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Excellent Impressions

On November 6, 1771, German writer and lithographer Alois Senefelder was born. As a playwright and sometimes actor, he tried to support himself as a printer with a small printing press.

In his day, illustrations were engraved on copperplate. Senefelder could not afford an engraver so he tried to do the engraving himself. He wasn’t very good at it. Copperplates were expensive. They required special tools. They required waxes and special chemicals to etch the copper. They required cleaning and regrinding and repolishing after every use.

Senefelder had a large flat stone he practised on because it was easier to clean and grind and polish than copper. It was also a fine stone for grinding up components and mixing inks, all handmade in his time.

One day, caught without supply of prepared ink or paper, he wrote up a small list on the wet stone with a creation of soap, wax, and lampblack, intending to copy the information to paper when he restocked. Before he cleaned it off, Senefelder experimented with the slightly raised writing. He was able to make a print from it whether it was raised or not because the greasy components were retained within the limestone. He had just invented what was soon called lithography from the ancient Greek lithos [stone].

Three drawn views of a lithographic press
Alois Senefelder’s drawings, in three views, of his lithographic press.

Senefelder perfected his lithography process, experimenting with ordinary drawing tools and colour prints, and published his “how-to” account that placed this less expensive form of replicating print and images into the hands of hundreds of thousands. The image lithography still practiced today is deeply rooted in Senefelder’s work. Artists such as Delacroix, Goya, Daumier, Escher, Degas, Chagall, Matisse, Picasso, and Hockney have all employed lithographic art within their bodies of work. Senefelder’s book, A Complete Course of Lithography is still available – in hardcover, paperback, and ebook!

As with others who have shared their discoveries, Senefelder created a firm base upon which future lithographers could continue to build and experiment.

B Bondar / Real World Content Advantage