Racks of different stones. Open Studio runs 8-week lithography classes where beginners get to use smaller "book size" stones. Most stones are marked with numbers that correspond to a sign-up sheet for any artists who are renting the stones and studio space.<br />
On top of the shelf are wooden and plastic scraper bars, which are the part of the lithography press that make contact with the inked stone and transfer media (usually paper).
Graham “etching,” or processing, the surface of the stone with a mixture of gum arabic and nitric acid. A fresh drawing on a stone is generally processed or etched in two steps before it is ready to be printed. The aim of etching is to chemically separate the image and non-image areas of the drawing so that they will either accept or reject ink consistently. The first etch partially desensitizes the stone so that the drawing materials may be washed-out with solvent and replaced with ink during the roll-up process. The inked image is then given a second etch to complete the desensitization of the stone and form a durable base of ink-accepting and ink-rejecting areas during subsequent inking and printing.
Working with the antipathy between grease and water, the non-image areas of the surface of the stone have been chemically desensitized so that they will no longer be receptive to the greasy printing ink, whereas the image areas are still sensitive to the ink and will want to draw in the same amount of grease (ink) that will essentially replicate the tonalities of the original drawing when ink is applied, paper laid overtop, and the whole is run through the press. Essentially, the ink only sticks to the chemically desensitized/etched area.
Rosin and talc, both of which are applied to dry the greasy drawing material prior to processing the image/stone. Rosin is generally applied at the stage of the second etch to help dry the ink a little and create a little bit more durability/acid resistance. The talc is applied whenever gum will be applied to the greasy drawing areas (either when the image is still in it’s original drawing-material state or once the drawing materials have been replaced by ink) to allow the gum to flow more evenly and not pool.
Paper is laid over the stone when the image is fully inked and ready to be printed. On top of the paper goes the tympan and a high pressure grease is applied. The scraper bar fits into a yoke on the press and measures just slightly under the width of the stone so that when the pressure bar is lowered, the scraper bar is in contact with the tympan, thus applying hundreds of pounds of pressure to the stone. The leather of the scraper bar is also greased so it slides across the tympan to evenly distribute pressure and offset the image onto the paper.
The circular metal disk is called a levigator. The process is called graining, or grinding the stone, and it is not only done to remove the old image and prepare it for a new image but also to ensure the stone is completely flat to avoid cracking or breaking under the extreme pressure of the press. The grit is carborundum, the abrasive lithographers use to grain the stone to a smoothly polished surface.
For Jill Graham, there’s a big difference between a copy and an original. “The posters you buy at IKEA or a gift shop are just reproductions of an image created by an artist,” she says. “What I do is all original art work. The printed piece exists solely as an original art work, conceived and executed in print—there isn’t a painting or a photo of it somewhere else.”
Still, she’s aware that the majority of folks don’t really get what it is that she does for a living. “Most people don’t understand what fine art printing even is—never mind lithography,” she says. As a master printer, Graham is hired by other artists to create lithographic prints of their work. It’s the printmaking process, though, that’s particularly confusing.
“It’s a difficult process to explain,” she says. “Lithography is a printmaking form that’s done on lithographic limestone slabs, which were originally quarried in Bavaria. The stones have a particular quality of being both water and grease-loving stones, meaning they will accept both. The artist will create their drawing on the stone using greasy, waxy drawing materials.”
The next steps are done by the master printer, and involve etching, sponging, and something Graham refers to as a “chemical de-sensitization of the stone.” After hours of physical labour and close observation of chemical reactions, the prints are finally ready to be made. “When you place your paper in and run it through the printing press, what is offset onto the paper should look exactly like the drawing on the stone,” she says. “Well, that’s the cheat-sheet way of explaining it!”
The work naturally requires a pretty significant set-up. “The stones are expensive,” Graham says. “Most people who work in print will join a shared studio that has the equipment.” Graham is the technical director of such a place: Open Studio in Toronto, which is self-defined as Canada’s leading printmaking centre. “Print isn’t dying by any stretch; it’s actually very active and alive,” says Graham. “But as universities have started to sell off their equipment, the facilities are harder to access. That’s why a place like Open Studio is such a huge asset to the art community.”
Graham first encountered lithography while completing her undergraduate degree at Concordia University. Since then, she has gone on to help open three different studios in Elliott Lake, Sarnia, and Toronto, and has spent over a decade as a master printer. While she’s quick to point out that printing requires an “endurance and stubbornness,” Graham notes that the structured approach of lithography was part of what drew her to the art form in the first place. “When I describe the steps, it can sound obsessive,” she says. “Sometimes it can take three to four hours just to prepare the stone. But that suits my nature.”
The detailed process of lithography allows Graham to blend physical exertion, science, and art, and wind up with a truly unique result. “The fact that a place like IKEA just stretches canvases and sells them as prints really bothers me. It’s like going to a supermarket to buy an oil painting. It shouldn’t exist,” she says. “We’re a disposable culture and people want beautiful products, and they want them fast and cheap. But if they looked at the quality of an original print and bought it because they loved the work, it would be an investment that they could hold on to for years, and it would grow in value. A reproduction, on the other hand, has no value at all.”