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How to tell if a Lithograph is real, or is it a print?

The answer to the question “how to tell a real lithograph from a print?” assumes you mean a mechanical print versus an artists’ hand-made lithograph print. This requires some magnification of the image because a lithographic ‘plate’ which is used to create the printed image is usually hand-made by an artist. Under magnification you can see irregularities the way the lines are made and how colors are applied.

In a mechanical print tiny even sized dots of cyan, yellow, magenta & black are used to make the image. If you look at the image with a magnifying glass and see even sized dots which are also quite flat then you’re most likely looking at a mechanical print. A hand made original will have uneven sized dots that can be thicker in height to make up the image.

When I started collecting prints I kept coming across Lithographs for sale and was not sure what they actually were. When I learned that Lithography was a form of printing I wondered if any of the lithographs that I had purchased were ‘real’. I wondered if anyone could explain to me in simple terms how to tell a real lithograph from a print?

Firstly, What Is A Lithograph and is it a Print?

A Lithograph is technically a print. Lithography is a process of making a print. The main principle behind Lithography is the same whether you do this by hand or machine (Offset)

How Is A Lithograph Made?

To understand how to tell if a lithograph is real you need to understand how it is made.

Lithography is a method of printing that was originally based on the principle that water and oil do not mix. The process is quite simple and mainly involves an artist ‘scratching’ or drawing on a flat plate (which is also known as a stone) that is coated with a thin layer of wax or fat.

Now according to my research, the plate is treated with a mixture of acid and gum Arabic (which can be purchased online or in most good art supply stores). The acid helps with etching darker tones and shades on the plate or stone. The plate is moistened with water and this helps with repelling any areas you don’t want the ink to be applied to.

Oil based ink is then applied to the plate, any area with water will repel the ink leaving ink only in he grooves without wax or water. Paper is then applied and a print is made. Now these can be done with a hand roller or a press which can then be used to make 1 or many prints off the single plate.

The details of how to actually make a lithograph are far too detailed and not part of the scope for this post but there are lots of resources online if you wish to make one.

How to Identify a Lithograph

Identifying a lithograph is not that difficult as lithographs have several key characteristics that you can easily spot.

Let’s have a look at these:

  1. Look for a Signature or Edition Number: Lithographs are often signed and numbered by the artist. The signature is usually in pencil, as is the edition number, which shows the print’s place in the production run (e.g., “15/100”).
  2. Check the Paper Quality: Lithographs are usually printed on high-quality, acid-free paper. The paper should feel thick and durable, unlike regular poster prints.
  3. Examine the Image Quality: Lithographs have a unique quality to their images. They often display a subtle granularity if you look closely, due to the printing process. The colors might also appear more vibrant than in other types of prints.
  4. Look for Plate Marks or Impressions: The process of pressing the paper onto the lithographic stone or plate can leave an indentation or plate mark around the edges of the image.
  5. Identify the Printing Method: Lithography uses a flat printing surface, unlike relief or intaglio prints. The image areas are chemically treated to accept ink, while the non-image areas repel ink.
  6. Check for Layers of Ink: Lithographs often have layers of ink applied separately, which can sometimes be detected by examining the edges of colors for overlaps or slight misalignments.
  7. Research the Artwork: If possible, research the piece to see if it was originally created as a lithograph. Knowing the history of the piece can help in identification.

Remember, identifying a lithograph from other types of prints, especially high-quality reproductions, can be challenging.

If in doubt, consulting an art expert or a professional appraiser can provide a definitive identification.

Offset Lithography is a Form of Mechanical Printing

An offset printer plate (Offset Lithography) is a process where photographs of the original artworks are converted into a photographic negative (“plate”).

They are then transferred (“offset”) from a plate to a rubber blanket, then to the printing surface for mass production. Under magnification, the image will look too uniform, look dotted like it was created by a machine.

The colors will be perfectly laid over each other with minimal bleeding. Some say to also look for blemishes on the paper caused by aluminium plates becoming oxidized. This usually occurs in offset printing when the plates are not cleaned properly.

