Aluminum Litho. plates
The actor Alois Senefelder (center) made a name for himself as the founder of modern commercial printing through the invention of Lithography in 1789. For over a century the process was used for a variety of purposes from the reproduction of famous paintings to the production of all sorts of multi-colored commercial printed goods such as this cigarette packet 'Snow Belle', booklets and posters. Interestingly, the first lithographic press was derived from an etching press. Lithographs, left: Renoir 'Chapeau', top right: Toulouse Lautrec: 'Clemenceau Mayer'. Bottom: 'Flag', Jasper Johns, mixed media, 1954-55, MOMA
Lithography has been cherished as a unique medium by many artists and printers since its invention by Alois Senefelder in 1798. The public love lithographic prints created by the greats, ranging from Toulouse Lautrec to Jasper Johns and Jim Dine, and print studios such as the Tamarind Institute in New Mexico celebrate the unique lithographic language of artistic expression. Lithographs convey a delicate, subtle, and fragile aesthetic that continues to appeal to artists and art lovers alike.
But the original form of lithographic printing - stone lithography -
relies on a particularly harsh chemical mix of asphaltum (a tar-like product),
rosin, pure nitric acid, and mineral spirit solvents.
Many of these materials are suspected or known carcinogens and neurotoxins.
Cancer, brain disease, birth defects in offspring, and infertility
are known health risks of this 18th century form of printing.
Lithographic lime stones carry no toxic risk aside from the obvious lifting hazard. Many of the various volatile chemicals that are applied to the stone surface, however, are very toxic.
In the general public there is little notion of the very significant health risks inherent in the medium. Insiders in the printmaking profession know that traditional stone lithographers have a greatly increased risk of contracting cancer, and of suffering through lengthy periods of illness - even of dying prematurely as a result of the insidious toxic exposure that daily long-term lithographic practice can entail (see article 'Not dying for their art'). The recently published 'Tamarind Techniques Manual' by Marjorie Devon lists 19 carcinogenic substances that are used regularly (see list below).
The inventor of the process Alois Senefelder, who developed the method to commercialize the printing of musical scores (think Mozart's music) was already aware of unpleasant tar fumes and possible health risks of his invention, so as a caution he termed the process 'Chemical Printing'. Beware: in this method your are dealing with harsh chemicals, not just benign drawing materials. This original term was soon replaced by the term 'Stone Printing' or 'Lithography' by Parisian artists and printers who were enchanted by new creative possibilities and the prospect of making fortunes...and so the emphasis shifted away from the known hazards of chemistry to the romance of drawing on stones. Drawing on paper is very safe, so why should drawing on stones not be?
According to the 'Tamarind Techniques Manual' 19 carcinogenic substances are used (with extensive safety precautions) in Tamarind's lithographic practice: Acetone | Asphaltum Gum Etch | Ammonium Dichromate | Anco Litho Wash I and II | Asphaltum | Blanket Wash | Denatured Alcohol | Shellac Solution | Lacquer Thinner | Lithium General Purpose Grease | Mineral Spirits | MS (Shellac Solution) | Naptha | Paint Stripper | PN Red Developer | Spray Paint Enamel | Talc
Today, thanks to the work by innovators in lithography such as George Roberts and Nik Semenoff the entire vocabulary of lithography, including subtle crayon marks and earthy reticulations, can now be very successfully replicated in other media such a Polyester Plate Lithography, Waterless Lithography (which is still evolving), and perhaps surprisingly also in Water-based Silkscreen and in Intaglio Type. In most of these media the porous surface of a stone is substituted with a slightly rough transparency which allows for the same subtlety of detail and mark-making.