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Art print history; 19th Century

The 19th Century brought a range of innovations and new techniques to the annals of art print history. Where once everything had been about scratching or marking surfaces of materials like metal and wood, it now shifted. Intaglio techniques were wonderful for linework but very limited in terms of shading or colouring, and restrictive to artists wanting to create prints; etching and engraving being very little like painting, often requiring artists to work with a number of other craftsmen.

These techniques still continued to produce incredible results, the early part of the 19th Century saw Francisco Goya deliver some of his best series of art prints through intaglio engraving and aquatints. Often touching on political and social perspectives and issues, as well as phenomenal technique, this period saw Goya produce artworks like The Disasters of War, The Follies, and Los Caprichos; there was still much in the old techniques, but as the century progressed, something new arrived; lithography.

Lithographic printing still required a surface (usually a stone, or metal plate), with ink, to be pressed against a surface without; but the way in which it carried the ink, and more importantly, the way in which an artist created the original printing plate, was very different.

Lithography brought the artist back to direct creation of the art print plate

In litho printing, a greasey substance was applied to a plate, with brushes or other toold, to draw the image, followed by an acid wash which ran off the grease, eating away the non-printing areas of the plate, so that ink can be applied. The great difference here was that applying the original image in a greasy medium was much closer to painting than engraving, and by varying the greasy substance, and the strength of acid washes, it was possible to create more graduated shading; cross hatching was no longer a necessity, and artists could quite literally paint or draw their art prints.

These changes opened up art print history to far more artists; Honoré Daumier, another artist focused on social and political commentary, known as a realist painter and satirical cartoonist, embraced lithographic printing, producing over 4000 images and becoming widely known. His technique was greatly admired by his contemporaries and helped influence the impressionist painters, who saw his work both in the art salons and as hugely popular print items.

A more widely known example is Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who was certainly focused on painting and greatly admired as a post-impressionist, yet some of his most popularly known work is in his relatively limited litho print output. Taking inspiration from Japanese woodblock printing, but using the litho process for it’s accessibility, his posters and art prints of Parisien culture and nightlife are still found on walls around the world today.

Lithography marked a peak of finish and technical ingenuity

Though producing truly great colour art prints was still an arduous process and often would tie in many additional craftsmen, lithography found the lowest compromise way for an artist’s vision to be reproduced; until photographic processes came along, they were as close to an artists vision as mechanical techniques could allow.

There would be many variations of the process, and eventually photographic techniques and chemicals were added to the process, beginning the journey to true reproductions of a work of art, rather than the art print itself being the work of art. And perhaps that was an important part of inspiring the most recent phase of art print history; the pop artists of the 20th Century, who were seeking something very different from the reliable printed reproduction method artists had sought up until this point.

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