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Frequently asked questions about lithography as an art form

On this page, we have collected some frequently asked questions about lithography as an art form.

1. What is ‘graphic art’ or ‘printmaking’?

Graphic art is a visual art form in which the artist uses a printing technique. Images that are created in this way are called graphics or printmaking. In the case of the Dutch Museum of Lithography, the printing technique is lithography. Other graphical techniques are relief printing (letterpress), intaglio printing (etching, engraving) and relief printing (screen printing).

Although there are still artists who draw and/or print the image on the stone themselves, they often work together with specialists such as a master printer. Applying these graphic techniques by an artist can have various reasons, for example:

  • There are several possible buyers of the art created;
  • Graphics are cheaper for the buyer;
  • The artist can express himself/herself to his/her full potential in this medium.

2. Why is a lithograph a work of art?

A lithograph is a work of art in itself. It is not a simple reproduction.

Ten eerste kiest de kunstenaar ervoor om een litho te maken en geen schilderij. Hij gaat het atelier binnen met een idee voor een werk in gedachten, een idee waarvoor de lithografie de beste vorm is om het te verbeelden.

Firstly, the artist chooses to make a lithograph and not a painting. He enters the lithography studio with an idea for a work in mind. An idea for which lithography is the best form of representation.

The artist also draws on the stone himself and signs the work.

The artist then supervises the printing and checks the prints. As proof of this, the artist personalises each copy by mentioning a number of details under the image (usually in pencil):

  • The print run and the serial number of the copy in question. For example 27/100 means the 27th    print out of an edition of 100.
  • The title of the work of art, possibly supplemented by the abbreviations EA, AP or HC.

EA (Épreuve d’Artiste) or AP (Artist Proof) are proofs for the artist himself and are not included in the total number of the print run. These often make up part of the fee. They do not differ in any way from the other, numbered copies. They can, of course, also be marketed. Some collectors attach moreemotional) value to an EA or AP because it is assumed that they come from the hands of the master himself. Sometimes the artist finishes the lithograph by hand or adds something to it. In this way these copies differ from the rest of the edition and become unique. They have a higher value because they say something about the artist’s ideas and working method.

Copies with the abbreviation HC (Hors Commerce) are sometimes offered as mementos at the end of the creation process to employees of the publisher, particularly the (master) printer. These copies are not actually intended for trade, but often end up there anyway.

3. Does the number of the lithograph influence the quality or value of the print?

If an art print is issued in a limited edition, the number does not really matter. The value of number 90/100 is no different than that of 2/100. An exception applies to the very first print of the edition, for example 1/100. This is usually more popular with collectors and therefore has more value than the other numbers.

In lithography, the quality of the first print is also (unlike in etching) not essentially different from or better than the last print. Indeed, the artist rarely numbers the various copies in order. So it does not really matter.

4. How do I recognise an original lithograph?

Take a look at the lithograph with a magnifying glass! In the  Dutch Museum of Lithography, you will find an electronic loupe with which you can see the difference between a real stone lithograph and a photographic reproduction: you will not see the raster structure, characteristic of photolithographic printing. Please note: recognising original prints is an expertise that requires a long study.

5. What does an original lithograph cost?

Original lithographs can be found for a few dozen to a few hundred thousand euros in rare cases. The price or estimate of an original lithograph depends on many factors:

  • The artist,
  • The edition (and thus the rarity)
  • The period or date of the work
  • The presence of the artist’s signature
  • The art-historical value
  • The state of conservation

The total number of the edition is an important factor in determining the value. If many people own the same work, the exclusivity and thus the price will decrease. With a high circulation, there is also less chance that the artist was directly involved in the production of each copy. So the smaller the total number of the  edition, the more the prints are worth.

Prints are generally fragile works of art. They may be damaged by direct light, scratched, stained or cracked. If you buy a print on the second-hand market, make sure it is already framed. A frame helps to protect the print. If the work is quite old, but has always been framed, it is an indication that it may still be in a good condition.

6. What happens to the stone after the entire print run has been printed?

To limit the print run to the agreed edition, the stone is ‘erased’ after the lithographs have been printed. This is usually done by grinding off the top layer of the stones. In our lithographic workshop, you will find a sharpening table.

7. What is a colophon?

The colophon is a summary of the way in which a work of art was created. It may contain a number of technical details about the work:

  • the artist
  • the title of the work of art
  • the graphical technique (for example lithography)
  • the number of colours
  • the dimensions of the work of art
  • the year of publication
  • the name of the printer or printing studio
  • the printing press
  • the type of paper
  • the print run and serial number of the copy in question

At the Dutch Museum of Lithography you will practically always be provided with a colophon when  buying an original lithograph. Be sure to check out our museum store or online web shop!

“Lithography has been essential to our current visual culture. Messages were now conveyed more directly in images. Lithography also brought colour into the world. It offered artists new avenues and inspiration: a new market, and above all, a new technique and style and thus a new form of art. […] This technique allowed artists access to popular culture and gave their art a much greater scope and impact. An empathetic and professional lithographer was indispensable for this. […] Artists who really wanted to understand the technique and stylistic possibilities of lithography and thus created unique and pioneering works of art. Think for instance of Toulouse-Lautrec. Nobody celebrates art and lust for life more in his lithographs than he does.”

Fleur Roos Rosa de Cavalho (senior curator Prints and Drawings Van Gogh Museum en advisor to the board of the Dutch Museum of Lithography)

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