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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 either visit a reputable art dealer or local expert 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.
It took me a while to work out if a Lithograph is real and not a print. Hopefully after reading this guide 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.