What are Prints?

Our third post in a series of five on Printmaking.

“Prints, Prints, and more Prints” is currently running at the WCI Arts Center until October 13th.

Having already discussed relief and intaglio in previous posts let’s learn about another printmaking technique called planographic.

Planographic printing is a means of printing from a flat surface rather than a raised (relief) or incised (intaglio) surface. Lithography and offset lithography are the most common planographic processes.

The earliest method of lithography, discovered in 1798 by Alois Senefelder, used a block of limestone drawn on with a grease crayon/pencil. The stone, or matrix, is fixed, wet with water, and then inked for printing. Lithography is based on the natural revulsion between oil and water, in other words, the ink only sticks where the stone has grease and does not stick to the areas that are merely wet. Stones used in this method of printmaking are very stable, meaning they degrade very slowly, this results in an almost unlimited number of prints that can be created. In fine art, lithographers will typically make a limited edition, sign the work, and then destroy the stone. There are other more modern methods of lithography, but this original process remains mostly unchanged today.

The next step in the evolution of lithography was transfer lithography. The artist would create his/her image on paper, being an easier surface to draw on than was the limestone, and then transfer the image to the stone. The process for printing once the transfer was complete would continue in the traditional way. As a result of the paper being used its texture also became part of the final print.

Early lithographs were done monochromatically, however towards the late 19th century artisans began experimenting with color lithography or oleographs. The quality of these prints were typically poor. The artist needed multiple stones to create multi color images; each stone providing a different color. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was a master of this multi-block color style and many of his contemporaries followed his example.

While the artists of the day were figuring out how to make multi-color pieces with traditional stone, commercial publishers were busy figuring out how to make multiple prints for the masses. Offset lithography, known today as offset printing, was patented by John Strather of England in 1853. His offset press was steam driven and used automatic rollers to moisten the ink and stone while a revolving cylinder pressed the paper to the stone leaving the impression. Unless the images were to be hand painted each color still needed its own stone. There is record of one print using as many as 30 stones to complete.

The premise of offset printing remains the same today: the inked image is printed on a rubber roller, which then transfers, or offsets, the image to paper. Commercial printing has been modernized with the use of rubber rollers and the invention of photographic processes. These new processes, coupled with the use of the halftone screen, allows photographic images to be placed onto the matrix which is now a thin photosensitive sheet of metal. Just as before with the stone, printers still need a different plate for each color, however as printing processes progressed so did ink processes. Only four metal plates are needed for the printing of full color images using the colors cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (CMYK) one plate per color and a halftone of the images on each plate will create a full color effect.

Today offset lithography accounts for more than 40% of all published, packaged and printed material. We’ve come a long way from the stone and grease pencils of the 1800’s!

Seriography is the topic of our next discussion with our last post being a summary of all the techniques and I’ll introduce a digital printmaking processes to finish out our printmaking posts!