Lithography: What is it?

by Phillip López Jiménez

What exactly is lithography? Lithography is a process of printing on stone, or as professor Henry “Indiana” Jones would say about the neo-lithic era “…L-I-T-H-I-C, meaning stone.” as Lithikos is Greek for stone. Like most posters of its era, THE MUMMY one-sheet was printed using stone lithography and if you look closely at the posters created with stone you can see the stone texture which gives it a warmth that the photo chemical process does not.

If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the Million Dollar poster that inspired this very blog post about lithography.

The stone Lithography process was invented by Alois Senefelder in 1796. Senefelder goes into great detail on how he came about this process in his book THE COMPLETE COURSE OF LITHOGRAPHY published in 1819. Wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps, who was an actor for the Theatre Royal at Munich, Senefelder wished to peruse the dramatic arts. Senefelder’s old man forced him to study law instead, once out of law school he took up writing plays to some acclaim, but little money; Senefelder thought about printing and publishing his own work himself.  He tried several different approaches such as engraving letters into steel but he lacked the skills to pull this off. He then started etching into copper plates but he found it tedious with all the grinding and polishing. He had purchased a piece of Kelheim stone for the purpose of grinding colors when it dawned on him that he could use the stone in place of the copper or tin plates. This was not a new idea as stone had been used prior but the biggest problem was polishing as the stone is soft.

Lithography is a chemical reaction, nitric acid with gum arabic on calcium carbonate, as opposed to color separations that other processes are, such as silkscreen. It’s this chemical reaction that artist loved as it beautifully captures brush strokes and pencils keeping the integrity of the media. Some artists really took to the process in particular Goya, Toulouse-Lautrec and Daumier

Limestone from Solhofen and Kelheim, from the Franconia district near Munich, are the traditional stones used; these stones are 94 to 98 percent calcium carbonate and are quite heavy and difficult to move around and must’ve cost a fortune to ship. You can imagine how much a stone for a 27”x41” poster must be or a 3 sheet, I don’t know if they did 6 sheet posters using this process, would that would be six stones for one poster?!

Prepping stones

Printing press with calcium carbonate stone.

Much like preparing an Egyptian mummy to be entombed, preparing stones is an elaborate process. The stones must be smooth and even, the slightest irregularity can really screw up a printing. One can reuse stones, so I imagine previously used stones must be easier to work with. If the printer is to reuse a stone, they sprinkle some grit over it and smooth it out with another stone and then wash it off. New stones have to be checked with calipers to make sure it’s even.

The artist creates the art either on paper or directly to the stone using a greasy type of media. Then the stone is etched using Arabic acid, then the original media is wiped off and then the ink is placed on it for printing. As you can see this whole process is quite involved but it’s worth it in my opinion as these lithographic posters are incredibly stunning when seen in person, so, it’s not just the rarity that makes these posters incredibly valuable it’s also the artistry involved with the whole process.

Keeping track of plates was usually up to the lithographers as this was before the NSS or The National Screen Service. For those not in the know, the NSS number is on the bottom of all posters that were produced between the 40’s and early 00’s, and the numbers were there to keep track of plates for printing. The numbers were usually like this 68/339, the first two digits representing the year and the others are the sequential number the film was released; example 68=1968 / 339 the film was the 339th film released that year, if it was a re-release it would also have an R next to the number, and that would be all movies and not just one particular studio.

By the ought’s the studios stopped making so many different sized posters and the need for the National Screen Service was no more, they were bought out by technicolor. THE MUMMY and posters of this era had no numbers; hence the lithographers kept track of them themselves. I can’t imagine them holding onto stones, so I imagine they had some other method of keeping track of the art. MORGAN LITHOGRAPHIC CO. reprinted THE MUMMY poster several years ago for AFI’s 100 greatest movies and they used the stone process but I’m sure it wasn’t from an original stone.

POLYESTER (Mylar) Sleeve 4mil. NO flap.

POLYESTER (Mylar) Sleeve for Window Cards Posters

One of Cheret’s “Cherettes”.

When Jules Cheret returned to Paris after studying design and lithography in England, he would bring the poster to a whole other level of design. Cheret’s posters often portrayed vivacious energetic women and they started to be referred to as “Cherettes” his images would become so ingrained in the public’s imagination that critics called him “The Father of the Women’s Liberation” and, in the mid-nineteenth century, there was a boom in advertising because of the industrial revolution and a growing middle class, but it was in Paris, France where graphic arts really took hold. Lithography was instrumental in the development of the poster and its use not only in advertisement but it’s acceptance as fine art.

