Lithography nearly died out in the 1960s – but it’s seen a recent resurgence. Adam Proctor has filmed two printers going through the process in Berlin.

Sliding, etching, scraping and sanding: the muffled sound of a roller; the drip of acid on limestone; the clunk as the stone is pushed into place. Hypnotic in its measured pace and minimal soundtrack, a new video reveals a technique that goes back more than two centuries. Sarah Dudley and Ulli Kühle are lithographers, drawing on stone in layers of colour, etching with nitric acid, rolling on ink and printing onto acid-free cotton rag paper.

They are practitioners of a niche art form. But according to Dudley, it’s not dying out. “There was a point in the 1960s when the only printers were the few in France and Germany,” she tells BBC Culture. That prompted the creation of an institute in the US which trains new master printers every year. “While it is true that there are few lithographers in the world, certainly when compared to painters or sculptors, the art form is far from endangered.”

Dudley was drawn to lithography even before she’d etched a plate. “I loved working with the stone,” she says. “The feeling of drawing the different mark-making materials across the freshly-grained surface had me hooked.”

One artist we know drew a lithograph using butter. Fingerprints and petroleum jelly body prints work nicely as well. – Sarah Dudley

The main material is the stone (lithos in Ancient Greek). The artist draws with special crayons, pencils and liquids (similar to watercolour) that contain grease, before using an etch mixture to fix the drawing onto the stone with a chemical reaction. The process is repeated for each layer of colour.

It sounds complicated, but relies on a simple technique. “The three main materials are stone, grease and water, as the entire printing process depends upon the principle that grease and water don’t mix,” says Dudley. “Essentially you can draw with anything that contains grease – one artist we know drew a lithograph using butter. Fingerprints and petroleum jelly body prints work nicely as well.”

The big reveal

An artist who took an unconventional approach to lithography was Francisco de Goya. One of his companions, the Spanish painter Antonio de Brugada, wrote about Goya’s unorthodox working method: “The artist worked at his lithographs on his easel, the stone placed like a canvas. He handled the crayons like paintbrushes and never sharpened them. He remained standing, walking backward and forward from moment to moment to judge the effect.

“He usually covered the whole stone with a uniform grey tint, and then removed the areas that were to be light with a scraper; here a head, a figure, there a horse, a bull. The crayon was then brought back into play to reinforce the shadows and accents, or to indicate figures and give them a sense of movement.”

It’s a layered process, which is often partly hidden from the artist until the final reveal. Dudley says her favourite part is “the moment when we take the first print off the stone that carries the drawing for the final colour in a multiple-layer image… you still don’t really know how it will look until you see it printed. Then you ink up the last stone, lay the first sheet down and run it through the press. The anticipation of seeing the first complete print is often palpable. It’s almost like a ‘Eureka’ moment once you see the first complete image.”

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