could be produced .
Higher-priced chromolithographs used 10 or more colors. Bronze was usually burnished or buffed to a metallic luster. As if that was not enough, in the mid-1890s, lithographers began using 38-ton presses and precision-machined dies to emboss many of their prints. The embossing process highlighted the raised portions of the print with 24 K gold leaf or bronze. Embossing gave the prints their life-like dimensionality; gold coins found on most prints now looked like real gold pieces. Now, women had real curves, wore ornate jewelry, and showcased elaborate coiffures with discernible hair.
Embossing had an unintended but desirous effect. Most early lithos were printed on cheap short-fiber paper often containing wood cellulose. With age, this paper discolored and became brittle. Embossed prints had to be printed on long-fiber (like linen) rag- stock paper as embossing in 38-ton presses required the fibers to stretch and not break. The final result is that a litho, printed 100 years ago on acid- free rag paper, now appears clean and bright with no signs of aging. Stone chromolithography produced a brilliant multi-colored duplication of the original art work. Some prints look like oil paintings, brush strokes and all. The brilliance of stone- produced chromolithography ebbed through the 1920s in synchronization with the slow decline experienced in the print industry. The mechanical efficiency and the use of light-weight, cheaply produced metal plates, in high-speed, high-through-put rotary presses, quickly replaced the heavy, cumbersome Bavarian limestones.
The end of an era was at hand. Photomechanical lithography had begun to take over the market even in the 20s, and sadly, printers, no longer used 38-ton presses to emboss their prints, nor did they have to use 10 to 13 colors in a single image. Now, they could get by with only four colors.
The quality of commercial printing during the Golden Age of Stone Lithography between 1880 and 1920 has never been duplicated and probably never will be. Currently, It is not technically possible, or economically feasible to reproduce the look, feel and brilliant colors found in real stone-produced commercial art. Look closely at as many good examples of chromolithograph art as you can find. Then compare them with the best modern art printing money can buy. You will see a difference you will never forget!