The poster was the latest art fad and everyone had to have one: galleries, stores, and magazines all began to flaunt them. In 1895 Cheret launched Maîtres de l’Affiche, The Masters of the Poster, each issue collected 11×17 reprints from some of the best poster artists of the time. Full sets of these fetch a big price on the collector’s circuit; in 2014 a set went for 43,000! Jules Cheret’s success was huge and he would go on to be known as the father of the modern poster and inspire many other artists like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Georges de Feure.

Graphic design wasn’t the only thing that exploded because of lithography, the political cartoons did as well, and the most famous of these lithography artists was Charles Philipon. Philipon created the weekly illustrated paper La Caricature, which featured humorous non-political illustrations initially. After the French Revolution of July when chief editor, acclaimed novelist/play-write Balzac, started contributing more stories, the paper would become very political.

A pear or a king?

La Caricature became more and more a political satire paper and Philipon created a cartoon of King Louie-Philippe’s face transforming into a pear saying “that anything can look like the king.” Pear in French is poire which can also mean sucker. This catches on with the public and soon the pear face appears everywhere including graffiti on walls and becomes a symbol of the revolution. When an attempted assassination of the King occurred, killing 14 and wounding 25, legislation passed killing freedom of the press in France and La Caricature laid low for a number of years; later returning, however, with less political bite. The publication was a huge influence years later on a British humor paper Punch in 1841 which lasted until 2002!


Lithography also transformed the illustrated book. With the industrial revolution in full swing, creating books became easier and more streamlined; you had the steam powered printing press, major factories creating inks and a growing public wanting to read. The first bookstores popped up around this time, and book publishers started focusing more on pictures to illustrate their books.

Unlike engraving, which would continue to be the preferred method of printing, lithography required no special skills, one just drew or painted on a stone and then use gum arabic to etch it in, also it has an intimacy and freedom that other processes do not. Antiquities of Westminster is considered the first book to use lithography. Written by John Thomas Smith: an antiquarian, artist and an engraver who, in 18oo, heard that men working on restoring a building had uncovered a 14th century wall complete with wall paintings and stained glass, immediately decided to document it and made many engravings and also decided to create some plates using this new stone lithography process. It’s a pretty interesting book and you can download a copy on the internet archives.    

“Every time I look at the engravings of Faust I am seized with a longing to use an entirely new style of painting that would consist, so to speak, in making a literal tracing of nature. The simplest poses could be made interesting by varying the amount of foreshortening.” -Eugéne Delacroix

Eugéne Delacroix’s illustrated edition of Goeth’s Faust is often considered the greatest illustrated book of the nineteenth century. After seeing the play in London, 25-year-old Delacroix desired to put all his energy into creating 18 lithographs for an illustrated edition, like he had done for an edition of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But despite Goethe’s enthusiastic approval of the art, the book was a financial failure and not too many artist and writer collaborations happened afterwards.

Years later French impressionist Manet would create lithographs for French poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s translation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven – though personally I prefer Gustave Doré’s steel plate engravings he did of the same story – unfortunately, this too, was unsuccessful.

By the end of the 19th century photo processing started to rear its head and book illustration became more closely tied to children’s literature. Illustration in general became seen as low brow, which is sad really, as most of my favorite artists are illustrators and some great works of art have been done for children’s books; think about all the art done for Scribner’s Illustrated Classics by N.C. Wyeth.       

Rare Book Boxes. Museum grade archival.

14 x31″ To box 5 books, you must purchase two sets of five boards , one for the horizontal wrap and one for vertical wrap. Each set comes with five pairs of mated, adhedive-backed Velcro® coins. You must use a scoring wheel to make boards fit around your books correctly.


Captain William J. Morgan, no not that Captain Morgan, and his younger brother George founded The W. J. Morgan & Company, in the city of Cleveland, to produce all sorts of ephemeral products, from pamphlets, to trade cards. Their preferred method of printing was the stone lithography process. They would hire many local artists to sketch or paint adverts for businesses; one such artist was none other than Archibald MacNeal Willard, who was a resident of Bedford, Ohio and the artist of THE SPIRIT OF ’76 or ‘Yankee Doodle’.

By the late 1880’s they changed their name to Morgan Lithographic Company and primarily focused on the entertainment industry, with their largest client being The Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus, it was with Ringling that Morgan Litho Co created the first billboard poster or 24 sheet, that’s 9 feet x 24 feet if I’m correct. They also created some incredible Buffalo Bill’s Wild West posters. 

 Wood engravings and later, photography, killed lithography as a way of quickly printing images, but it was still kept alive with poster printers until the 1940s. Today some artists still use the process to print their work as it has a textural warmth that other printing processes do not.