Chromolithography/Estimating, Assessing and Producing

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Chromolithography
Estimating, Assessing and Producing

It is often written that whatever the artwork it can be reproduced. That maybe so, but what of its quality - compared to the original. In this anthology we are concerned about art prints – prints that have been specifically made to be exhibited. The majority are made by the original artist as an adjunct to his work as a painter. These maybe reproduced from an existing painting or from a rough sketch or idea. So the question of whether or not it is a facsimile doesn’t come into it. The autolithographer: signs, dates, and titles his work, to his standards of workmanship. You have to appreciate that the autolithographer cannot produce work to compare to the professionalism of the commercial lithographic artist. Here is a step by step guide to artwork reproductions.

  1. When a new job estimated, for a hand drawn lithographic reproduction, a decision of how many colours required is the first consideration. Obviously if the job is for a cinema poster the number of colours would be less than for a facsimile of a fine art reproduction. The average number for a commercial reproduction is eight: buff, yellow, flesh, blue, red, black, pink, and grey.
  2. A swatch or tab of each colour to be printed is stuck onto a piece of card to remind the artist exactly what colour he is working to, and give the printer a guide - when mixing his colours.
  3. Multi-colour printings must register on the sheet of paper. The artist needs an accurate tracing to use as a guide to reproduce the original. To achieve this, the artist traces an outline guide. This guide, called ‘the key’, gives an exact position of each colour, shape, shade, brush stroke, shadow, and highlight. To position this correctly on the paper, register marks added for the printer.
  4. The guideline, on each stone or plate, has to be non-greasy. Either the original tracing has to be retraced onto as many plates and stones that are to be used, using a non-greasy setoff powder, or the Keyline traced in conte crayon and rubbed down. Commercially, a key stone or plate is drawn, a black ink pull taken, the wet ink line dusted with purple setoff powder and the key pressed onto as many stones or plates as necessary.
  5. Each printing stone or machine plate, with its faint purple line-image, can now be ‘drawn-up’ in black ink [Tusche Sticks] or crayons [Sticks No. 3] - to represent the weight of colour to be printed. The artist will use: pen line and stippling, Ben Day tinting mediums, splatter-work, airbrushing, flat crayoning and finger tinting, jumper work, sharpened crayon, sponge and stump work.
  6. Incorrect work on the plate can be removed using blotting paper soaked in benzene for both ink or crayon work, and an etcho-stick [chalkstone] on a wet stone or plate when proving. Care taken, not to remove the grain, especially on a zinc plate, for that might create a scum of half-removed work when printing. No method is perfect or wholly reliable on metal plates, for utmost cleanliness is essential at all times. The limestone, being relatively soft, allows its surface to be engraved, scraped, carved, or etched.
  7. Before starting to draw each colour, all non-image areas should be painted with Gum Arabic [Nigerian] No.3 - to desensitize the stone’s surface. This prevents dirt, dust, finger marks, or stray grease affecting the clean paper areas.

Proving the image[edit]

When the printing stone or plate had been drawn - ready for printing, the image should be ‘proved’ - to secure the work and to make sure that what is on the printing surface is what is wanted. There are three reasons why ‘proving’ the image has to take place:

  1. The artists drawing ink and crayons, do not contain a ‘sufficiently greasy content’, to ensure a permanent image – a more grease receptive image has replace the drawn one.
  2. Before printing, the printing surface has to be scrupulously clean - showing only that which is to be printed.
  3. The printing image must be capable of producing multiple impressions.

Preparing the image for proving[edit]

a]The completed ink and chalkwork drawing is dusted with French chalk – using a shaker and cotton wool puff. This prevents the work smudging when gummed-up.

b]The stone or plate is ‘gummed up’ - using a sponge soaked-in a Gum Arabic [Nigerian crystals] solution - to cover the whole plate surface. To prevent smearing or interfering with the image in any way, dab over the dusted work, do not rub.

c]Gum Arabic crystals melt in water - to make a thin creamy consistency [test for ‘tack’ between finger and thumb]… applying gum arabic desensitizes the non-image areas - makes the non-image areas ‘water receptive’. If the gum-Arabic solution is too watery, there is the danger that you will remove some of the fine chalkwork. Similarly too thick the solution will scrub the image. You do not add any acid to the first application of gum solution for the same reason. The solution will be usable for a few weeks steadily becoming acidic which will have an etching effect.

