From Academic Kids

Lithography is a method for printing on a smooth surface, as well as a method of manufacturing semiconductor and MEMS devices.



The principle

Lithography as a manual process is based on the repulsion of oil and water. The image is placed on the surface with an oil-based medium; acid is then used to 'burn' the oil into the surface. When printing, the surface is covered in water, which remains on the non-oily surface and avoids the oily parts; a roller can then apply an oil-based ink that adheres only to the oily portion of the surface.

The early process

Missing image
an example of lithography, 1902;
original size 33×24cm

Lithography was invented by Alois Senefelder in Bohemia in 1798, and it was the first new printing process since the invention of relief printing in the fifteenth century. In the early days of lithography, a smooth piece of limestone was used (hence the name "lithography"—"lithos" is the ancient Greek word for stone). After the oil-based image was put on the surface, acid burned the image onto the surface; gum arabic, a water soluble solution, was then applied, sticking only to the non-oily surface and sealing it. During printing, water adhered to the gum arabic surfaces and avoided the oily parts, while the oily ink used for printing did the opposite.

Within a few years of its invention, the lithographic process was used to create multi-colour printed images, a process known by the middle of the 19th Century as Chromolithography, and many fine examples of chromolithographic colour printing and publishing were achieved in America and Europe during this period. A separate stone was used for each colour, and the print went through the press separately for each stone. The main challenge was of course to keep the images in register.

See: THE INVENTION OF LITHOGRAPHY (, by Alois Senefelder, (Eng. trans. 1911)

The modern process

Today, however, aluminum or plastic plates are used. The plates already have a brushed, or "roughened" texture, but they are covered with a smooth photosensitive emulsion. A photographic negative of the desired image is laid on top of the plate, and exposed to light, transferring a positive image to the emulsion. The emulsion is then chemically treated to remove the unexposed portions of the emulsion. The plate is affixed to a drum on a printing press, and water is rolled over the plate, which adheres to the rough, or negative portions of the image. A roller coated with ink is then rolled over the plate, which adheres to the smooth, or positive portions of the image. If this image were directly transferred to paper, it would create a positive image, but the paper would be moistened. Instead, a drum covered with a rubber surface is rolled over the plate, which squeezes away the water, and picks up the ink. The drum is then rolled over the paper, transferring the ink. Because the image is first transferred to the rubber drum, the process is called "offset lithography," due to the fact that the image is offset to the drum before being applied to the paper.

Many innovations and technical changes have occurred to this process over the years, including the development of presses that utilize several plates to build up a multi-color image in one pass through the press, and the Dahlgren inking system, which eliminates the separate moistening step (instead combining it in the inking step).

At the input end, the advent of desktop publishing made it possible for almost anyone to quickly develop professional quality layouts, and the development of the imagesetter enabled print shops to skip the intermediate step of photographing a layout; they could now print directly from the computer to film. Since the start of the 21st century, the platesetter has eliminated film altogether by printing directly to the plate itself.

Semiconductor lithography

Main article: photolithography.

Semiconductor lithography was developed for use in manufacturing microchips. It is also used in MEMS applications, as it is one of the best methods currently in use for manufacturing devices on scales much smaller than a micrometer. Although silicon lithographic technology is most advanced, other materials are also used. The emerging technology of a maskless lithography process for the semiconductor is also being used.

Lithography as an Artistic Medium

Missing image
"Girl with Flowers", Lithography by Angel Botello (1980)
During the first twenty-five years of the nineteenth century, the practice of lithography was predominantly restricted to cheap reproductions of paintings and drawings. However, around 1825 the French artists Ingres, Géricault, and Delacroix embraced the process as a way to avoid the problems inherent in wood-block and copper engraving, namely, the near necessity of middlemen like draughtsmen (who transferred the image to the wood or copper plate) and engravers (who carved the image out of the plate). The advantage to lithography (for an artist's point of view) was that he or she could draw or paint directly onto the lithographic material and avoid entirely the intermediate steps and craftsmen involved in engraving. Therefore, an artist's drawing and a lithographic print made from it were nearly identical — no reworking or transfer to another medium was necessary. It also afforded, at the time, the most complete range of line color from white to black.

Goya's lithographs 'The Bulls of Bordeaux' (1928) and Delacroix's illustrations to Goethe's Faust were the groundbreaking "artist's lithographs" that sparked a flood of (mostly French) artists who dabbled in lithography, including Prud'hon, Cezanne, Manet, and, of course, its greatest practitioner, Daumier, whose prints began to appear in the 1830s.

For the first time in history, an artist was able to send out into the world his or her own drawing, not in unique specimen but in editions. Each impression had all their personality, skill, and genius, with no recourse to intermediary persons and technological steps.

See: Delacroix's Faust lithographs at the Davison Art Center, Wesleyan University (

See: Goya's lithographs at La Biblioteca Nacional de España (


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