#PrintingProcesses: Flat Printing

For the second installment of our new #PrintingProcesses series, we’re focusing our attention on flat printing, also known as Lithography. Developed in Munich, Germany, by a penniless playwright, it offered a cheap and efficient printing method that quickly gained popularity all over Europe.

Printing Processes

After finishing our #PrintingProfessions series, we are focussing our attention on another area of our basic education in print: Printing processes. Are you a newcomer to the world of printing and don’t know where to start? Or maybe just a devoted print enthusiast who wants to freshen up on the basics? Then you’ve come to the right place! With this segment, we’re introducing you to all the basic yet very important techniques and fundamental knowledge of the print technologies, we know and utilize to this day. Two and a half weeks ago, we started out our #PrintingProcesses series with relief printing, now, we’re taking a closer look at flat printing, otherwise known as Lithography.

It’s in the Name

In 1798, Johann Alois Senefelder, a German actor and playwright, developed Lithography, the earliest flat printing technology in an effort to find a cheaper printing method than the available relief printing technique. He had fallen into debt after problems with the printing of his play Mathilde von Altenstein and found himself unable to afford to publish his new play. But, as they say, necessity is the mother of invention. 

For his printing method, Senefelder went with a chemical printing process, drawing the image with oil, fat, or wax onto the surface of a smooth, level lithographic limestone plate. The stone was then treated with a mixture of acid and gum arabic, etching the areas of the limestone that were not covered with and therefore protected by the grease-based image. To actually replicate the image on the print medium, the stone would be moistened leaving the etched areas retaining water, so an oil-based ink could then be applied and would be repelled by the water, only able to stick to the original drawing. Now, the ink could be transferred to the print medium of choice, producing a printed image. Later, in 1837, lithography would be improved to allow full color printing from multiple plates and chromolithography would remain the single most important printing technique until the introduction of process color.

Senefelder called his new method “stone printing” or “chemical printing” but with the technique gaining popularity all over Europe, the French name “Lithography” became more widely adopted. And with that, it’s truly all in the name: “Lithography” comes from the Ancient Green “lithos” meaning “stone” and “graphein” translating to “to write”.

From Stone Seals to Flexographic Printing

With the value of the new cheap and exact printing method easily recognizable, the method quickly gained popularity and its inventor even got an appointment as the Inspector of an entire institution in Munich in 1809, the “Lithographic Institute”, later expanding all over Europe sites in Berlin, Paris, London and Vienna. Even his publication “A Complete Course of Lithography” remained in print as recently as 1977. Just like relief printing, the traditional technique for Lithography is being kept alive even today by artists and fine art printmaking applications that chose to employ the traditional craftsmanship to create a signature look.

Other forms of flat printing include collotype printing, metal or tin printing and the highly popular offset flat printing.
Modern Lithography works with an image made of a polymer coating applied to a flexible plastic or metal plate instead. The image can then be printed directly from said plate in reversed orientation or it can be offset, meaning the image gets printed by being transferred onto a flexible sheet made of rubber. Most types of high-volume materials, especially if they are also illustrated in color, are printed using offset lithography. It has become the most common printing process since taking the print industry by storm in the 1960s, as our Global Trends Reports have documented for years.

Want more information on the history of print? We recommend checking out our articles on Gutenberg’s inventions, the origin of offset printing and other Pioneers of Printing.