The Birth of Lithography
Aloys Senefelder (1771 – 1834) spent most of his young adulthood pursuing a career in theater. Unfortunately, Senefelder was a terrible actor, and, despite some success as a playwright, he couldn’t sell enough of his plays to justify the high cost of printing. What Senefelder lacked in capital and acting skills, however, he made up for in persistence and ingenuity. Determined to publish his plays, he first attempted to venture into the printmaking business himself, but soon realized that he didn’t have the funds necessary for such an endeavor. The equipment and materials needed were simply too expensive. Stubbornly undeterred, Senefelder then decided that, since the current printing methods were beyond his meager budget, he would have to invent his own.
Years passed, but nothing noteworthy came of his experiments until he started working with copperplate engravings. Creating a copperplate engraving is a rather fiddly, labor-intensive process, to say the least. Because he was a self-taught amateur, Senefelder made a lot of mistakes, which was not only incredibly frustrating but also incredibly expensive, as he had to start over on a fresh plate each time he botched an attempt. He was eventually forced to come up with a sort of “correction fluid” in order to save both time and money. The acid resistant combination of wax, soap, and lampblack he concocted was also hydrophobic (water-repellent), an unintended feature that would later prove essential.
Through a series of lucky coincidences, Senefelder discovered that the inexpensive, locally mined limestone slabs he happened to have laying around his workshop made excellent substitutes for copper plates. All he had to do was write out what he wanted on the stone with a stick of his “correction fluid,” then bathe the stone in acid. The acid ate through the stone, but not the greasy marks he made, leaving a nice, crisp relief from which he could print. Further experimentation revealed that an acid bath was unnecessary. Instead, after he drew out his desired image, he treated the stone with a wash of gum arabic (an oleophobic, or oil-repellent, substance) then dampened it with water (which is also oleophobic) before he applied the printing ink (basically pigment suspended in oil). Since gum Arabic is oleophobic, it will not cover the areas treated with Senefelder’s “correction fluid,” so, when the water and ink are applied to the stone, the ink is drawn to the oily “correction fluid,” and the water is drawn to the gum arabic, allowing one to print a perfect copy of the original drawing.
This process, which Senfelder perfected in 1798, was incredibly simple compared to the common printing methods of the day. Instead of spending innumerable tedious hours carving an image out of wood or copper, artists could simply draw a picture on a slab of limestone and quickly be able to create his or her own prints. And, even better, the lithographic printing process produces very little wear on the stone, so one could produce a virtually unlimited number of prints. The relative ease and economy of creating lithographic prints also attracted large corporations, such as newspapers, publishing companies, and advertising firms. Soon, lithographs played a dominant role in the civilized world; the average person suddenly had access to pictures of major world events mere hours after they happened, and anyone with a little pocket money could afford to purchase beautiful artwork for their homes.
As for Senefelder, he patented his process, took a great job training others how to make lithographic prints, received several awards for his work, and then retired on a sizeable pension.
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