You will also find that in a mechanical print, if you run your fingers gently over the image (of course wear gloves!) that the image will feel very flat. When you do the same with a hand made lithograph, the image will most likely feel raised in areas and have slight bumps.

How to tell if a lithograph is real
Lithographic Printer – Source Wikipedia

Does a Lithograph Have Dots Like a Normal Print

No, lithographs typically do not display the same kind of dot pattern that is commonly found in regular printed materials like magazines or posters, which are often produced using halftone printing.

There are key differences are in the printing process and the resulting visual characteristics that I can go through below if you want to know more:

  1. Printing Process:
    • Lithographs: In lithography, an image is drawn with a grease-based medium directly onto a flat stone or metal plate. The ink adheres only to the drawn areas and is repelled by the wet non-image areas. When the plate is pressed onto paper, the image is transferred. This process can produce a wide range of tones and shades without the use of dots.
    • Halftone Printing: This is a common method used in modern printing, especially in newspapers and magazines. It creates images by varying the size and spacing of tiny dots. When viewed from a distance, these dots merge visually to create a continuous tone image.
  2. Image Quality and Appearance:
    • Lithographs: The result is typically a smooth image with a continuous tone, not broken up into dots. The image may have a quality similar to a painting or drawing, with subtle gradations of tone and color.
    • Halftone Prints: These will have a distinctive pattern of dots, visible under magnification, which combine to form the image. This dot pattern is a hallmark of most regular printed materials.
  3. Purpose and Use:
    • Lithographs: Often used for artistic prints and reproductions, where the goal is to closely mimic the original artwork’s appearance.
    • Halftone Printing: More commonly used for photographs and images in mass-produced materials, where the dot matrix allows for efficient and consistent reproduction.

So, a traditional lithograph will not have the dot pattern seen in regular prints.

Instead, it will typically have a more painterly, smooth appearance.

But, it’s important to note that with the evolution of printing technologies, various hybrid techniques and processes might combine elements of different printing methods.

Just Looking For A Signature Does Not Answer How to tell a Real Lithograph from a Print.

As with any printing process, you can fake a signature. What is a little harder to fake is the hand signed and numbering that most hand made lithographs have which are applied by the artist.

They will usually be a little deeper into the paper as you would when writing on any paper and in most cases the artist will also sign the reverse (back) of the print by hand. The same applies to when you see “HC” or other cryptic initials on your print which I will go into more detail below.

A signature on the reverse is something a printer will not bother with when creating a mechanical print unless they are out there to create a forgery. In that case you are dealing with a different beast.

Lithographic Stone
Lithographic Stone – Source Wikipedia

What does ‘HC’ Mean on a Lithograph Print

HC‘ is one of many common and standard annotations used by artists and print houses when producing not only Lithographs but Art Prints in general. Annotations usually exist within the margins of a print and you might be wondering what they mean.

Most professionally made prints are signed and numbered by the artist with their edition, usually shown as a fraction of a total print run e.g. 2/250 means it is the 2nd print out of 250 in the print run.

In addition to the print run and edition, you may also see the following abbreviated annotations from A-Z:

Art Print Annotations

A.P.  Or A/P or P.A. Or E.A. These are all annotations to signify ”Artist’s Proof”. Artist Proofs are the first cut of prints developed by the artist and to be used by the artist as they need. Sometimes they would be left unnumbered and tend to be more valuable.

You may also see some prints say E.A. (French: épreuve d’artiste) which also means Artist’s Proof. This is the French annotation used by more classically trained artists.

B.A.T. (French: Bon à Tirer) or R.T.P (Ready To Print)  Prints with BAT or RTP are prints that the artist has approved for final printing.

EV (French: Edition Variable) these are prints within a series where each print is different to the others within the series. This could mean each one is hand colored a little differently or the print itself is a different color.

H.C. (French: hors commerce) basically means “not to sell.” Like an artist’s proof it is set aside from the numbered prints. These may be set aside by the artist for their own collection of to be used in exhibitions.

IMP or Imp (Latin: “impressit”) the Imp mark may be found after the signature if the print was actually made the artist.

M.P or M.T.(Monoprint or Monotype) – Monoprint prints are one-off prints, treated the same way as a none-print artwork.

