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Lithography process

Lithography is a unique art form where artists draw with greasy materials on a stone. The stone is then chemically treated to establish where water and ink will go. The drawing is replaced with ink, creating a beautiful print. This process allows for detailed and subtle artwork.

Created by The Museum of Modern Art.

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Video transcript

Male: This introduction to lithography will show the artist's drawing process, materials that are used on drawing a lithographic stone, the process of printing, and the details and subtlety that can be achieved in the printing process, as well as a close-up look at prints themselves. Lithography, or stone printing, is an intricate printmaking process that revolves around grease and water resisting one another. An artist will draw with a greasy material on a lithographic stone. Once we've established a drawing, or grease, on the stone, we chemically treat the stone with materials like gum arabic to establish the areas where water goes; rosin and talc, to help us through what we call an etch, or it's basically to establish the drawing down inside the stone. Once the grease is pulled into the stone we can replace the drawing material with any colored greasy ink that we would like. The basic drawing materials that we use from a historic standpoint are things like lithopencils. It's a pencil and it's in this sort of format. The lower the number, the greasier and waxier that material is. If you want a fine hard line, you use a higher number because that's a harder material. Lithographic crayons are in this format. The suface of a lithocrayon is such that you can use it for rubbing or for a fine line and it can be shaped, also, to fit your needs. They come in varying sizes and hardnesses as well. The surface of a lithographic stone is a very seductive surface to draw on. It's responsive and it's also sculptural. Because the stone in and of itself is receptive to water, so if I dampen the stone it absorbs the water, and it's also receptive to grease, which means it will suck the grease down in. It allows me to put drawing material down and then remove it with things like razorblades, an X-ACTO knife, sandpaper, so it allows you to draw in a more sculptural way rather than having the limitations of a piece of paper. This is a lithographic stone with a drawing by artist Steve Johnson on it. It was a drawing done with a lithographic crayon directly on the surface of the stone. This stone is made from limestone. It is completely open, as we call it, which means it's receptive to grease and water at this state. If I were to put my thumbs on the surface of the stone, that would become image area because of the grease from my skin. It's a fairly delicate drawing surface from that standpoint, but it's also a positive in the sense that every fine mark that you can put down with a greasy material will hold in that fidelity. In this process it's what's called a first etch, and right after that we will remove the drawing material and apply printing ink to it, which is what's called proving the stone. Now the drawing material has a small amount of talc and rosin attached to it, and it's ready to be etched. We first apply the gum arabic to the stone. This is to start to establish the non-image area of the stone. What we're trying to make sure is that the whites of the stone stay that way and they receive gum arabic, which will help them receive water later on. Once the stone has begun to receive the gum into it, we can apply the acidified gum arabic in this case, which is TAPEM. That acidification with tannic acid helps keep that gum arabic permanently bonded to the stone. I'm also being very gentle at this point as to not scrub or disturb the drawing material that's on the stone. Once I've etched the stone, I'll remove some of that material and replace it with fresh gum arabic. This is what we call cooling the stone down. It's basically reducing the quantity of acid on the surface of the stone, so that when we buff in the gum arabic into a very thin and even sheet, we don't run the risk of having too much acid remaining on the stone. We use cheesecloth to buff this in very evenly. Next, we'll be washing this drawing material out with lithotine. It's a greasy solvent, which is a refined turpentine made specially for lithography. The drawing material will be replaced with asphaltum, which has also been thinned with lithotine, to create a greasy, very [anchor]-receptive base for the ink on the roller to replace it with. At this point, your drawing will disappear. It's not actually gone, and what you can see is a residue or a ghost image as we call it there on the surface of the stone. That is where the stone is being converted to soap, or oleo-manganate of lime. Right now, when we buff the asphaltum down onto this, we're going to replace that drawing material, which is in effect grease sticking to grease. It's the grease-loving area of the stone, or the oleophilic area of the stone accepting new grease. When a stone has been etched properly you'll be able to see a fairly clear ghost image on the surface of the stone. What will be happening next is that we are going to wet the surface of the stone. I will go over it with a wet towel and a dry towel. Kate will sponge that surface and I will apply ink immediately to the stone and that will bring up our image. (roller sounds) In the beginning, we're not actually interested in transferring ink to paper. We're actually more interested in forcing ink into the stone so that it can start to fill up the greasy reservoir where it was. Yeah, go ahead, Nance. You can see only a very small amount of ink has actually been transferred because we're starting to push ink into the stone first. It's an average of four to six newsprints for any given particular stone to come up to a full inking. When printing on a dampened sheet of paper, we can achieve a different tonal range based on the softness of that paper. What we want to do is match that movement and flow of the hand. What I'm looking for when I look at this is to see if it feels as if a hand has moved across that surface with a drawing material. If it has and if it maintains that character, then I would consider that a good impression.