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Tim Mara, Flemish Glass and Rubber, 1997
Tim Mara Artist's Alphabet

T: Techniques > Lithography

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A Brief History of the Technique

Lithography is the only one of the major traditional printmaking techniques whose origin and indeed invention is totally documented. It is a ‘planographic’ printing method, which depends upon the antipathy of grease and water, and unlike Intaglio or relief printing uses a flat plate or stone surface for transference of image.

Alois Senefelder who went on to develop and perfect this technique throughout the 1790’s accidentally discovered the principals of its discovery in Munich whilst experimenting with the creation of some affordable publicity material to promote his career in the theatre. In 1800 he visited London to seek a patent on the process and acted as an Ambassador and promoter of his invention. Assisted by Philippe Andre he commissioned well-known Artists to try the process of drawing on the stone resulting in a series of lithographs known as ‘specimens of polyautography’, which was published between 1801 and 1807. The relative simplicity and inexpense of the process proved to be extremely popular with both professional and amateur Artists and soon it became a major creative medium.

One of it’s greatest Technicians was the Printer Godefroy Engelmann in France who worked with most of the leading European Artists of the day and developed the chromolithographic technique, which used primary colours to produce a full chromatic range. During the 19th Century outstanding examples of the use of technique were created by Francisco Goya, Jean Ingres, Theodore Gericault and Honore Daumier who used the medium extensively. Although, Daumier continued to use the medium there was a decline in interest in its usage by many Artists as it had begun to be used wholesale by the commercial printing industries for everything from package design to posters to book illustration and facsimile prints. Most major Artists seldom explored the processes expressively, although many had an experience or awareness of it and did produce work of some lasting significance. The medium had a revival of interest in the 1860’s via the interest in it by the impressionists Artists particularly Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas who influenced by Japanese ‘Ukiyore’ prints embraced a wide range of printmaking techniques.

In turn these Artists influenced a whole number of European Artists who also revived the lithographic technique as a major fine art medium. Eduard Munch produced a version of ‘The Scream’ in lithograph on red paper in 1893 and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec developed the lithographic poster to a much more artistic form than had been previously seen through the medium.

During the 20th Century the lithograph gained in popularity and was used successfully as a tool for political and social satire by George Grosz and for expressive self-exploration by Kathe Kollwitz in Germany. Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso were both attracted by its directness, boldness, and accuracy in producing hand drawn and painted marks as well as it’s decorative possibilities as were many other Artists of the Century.

In the 1960’s it experienced another renaissance primarily in New York where Robert Rauchenberg and Jasper Johns were involved in the production of both photolithograph and hand drawn works which would influence a whole legion of Artists use of the technique and also in England where Graham Sutherland headed a revival in the technique which had begun earlier during the World Wars where it was extensively used for propaganda and security posters created by professional fine Artists. With the introduction of automated offset lithographic presses the technique became the dominant process in commercial printing in the 20th and 21st Century and continues to attract artistic interest due to its accuracy, ease, cheapness and the high quality of resulting works, particularly with regards to photographic based works.

Description of the Technique

Lithographs are produced using flat stones or metal plates which must be etched or processed to accept ink on the image areas and to reject ink and accept water everywhere else (remember, unlike other print processes such as Intaglio or relief they do not work on the dependence of a surface elevation but on a simple principle that grease and water do not mix).

Traditionally lithographers had always used a limestone surface, which can be easily ground smooth, but due to the increased expense, rarity and weight of these they have been gradually replaced by the quicker, lighter and cheaper zinc or aluminum plates. The surface of the chosen plate or stone must be roughened (or grained) in order for it to hold a drawing or photo-based image. The image is created using a grease-based material. The whole surface is then given a layer of ‘etch’ (normally consisting of a mixture of gum arabic and a little acid).

Two chemical reactions then take place – one between the etch and the image material and a second between the etch and the stone or metal surface. Although this surface remains smooth to touch it has effectively been divided into two distinct areas – the image area, which will now hold ink and the background area, which will hold water. (A second etch is often applied to strengthen the chemical reactions). When ink is rolled onto the surface, it adheres only to the image areas of the surface, the other areas which are dampened by water, will repel it. Paper either dampened or dry is applied under pressure and picks up the image transferring it to its surface. (Again, this is only a simplified description of the technique and more involved, elaborate and appropriate approaches to it exist, including the transference of complex digital and photographic based imagery and full colour separation or duotone techniques).

Tim’s use of the Technique

Although Tim had a solid knowledge of Lithography and had made a couple of experimental works using it in 1980 it did not become a major part of his creative vocabulary until the early 1990’s when he had access to the automatic off-set litho press at The Royal College of Art. Here he began to develop a use of colour separation photolithography and produced several prints between 1993 and 1997 which were either purely lithographic based or combined the technique with silkscreen. He produced these in collaboration with Bill Wood the printmaking courses skilled technician using zinc plates. The resulting prints are a triumph of precision printing which further extended the Artists range and language.

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© Text: Mark Hampson / Images: Belinda Mara
 
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