At Tamarind, a lithograph is an original image created by an artist who works closely with a master printer. A press is used to transfer drawings from stones or metal plates to paper. Although the term "lithography" may refer to commercially reproduced images, such as those on posters or in magazines, fine art lithography is a hand process used to create original works of art that can be printed multiple times.

Lithographs differ from etchings, engravings, serigraphs, and woodcuts in materials and process. For example, etchings and engravings are printed from a metal plate with incised lines, while a lithograph is made from a chemically treated, flat surface. A serigraph is a silkscreen print, and woodcuts are printed from blocks of wood carved in relief.

In each case, what distinguishes the print as original is that the artist participated directly in the creation of the image and approves all impressions after they are printed. 

The Art Of Time from Martina Chamrad on Vimeo.

The Process

First an artist draws an image, in reverse, on a fine-grained limestone or an aluminum plate. For a one-color lithograph, this will be the only drawing. Each additional color will generally require a separate drawing on a different stone or plate.

Artists use the same kinds of tools they would to make images on paper or canvas. However, since the basic principle of the hand lithographic printing is the natural repulsion of grease and water, the crayons, pencils, and washes used in lithography have a high grease content.

Once the artist has finished drawing with the greasy black pigments, a professional master printer takes over and chemically treats the stones and/or plates to stabilize the image for printing.

The printer first sprinkles rosin on the surface to protect the drawing, then applies talc, which helps the chemical etch lie more closely to the tiny grease dots that compose the drawing.

A solution of gum arabic and nitric acid (called an “etch”) is applied to the stone and left for about an hour to combine with the greasy particles and the calcium carbonate of the limestone. Often a second application of gum arabic is applied before the original drawing materials are removed with a solvent and asphaltum is rubbed in.

This process causes the image area, now barely visible on the stone, to accept the printing inks, and, at the same time, causes the stone’s blank areas, when moistened with water, to reject the inks.

At the press, the printer sponges the stone or plate with water, uses a roller to apply ink, and prints a series of trial proofs for the artist to consider. The printer continues to make proofs with different color and paper combinations until the artist is completely satisfied with the result. This final proof is signed by the artist as the bon à tirer (“good to pull”). Using this as a standard, the printer prints the edition, comprised of a limited number of individual impressions.

Important terms

See link on right to Definitions of Terms for a complete description of terminology related to editions made at Tamarind. 

Edition refers to all impressions of a particular image that are printed after the artist has given an approval to a print. At Tamarind, the edition includes all numbered prints, the artist’s proofs, the bon à tirer, which belongs to the printer, and three impressions for the Tamarind archives, which is housed at the University of New Mexico Art Museum. All impressions, including the trial proofs, color trial proofs, and artist’s impressions, are documented.

Chops are identifying symbols of the print studio and/or the printer that are often embossed in the paper (or they may be stamped in ink on the back of the sheet). They are important identifying marks, but not all original, limited-edition prints will have them. Artists who print their own work may not use them.

Most reputable print shops have a documentation paper for each of their prints that describes all of the details related to the edition and the steps involved in its making. These documentation papers are available to anyone who asks; in fact, some states have laws that require the seller to provide specific information related to the edition.

Unfortunately, documentation papers can be misleading. Read the papers carefully and ask questions about anything that is unclear. If you are in doubt about a print’s authenticity or value, it’s best to check with a reputable dealer (such as one belonging to the International Fine Print Dealers Association), an art auction house, or a museum print department.

Originality is difficult to define; it is a complex concept and has become almost meaningless with respect to prints because it has come into such broad and general use. The term is often used in order to imply that the print is more valuable than it may actually be. An important consideration is the degree to which the artist has participated in the concept and execution of the image.