A printmaking technique using a stone or zinc plate to which the image is applied with a greasy material. After wetting the plate, greasy ink is applied. The ink sticks only to the drawn image and not the wet surface, thus creating a reproduction when applied to paper.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec Jane Avril 1899

Video | Stone Lithography


Lithography is a ‘planographic' printmaking technique. This means the print is taken from a completely flat surface, on which the marks which will be printed and the surface areas which will not print are on one level. Lithography uses an image held on a stone or metal surface, which is transferred onto paper.

Traditional lithography uses a porous limestone block which is polished flat and smooth using very fine grit. The artist draws their design onto the block using an oily ink (called ‘tusche’). This comes in the form of a crayon or pastel, or as liquid, which can be applied with a pen, a brush or even splattered onto the stone.  These greasy marks bond and sink into the surface of the stone. The entire surface is then chemically treated with gum arabic to secure the image and seal the unmarked areas of stone from any further contact with grease. The surface is made soaking wet and then rolled with oil-based printing ink; this sticks to the greasy drawing but, because oil and water do not mix, is repelled by the wet stone of the undrawn areas. Paper is placed over the design and the block passed through a press to create the print. To create a multi-coloured image a separate stone is usually required for each colour in the design. These are printed successively. The painterly qualities of lithography make it one of the most faithful means of translating a drawn image into print. The process of drawing directly on to the printing surface also makes lithography an appealing medium for artists, who don’t usually work in printmaking.

Materials and methods

Lithography was invented in 1796 by Alois Senefelder (1771–1834), a German actor, playwright and composer, seeking an affordable means to publish a new play he had written. Through a process of experimentation with etching and printing in relief from stone slabs, he discovered that the gum arabic and nitric acid solutions he was using had a transformative effect on the local (Bavarian) limestone. He found the limestone to be receptive to both grease and water and because oil and water repel each other, this made it possible to ‘etch’ an image into the smooth surface of the stone. The gum arabic soaks into the surface of the stone and because of it is hygroscopic (always ready to take up moisture), when the stone is sponged with water the undrawn areas will absorb the wetness. Senefelder went on to further develop the process, inventing transfer lithography, a special press (using a ‘scraper’ drawn across the stone), and inking techniques.

The preparation of heavy lithographic stones is a laborious process which usually requires use of a printmaking studio. The stone has to be ground absolutely flat and smooth; this is done by hand while the stone is wet, using a tool called a levigator (alternatively, a second stone of a similar size) with carborundum grit of several grades and sand as an abrasive. Once the surface has been ground completely flat, the stone can be polished using pumice and snakestone to achieve a mirror-like surface. The surface finish will influence the quality of the finished print. Stones can be used multiple times by grinding away the image to provide a fresh surface to be worked on. Some metals, commonly aluminium or zinc, can also be used for lithography. These are treated to give their surface a ‘grain’ which facilitates the subtle chemistry of the lithographic process.


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