What is a Lithograph ?

Posted by Fine Rare Prints 04/02/2015 6 Comment(s) Antique Print Tips,

Definition of a lithograph: A lithograph is an artwork or illustration printed from a stone block onto paper.


One of the most notable artists to use lithography was Carl Brodtmann of Switzerland, renowned for his magnificent hand colored lithographs of animals..

Here is a lithograph by Brodtman of an Arabian Horse and Foal - do you notice the soft, natural appearance compared to an engraving?

 Arabian Horse and Foal


Lithography became popular after about 1820. Its great attraction was that drawing on stone was almost as natural as drawing on paper (compared to the older method of engraving a metal printing plate with sharp tool). Click on the pictures of lithographs at the bottom of this page to have a closer look at some. Here's how it worked:

1) The artist would draw on a polished stone (usually limestone from a particular quarry in Bavaria) using a special, waxy lithographic crayon, pen or pencil.

2) The artist would roll black ink over the stone.

3) The ink would only stick to the wax, not the stone.

4) The stone would be pressed onto paper to print the image.

5) The artist would then color the print, either by by painting on water colors, or by using other printing stones to apply colored inks to selected parts of the picture (these prints are known as chromolithographs - the Victorians printmakers were superb at this).


Antique lithographs have a soft, natural appearance compared to prints made from metal plate engravings. The characteristic tiny speckles you see under a magnifying glass are due to the printing surface being limestone.


Chromolithography was invented in about 1830 and was the first true multi-color printing technique (previously color had to be hand painted). A printing stone was used for each color so highly colorful prints needed a lot of stones and a great deal of care in aligning them. The Victorians loved this method of printing because of the rich coloring that could be achieved. Have a look at some superb botanical chromolithographs by Jean Linden here.

 Palm Trees


Hand made lithographs had their heyday in the period from 1820-1900. Before that, engraving was used to make prints. After that, less expensive photomechanical printing techniques became widespread.


Click on the pictures of lithographs at the bottom of this page to get a better feel for what a lithograph looks like.


Read about our antique print valuation and appraisal service if you have an antique print that you'd like to know more about


6 Comment(s)

Cindy Tesler:
17/11/2016, 01:47:17 PM

Thanks for telling us that lithography I learnt a lot !

Anne Rhodes:
25/11/2016, 05:15:09 AM

I own a lithograph of Holman Hunt's 'Light of the World' - it was given to my paternal grandparents as a wedding present in 1892. I have read up on how lithography was made (greasy crayons on to roughened stone). I can understand how an artist could create a lithograph from scratch by making his own actual painting on to the stone - but I cannot figure out how a lithographer could copy with such accuracy a painting like Light of the World. If paintings were simply plain blocks of solid colour, I would imagine that's copyable, but the fine detail and shades of colouration in this picture are incredible enough on their own, without trying to copy! Is it possible for you to explain to me how this was done (in very simple words, please!!) Anne Rhodes

Fine Rare Prints:
23/06/2019, 09:31:30 PM

Hi Anne, Often lithogprahs were printed as black and white images. Next blocks of solid colour printed over the top. Finally complex colouring added by hand painting them. A good example of this mixed method are the botanical prints by Louis Van Houtte. In those, the greens (e.g. leaves) are usually printed by lithogrpahy. The sophisticated colours in the flowers are often hand finished. This is a rather basic explanation, as there are lot of variations in the process. E.g. by superimposing different colours on top of each other, colours could be mixed to create more colours.

Bill farel:
08/04/2018, 03:57:20 PM

Have a litho of Jesus Christ has litho in usa has been in family at least 150 years old.Dont know much about it

George Jeruzal:
06/05/2018, 07:20:04 PM

Hi I have a question, If a lithograph is put on glass? Like a glass poster? What would be the correct date like the period 1800s,1900s, so on. I have a Hall De La Plume on glass. I'd like to know if it's a original image or if it's a reproduction. Im still kinda new to the painting world. Thanks if you respond. Thanks if not I understand you are busy. Have a great day

Fine Rare Prints:
29/08/2018, 06:54:24 PM

Hi George, I'm guessing early 1900s. We haven't had any like that before. We'd need to see photos. Happy to help. Please go to our page for appraisals under our Customer Service menu, or http://www.finerareprints.com/valuation-of-antique-prints

Lindsey M Campizta:
30/07/2018, 02:17:55 PM

How can I have my limited edition Michael R. Whipple Paradise collection appraised? its #68/300 stamped and pencil signed.

Fine Rare Prints:
29/08/2018, 06:55:37 PM

Please go to our page for appraisals under our Customer Service menu, or http://www.finerareprints.com/valuation-of-antique-prints

Llyn Tubman:
18/01/2019, 01:07:38 AM

Hi, I have 12 limited edition lithographs by Italian Artist. Prof Sergio Pellizzon. The autho. stamps are mainly dated 1990s. and are mainly 20/100, so copies limited. Would much appreciate whatever you can tell me.

04/04/2019, 09:11:10 PM

Hi Llyn, we specialise in much older prints than yours so have not come across this artist before. You could have a look at "Articles" in our top menu and see if our articles help you identify how your prints were made. Kind regards.

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