These notes were more or less copied from a website. I forget the address.

Color Printing in the Nineteenth Century

Lithography was the first fundamentally new printing technology since the invention of relief printing in the fifteenth century. It is a mechanical planographic process in which the printing and non-printing areas of the plate are all at the same level, as opposed to intaglio and relief processes in which the design is cut into the printing block. Lithography is based on the chemical repellence of oil and water. Designs are drawn or painted with greasy ink or crayons on specially prepared limestone. The stone is moistened with water, which the stone accepts in areas not covered by the crayon. An oily ink, applied with a roller, adheres only to the drawing and is repelled by the wet parts of the stone. The print is then made by pressing paper against the inked drawing.

Lithography was invented by Alois Senefelder in Germany in 1798 and, within twenty years, appeared in England and the United States. Almost immediately, attempts were made to print pictures in color. Multiple stones were used, one for each color, and the print went through the press as many times as there were stones. The problem for the printers was keeping the image in register, making sure that the print would be lined up exactly each time it went through the press so that each color would be in the correct position and the overlaying colors would merge correctly.

Early colored lithographs used one or two colors to tint the entire plate and create a watercolor-like tone to the image. This atmospheric effect was primarily used for landscape or topographical illustrations. For more detailed coloration, artists continued to rely on hand-coloring over the lithograph. Once tinted lithographs were well established, it was only a small step to extend the range of color by the use of multiple tint blocks printed in succession. Generally, these early chromolithographs were simple prints with flat areas of color, printed side-by-side.

Increasingly ornate designs and dozens of bright, often gaudy, colors characterized chromolithography in the second half of the nineteenth century. Overprinting and the use of silver and gold inks widened the range of color and design. Still a relatively expensive process, chromolithography was used for large-scale folio works and illuminated gift books which often attempted to reproduce the handwork of manuscripts of the Middle Ages. The steam-driven printing press and the wider availability of inexpensive paper stock lowered production costs and made chromolithography more affordable. By the 1880s, the process was widely used for magazines and advertising. At the same time, however, photographic processes were being developed that would replace lithography by the beginning of the twentieth century.

Aloys Senefelder

Principally known as the inventor of lithography. Born in Prague, 6 November 1771. Died in Munich, 26 February 1834. His father, an actor at the Royal Theatre of Munich, was playing at Prague at the time of the birth of his son. The young Senefelder studied at Munich, and received a scholarship of 120 florins a year for his diligence, which enabled him to study jurisprudence at Ingolstadt. The death of his father in 1791 forced him to cease his studies in order to help support his mother and a family of eight sisters and brothers. After attempting to become an actor, he took up dramatic writing, at which he was at first fairly successful. Because of difficulty in finding a publisher, he tried to devise means for printing his productions himself, and began a series of experiments with etching and copper-plates until he discovered, in 1796, that Kilheim lime-stone could be used for the purpose. He soon found that etching was not necessary, owing to the fact that grease and water do not mix. By his method the marking is done upon the stone with a greasy composition of soap, wax, and lamp-blark, and then the plate is washed over with water, which soaks into the unmarked parts of the stone. The printing ink is I then applied and adheres only to the marked places, while the water protects the rest of the plate; a number of impressions can then be obtained. This process he called "chemical" printing. The numerous improvements and developments of the art made by him were rewarded in later years by the gold medal of the "Society of Encouragement" of England, the highest medal of the "Polytechnische Verein fur Baiern", the gold honorary medal of the order for Civilverdienst of the Bavarian Crown, and various other prizes.

In spite of great financial difficulties, continued discouragement, and repeated disappointments, he remained unselfishly devoted to high ideals. In his autobiography (introduction to "Lehrbuch") he expresses the desire that his invention "may bring to mankind manifold benefits and may tend to raise it upon a nobler plane, but may never be misused for an evil purpose. May the Almighty grant this! Then blessed be the hour in which I made my invention!" His principal publication was "Vollstandiges Lehrbuch der Steindruckerei" (Munich and Vienna, 1818). This was translated into French (Paris, 1819), English (London, 1819), and Italian (Naples, 1824).

Contemporary Lithography for the Collector

As the technologies of printing become more and more sophisticated, the confusion surrounding "fine art" lithography escalates. The techniques of lithography are numerous and, to the uninitiated, can be complicated. Our intent here is not to teach lithography, but rather to present a guide for the collector of contemporary lithographs

One of the pitfalls of our exquisite technology is that almost anything can be reproduced, and some reproductions are virtually indistinguishable from the original. In this environment, original hand-pulled lithography tends to be misunderstood and misrepresented. Often, the art buyer judges a lithograph by how much it looks like a painting rather than on its unique lithographic qualities. The intent of original lithography is to transfer the artist's drawing or marks as purely and directly as possible: from stone through ink to paper. Reproduction circumvents that aesthetic by removing the artist several steps from the production of the piece. Further, the intention of reproduction often is to make a print look like a painting . . . which it isn't! The intent of a lithograph is to let the artist speak through the stone.

The artist-as-printer has an intimate relationship with the tools of lithography--the inks, the stones or plates, the sticks and brushes. That relationship is no less subjective than that of a painter to his canvas, paints and brushes. Lithography is a beautiful artistic medium in itself, and should not be judged on its ability to imitate another medium.

The following descriptions of types of lithographs and other important terms will help you better understand what you're looking at.

Original stone lithographs

Hand drawn by the artist on limestone or marble. Each stone is used to print one color. (The best stones, which are Bavarian limestone, are grey in color and have a clear complexion free of fossils and other flaws. These stones are becoming increasingly rare.) After the edition (the number of impressions made) is hand-printed, each impression is signed and numbered by the artist, and the mark, or chop, of the printer is embossed on each print. Imperfect impressions are destroyed, the stones and plates are effaced, and each edition is carefully documented. This is the oldest lithographic technique, and still the best.

Original plate lithographs

Hand drawn by the artist on aluminum plates. Plates are cheaper than stones, readily available and easier to transport. These factors make plate lithography a popular alternative to stone lithography for the creation of original prints.

Mylar plate lithographs

The artist draws on a mylar sheet. The information is transferred to a photosensitive lithographic plate. The plate is printed in a manner similar to original plate lithography.

Lithographic reproductions

The artist produces an original artwork in any medium. The original artwork is photographed. A color separation is produced from the photograph. The information from the color separation is transferred to photosensitive lithographic plates. Each plate is printed individually. Reproduction prints are usually called posters.

Offset print

Any lithograph mechanically printed using an offset press. With an offset press, the ink from the plate is transferred to a rubber blanket, and from that blanket onto paper. However, with a direct or hand press, the ink is transferred directly from the plate or stone onto the paper.

Limited edition

There will never be more prints produced than is signified on the documentation.

Unlimited edition

Prints will be produced as long as there are people to buy them.


A document which describes how a print was created, which lithographic processes were used, who drew the plates, where and when the print was made, and how many prints are in the edition. If one is not sure of the print's history, the documentation should be consulted.

Some basic questions to ask when looking at a contemporary "lithograph"

Was the artist directly involved in production of the print (and to what degree), or was the artist's original work reproduced mechanically?

Was the intent to use lithography to create an original work of art, or was the intent to reproduce an existing image?

Were the plates drawn by the artist who signed the piece or by a craftsman following the artist's instructions? An original print may be created in this manner, but whose signature belongs on it?

How large is the edition and is it thoroughly documented?

Beautiful reproductions are available. It should be remembered however, that the more directly involved the artist is, the more valuable the piece. It's up to you to ask these questions and to determine if the origins of the piece merit the price