stone lithography

Gary Lyon’s stone lithography: Original Prints the (really) old fashioned way

Gary Lyon is one of the original members of Ptarmigan Arts and is well known for his stone lithography wildlife prints. The process was invented in 1796 by a German author and actor as a cheap method of publishing theatrical works. Today, there are much cheaper and easier methods, but Gary prefers to keep the tradition alive.

Stone lithography is the predecessor of modern day offset “lithography”. The root words are “lith” (stone, like monolith) and “graph” (as in graphics, drawing).

The process begins by drawing an image on the surface of a milled limestone block with a medium that contains grease. Gary primarily uses old-style marking crayons to draw a mirror (reverse) image so it is oriented properly when printed. Because limestone is porous, the grease is absorbed into the surface of the stone. When the drawing is finished, Gary applies a strong acid in a solution of neutral, liquid gum Arabic to “etch” the drawing, which reinforces it into the stone. It does not create a relief, and the stone stays smooth, but it sensitizes it so it will accept oil base inks. After the etching process the actual drawing is wiped away and is etched in the memory of the stone.

And then printing begins. Gary keeps the stone moist by continuously wiping it with a wet sponge. An ink-laden leather roller is rolled across the stone repeatedly until the image appears like the original drawing. The wet stone repels ink in the non-image, negative areas, and the greasy image attracts the oil base ink and absorbs it.

Next, he lays prepared paper on the inked image and the whole lot is cranked under the pressure bar of the hand-operated lithography press. The stone sits on the bed of the press and it all rides under the pressure. If all goes well, when he peels the paper off the stone, the drawn image appears on the paper. Typically, Gary uses expensive, acid free, mould-made papers.

The size of any given edition is limited to about 250 impressions, at best, by the process. At worst it fails to print well and there are only a few good proof prints. Gary’s editions are usually 50-150. In order to get, say, an edition of 100, about 125 need to be printed just because there are inevitably some with flaws.

After the edition is printed Gary grinds the image off the stone with various grades of carborundum grit in water solution. The stone is then ready for the next drawn image.

Interestingly, the stone is never painted, and each piece is hand inked. Gary also adds color to the prints with Prismacolor colored pencils, so he works on each one individually. Because of this, stone lithographs are sometimes called “multiple originals,” along with etchings, serigraphs, woodcuts and similar “original prints.” This is opposed to “reproduction prints” which are done mechanically and are unlimited in number, unless the artist chooses to limit the edition.

Gary’s lithographs can be seen at Ptarmigan Arts, in beautiful downtown Homer. He owns Sea Lyon Gallery on the Homer Spit, where you can also find his work.


471 E. Pioneer Ave.
Homer, Alaska 99603

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