Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: lithography from Philip's Encyclopedia

In art, method of printing from a flat, inked surface. In traditional lithography, invented in the 1790s, the design is made on a prepared plate or stone with a greasy pencil, crayon, or liquid. Water applied to the surface is absorbed where there is no design. Oil-based printing ink, rolled over the surface, sticks to the design, but not to the moist areas. Pressing paper onto the surface produces a print.

Summary Article: lithography
From The Columbia Encyclopedia

(lĭthŏg'rӘfē), type of planographic or surface printing. It is distinguished from letterpress (relief) printing and from intaglio printing (in which the design is cut or etched into the plate). Lithography is used both as an art process and as a commercial printing process. In commercial printing the term is used synonymously with offset printing.

The Process

All planographic printing is based on chemical action, and lithography is based on the mutual antipathy of oil and water. As the name [Gr.,=writing on stone] implies, a lithograph is printed from a stone (except in commercial processes, where grained metal or plastic plates are employed). The process was invented c.1796 by the playwright Aloys Senefelder, and the Bavarian limestone that he employed is still considered the best material for art lithography.

The slab of stone is ground to a level surface, which may be of coarse or fine texture as desired. The drawing is made in reverse directly on the stone with a lithographic crayon or ink that contains soap or grease. The fatty acid of this material interacts with the lime of the stone to form an insoluble lime soap on the surface, which will accept the greasy printing ink and reject water. Accordingly, those parts of the stone that have been drawn upon have an affinity for ink.

Sometimes the drawing is made on paper and transferred to a heated stone by pressure. This is known as a transfer lithograph and does not require the artist to reverse his or her drawing. Next, the surface of the stone untouched by grease is desensitized to it, and the portions drawn upon are fixed against spreading by treatment with a gum arabic and nitric acid solution. The grease has now penetrated the stone, and the drawing is washed off with turpentine and water. The stone is ready to be inked with a roller and printed, but it must be kept moist. The printing requires a special lithographic press with a sliding bed passing under a scraper.


As a printing process lithography is probably the most unrestricted. It produces tones ranging from intense black to the most delicate gray as well as a full range of colors. It also simulates with equal facility the effects of pencil, pen, crayon, or brush drawing. White lines are readily produced by scratching through the drawing on the stone. Several hundred fine proofs can be taken from a stone. The medium was exploited by many artists in the 19th cent., including Goya, Delacroix, Daumier, Gavarni, Manet, Degas, Bonnard, Whistler, and Toulouse-Lautrec, whose posters are among the most celebrated lithographic masterworks. In the United States, A. B. Davies, George Bellows, Joseph Pennell, and Currier and Ives are among the many artists noted for their lithographs.

For the commercial reproduction of art works, photolithography has played an increasingly important role. In this process a photographic negative is exposed to light over a gelatin-covered paper. Wherever the light does not strike the gelatin, the latter remains soluble while the other parts are rendered insoluble. When the soluble portions are washed away, the pattern to be printed can be inked and transferred to the stone or plate. Color lithography and color photolithography require as many stones or plates as the number of colors employed. The commercial printing applications of the lithographic process are vast in scope and almost unlimited in number.

  • See J. Pennell; E. Pennell, Lithographs and Lithographers (1915);.
  • Strauss, V. , Lithographers Manual (2 vol. 1958);.
  • Weber, W. , A History of Lithography (1966);.
  • Man, F. H. , Artists' Lithographs: A World History (1970).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2018

Related Articles

Full text Article lithography
The Bloomsbury Guide to Art

A form of planographic or surface printing ( intaglio ; relief ), invented in 1798 by Aloys Senefelder. The process is based on the fact that...

Full text Article lithography
The Cambridge Guide to Children's Books in English

A printing process in which an image is drawn on a porous surface, originally limestone, with a wax crayon or pencil. The surface is wetted...

Full text Article lithography
Britannica Concise Encyclopedia

Printing process that makes use of the immiscibility of grease and water. Aloys Senefelder of Prague (1771–1834) exploited the properties of a ston

See more from Credo