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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Commercial Printing: A Gorgeous–and Free–Degas Print

Photo purchased from …

My fiancee and I keep a printer’s loupe (a 12-power magnifier) in the car glove box so that wherever we go (mainly thrift stores) we can check out the artwork. Are the prints authentic, traditional lithographs, or are they offset lithography prints? That is always the question. (Granted, it is highly unlikely that an art print–rather than a reproduction–will show up at a thrift store or estate sale, but it has happened to us a number of times, so it pays to be prepared.)

In this light my fiancee and I recently found an Edgar Degas print online for free. Someone just didn’t want it any more. Since we loved the rendering we saw online, we drove about twelve miles and brought the framed print home. Of course, I immediately found my 12-power printer’s loupe and checked out the art. As we expected, it was (essentially) a very beautiful large format print poster. It was framed by a skilled framer. And it was free. So it was still a good acquisition, most importantly because we like the image (subject matter, rendering) a lot.

The Degas Reclining Nude Print

The print is of a reclining nude. It is quite large, and the print is “floated.” That is, it seems to float above the background mat rather than being covered by it. The drawing by Degas is sensitive and beautiful, and the tones are rich, deep, and velvety. So it actually looks like either a charcoal drawing or a real lithograph. There is nothing cheap about it (except for its being free).

Moreover, the edge of the floated paper on which the poster is printed is deckled. That is, the edge is feathered rather than flush cut in order to mimic hand-made paper. And the paper is a cream-white, laid commercial printing stock with the traditional texture of horizontal and vertical ribbed lines.

All of this plus the signature looks entirely authentic. But it’s not.

Upon close examination with a loupe, I see the halftone dots (black only and somewhat ragged, which lends to the authentic look). And the deckled edge of the paper is actually an illusion as well. The printer has created a slight shadow on the paper, which also comprises numerous halftone dots, as does the signature. Only the red museum stamp has the traditional commercial printing rosette pattern of magenta, yellow, and black halftone dots set at slight angles to one another.

So if you like the image (and don’t have multiple thousands, tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of dollars or more), this is still a nice acquisition. It also shows that a skilled offset lithographer is an artist as well as a craftsman to be able to create a large format print like this.

The Lithography Process

Traditional fine art lithography and commercial printing (i.e., offset lithography) both work on the same principle, that water and oil do not mix. This chemical property allows both the image area and the non-image area of both a traditional litho plate and an offset printing plate to be on the same flat or planar surface (hence the custom printing term “planographic”). And since both image and non-image areas are on the same plane or level, it is possible to print very long runs of an art print when compared to other commercial printing techniques (intaglio, for instance, in which the image is recessed–or sunken–into the custom printing plate, or relief, in which the image area on the printing plate rises above the non-image area).

A fine artist preparing the plate for printing (historically, the plate was limestone, because of its absorbency, but it is now often metal) draws on the limestone plate surface with a greasy crayon (oil, fat, or wax), sometimes tinted to be more visible. These image areas, which can be very detailed, and either very rich and velvety or very subtle, will attract the oily lithography inks.

The rest of the limestone (or metal) printing plate is treated with a solution of gum arabic and weak nitric acid. This will attract water and repel ink.

The artist wipes down the image with lithographic turpentine, removing excess oil or wax from the image but at the same time sealing the image areas so they will better accept the lithographic ink. During the custom printing process, the artist also keeps the limestone plate wet. Due to the porosity of the limestone, the printing plate absorbs water and helps maintain the separation of ink (on image areas) and water (on non-image areas).

When everything is ready, the artist inks up the plate, positions the printing paper on the plate, and rolls it through the hand-operated printing press. Then he repeats the process (with more hands-on attention than in offset lithography and with a much shorter press run to increase the value—due to scarcity—of each individual print). Then he signs and numbers the individual prints in the limited press run.

If the artist wants to introduce color into the printed images, she or he has to use a different limestone plate for each color and then print them in alignment (called “in register,” the same custom printing term as used in offset lithography).

How Does This Differ from Offset Lithography?

First of all, both traditional lithography and offset lithography, as noted above, are planographic printing processes based on the “immiscibility” of oil and water. (Oil and water don’t mix.)

That said, offset lithography plates print first to a rubber and fabric blanket, and then this printed image is transferred from the blanket to the paper substrate. In contrast, in traditional lithography the image is transferred directly from the printing plate to the paper.

In addition, with offset lithography photos and gradated tones (tones that are intermediate rather than fully black or white) have to be rendered using halftone technology, which breaks an image or photo down into a grid of dots, larger or smaller depending on the amount of ink to be printed. Dark areas contain larger dots. Lighter areas contain smaller dots. (This is called AM or amplitude-modulated halftone screening and is different from FM or frequency-modulated screening, which comprises the dithered, random pattern of minuscule dots produced on an inkjet printer.)

In traditional lithography, there are no halftone dots. According to Silvie Turner in Print Collecting: Selecting, Evaluating, and Caring for Fine Prints, “One of the qualities most valued in lithography is its ability to record the finest nuances of shade, tone, and wash with the greatest fidelity, allowing a wide and subtle range of tone—from a very deep black to the tenderest of greys.” (Turner, page 18).

How Can You Tell the Difference?

As noted above, I always start with the loupe. If I see halftone dots, I know the print is an offset lithograph.

Art dealers suggest that you buy traditional lithographs from a reputable fine art dealer. (These will, of course, hold more financial value than prints from a much longer, and presumably less personally curated, offset lithographic print run.)

Look for a signature (and make sure it’s not made up of halftone dots). I also just learned that there may be a signature on the back of the press sheet. Look for this, too. Also look for the print number and the total print run, expressed as a fraction (5/300 means the fifth print pulled in an edition of 300). Both of these should be hand-noted under the image, usually in pencil.

Ink on a traditional lithograph is also usually thicker than on an offset lithographic large format print.(Wear cloth gloves when you check the ink so the oils on your hands do not damage the print.)

The Takeaway

Sometimes you can find real lithographic prints at estate sales and thrift stores. It has happened. It’s worth knowing what you’re looking for, and it’s worth keeping a printer’s loupe with you.

That said, there’s still a huge amount of artistry (as well as craftsmanship) in offset lithography. If you like a large format print, even if it’s not an original litho, I think it’s best to not be a purist, especially when you get it for free or at a discount at a thrift store.

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