The Art of Lithography

Lithography was a mechanical printing method discovered by Aloys Senefelder in 1798. Artists and manufacturers created lithographs by drawing on a flat stone or metal surface with a crayon or oily pen. Bavarian limestone, zinc, and aluminum were the most popular surfaces typically used for lithographs during the nineteenth century.  The surface was then moistened with water and other various chemicals that most often included Gum Arabic and Nitric Acid. Then through a series of chemical reactions, the surface formed an engraving in which ink could be applied and transferred to paper to create a detailed print that enhanced artistic elements such as shading and precise lines.

Lithography’s inventor, Senefelder, devised the printing method when he was a performer and sought to print his own materials. Senefelder had desired to print and publish his own plays and artwork. He first sought to learn how to print in a printing office and then eventually bought his own press. He was unable to buy an engraving press or metal printing plates which led him to devise a method to print on stone. As the story goes, Senefelder sought to print with stone and came up with the idea after writing a grocery list in crayon. The rest is history, and after the success of his ingenious idea, popularity of his invention and technique followed.

In 1817, Senefelder mechanized his printing technique and designed a press that automatically moistened and inked stone plates so that multiple lithographs could be created at once. Most of these presses were operated by steam engines and made artistic prints widely available to the public. For his advancements and inventions, Senefelder was then given the title as the “Bavarian Royal Inspector of Lithography,” and he received a sizeable pension from the King of Bavaria. A music publisher, Johann Anton André, teamed up with Senefelder to train and help others print using Senefelder’s idea only further popularizing the revolutionary printing technique.

German author and actor Aloys Senefelder

Lithographs became widely used during the following nineteenth and twentieth centuries for a variety of purposes which included the printing of various commercial and legal materials as well as artistic illustrations. Many lithographs included the printing of books, illustrations, maps, posters, musical scores, and most notably, legal documents and patents.

Lithography served as an essential printing method for government and administrative uses. Not only was Senefelder involved in the printing of advertising materials and artistic materials for theater and music, but he became involved with overseeing lithographic printing methods used by the government, primarily for tax purposes. In 1809, the Bavarian government tasked Senefelder to oversee lithographic cartography, and he supervised the preparation of cadastral maps that the government used for accounting land distribution, ownership, and taxation. Because of the efficiency and detail that lithography provided, governments, large and small, adopted lithography to print various government documents and diagrams, most of which included maps and diagrams found in patents.

Senefelder recounted his invention in his 1818 publication called The Invention of Lithography. Later, many innovations and techniques were created and included chromolithography and photolithography, further perfecting and transforming this method. Many scholars consider lithography to be one of second great inventions of printing after the invention of the printing press by Johann Gutenberg around A.D. 1440.

“Lithographic Press,” Elisha Noyce, The Boy’s Book of Industrial Information (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1858) accessed May 24, 2019,

Today, many artisans still create lithographs mostly for the artistry, novelty, and detail that process of lithography provides. In addition to great lithographic artwork from famed artists such as Toulouse Lautrec and Pablo Picasso, lithographs remain an artistic medium collected and sought after by many. Lithography can not only be collected in the form of art, but collectors can find collectable lithographs in the form of USGS Quadrangle maps and the expired patents from various country trademark offices including Great Britain, France, and the United States of America. Although not originally intended to serve as artwork, the detail and design of these lithographs serve as interesting pieces and are still very pleasingly aesthetic.

Further Reading

University of Delaware, Special Collections, Library. “Color Priniting in the Nineteenth Century: Lithography.” December 21, 2010. Accessed May 16, 2019.

History of Science Museum. Lithography. Accessed May 17, 2019.

Dutch Museum of Lithography. Accessed May 17, 2019.