A lithograph is an image produced via a special stone inking process called lithography. Lithography is the process of printmaking in which an image or a design is drawn onto a flat stone (or a prepared metal plate, usually made of zinc or aluminium) and affixed by means of a chemical reaction. The word lithography is derived from a combination of two Greek words: ‘lithos’ meaning stones and ‘graphien’ meaning to write or to scratch. In this planographic printing process the surface containing the image is rubbed with a greasy substance that allows the ink to adhere to it, while the non-image surface is made ink-repellent.
German author and playwright Aloys Senefelder invented lithography in the late eighteenth century (1798) by accident. Senefelder, who was looking for a practical way to publish his plays, used a Bavarian limestone as the printing surface, and called this process ‘Chemical Printing’. This invention made colour printing easier now that different colours could be applied to separate stones and overprinted onto the same sheet. Lithography also made it possible to print a much wider range of marks and areas of tone than was possible with earlier printmaking relief or intaglio methods. Till the nineteenth century this much sought after graphic art form, which was an expensive method back then, was not used for commercial purposes. Originally associated with printing maps and music, lithography was later used by iconic artists like Odilon Redon, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol in their works.
Smiling Spider by Odilon Redon, 1891 Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
This printing process is based on the simple principle of immiscibility of oil and water. The intended image or design for the lithograph is created directly on a polished slab of limestone using an oil-based lithographic crayon or ink such as tusche, crayon, pencils, lacquer, or synthetic materials. The stone is ready to be etched or processed once the image has been made. During this part of the process the printing surface or the surface where the intended print is to be transferred, is kept wet so that the grease-based ink when transferred will only stick to the oil-receptive surface. The drawn surface is then inked and then the ink is transferred to a sheet of paper by putting the paper and the printing surface through a special press.
Even if the process of lithography is used to copy an existing work of art, each lithographic edition is different from the other. A lithograph can be identified by its distinctive dot pattern because there are always differences in how the ink creates a randomly scattered image in different papers.
In India, in the year 1894, Raja Ravi Varma started The Ravi Varma Fine Art Lithographic Press at Girgaum, which was later moved to Ghatkopar in Bombay, and finally shifted it to Malavli, near Lonavala in 1899. Ravi Varma pioneered this painstaking process of image reproduction and produced oleographs of his popular works and thus democratising the art of collecting. Often mistaken for oil paintings, Oleographs, also called chromolithographs, are lithographic prints textured and designed to resemble an oil painting. These coloured lithographs are produced by preparing a separate stone for each colour and they are printed by placing one colour over the other. Sometimes, a single print could need as many as 30 stones! Later, the print is placed onto the canvas and then varnish is added to mimic the look of an oil painting.
Some of the most evocative Raja Ravi Varma oleographs like Shakuntala Janma, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Mohini, Vasantika, Ahalya, Arjun Subhadra, Sharda, Madri and many others were a result of this technique. This printing press was the largest picture printing establishment in India, and the most innovative. Along with hand-colouring, the process involved using as many woodblocks or litho-stones to match the colours and tones to transfer the image. It would take several months to produce an oleograph depending on the number of colours present in the original work. The oleographs printed here were very popular and continued to be printed in thousands for many years, even after the death of Raja Ravi Varma in 1906. In today’s day and age, these rare lithographs are prized collectables.