  1. When the Gum Arabic solution applied to the printing surface, the excess is blotted-away - using newspaper. This reduced the gum to a thin layer. The surface is then fanned dry. The Gum Arabic will only adhere to the non-image area.
  2. The artist’s ink and chalkwork is now removed with turpentine using a pad of bound felt. When that has been achieved, remove the excess turpentine with a cloth, which leaves a ghost image, and fan dry.
  3. The ghost image-area is now fortified with ‘washout’ ashphaltum - a thin greasy tar solution that has a greater ability to attract grease [transfer or black printing ink reduced slightly with linseed oil can take the place of washout]. Excess removed and the surface fanned dry.
  4. The printing surface dampened with water - using a sponge. The drawn image now replaced by ink - using an ink-charged leather covered-roller [Litho Roll-up Black] - applied in a number of directions to ensure even coverage. Unwanted work can now be removed with an etcho-stick…, the plate or stone fanned dry and dusted with French chalk.
  5. If the plate or stone is not to be used, it is gummed over with gum-etch [gum Arabic and much-diluted nitric acid [1%]. Remember to only add acid to water], this keeps the surface clean. The printing plate can now be stored to await proving or printing.
  6. When ‘machine proving’, prepare a suitable amount of transfer or black printing ink on your rolling up slab. Charge a composition-rubber hand-roller. Dampen the printing surface - with a water soaked sponge. Roll-up the image uniformly in a number of directions using the ink charged roller… whilst continuing to keep the non-image areas damp...
  7. Finally, prove the work – by taking an impression on paper. The rolled-up printing stone or plate, transferred to the press, dampened, and re-rolled using a composition roller charged with black printing ink. All ink rollers whether composition or nap should be stored on a rack, not left lying on the ink slab.
  8. Place a sheet of paper on the stone. Lay-on additional sheets as ‘backing-sheets’ – this finely adjusts the pressure on the plate or stone by the scraper bar. Lower the tympan - a thin sheet of tin held in a frame hinged to the middle of the machine, which the scraper-bar runs over. The stone – resting on the ‘bed’ of the press, now raised-up to meet the scraper-bar using a jacking lever. Using the cranking handle, the bed wound by ratchet on a track, beneath the scraper bar, previously adjusted for pressure by the screw. The bar or lever dropped back into place - to take the pressure off, and the bed run-back. The tympan raised and packing sheets and ‘proof’ removed. The resulting proof is a ‘direct’ impression - straight from stone or plate. This reverses the image on the plate.


To make the image ‘right reading’ the image either has, to be drawn in reverse, or, transferred – using two ‘damp-proof transfer-papers’ and another printing surface. It was not until 1905 that a rubber blanket used to transfer an image from stone to blanket, then from blanket to paper – to produce an indirect, ‘offset’ reproduction.

By 1900, lithographic printing was well established. The industry now saw the introduction of the cylinder press. Rotary printing, and the wrap-round rubber blanket - transferring the image to the paper ‘right reading’, took a further five years. It was discovered, at about the same time, that if a stone were to be grained [given a slightly rough surface] a wax crayon could be used to draw with to represent tonework – much like pencilling. The result, when printed was a crayoned effect similar to a pencil image… the wax crayon producing an image that could be ‘rolled up’ and proved, in exactly the same manner as the solid ink line-work. This transformed the chromolithographic industry. Oil paintings and watercolours were now capable of being reproduced - using fewer printings - to achieve the same result… All the Commercial Artist’s work was now capable of being reproduced, including the lettering.

Artists appreciated that they too - could produce their own work – to make fine art prints. They were not able to show the same expertise in application. Their work, depicting a free unrestrained quality, became autolithographs. To reproduce an oil painting needed twelve or more printings, plus an engraved stone for canvas texture, brush strokes and impasto work, faithfully copied - using an embossing technique. For every day reproductions - advertising theatre productions, greeting cards and packaging labels, fewer colours were needed.

Publications Consulted[edit]
  • Looking at Prints, Drawings and Watercolours by Paul Goldman. Published by British Museum in association with the J Paul Getty Museum, LA., 1986.
  • The Victorian printer by Graham Hudson. Published by Shire Publications. History of Lithography by W A Weber. Published by Thames & Hudson, 1961.
  • Looks Great But How Do We Print It, and, Other People’s Jobs: Published by British Printer, 1980.
  • Stone and Plate Lithography by Paul Croft, Printmaking Handbooks.