Printmaking 101: Stone Lithography

The following is an abbreviated version of directions for Stone Lithography from Jenny Freestone. Yes, this is the abbreviated version–read through it and you’ll get a new appreciation for how much work goes into this printmaking technique!  Jenny is one of the few artists at WPG practicing lithography with regularity, and will have a solo show in May.  Please read on to familiarize yourself with the process, then mark your calendars to see her beautiful work!

"From Siem Rep" Lithograph by Jenny Freestone

Lithography was invented in the late 18th Century by Alois Senefelder, a musician seeking a way to reproduce musical scores. The stone used for lithography comes from a quarry in Bavaria, Germany. Derived from the Greek ‘lithos’ for stone and ‘graphis’ for ‘that which is written’, stone lithography relies upon the antipathy of grease and water. It is a planographic printing process in which the image and non-image areas are on the same surface. An image is drawn on the surface of the stone with greasy materials (lithographic pencils, crayons, tusche).  In the printing process, the surface of the stone is wiped with water and a roller charged with ink is rolled over the stone.  Where there is no image (no grease), the water repels the ink.  The image area (greasy) attracts the printing ink.

Basic steps to creating a Lithograph print:

1.  Creating the Image: Before starting an image, use a conte crayon to lightly mark out a 2” margin from the edges of the stone around the image area, and ensure that the image does not extend beyond this margin.  This is important for the printing process – see below.

The stone is extremely sensitive to grease, so keep hand contact to a minimum – rest hands on newsprint when drawing on the stone. Do not use any tape on the surface of the stone.  Pens, crayons, and tusche washes etc for the lithographic process comprise grease with black ink added so that it is possible to see what is being drawn. Pencils and crayons come in varying degrees of greasiness.  In all media, the lower the grease content, the paler and more delicate the mark, and vice versa.

"Interior I" Lithograph by Jenny Freestone

Interesting techniques to keep in mind:  The stone can be covered with full strength liquid tusche, and the image scraped out in the maniere noire process.  Also, a freshly printed xerox can be transferred to stone (stone to press, xerox face down to stone, newsprint over, soak newsprint with lacquer thinner, tympan over and pass 3 – 4 times through the press and check) This can then be combined with drawn marks on the stone.  Unwanted marks can be deleted with an etching needle, or other scraper, but once the surface has been scratched in this way, it is difficult to draw over the scratch marks.

2. Etching the Stone: Dust the surface of the stone with French Chalk.  Wipe it gently over the image, then remove any excess and buff down with Bounty kitchen towel.  This reduces the surface tension between the greasy (image) and non-greasy areas.

The stone is etched with a mixture of gum arabic and tannic acid which is wiped over the whole surface of the stone. This process reinforces the stability of the image and non-image areas.

Some practitioners prepare a series of mixtures of gum arabic and tannic acid.  A high proportion of tannic acid to gum arabic (75/25) is applied to the darker (heavy grease) areas, a 50/50 mix is applied to mid tones, and a 25/75 is applied to pale and delicate tones.  The mixtures are applied with a brush, each area buffed down after application.  My method is to apply a mix of 50/50 tannic acid/gum arabic.  For an average size stone, I pour about a tablespoon of gum arabic in the centre of the stone, then the same amount of tannic acid into the gum arabic.  I use Bounty to gently mix the liquids and move them gently and evenly over the surface and edges of the stone.  When the mixture loses its very liquid state, use more Bounty to evenly wipe away excess, continuing until the mixture is almost dry – at this point buff the whole stone down, remembering to wipe the edges. The aim is to leave a thin, dry layer of gum.

The stone is now left to settle for a minimum of one day, preferably 3-5 days, during which time the image becomes adsorbed into the stone.  The stone is then ready to be opened for proofing.

3. Proofing the Image: First the image is washed out and the stone is opened up. This process removes the ink from the image, and the film of gum arabic/tannic acid from the surface of the stone to prepare the stone for printing. Lithotine or Vartine is used to remove all traces of ink, then asphaltum is buffed into the stone to reinforce the greasiness of the image.  Excess asphaltum is washed off with water, and it’s time to proof the print!

Wipe the surface of the stone with damp sponge. The stone should be fully damp, but with no beads of water on the surface.  Charge the roller with ink, and be consistent when you charge the roller – roll up 4 times, rotate the roller and repeat twice, for a total of 12 rolls in the ink. This is called one visit to the ink. Dampen the surface of the stone again if it has started to dry, ensuring a smooth wet surface with no surface moisture beads.  Roll the ink over the stone – place the roller on the closer 2” margin and roll over to the farther margin. Lift the roller, rotate it and place it back at the same margin and roll over again – repeat 3 times.  This is called 4 passes over the stone. Wet the stone again, and repeat the process twice more. This will ensure a total of 3 visits (to the ink) and 4 passes (over the stone) for each visit. Shorthand for this is 3 and 4, and images will vary according to the amount of ink they require.

Place a sheet of newsprint over the stone.  Place another sheet of newsprint and the tympan on top.

Roll the press bed so that the first tape on the side lines up with the  scraper bar and lower the scraper bar to the stone.  Pull the stone through the press to the second tape, then lift and release the scraper bar, and pull the press back to position.  Remove tympan and sheet of newsprint.  Then remove first sheet of newsprint and check the image.  It may be quite pale at this point, and you will need to repeat the 3 and 4, then proof, until the image has the correct tonalities.  When you reach this point, you can stop and assess the image and decide if further work/erasures etc are needed.

If you wish to start to print the edition, you can do so at this point, though it is better practice to close (etch) the stone again and leave for a few days before printing the edition. This will ensure greater stability of the image on the stone during the printing process.

To print the edition, have ready a stack of BFK Rives cut to size.  As you print, dampen each sheet on the printing side with a sponge, and ensure the paper is evenly coated, then remove excess water.  Remain consistent with passes and visits, this ensures that any flaws which occur are not caused by erratic inking.  After about 15 prints, close the stone for a day before printing again.

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