Why Lithography

Posted by Soraya on: 23/10/2012

There is a quote from lithographer Stanley Jones[1], in which he says, “There is something in me and I think other artists that will want to master the technique only to bash it, to subvert and stretch the medium to activate something of their style in lithography”, I am one of those other artists.

Stone Lithography is a strange beast. Most print artists look on it with a mixture of bewilderment and horror. Why would one would bother with such an elaborate and temperamental technique when there are so many other friendlier methods to choose from; intaglio, calligraphy, screen printing, lino or digital.  The question is, why Lithography?

Preparing a stone and the image on it for printing is like alchemy. The idea that one can repeatedly take beautiful prints from a piece of stone must surely be due to some mysterious jiggery pokery. In reality it’s all about the science of the water and oil repelling each other and the nature of the limestone surface.

I love stone lithography for its sheer sense of madness. There is the physicality of grinding a stone smooth.  With a simple rhythmic movement and using water and carborundum grit in ever-finer grades you grind one stone over another until you produce an incredibly smooth and grease free surface. And then there’s the waiting time between gumming and etching, as the stone sits, rests and somehow seems to think.

There is a graphic dexterity that you get in lithography that is hard to match in other print techniques, or harder at least to combine on a single plate. Of the print processes it is the closest to direct drawing and mark making. One can use any medium from soap to ink as long as it contains oil. And it is this wide spectrum of means that makes it such a flexible and appreciated medium for artist; it matches their temperament. The artist Ellsworth Kelly[2] called lithography ‘drawing with light’. He exploited the accidental and his lack of understanding saying, “learn, use, forget, mistake, exploit, enjoy, re-learn, re-forget”.

I became the Leicester Print workshop’s first Lithography Apprentice in the autumn of 2010. The apprenticeship was intended to be 6 to 9 months in length. The process, and life, has dictated another timescale, just over a year.

The apprentice had five elements.

  • To create a large test stone with fifteen rectangular images drawn, transferred, processed and altered in a multitude of ways.
  • To produce an edition: 140 posters celebrating 25 years of Leicester Print Workshop with text and nine images of workshop members work.
  • To collaborate with other artists
  • To visit and revisit on the technical processes repeatedly
  • A personal piece: a16 page illustrated children book.

The Lithography Apprenticeship came at the perfect moment in relation to my printing practice. I had joined LPW in 2000 to give me defined ‘Art’ time away from the home. Initially I did a few courses; lithography, book making and woodcut and then set myself little self-contained projects, such as a lithographic poster to mark the opening of an archive, screen-printed T-shirt for a group of model rail enthusiasts.

But I was always drawn back to the stones and the large cumbersome litho press in the corner of the workshop. Over the years I made a number of lithographs and two series; one based on the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing leading up to the 40th anniversary of that mission and the other on still-life paintings set within a printed ornate frame with a china bowl, a glass, figurines and lemons based loosely on the work of Zurbaran. With both of these series I repeated, and thus established, the basic principles of lithography and also did some experimentation of multiple stone printing, playing with colours and also collage with foil from Easter eggs.

The moon based crayon drawn prints worked well but the others fell short of the imagined impact or crispness the idea required. I had reached the impasse of poor technique meaning my work did not live up to my aspirations.

In reality my understanding of the technique of lithography is slight. The number of fully trained, expert stone lithographers in this country is less than ten. Serena Smith is one, and I have been very privileged to spend time under her guidance, developing my technique. I can never match the time and experience she has as a professional lithographic printer, editioner and artist.

My apprenticeship has opened up a Pandora’s Box of additional tricks for working on the stone. Learning about the transfer of text has resulted in me altering my personal project from abstract portraits to the more ambitious printing of an illustrated children book written with my husband.

It has also given me greater understanding of inks, reflexive light from the paper and tonality. All may seem kind of obvious but I am in good company; Pierre Bonnard said, “I learnt a great deal about painting from doing colour lithographs. You discover a great many things by having to study tonal relationships when there are only four or five colours to play with, super-impose or juxtapose.”

Halfway thorough my apprenticeship I realised that I was only ever going to skim the surface of lithograph printing. But when I re-read the description for the Lithography Apprentice it clearly stated “LPW is looking for someone with enthusiasm for stone lithography and a commitment to develop their skills”, I know I have this.

Having a named apprentice and seeing me in the workshop working on my set pieces has made other workshop users inquisitive about the process and technique. A few have ventured into the litho area and are starting their own journeys with the stones. All of this was also in the brief.

I have leant as much again from other students of lithography. As part of the apprenticeship I have shadowed Serena Smith on all of the lithography courses run in the workshop over the last year. Exposure to the vast array of drawing styles and methods of drawing has been wonderfully inspirational.

There is said to be an affinity between the way sculptors work and printmakers work; possibly I think because of need to merge skill and knowledge with an artistic idea that may push the process beyond its original intended use. Lithography has a set of rules which impose a degree of discipline. Fine art lithographic printing has traditionally been collaboration between the artisan printer and the artist. The printer who understands the process and the artist, who imagines, must work together to converge their languages. They both need to respect the technique of lithography as knowledge and medium but must also be open to experimentation. It is a balancing act between the seductiveness of correct procedure and a desire for innovation, always pushing at a medium to create something new.

Through the apprenticeship I have learnt enough of the rules to get results, and enough not to be confined by them. Art is about making the invisible visible; this really seems to be true with lithography when one rolls up the dampened stone to reveal the image. This year of learning and experimentation has fed me richly. I am a very happy being; I now go into the workshop with a renewed enthusiasm for the future of my lithograph printmaking.


Soraya Smithson, Leicester Print Workshop Lithography Apprentice, 2011/12

[Stone lithography was invented by Alois Senefelder in 1796. It works on the principle of water and oil repelling each other. An image is drawn onto the flat surface of a piece of lithographic limestone using an oily medium. The stone is then processed; ‘etched’ using a mixture of gum arabic and nitric acid. This establishes the image onto the stone, which can then be dampened and rolled up with oily ink. The ink is attracted to the greasy image area but is repelled by the blank, un-drawn damp areas. Repeat prints can be taken by re-damping and re-inking the stone.]


 Reading list:

  • Do you want it good or do you want it Tuesday? The halcyon days of W.S Cowell Ltd. Printers. Ruth Artmonsky


  • Art and Print: The Curwen Story. Alan Powers


  • The Tamarind Book of Lithography: Art and techniques. Marjorie Devon


  • Lithography. A painter’s excursion. Barnett `Freedman Article from Signature Magazine 1936


  • 150 Years of Artists Lithographs 1803-1953. Felix H. Mann









[1] Stanley Jones (b.1933 -) British lithograph artist and artists print maker at Curwen Press from 1958 to present day. Trained as printer in Paris 1956-58, Slade lecturer on lithography 1958 – 1998, founding member and one time president of the Printmakers Council, and writer. He has exhibited widely and worked with many renowned arts such as Henry Moore and David Gentleman.


[2] *2) Ellsworth Kelly (b 1923 -) American painter and sculptor associated with Hard-Edge painting, Colour Field painting and Minimalist School. Studying in America and Paris where he did his first ‘Suite of Twenty-Seven lithographs’ (1964-66). In America his printing work has largely been in collaborated with Gemini G.E.L print studio in Los Angels working on a ‘Suite of Plant Lithographs’. His 1988 print Purple/Red/Gray/Orange is reported to be the longest single sheet lithography ever made at 18 feet long.