Stone Lithography

In November 1997, Ken held an exhibition in Jakarta entitled, “Litho Madness” which gave him an opportunity to explain the process of how stone lithographs are created. Through panels of photos showing each step in this complicated procedure, plus a video and a pamphlet he wrote, An Introduction To Stone Lithography, Ken was able to contribute to the understanding of the production of fine art prints. He also aims to give the reader an appreciation of the difference between a hand pulled original print and a photo-mechanically made reproduction.


Lithography was developed in Germany by playwright Alois Senefelder (1771-1834) using limestone as the vehicle to transfer an image onto paper. It was initially used as a commercial printing process, especially for the duplication of scripts and illustrations in books. Artists realized that this medium was also an excellent way to create multiple images. Artists Delacroix and Goya, among many others, mastered the technique. Later, painters such as Picasso, Miro and Chagall embraced lithography to create fine art. Today, hand-printed lithographs are created by artists in many parts of the world and are held in high regard as original works of art.


The work lithography comes from Greek, meaning “to write or draw on stone”. Lithography is a planographic medium in which the image and non-image are on the same surface, not physically separated. With other print-making techniques such as intaglio (etching, mezzotint, engraving), the image is either engraved or acid etched into a plate. In relief (woodblock, linocut), the non-image (unprinted) area is cut away. In lithography the separation of the image and non-image areas is achieved primarily through the principle that oil repels water, together with a chemical reaction resulting when a solution called an etch is applied to the stone.


Most litho stones used throughout the world come from a quarry north of Munich known for limestone of superior quality. A new litho stone is about 10 cm. thick and can be used for many years. After each use, the stone must be grained or ground with a stainless steel disk called a levigator and a mixture of water and abrasive grit (carborundum). Subsequent grindings with finer grit leave the stone smooth and flat in preparation for the next image to be drawn or painted on the stone. In a routine graining, only about one millimeter is removed from the top surface of the stone. If the stone is uneven to begin with or the graining solution is allowed to dry out, severe scratching of the stone can occur. Should this happen, the process must be started over again using a coarse grit to remove the scratches.

Graining the stone
Graining the stone

Creating the Image

The image to be created may be from a photograph, a sketch or a picture in the artist; mind. Before the artist begins to paint or draw on the stone, a line drawing or outline of the image (incomplete and lacking detail) is usually first drawn on a piece of tracing paper or a sheet of clear acetate. Some artists prefer to create directly on the stone.

The art work on the stone must appear in mirror image of the actual, thus the need for making the drawing on a transparent material. The finished line drawing is placed face down onto the stone. A sheet of paper smeared with iron oxide powder is placed between the tracing paper and the stone, powdered side down, to act much like carbon paper. Using a ball-point pen or similar pointed instrument, the artist traces over the line drawing. The iron oxide leaves a red outline of the line drawing on the stone, which serves as a guide to fill in the drawing.

Removing the paper
Tracing the line drawing onto the stone

The artist removes the sheets of paper from the stone, then draws over the red outline and begins adding all the detail needed to create the image. The freshly ground stone is highly sensitive to grease. Anything with grease content may be used to create the image, be it liquid or a special litho pencil, similar to a grease pencil. Even the oils from one;s skin may leave an impression so care must be taken not to allow the skin to come in contact with the stone while drawing. Due to the softness of the litho pencil, to achieve fine lines and tone, it is necessary to file the point repeatedly: sandpaper is ideal.

If the print requires multiple colors, it is essential to also trace registration marks which allow each subsequent drawing (each color requires a separate drawing on the stone) to be perfectly aligned with the previous drawing and printing. Where the registration marks appear, scratches are made into the stone, making it possible to visibly align the paper when printing.

The time required to create the image depends on the complexity of the image. The black and white lithograph shown on the cover of the brochure above, which was completed in one run, represents about 40 hours of drawing time. A lithograph with multiple colors would take more drawing time as each color printed requires a separate drawing.

Once the image is completed, it must be “fixed” on the stone.

Drawing the image
Drawing on the litho stone


The simple law: water and oil don't mix, the inherent sensitivity of limestone to grease, and the application of an etch to the litho stone, all combine to create the magic of lithography.

Since the image and non-image areas are on the same plane or surface, unlike in other print-making media, the image is separated on the stone in a chemical process using an etch. An etch is a solution of gum arabic and nitric acid. Measured in drops of acid per ounce of gum, the proper formula is determined by nature of the image and the intensity of the grease material in the image.

The grease-based image is resistant to the water soluble etch solution, therefore, only the non-image area of the stone accepts the solution and a chemical reaction occurs.

Before the etch is applied, rosen powder is sprinkled over the image, then wiped off. A coating of talcum powder follows and is also wiped off. (Make-up artists use the same trick, over grease and oil-based make-up, before sending movie stars into a storm!) This is done to stabilize the rather delicate nature of the drawing material. Using a piece of tissue paper the image area is then buffed vigorously in preparation for the application of the liquid etch.

The etch solution is applied with a brush, coating the entire top surface of the stone. The image area is impervious to this application (oil and water) while the limestone is receptive to the solution. The etch is left on the stone for about five minutes and then removed with cheesecloth by buffing the surface of the stone vigorously and smoothly, leaving a thin, dry layer of gum. Novice craftsmen take a deep breath at this step — as the drawing material is then removed. This is done by pouring OIL-based solvent over the surface of the stone and rubbing with a clean rag until the entire image is washed out. A thin layer of ink (all litho inks are OIL based) is then wiped across the image area with a clean rag. Next, using a sponge and water, the layer of WATER soluble gum etch is removed.

