This printing technique dates back centuries but remains just as relevant to artists working today.
ESSENTIALLY: A kind of print originally made using a stone or metal plate.
FIRST INTRODUCED: late 18th-century Germany
EXAMPLE: Odilon Redon's The Eye, Like a Strange Balloon Moves Towards Infinity, plate one from To Edgar Poe, 1882
Before the age of the inkjet, there was the lithograph. Invented around 1796 by German author and actor Alois Senefelder, this printing process was originally devised to easily copy scripts and other materials related to Senefelder’s theater work.
Although the printing press preceded the lithograph by more than 350 years, efficiently making copies of text, let alone imagery, was still a challenge when lithography emerged. The first versions were created by using greasy crayon to mark limestone sheets. (The choice of limestone gives the process its name–lithos is the ancient Greek word for stone.) Watery ink was naturally repelled by the oil-based crayon but remained on the stone creating a large stamp of sorts that could be used over and over. Before long, the same approach was refined with the use of metal plates instead of the more unwieldy stone.
Lithography was inexpensive so it spread rapidly, and it was eventually taken up by visual artists to express or experiment with new ideas. The form allowed creators to come up with novel ways of rendering light, a particular draw for impressionists whose art movement was largely defined by light’s interplay with a subject.
That same innovative spirit continued through the next century where artists like Odilon Redon took the technique in new directions. Redon's work The Eye, Like a Strange Balloon Moves Towards Infinity, plate one from To Edgar Poe took lithographs in a surreal direction by depicting an eye modeled to look like a hot air balloon.
And like any medium, lithography continues to evolve. Today, artists typically use mylar sheets (a kind of plastic) instead of metal or stone. Mylar is even more flexible and allows for the added expressiveness visual artists desire.