How Stone Lithography Works

The Basic Idea

stone lithography
Photo courtesy Toby Michel
Artist Peter Alexander at work on a stone

Stone lithography was invented in 1798, and it was the first new printmaking technique to emerge in about 300 years. Stone lithography became very popular as a medium by the 1830s. People used stone lithography to create color art for books, as well as for more pedestrian things like labels, flyers and posters.

Stone lithography's popularity with artists came about because it was the first printmaking medium to allow the artist to naturally "paint" or "draw" onto a flat stone to create an image. The artist creates the work directly and naturally.

The basic idea used in stone lithography is extremely simple:

  1. The artist draws/paints on the stone with a greasy substance. For example, a litho crayon is a soft waxy/greasy crayon. There are also litho paints and pencils. The stone picks up this greasy substance and holds it.
  2. The stone is moistened with water. The parts of the stone not protected by the greasy paint soak up the water.
  3. Oil-based ink is rolled onto the stone. The greasy parts of the stone pick up the ink, while the wet parts do not.
  4. A piece of paper is pressed onto the stone, and the ink transfers from the stone to the paper.
Lithography Today
Lithography is incredibly common today -- it is used to print nearly every book, magazine and newspaper you see (check out How Offset Printing Works for details). The modern version uses aluminum plates rather than stone, but it's the same principle.

As you will learn in this article, the details of preparing and inking a stone to create a print is far more involved than this, but that is the basic idea.

To get a better idea of how stone lithography works in the abstract, imagine the following:

  1. Take a piece of paper and paint a stick figure on it with linseed oil (or common vegetable oil).
  2. Now moisten the rest of the paper by misting it with water.
  3. Put some oil paint on a cotton ball and dab it onto the paper.
    • The parts of the paper moistened with water will not pick up any of the paint (oil and water repel).
    • The parts of the paper coated with linseed oil will pick up the paint. This sheet is now "inked."
  4. If you now press another piece of paper onto the inked sheet, the painted portions will transfer to the new sheet of paper and create a print. You can re-ink the original sheet to create multiple prints.

The essence of the technique is the affinity of oil for oil and the repulsion of oil and water. In stone lithography, you use a flat limestone block when you create the original image.