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The 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.

Prints are often differentiated as "decorative" or "artist" prints:

Decorative prints: are made using a printing plate produced by a skilled artisan who has copied or adapted a design by another artist. Decorative prints may be natural history images (animals or plants), scenic views, maps, industrial or architectural views or many other types of images. This category also includes copies of paintings and drawings which were the primary means of illustrating artworks through the 19th century. In many cases decorative prints come from books, atlases or magazines.

Artist prints: The artist who designed and drew the picture also produced the printing plate from which the prints are made. The only "intermediary" is typically the expert printer. In the last 100 years artist prints are frequently hand signed (usually in pencil), and in the last 70 years typically numbered (as part of a limited edition). Earlier artist prints may have been published in books or periodicals. There is much overlap between the categories of decorative and artist prints.


Engraving: The design is scratched into the surface of a smooth copper plate with a tiny chisel (burin). The plate is coated with ink, which is then wiped off. The ink is retained in the grooves. When a plain sheet of paper is pressed to the plate the image is transferred to the paper. Deeper, wider grooves print darker than thin shallow ones. Fabulous detail may be produced by the hands of a skilled engraver. The plate may become worn after a couple hundred prints, and to avoid this the plate may be "steel-faced" or plated to prolong the useful life of the image. Hence the term "steel engraving".

Etching: A blank copper plate is coated with a hard wax (ground). The artist uses a needle to scratch through the ground to the surface of the plate. After the design is drawn in this way, the plate is placed in acid which "bites" into the copper plate in the areas that were scratched through, but has no effect on the areas still coated with the ground. When the ground is later removed the artwork is found to be etched into the copper plate. This plate can then be printed exactly like an engraving described above. The printed lines in an etching may have a slight fuzziness (burr) whereas the lines in an engraving are very sharply defined.

Mezzotint: The surface of a copper plate is first roughened completely with a tool called a rocker. The image to be printed is achieved by smoothing the areas of the plate to be the lighter parts of the image. The rougher areas print a rich mossy black, which is the characteristic trait of the mezzotint. This process was popular for portraits in 18th century England and for some copies of art works.

Aquatint: A granular ground is applied to a blank copper plate. It is then bitten with acid, similar to the etching. The artist keeps reapplying the ground and rebiting the plate in selected areas where the image is to be built up. Aquatints have a grainy surface and are somewhat a cross between etching and mezzotint.

Woodcut: One of the earliest techniques. A block of wood is carved (engraved) with a chisel to remove areas that are to remain white. The remaining raised surface of the wood has the image to be printed. Note that the raised part of the woodcut prints the image, whereas in a copper engraving or etching it is the recessed part of the plate that prints the image.

Wood engraving: Similar to the woodcut, except the design is engraved into the end-grain of the wood, which is harder and allows much finer lines to be produced. The peak of wood engraving was the latter part of the 19th century. This was the technique of illustrated newspapers such as Harpers Weekly, and numerous illustrated books.

Lithograph: Invented in Germany in 1795. A waxy crayon is used to draw an image on a smooth fine-grained piece of limestone. After chemical treatment, the stone is inked and wiped. The ink adheres to the crayon drawing but not the blank parts of the stone. When paper is pressed to it, the image is transferred. Lithographs achieve a look very much like crayon or charcoal drawing, though they are, of course, printed with ink.


Hand colored: Many prints in "black and white" have been colored by hand using watercolor paints. This may have been done when the prints were issued ("contemporary or original hand colored") or recently ("later hand colored"). During the 16th through 19th centuries some prints (eg. maps) may have been sold either hand colored or black and white. Today many old black and white prints are newly hand colored to enhance eye appeal and salability.

Printed color (engraving and etching): In the 18th century, especially in France, engravings were often printed in color using a single printing plate, with all colors applied simultaneously. This required careful inking of the plate with each color ink in its particular location , after which the plate was impressed on the paper. This laborious process had to be repeated for each print made. Such prints are often termed color stipple engravings because the stipple (dotted) form of engraving was best suited to this technique.

Color lithograph (Chromolithograph): Separate lithographic stones are prepared for each color to be printed. When they are printed on the sheet in perfect registration, an excellent quality of color print is obtained. The peak of color lithography was 1830 to 1900. As many as 40 separate stones were sometimes used, leading to very rich textured color.

Color woodcut: A separate woodblock is made for each color and then they are all printed in succession. Japanese color prints represent the peak of the technique, but it was also popular for American and European artist prints, especially during this century.

Pochoir: This is an unusual printing technique used in France between 1910 and 1930. Paper stencils are cut for each color required, and watercolors are used with each stencil to apply color to the blank paper. Under expert workmanship a remarkably rich color print can be produced, though it is very labor intensive. Pochoir technique was primarily used for fashion and design illustration during the Art Deco era.

Photo-offset lithography (3 or 4 color process): Around the turn of the 20th century, the currently used process of printing was developed. The image is photographed using color filters though a succession of dotted screens. Typically the image is separated into three colors (red, yellow, blue) or four colors (red, yellow, blue, black). Each of the printing plates produced has tiny regular raised dots to receive the primary color (or black). When the plates are printed sequentially, a full color image is produced. This process is especially good for capturing subtle gradations of color. The tell-tale of this technique is a tiny regular dot pattern with white in between. When antique prints are reproduced today this is the most common method, and the dot pattern is the evidence that the print is a modern copy. However, many authentic early 20th century decorative prints and posters were made using this process, and could still be viewed as authentic antique prints. Familiarity with the particular look of the antique print in question and its paper, can lead to certainty of authenticity of such prints.

Laser prints, other Modern Techniques: Recent technologies have led to high quality color copying techniques, which can sometimes cause confusion with authentic antique prints. Typically these are printed on thin "computer" or "Xerox" paper, and as such are very different from the originals. In many cases the pure white back of the sheet is also an indication. Further laser and inkjet prints have a unique texture under magnification which is very different from the other techniques described above. Modern reproductions are not deceptive if one makes even a brief study with a magnifier of the various printmaking techniques.



By Edwin D. Barnes and Wayne H. Dunn

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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! is owned and operated by John M. Martello

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