Stone Lithographs by Michael Parkes

The desire to create is fundamental to the artist and the act of creation is a metaphysical experience. Painting for me has been a means to describe, record, and explore the universe around me and my relationship with it. It has been, however, my 25-year love affair with stone lithography that has helped me most to define this metaphysical journey. 

Michael Parkes on Stone Lithography

During the twenty-five years that I have been making stone lithographs, I have used various print shops. However, since 1991 I printed exclusively with Steindruckerai Fritz and Kuntz, Zurich, Switzerland. Helmut Fritz’s and Peter Kuntz’s combined knowledge and stone lithography skills represent over 85 years of experience. On Dec. 5th, 2003, Helmut and Peter closed their shop doors for the last time and retired.

Matthieu, the print shop where we all met in 1982, offered to undertake an experiment with their stone printer, Paul Burkart, to see if we could work together. At a relative young 54, Paul was happy when Peter and Helmut offered to come along to share in this experiment. They were already friends and this first experiment has now continued through the last two years and looks to be something we all enjoy. So instead of losing all my printers, I now have three. Of course, we all realize, because of our ages, that each printing experience is precious. We look on each litho as possibly the last. There are few printers working who can print on stone in several colors. And what knowledge is collected in that room when we are all together will quickly be gone because the traditions are not being passed on to the next generation of either printers or artists. When some of the younger printers from the digital age of offset printing come by to see what we are doing, they look at us as if we were ghosts from a previous age, practicing alchemy. But most of all they are amazed at the quality and variety that this archaic process can produce.

What is so exciting about lithography is its flexibility. It can be as unique as the artist that is willing to learn the rigors of the technique. It is not in any way the mere reproduction of a work made earlier in the artist’s studio. When the artist starts his design on a litho stone, it is the stone that dictates how the process will continue. The process has so many possibilities that the excitement comes from following the path the process takes you along. If the idea is there, the technique can be found. If the printer has an understanding of the old techniques, then a mistake or a flaw in the stone can become a doorway to an even better idea.

The word ‘lithography’ comes from the Greek words, ‘litho’ which means ‘stone’ and ‘graphein’ meaning to ‘write or draw’. The reason the term is still used so widely for commercial offset printing is that in the beginning, the process was created as a commercial printing process and for over 100 years all the illustrations done were printed on stone. Aloys Senefelder invented the process in 1798 and although he lived to see print shops all over the world using his techniques on stone for commercial printing, he could not have imagined that the creation of photography by 1870, combined with the use of metal plates replacing the much heavier and more fragile stones, would change printing forever. The final transformation however was the very simple idea of forming the metal plate onto the shape of a roller, enabling the printing of an image in a continuous motion. Modern offset printing was born and the stones had lost all of their commercial value overnight. This gave rise to a new use for the old system. As early as 1860 some artists were doing some interesting experiments with the technique. Daumier’s famous newspaper caricatures were both commercial and artistic. Delacroix and Manet did book illustrations and Goya produced a wonderful lithographic series that parallels his genius in etching.

The partnership between the artist and the printer cannot be underestimated. Delacroix’s lithographs were signed, ‘Delacroix del, lith de Motte,’ meaning, “drawn by Delacroix, lithographed by Motte”. Without the printer’s artistic and technical ability to execute an artist’s drawing, there would be no tradition of stone lithography. Artists traveled from all over the world to Paris in the early 1900’s to print with the great names of the printing world like Mourlot, Desjobert, and Durassier.  During this flowering of stone lithography as an art form, Toulouse-Lautrec was a rare breed of artist-printer. He created and invented many techniques that are used to this day in color lithography. But most artists left the technical execution up to the master printer.

The rapport between artist and printer is essential. Whereas the artist focuses on the image itself, the printer needs to focus on the sequence of printing the design stone and the color stones, always keeping in mind their relative strengths and transparencies. Colors are mixed at the moment of printing. Sometimes I have in mind a particular yellow. As the printer mixes a yellow that I have described to him, I might correct him and ask him to make it stronger or colder. He will respond by saying, “Don’t forget, later on you are going to be using a red that will get you the orange that you want.” Most artists cannot hold the sequence of the many, many steps in their heads and still keep the finished image that they want in the end. And once the color is on, there is no going back. You cannot erase or paint over like you would with an oil painting.  Of course you can always add more and more colors to try and correct something. But not only do you have the danger of it becoming like mud, but each color represents an added cost. That is why the number of colors is mentioned on a Certificate of Authenticity. If you see a litho that looks as though it has many colors but the certificate states that it only has 6, you know that artist and printer have used their many skills of using transparent colors overlapping one another to create the illusion of a rich and full colored image. Traditionally the printer always defers to the artist, as it is the artist’s work that is being created. But the printer must also use his diplomatic skills in guiding the artist in the right direction so that they can both be proud of the final result. Even temperamental artists such as Whistler and Picasso knew the absolute importance of placing their work in the hands of a master printer. 

It is not only the printer but also the selection of the stones which is important. The best ones come from limestone found in just one valley in Bavaria. Most of them have been quarried out. They all have their own quirks and sensitivities. The organic quality of each one gives it a uniqueness all of its own. But they can also be unpredictable. A couple of summers ago Switzerland had its hottest summer in decades and the stones did not like it! They absorbed ink in such a way that I almost lost two lithos, as the designs were becoming way too strong too early. Happily they turned out to be two of my most successful lithos, The Dragon Collector and The Strawberry Collector. Another litho, The Creation, was affected by the surface of the stone. It had a bit of irregularity; I think it was a quartz spur. If you look at The Creation, the woman has a piece of jewellery on her back. That was placed there to hide the quartz irregularity. In the end the design was better with the jewellery. So in that case the stone helped create the final and better image.  Mayan Spring was also created with the help of a temperamental stone. I had in mind a smooth sky for this particular litho. But for some reason the stone began to break down and create a texture. We had to stop printing and quickly decide what to do. Our decision was to throw a bit of acid on the stone and create clouds in the sky. That is where the master printer’s skill is really appreciated. If he gets it wrong, the whole edition is lost.  It worked, and again, the image was better for it. As many of my collectors know, I love using silver and gold ink on my images. Two successful examples are The Golden Serpent and The Garden. When I print the gold ink on top of the black ink it has to be printed in a perfect climate. Too much humidity, heat, or even cold will make the black either not accept the gold ink or it will absorb too much, creating a mud. Gold and silver inks are used at the very end of the printing of an edition. This is a tense time, after two hard weeks of printing, when one final printing of color might endanger the whole edition. With all the drama and hard work, the stones are still like old friends. Not many people can say that they have friends over 160 million years old.

As human beings, we limit our sense of perception to what is generally comfortable and present in everyday life. In limiting our perceptions to suit our individuality, we miss the vastness of other perceptions and the doors they represent. Though we have been conditioned to perceive nothing except our own world, this does not mean we cannot enter other realms.

The desire to create is fundamental to the artist and the act of creation is a metaphysical experience. Painting for me has been a means to describe, record, and explore the universe around me and my relationship with it. It has been, however, my 25-year love affair with stone lithography that has helped me most to define this metaphysical journey.