A Brief History of Stone Lithography

At least 3/4 of the antique advertising images that we offer were created using artwork from late 19th and early 20th century stone lithographs. Often referred to as the high water mark of modern printing, lithography (from Greek, lithos “stone” + grapho “write”) was a method born out of necessity.

Following the death of his father in 1791, 23-year-old Bohemian playwright Alois Senefelder found himself caring for his mother and eight siblings as he struggled with the high costs of publishing his writings. That is when the artist was forced to become an inventor. Refusing to be deterred, the always hopeful and tireless Alois set out to find an inexpensive way of printing his work.

Senefelder’s initial breakthrough came in 1796 when he found that the local Bavarian limestone made a suitable printing surface for a crude type of relief. The stone was soft enough to be etched out with a tool to make a raised image for printing, yet was hard enough for multiple impressions.

In 1798, Senefelder gave the world a new printing process, neither relief, as from type, nor intaglio as from gravure. It was a planographic (flat surface) method that opened up a whole new world of artistic possibilities. He discovered that if the image was drawn directly on the surface of the stone with a wax crayon, the porous nature of the limestone allowed the grease from the crayon to penetrate and become permanently embedded within the stone.

The stone was dampened with water, and the liquid was repelled by areas containing the grease but was absorbed into the other areas. When an ink roller was passed over the surface, no ink was absorbed by the damp areas, but all of the details of the grease drawing attract the ink and held it until transferring the image to the paper passing through the press.

Alois called his process “chemical printing”, though it’s better known today as stone lithography. It proved to be an expeditious, inexpensive method that produced a true replica of the original, with all of the tonal effects that rival the velveteen qualities of Mezzotints.

In 1808, Senefelder published a book containing illustrations by Albrecht Dürer. The quality of the illustrations revealed the possibilities of stone lithography as an art medium as well as for commercial printing needs. Lithography is truly art for the artist, as they are involved in every step of the process, from preparing the stone, to drawing the image, selecting the ink colors used and finally supervising the printing.

©2012 OTFW
Marble statue of Alois Senefelder located at Senefelderplatz, Berlin.

It was in 19th century France that lithography found its true heart and soul, blossoming under such renowned artists as Honoré Daumier, Theodore Gericault, and Eugene Delacroix. In 1836, Godefroi Engelmann and his son, Jean, invented a method of color printing which came to be called Chromolithography. Using red, yellow and blue pigments, the Engelmanns together with painter William Wyld produced a seven stone color image from crayon and lithographic inks. This was a remarkable step forward in only one generation since Senefelder’s first efforts!

Stone lithography in the United States may have reached it’s pinnacle with the work of Louis Prang, who brought his talents from Breslau, Prussia to Boston, Massachusetts in 1850. Prang developed intricate methods using up to 25 stones to achieve unusual color layering and even added a three-dimensional embossing process to create the look of brush strokes, plus a superb lacquering of the finished product.

The first generation of chromolithographs were made up of solid blocks of colors placed side by side. Prang developed a new technique that produced the entire color spectrum by intermingling small color areas which after all of the numerous ink runs had been made, created the complete range of hues and tints necessary for a realistic looking final image.

By the turn of the century, lithography had become even more sophisticated by adding hand stippling. Stippling is the use of an intermingling series of dots that produce variant degrees of shading. This process had been used in engravings as far back as the 16th century and was brought into prominence by the artist Francesco Bartolozzi 200 years later. Using this concept with colors allowed the printers to produce an accurate rendition of the artist’s original work.

As lithographers like Calvert in Detroit, Michigan worked diligently to continually upgrade the quality of their product, there was also a need to speed up production in an effort to meet the demand for more and more high quality advertising artworks. The litho stones were extremely heavy and difficult to handle. Some of them weighed as much as 600 pounds and they were very easily broken when bumped or dropped too hard.

Stone Lithography Chromolithography Vintage Printing Calvert Litho
The stone polishing and planing dept. at Calvert Litho in Detroit. (circa 1900)

When it was discovered that aluminum or zinc surfaces could be prepared so that they could produce prints with all of the same characteristics as those from stones, the heavy stones were phased out and replaced by plates of metal. To adapt to the rotary printing presses designed by R.M. Hoe, a thinner version of the metal plates were used, to curve around a cylindrical roller allowing for more speed and efficiency.

This method, along with the old stones that remained in use for decades made up the lion’s share of the color printing market until the late 1920’s when the practice of photomechanical (also known as offset) printing gained in popularity.

The latter process is a technique whereby the original artwork is photographed through a set of color filters, breaking the picture into four different colors, red, blue, yellow and black. This produces an array of closely spaced dots which is placed in front of the photographic plate. The plate is rotated to varying angles for each of the four colors so that the four sets of dots interface with one another as little as possible. When the four plates are printed, each color appears in it’s own assigned area, in some cases falling over each other to blend, modify or sometimes obliterate each other.

Unfortunately, the new four-color process eliminated the need for the litho artist. Offset plates could now be produced photomechanically straight from the original images. Of course, this new process sped up and greatly reduced the cost of production, but it also brought an end to an era that brought us some of the finest examples of chromolithography ever produced.

Frederick Goulding, the famous printer of both etchings and lithographs may have said it best, “Lithography is not a reproduction, it is a replica, a multiplication of copies. Not a facsimile or a paraphrase, but the actual drawing. That is where it differs from so many other processes.”

Stone Lithography Chromolithography Vintage Printing Calvert Litho
Several massive lithographic presses at Calvert Litho in Detroit. (circa 1900)

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