Smithsonian Collections Blog

Highlighting the hidden treasures from over 2 million collections

Collections Search Center

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Printmaking 101: Lithography

Wooden type (photo: Bettina Smith)
Hi, my name is Bettina, and I am a print history geek. A visit to the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany is my idea of a good time. I've been to print history summer camp. I was even crazy enough to hand-print my own wedding invitations. So believe me when I say that I love prints. (Coincidentally, I also love Prince, but that's a different blog post entirely.) I don't get to deal with them as often as I'd like in my archival cataloging work, but there are some excellent pieces scattered throughout the collections of the Archives of American Art.

Color separation proof book, circa 1890. Louis Prang papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
One of my favorites is this color separation proof book of lithographs from the Louis Prang papers.
Prang was a printer and publisher in Massachusetts in the 19th century whose firm L. Prang and Company specialized in chromolithography. But before we go any further, I should probably explain what a lithograph is. A lithograph is a print made by drawing an image onto the flat face of a stone with an oily crayon. The stone is then made wet, and ink is applied. The ink will adhere only to the areas where the crayon is resisting the water. A sheet of paper is pressed to the stone and you have your print. In chromolithography, the process is repeated multiple times, layering different colored inks on the same sheet of paper until the desired effect is achieved. The Louis Prang proof book shows a print that takes 16 different colors to build a nuanced image of a bottle. The image above shows the final print, but the fun part is watching the print take shape as the colors are added.
Print after two colors have been applied, a cream background and the first image of the bottle

Four colors, showing the first addition of green

The sixth color, gray, adds nuance and the bottle's shadow

In each example, the image on the left-hand page shows a print of a single color, and the image on the right shows that print layered over all the other colors that have already been applied. This breakdown showed Prang all the steps and allowed him to tweak any if he wished. A note on the inside front cover reads: "Accepted except take out table and shadow of bottle, print this with n.102, see remarks on proofs," which confirms that Prang (or whoever wrote this note) nixed the shadow portion of the gray color layer. You can look through the entire proof book here. To see more lithographs from across the Smithsonian, try the Collections Search Center.

Bettina Smith, Digital Projects Librarian
Archives of American Art

No comments:

Post a Comment