O or OE (Open Edition) Open Edition prints are none numbered or limited prints.

P.P. Or P/P (Printer’s Proof) or P.I. (Prueba de Impresor)  or E.I. (Epreuve d’imprimeur) these prints are the Printer’s Proof. Like an Artist’s Proof, is un-numbered and used by the printer to test the print quality or to check with the artist before a larger print run.

TP or T/P (trial proof) these are prints made by the artist to test the print making process as they go along I.e. Trial

Using Reputable Art Dealers or Experts To Verify If Your Lithograph is Real and Not a Print

Finally if you have doubts that your lithograph is real then a simple method for how to tell if a lithograph is real is to visit a reputable art dealer or local expert and ask or pay them to verify your lithograph.

If the print is not that expensive then why bother, just enjoy the work. If you have purchased your lithograph from a reputable dealer it will most likely come with either a certificate of authenticity or written provenance proving it is real.

If you have paid thousands or believe you own a piece that could be worth tens of thousands then it may be worth getting it verified.

Serigraph vs Lithograph

A serigraph and a lithograph are both types of prints, but they are created using different techniques, each with its unique characteristics and qualities.

Creation Process:

  • Serigraph (Screen Printing): This process involves pushing ink through a mesh screen blocked in certain areas to create an image. A separate screen is used for each color in the print. The ink is applied in layers, and this method is known for producing vibrant colors.
  • Lithograph: Lithography is based on the principle that oil and water do not mix. An image is drawn with an oily substance on a flat stone or metal plate. The surface is then treated with a chemical solution that ensures the ink will adhere only to the design area. When the plate is pressed onto paper, the image is transferred.

Image Quality and Appearance:

  • Serigraph: This technique often produces a vibrant, opaque, and textured image. The layers of ink can be visibly thick and sometimes felt on the paper. Serigraphs are known for their richly saturated colors.
  • Lithograph: Lithographs tend to have a smoother appearance with more subtle gradations of tone. The prints often resemble the original drawing or painting, with a quality that is sometimes described as painterly.

Material and Durability:

  • Serigraph: Uses thicker, often more durable inks and can be printed on various materials, including fabric.
  • Lithograph: Usually printed on high-quality paper, lithographs require careful handling to maintain their condition.

Use and Popularity:

  • Serigraph: Popular in creating posters, t-shirts, and art prints, particularly for contemporary and pop art.
  • Lithograph: Often used for fine art prints, reproductions of paintings, and historically significant artworks.

Cost and Accessibility:

  • Serigraph: Can be less expensive to produce in large quantities, making them more accessible for various uses.
  • Lithograph: The process can be more labor-intensive, especially for limited editions, often making lithographs more expensive.

Each type of print has its advantages and is chosen by artists depending on the desired outcome of their work.

While lithographs are often associated with more classical art forms, serigraphs are frequently linked to modern graphic styles.

Wrap up!

It took me a while to work out if a Lithograph is real and not a print. Hopefully after reading “How to tell if a lithograph is real”, you will be able to as well. If you need to learn more or have more detailed questions, try having a look at Masterworks Fine Art. Their resources go further into detail than I ever could.

How is a lithograph made?

Lithography is a method of printing that was originally based on the principle that water and oil do not mix. The process is quite simple and mainly involves an artist ‘scratching’ or drawing on a flat plate (which is also known as a stone) that is coated with a thin layer of wax or fat.

What is Offset Lithography?

An offset printer plate (Offset Lithography) is a process where photographs of the original artworks are converted into a photographic negative (“plate”).

How to tell a Lithograph from a print

You will need a magnifying glass and a little experience but what you need to look for is a series of tiny dots. If the dots look even in size and evenly spread apart to make up the image (think like an inkjet printer) then that would most likely be a mechanical print. If the dots look more random in size and spread apart randomly then chances are high that it is a lithograph.

How to tell a lithograph from a painting

Lithographs are a type of print so the first thing you will need to do is use a magnifying glass to look for dots of ink. If you see dots of ink compared to ink or paint that is more smeared into the paper then the dots mean it’s a print and the smeared paint is a painting.

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