Jim and I are both doing lithography now at La Ceiba Gráfica. At our first session this winter, Martín Vinaver expanded our repertoire of techniques a bit. A complaint I had when I took it last summer was that the tools I had available at La Ceiba seemed only capable of producing very clunky images. I look at the lithographs hanging on the wall there and I cannot believe the artists made them with child-thick crayons and cheap paintbrushes and tuch (a kind of ink that starts as a stick) that seems impossible to get a black line out of or with unevenly pointed crayon-pencils, the tips of which broke when you tried to roll or chip them finer. Obviously I suffered some discontentment though I managed to come up with a couple of passable efforts.
When we asked Martín what else was available, he told us about using carbon paper, Xeroxes, and a kind of plastic sheet, the name of which I have forgotten. He suggested making stamps (I had done this last summer) and using a variety of textured items and using the printer ink itself. We went home and tried this stuff….some interesting results. He also told us there was an actual art supply store in Xalapa which we will go to soon. I think one trick is to get away from thinking only in terms of drawing, though drawings look really good as lithographs. When they're done by someone else, that is. I am still at a loss about how to draw well directly on stone, though I’ve made a little progress. Jim read me a quote about artists liking to keep secrets, and I think we may have run into that a bit. I suspect we will find our own secrets as we go along.
Lithography was a dying art until June Wayne and Clinton Adams revived it in Los Angeles in 1960 at an institute they founded called Tamarind (the Institute has been located at the University of New Mexico since 1970). It is definitely a labor-intensive kind of art production, but surprisingly flexible, suitable for all kinds of creations. It was a major kind of printing in the nineteenth century. The gaudy illustrations on old-fashioned cardboard cigar boxes were apparently originally lithographs, for instance.
In the States, it is expensive to do lithography. At La Ceiba, Per Andersen and various colleagues and assistants are “mexicanizing” the process so that Mexican artists can afford it. Printing presses are made at La Ceiba and sold at a much reduced cost, the stones are Mexican marble. The ink and crayons are now locally produced (though as my first efforts showed me, they need improvement.) The next step is to make a suitable rag paper locally.
The first step in lithography is to prepare a smooth, clean stone. At La Ceiba, we have to clean our own, removing our own designs. Here Per is watering down the stone in preparation for grinding. Jim is watching. Jim's t-shirt bears a design by grandson Langston, also a print, but not a lithograph.
To polish it, you sprinkle carborundum powder on the surface and then use a grinding stone, a heavy flat disk on a rotating handle, to remove all traces of the design or other marks. Different grades remove different marks. It is important to do this evenly. Here Jim is grinding.
After you’ve put your image on the stone, you submit it to a number of processes which seem to almost completely erase it. But then, magically, with the application of the ink, the image returns.
The stone is placed carefully on the printing press tray. Then it the roller moves over it and back again picking up the image. Generally a test paper, a piece of newsprint or the like, is on the back table and is the first to receive a print.
We learn the basics of printing, but it is quite a craft in itself, and mere beginners can't produce a good image. Generally the production of a lithograph is a partnership between the designer and the master printer.
Daniel (below) is the Master Printer at La Ceiba.
Tomorrow, Jim will bring a stone with an elegant geometric pattern he produced from a xerox of a computer design transferred to stone. I will bring a self-portrait. Our first assignment was to do a self-portrait. My effort at La Ceiba was a disaster. Per had given me a giant crayon which I dutifully tried to use. We were supposed to avoid simply outlining our features. I tried to indicate only lights and shadows and ended up giving myself a giant mustache and beard. I was happy to remove the image by polishing the stone and try with a smaller crayon at home. It actually looks a tiny bit like me!
BUT don't think I'm going to be my favorite subject for lithographs!
Follow this link to an article in Spanish but well-illustrated with photos on the process, from one end to the other, of making a lithograph.