This post come to us from Alyssa Speranza, Curatorial Intern.
If you haven’t already visited Toulouse-Lautrec & His World, then you should! If you have already seen it, you may have wondered, What is a lithograph? Why was it Toulouse-Lautrec’s medium of choice? And how did he print with so many colors?
Lithography is a method of printmaking that involves the use of limestone – the word “lithography” quite literally means “to write with stone.” But the question what is a lithograph can only be truly answered through observation or hands on experience. This video produced by the Museum of Modern Art provides a concise demonstration.
The artist in the video makes the complex process look effortless. It is important to remember that with each step, precision is the key and the materials are not easy to work with. The limestone which the artist uses is heavy but also very delicate. Today there are alternative printing plates. This may sound like an improvement that would motivate modern lithographers to give up their limestone in order to work on these lightweight, aluminum plates. As with any medium, it is a matter of personal preference. While taking a lithography class, I found that I preferred the limestone over aluminum printing plates. The metal plate was easier to transport around the print shop, but it was very easy to dent. The dents interfere with the treatment and printing process by allowing ink to collect in them, sometimes in areas that were meant to remain white. The treatment of the plate after the drawing is complete also requires additional steps and chemicals. When using a plate, there is little room for error; it is much easier to erase mistakes on the limestone. I also found that I liked the more “traditional” and tactile feel that the limestone offered.
Have you ever created a lithograph? What was the experience like? Were there any challenges? Toulouse-Lautrec combined a painterly style with this incredibly technical medium. Unlike most other artists of the time, he considered his lithographs to be finished works of art. Conveniently, they were very effective as posters and other various forms of advertising. Lautrec’s lithographs look similar to his paintings. The haphazard crosshatched lines and transparent colors of The Jockey, 1889 are characteristics which can be seen his oil paintings such as Ball at the Moulin de la Galette, 1889. The directional marks in each of these works create movement throughout the composition. The thinly applied oil paint of Ball at the Moulin de la Galette is mimicked with lithographic ink in The Jockey.
Other printmaking processes such as woodcuts and etchings would not have been able to capture Lautrec’s fluid lines. Lithography allowed the artist to draw as he would with a pencil, ink, and even watercolor. Another benefit to this medium is that the drawing is completely on the surface of the stone. The stone can be run through the press as many times as desired and the quality of the drawing will not be compromised. With woodcuts and etchings the plate is worn down and flattened every time it is run through the press, causing some of the details to be lost over time.
Lautrec’s prints become even more impressive when considering the laborious task of creating a color lithograph. Each color represents a different stone used. Printing in color presents another challenge to the lithographer; it is important to make sure that the paper is aligned correctly each time it goes through the press, otherwise the image will be off register.
The two prints from Les Vieilles Histoires, 1893 show the stages between color applications. The olive green color of the outline was a separate stone from the yellow ochre seen in the bear’s fur. The grey of the man’s suit and background structures must have been a separate stone and so on. To achieve the range of color, this paper was printed through the press 5 different times, each time adding new color, plus the outline.
While looking at Toulouse-Lautrec’s lithographs, are you able to figure out how many different stones he had to use for each piece? Do his lithographs remind you of any of his paintings?