Word of the Week: Lithography

About a week ago a fellow blogger and vintage lover posted about some prints that he came across. He called some of them lithographs – a term I’ve heard thrown around once or twice, but never really knew the meaning of. He was able to offer a little more information about the word, but neither one of us pretended we were experts.

Enter today’s Word of the Week post! This is one of my favorite things about this blog – even when I don’t know the answer to something, I’m able to do some research and not only teach you about it, but also learn in the process!

Lithography is a method of printing that uses a completely flat surface in order to print text or artwork onto paper. The really interesting thing here is how it’s done – it’s a completely flat piece of metal, stone, or rubber, after all. So how do you make an image?

It turns out that (in modern lithography) they coat it in polymer. Then they rough up the surface just a little. This causes some areas to accept water and reject the ink (leaving blank spots) and other areas to accept the ink and reject the water (creating an image).

Don’t get this mixed up with some other forms of printing. First you have intaglio printing, where a plate is engraved to create areas that hold the ink. You also have woodblock printing, which is what stamps use. This has raised areas (words or images) that the ink is applied to.

[Thanks to this Wikipedia article for the stellar definition.]

Now, there are two types of lithographing. The first type is hand-made. For example, an artist draws directly on the plate (or whatever they’re using). A different drawing needs to be made for each color. Then they are inked and put together on one sheet of paper. Voila! An original, hand-made lithograph.

Offset lithography is different. For this one, you take a drawing, painting, etc. to a commercial printer. The original is photographed and a computer converts the image into a combination of four colors (red, yellow, blue, and black). A negative is then made for each color and they’re printed together at high speed. Now you have lithographs – copies – of an original piece of art.

Now, here’s the question that really stumped us. How can you tell if something is a lithograph? Here are some tips:

1. You might see a series of dots that indicate the lithograph was hand-made – this is from the plate’s pattern that was drawn on.

2. It will look “richer” because the inks may have been laid on top of each other.

3. The dot pattern on an offset lithrograph will be mechanical and not quite so random. These are sometimes referred to as rosettes (think comics found in Sunday papers).

[Thanks to this site for the information.]

Original lithographs will often have the artist’s signature and a series number and/or edition number. These are the ones you really want to watch out for. Even modern posters today can be made by using this process, so a general lithograph isn’t that big of a deal – a vintage, ORIGINAL one is, though.

This post was a little more in-depth than usual, but I hope it offered some answers to any questions you might have. If you’re still confused, just drop us a comment below!


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