Applying etching solution
Applying the “etch” solution

The chemical process resulting from the application of the etch permits the image area to receive the OIL-based ink and to repel WATER. In reverse, the non-image area accepts WATER and repels the ink. A leather roller is “charged” (rolled) on the ink slab, then rolled over the surface of the stone. This rolling of ink onto the stone is repeated several times and the stone must be sponged with water between each rolling.

Once the image is fully inked, the stone is allowed to dry. Another application of rosen, talcum and etch solutions follows.

It is necessary to repeat this process several times in order to make the image as stable as possible before proceeding to the printing stage. Think of it as creating a strong memory of the image on the stone. It takes about one hour to apply each etch, from the time of washing out the image, to rolling the ink and the application and drying of the etch. The last etch remains on the stone until printing.

Processing the stone is critical. A successful printing demands proper care and expertise at this stage and any errors could destroy the image. It would then be necessary to begin again at square one - graining and recreating the image.


A lithograph is printed by pressing a piece of paper onto the stone which has been rolled with ink, transferring the ink from the stone onto the paper. Once the stone is moved onto the “press bed” of the printing press, the black ink image is removed with solvent and an ink stain of the color to be printed is applied. The etch is washed off. The stone is sponged with water between each pass of the (OIL) inked roller. A bead of ink is added periodically to the ink slab to maintain a consistent amount of ink.

The stone is rolled with ink several times and the paper chosen for the edition (100% acid-free rag paper is preferred) is carefully placed onto the stone, in line with the registration marks.

Passing the inked roller over the stone

A sheet of plexiglass (called a tympan) is placed on top of the stone, and the press bed is moved horizontally to a point where the stationary scraper bar (a wooden bar with a leather strap attached to it) is lowered onto the tympan. The press bed is then smoothly cranked beneath the scraper bar. As the press bed carrying the stone passes beneath the scraper bar, the paper is pressed onto the stone, transferring the ink from the stone onto the paper. The pressure is then released and the press bed brought back to its original position where the paper is removed.

The stone is immediately sponged wet and the inking process repeated, for each piece of paper must be individually inked in this manner. The entire edition is thus printed and left to dry slowly on drying racks. An edition of approximately 50 prints requires a printing session of 8 to 10 hours for each color, without allowing for technical difficulties- or lunch (sandwich in one hand and sponge in the other)!

Press bed
Pulling the pressure bar down onto the inked stone.

When multi-colored lithos are made, a separate drawing must be done for each color printed. The printing of one color is referred to as a run. The stone is reground and the entire process is repeated for the next run: transferring the line drawing, drawing the image, processing, and then reprinting the same paper with the next color.


Once the printing is completed and the paper is dry, the edition is carefully inspected for continuity of color and registration. In a multi-run edition it is usually wise to print several extra sheets of paper to allow for rejects based on color and/or registration distortions.

Traditionally, the prints are then numbered, titled and signed in pencil. The number on a print does not necessarily represent the order in which the paper was printed. Rarely, would an artist run an edition of more than 150 lithographs. An average would be 50 to 100, though some artists prefer to work more experimentally and may pull only a small number (5 to 10).

The time it takes to complete an edition may vary from days to several weeks or months, depending on the complexity of the image and how many runs it takes to complete. Of course this is only the print making stage. It is difficult to calculate the amount of time it may take to research and compose the image. Some images are virtually years in the making.

Examining the prints
Pulling the printed paper off the stone.

Craftsmanship, creativity, care and chemistry mix in the magic of the medium of stone lithography to the delight (and amazement) of the artist and those who appreciate fine art.


While a “hand-pulled print” is considered an original work of art, a reproduction is a reproduced image from another medium (usually a painting). Reproductions of fine art are often printed in large numbers (200 to more, sometimes in the thousands) and can usually be detected by looking at the image under magnification, where a dot pattern appears as a result of a photo-mechanical process. Magazines, newspapers, poster publishers, etc. commonly use this technique. Reproductions are sometimes numbered and signed by the artist and marketed as limited edition prints. There is nothing wrong with reproductions, when marketed as such, but it is unethical to promote and sell them as fine art prints. These reproductions are often confused with fine art pints and unfortunately many purchasers are misled into thinking they have purchased a piece of art.


EDITION — The entire number of lithographs printed: e.g., 5/50 means the print is the fifth in a total edition of fifty. Prints are not necessarily marketed in numbered sequence, therefore 1/50 or 50/50 does not necessarily mean the first or last lithograph printed or sold.

ARTIST PROOF or A/P — 10 to 20 percent of the edition is traditionally set aside as artist's proofs (AP). Though some people prefer to collect A/Ps, their value should not vary from the numbered pieces in an edition.

STATE PROOF — Signifies one state of a final edition. It may mean that only one state of the image has been printed, sometimes in a different color or on different paper. A state proof is usually printed in small numbers and is separate from the numbered edition and A/Ps.

VARIED EDITION — An edition in which the artist purposely makes changes (e.g., color, paper) from one print to the next.

Photographs on this page were taken by Martin Hunt at Malaspina Printmakers Society Workshop, Vancouver, Canada.

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