A lithograph is a type of printing process during which original works of art can be printed and reproduced; the final product is also known as a lithograph, which is an authorized copy of an original work created by an artist or other skilled craftsmen. The printing process for creating lithographs is different from other traditional methods, mainly because it does not require the print-maker to first etch the image into metal plates. Prints can be made of original works of art, first created on the stone table or metal plate, or images from paintings or drawings can be duplicated with this method. If the print quality of a lithograph is excellent and the production numbers are low, it may have significant value in the art world.
The Printing Process
Perhaps the biggest advantage of lithography is that it does not require the printmaker to etch an image into metal plates, as some other reproduction methods do; neither is it necessary to physically carve out the image on blocks of wood or other soft material. Instead, an artist uses a set of greasy crayons or pencils to draw a mirrored image of the artwork, usually onto a smooth stone tablet or metal plate. While this can take less time than etching the image into metal, it is still the most time-consuming part of lithography. If the final image has multiple colors, it may be necessary to make separate stones or plates for each.
After the image has been recreated to the satisfaction of the original artist or other authority, it is ready to be turned into a piece of art. To make a hand lithograph, the drawing is first treated with a chemical to set the image. Lithography hinges on the principle that oil and water cannot mix; based on this principle, an oil-based variety of ink is applied directly to the drawing, and the ink immediately bonds with the equally greasy crayon lines. Water is then wiped onto the unpainted areas to discourage the ink from smearing. A sheet of paper, preferably one with a high cotton content, is then placed over the entire plate.
The inked stone or plate and the paper are placed in a press and light pressure is used to transfer some of the ink. If the original image was a monochrome pen and ink drawing, this would be the only press run necessary; color lithographs of an elaborate Van Gogh painting, however, might require several different runs to produce each different color ink. The same paper would be placed precisely over the inked plates, eventually creating a detailed image.
Since the process for creating lithographs can be just as time-consuming and detailed as an original painting, printing runs are often kept low to preserve value. As a result, a signed lithograph may have a set of numbers expressed as a fraction on one corner such as 12/300. This means that the lithograph was the 12th one produced in a series limited to 300 prints. Some famous artists, notably Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso, were more than willing to authorize or create numerous lithographs during their lifetimes; this has created some confusion, however, as it can be difficult to tell which prints are authorized and which are not. Others are not always eager to see their work reproduced on a commercial scale, making it more difficult to find authorized lithographs of their work.
Other Methods of Duplicating Art
In addition to the hand-printing method, lithographs can also be made using an offset printing process. This method is well suited for high-volume printing work, and typically involves plates made of aluminum or mylar rather than stone. After the artwork is created, a photographic negative is made and transferred to a printing plate; a "blanket" made of rubber is then created from the plate, and this is what is used to print the final product. Although very high quality reproductions can be made from offset lithography, the images are not usually as rich.
There are other ways of duplicating original artwork for the commercial market, so it should not generally be assumed that a print in an art store is indeed a lithograph. A giclee is a high-quality artwork produced with a special type of inkjet printer. A silkscreen or serigraph is a hand-stencil method that uses a fabric screen for printing; this type of printing can be relatively fast, and many colors can be used. When the reproduction method is not apparent, it may be best to ask the proprietor to confirm the printing method. In some cases, a signed lithograph may have more collectible value than reproductions made with other methods, but the print quality of lithographs can vary.