The beauty of hand-drawn lithography

The beauty of hand-drawn lithography

The Matchlock GunSome of the books we highlight in our store were printed using a form of lithography that has produced some wonderful and rich illustrated books, dust-jackets, posters and prints. This form of lithography, often called ‘auto-lithography’, does not use photo-mechanical means to separate colours to produce a printed image; it enables an artist to draw directly onto the printing medium in a way that gives the artist greater control.

With auto-lithography the drawing takes place on either a stone, transfer paper or litho plate. This allows the artist to control the layers of colour and how they overprint to create wonderful blends. It also allows greater control over subtle tones and shading. All combined, this printing technique has produced some very beautiful books, prints and posters.

Lithography is a 200 year old printing method, and artists such as Picasso, Giacometti and Toulouse-Lautrec loved this form of printing. Many artists today such as Michael Parkes, shown here, still use hand-drawn lithography on stones to create beautiful prints of great quality.

Classic books such as Eric Ravilious’ High Street, the Puffin Picture Books of the 1940s and The Matchlock Gun were produced using this technique, thus creating the most beautiful and subtle images and books.

Barnett Freeman self-portrait drawing on a litho stone

Barnett Freedman, self-portrait working on a litho stone.

Barnett Freedman (1901 – 1958) is now recognised as a master of stone lithography. His ability to use the subtlety of chalk on the grain of the litho stones created wonderful illustrations, book jackets, posters and prints. The book Barnet Freedman, English Masters of Black and White by Jonathan Mayne shows the range of his monochrome work. Shown here is a self-portrait of Barnett Freedman working on a lithographic stone. Shown below is one of his landscape illustrations for the UK Post Office, 1934.

Barnett Freedman his art and technique

To quote Jonathan Mayne in his book on Barnett Freedman ‘The porous nature of the lithographic stone imparts to whatever is drawn upon it a soft warmth; it tends to emphasise the slightest variations in tonal intensity, and within certain limits, demands a style of draughtsmanship which takes advantage of these qualities.’

Eric Ravilious was also a master of auto-lithography. His set of lithographs entitled ‘Submarine’ are now considered a masterpiece of 20th century printmaking. An excellent book has been published in England by the Mainstream Press called ‘Ravilious Submarine’. It tells the fascinating story of these prints. It also tells the story of how auto-lithography grew into an art form in the UK, Russia and Europe in the 1930s and 40s.

Another example of the beauty of this technique are the early Puffin Picture Books. These were illustrated using auto-lithography. The Battle of Britain, published in 1941, has some beautiful illustrations by James Gardner.

The Battle of Britain, Puffin Picture Book

To show the skills required for hand-drawn lithography, and to marvel at the quality of these early books and prints, here are some videos. The first shows Paula Rego working at the Curwen Studio in the UK and shows the lithographic process in detail. Watching these you will appreciate the craftsmanship required to created the images in these early picture books.

Also click here to visit the Dutch Museum of Lithography website.

Article by Christopher Sharville © 2016. If you spot any inaccuracies please get in touch. We are always willing to learn more.