Contemporary Lithography

Lithography is a beautiful artistic medium in itself,
and should not be judged on its ability to imitate.

Scroll down

As the technologies of printing become more and more sophisticated, the confusion surrounding "fine art" lithography escalates. The techniques of lithography are numerous and, to the uninitiated, can be complicated. Our intent here is not to teach lithography, but rather to present a guide for the collector of contemporary lithographs.

Artist Holzer at Work

Artist Steve Holzer
working on his "Shapes of Love" lithograph with a variety of grease-based drawing tools. Above him is a working proof
by which he gauges the
changes being made.

One of the pitfalls of our exquisite technology is that almost anything can be reproduced, and some reproductions are virtually indistinguishable from the original. In this environment, original hand-pulled lithography tends to be misunderstood and misrepresented. Often, the art buyer judges a lithograph by how much it looks like a painting rather than on its unique lithographic qualities. The intent of original lithography is to transfer the artist's drawing or marks as purely and directly as possible: from stone through ink to paper. Reproduction circumvents that aesthetic by removing the artist several steps from the production of the piece. Further, the intention of reproduction often is to make a print look like a painting . . . which it isn't! The intent of a lithograph is to let the artist speak through the stone.

The artist-as-printer has an intimate relationship with the tools of lithography—the inks, the stones or plates, the sticks and brushes. That relationship is no less subjective than that of a painter to his canvas, paints and brushes. Lithography is a beautiful artistic medium in itself, and should not be judged on its ability to imitate another medium.

The following descriptions of types of lithographs and other important terms will help you better understand what you're looking at.

Original stone lithographs
Hand drawn by the artist on limestone or marble. Each stone is used to print one color. (The best stones, which are Bavarian limestone, are grey in color and have a clear complexion free of fossils and other flaws. These stones are becoming increasingly rare.) After the edition (the number of impressions made) is hand-printed, each impression is signed and numbered by the artist, and the mark, or chop, of the printer is embossed on each print. Imperfect impressions are destroyed, the stones and plates are effaced, and each edition is carefully documented. This is the oldest lithographic technique, and still the best.

Original plate lithographs
Hand drawn by the artist on aluminum plates. Plates are cheaper than stones, readily available and easier to transport. These factors make plate lithography a popular alternative to stone lithography for the creation of original prints.

Mylar plate lithographs
The artist draws on a mylar sheet. The information is transferred to a photosensitive lithographic plate. The plate is printed in a manner similar to original plate lithography.

Lithographic reproductions
The artist produces an original artwork in any medium. The original artwork is photographed. A color separation is produced from the photograph. The information from the color separation is transferred to photosensitive lithographic plates. Each plate is printed individually. Reproduction prints are usually called posters.

Offset print
Any lithograph mechanically printed using an offset press. With an offset press, the ink from the plate is transferred to a rubber blanket, and from that blanket onto paper. However, with a direct or hand press, the ink is transferred directly from the plate or stone onto the paper.

Limited edition
There will never be more prints produced than is signified on the documentation.

Unlimited edition
Prints will be produced as long as there are people to buy them.

A document which describes how a print was created, which lithographic processes were used, who drew the plates, where and when the print was made, and how many prints are in the edition. If one is not sure of the print's history, the documentation should be consulted.

Some basic questions to ask when looking at
a contemporary "lithograph"

Was the artist directly involved in production of the print (and to what degree), or was the artist's original work reproduced mechanically?

Was the intent to use lithography to create an original work of art, or was the intent to reproduce an existing image?

Were the plates drawn by the artist who signed the piece or by a craftsman following the artist's instructions? An original print may be created in this manner, but whose signature belongs on it?

How large is the edition and is it thoroughly documented?

Collectors take note . . .

Beautiful reproductions are available. It should be remembered however, that the more directly involved the artist is, the more valuable the piece. It's up to you to ask these questions and to determine if the origins of the piece merit the price.

Suggested Reading

Excellent resource books on lithography are The Art of the Print, Fritz Eichenberg and The Tamarind Book of Lithography: Art and Techniques, Garo Z. Antreasian and Clinton Adams. Both books are published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc, New York.

Thanks to Hand Graphics Studio and Frame Shop pic in Santa Fe for their guidance, knowledge and the above photograph.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe and Taos - Volume 4

Related Pages

Glossary of Prints and Original Graphics Terms article
What is a Monotype? article
Conserving Works of Art on Paper article
Contemporary Art in Northern New Mexico article
New Mexico Photographer's Eden article

Reproduction or Print: What's the Difference? article
The Tamarind Institute Goes Global article
Tamarind: A Dynamic Past — A Promising Future article
Fine-art Etchings and Engravings article
Works on/of Paper article

Collector’s Resources


Leich Lathrop Gallery rem 323 Romero St NW - Suite 1 | 505-243-3059

Santa Fe

LewAllen Galleries | 505-988-3250
Nuart Gallery | 505-988-3888


©2014 | F + W Media
URL: • Contact The Collector's Guide