Stone Lithography and Whistler

2019-01-17T08:30:04-04:00By |Comments Off on Stone Lithography and Whistler

by Matt Mellody

Lithography: from the Greek Litho Graphein, stone printing

Stone lithography -

While in Chicago I once had the opportunity to stop in at Hilligoss Galleries. The curator and I discussed stone lithography as he showed me many lithographs from their inventory as well as an actual stone used by James McNeill Whistler.

Whistler and other artists would create original works directly on the thick stones that would then be used as a plate for limited edition prints. Allowing these artists to supplement their income and enhance wider promotion of their work. These lithographs originally sold for very little, but now see sales from $1700-$6,500. Stone lithography -

Alois Senefelder invented lithography in 1798 as a way to print his musical and dramatic scores in a cost effective way. The stones, quarried from Bavaria, were generally 3-4 inches thick and ranging in size from 6×8 to 44×62 inches and were very heavy and fragile. Bavarian limestone is still today considered the best for lithography and harvested from the same mountains where Alois received his over 200 years ago.

These stones are ground with a fine sand or aluminum oxide, removing any previous work (allowing for reuse of the stone) making a smooth surface to receive the next artwork. A recent article stated that some printers still use stones that are 100 years old because a 24 x 30 stone can cost thousands of dollars to purchase and ship. Consider all the art that these stones bore and have been erased over the 100 years.

The drawing is done with a crayon made of black pigment and grease. The stone is then coated with a weak solution of gum arabic (also called acacia gum that comes from the hardened sap of two different acacia trees) and nitric acid, this solution seals the stone and attracts water. The stone is then washed with a solvent to remove most of the grease. The wet stone gets rolled with ink, which is attracted to the grease drawing and repelled, by the water. Each following impression needs to be re-wet and inked.

The age, beauty, and detail of the stone in person was amazing by itself and while the prints it birthed are now valuable works in themselves, that original stone was equally a work of art.

James McNeill Whistler art

James McNeill Whistler, the “Adam and Eve, Old Chelsea,” 1879, 90 known impressions, signed with his “butterfly” (Click here to learn more about Whistler’s butterfly signature.)

Should an artist concentrate on creating one original work of art, or is something to be gained by creating (as many past artists did) a piece of art that can be duplicated into affordable prints for the masses? Will it spread awareness of the artists work and increase their influence and popularity? Should artists be creating works, like lithographs or etchings even though they are outside their focused medium or focus strictly on masterworks within their medium of expertise?

About the Author: