Extensive Definition

Chromolithography is a method for making multi-color prints. This type of color printing stemmed from the process of lithography, and it includes all types of lithography that are printed in color. It replaced coloring prints by hand, and eventually served as a replica of a real painting. Lithographers sought to find a way to print on flat surfaces with the use of chemicals instead of relief or intaglio printing. Depending on the number of colors present, a chromolithograph could take months to produce. To make what was once referred to as a “chromo”, a lithographer – with a finished painting in front of him – gradually built and corrected the print to look as much as possible like the painting in front of him, sometimes using dozens of layers. The process can be very time-consuming and cumbersome, contingent upon the skill of the lithographer.


The process of chromolithography is chemical, because an image is applied to a stone or zinc plate with a grease-based crayon. (Limestone and zinc are two commonly used materials in the production of chromolithographs.) After the image is drawn onto stone, another stone is inked with oil-based paints or greasy pens, and pressed against the stone bearing the image. A different stone is required for each color, and each color must be applied one at a time. It was not unusual for twenty to twenty-five stones to be used on only one image. Once the colors have been applied, the stone with the complete colored image is pressed against a sheet of paper; each sheet of paper will pass through the press as many times as there are colors in the final print. In order for the prints in progress to avoid being covered over by the next color being applied, each print must be precisely ‘registered,’ or lined up, on the next colored plate. A coating of gum and weak acid solution is applied to the plate, because the solution helps the grease drawing adhere to and penetrate the plate while causing the blank areas to repel the printing ink. The plate is then dampened, inked, and then passed through the press along with the paper receiving the impression.


The technique for using color in printing was invented in 1796 in Germany. Considering the fact that it stemmed from lithography, there have been debates over whether chromolithography was created by Alois Senefelder, the same person who came up with printing by way of lithography. Senefelder introduced colored lithography in his 1818 Vollstaendiges Lehrbuch der Steindruckerey (A Complete Course of Lithography), in which he told of his plans to print using color and also explained the colors he wished to be able to print someday. Although Senefelder recorded ideas on chromolithography, it turns out that other countries besides Germany, such as France and England, were also heavily involved in trying to find a new way to print in color. Godefroy Engelmann of Mulhouse proved to be one of the few searching for ways to produce colored printed images when he was awarded his patent on chromolithography in July 1837. Even after Engelmann received his award, disputes over whether chromolithography was already being used continued to rise. Some sources point to the idea that chromolithography was already being used in areas of printing such as the production of playing cards.

Arrival in America

The first American chromolithograph—a portrait of Reverend F. W. P. Greenwood—was created by William Sharp in 1840. Many of the chromolithographs were created and purchased in urban areas. The paintings were initially used as decoration in American parlors as well as for decoration within middle-class homes. They were prominent after the Civil War because of their low production costs and ability to be mass produced, and because the methods allowed pictures to look more like hand-painted oil paintings. Production costs were only low if the chromolithographs were cheaply produced, but top-quality chromos were costly to produce because of the necessary months of work and the thousands of dollars worth of equipment that had to be used. Although chromos could be mass produced, it took about three months to draw colors onto the stones and another five months to print a thousand copies. Chromolithographs became so popular in American culture that the era has been labeled as “chromo civilization”. Over time, during the Victorian era, chromolithographs populated children's and fine arts publications, as well as advertising art, in trade cards, labels, and posters. They were also once used for advertisements, popular prints, and medical or scientific books.

Oppositions to chromolithography

Even though chromolithographs served many uses within society at the time, many were opposed to the idea of them because of their lack of authenticity. The new forms of art were sometimes tagged as “’bad art’” because of their deceptive qualities. Some also felt that it could not serve as a form of art at all since it was too mechanical, and that the true spirit of a painter could never be captured in a printed version of a work. Over time, chromos were made so cheaply that they could no longer be confused with original paintings. Since production costs were low, the fabrication of chromolithographs became more a business than the creation of art.

Famous printers

Louis Prang

A famous lithographer and publisher who strongly supported the production of chromolithographs was Louis Prang. Prang was a German-born entrepreneur who printed the first American Christmas card. He felt that chromolithographs could look just as good as, if not better than, real paintings, and he published well-known chromolithographs based on popular paintings, including one by Eastman Johnson entitled The Barefoot Boy. The reason Prang decided to take on the challenge of producing chromolithographs, despite criticisms, was because he felt quality art should not be limited to the elite. Prang and others who continued to produce chromolithographs were sometimes looked down upon because of the fear that chromolithographs could undermine human abilities. With the Industrial Revolution already under way, this fear was not something new to Americans at the time. Many artists themselves anticipated the lack of desire for original artwork since many became accustomed to chromolithographs. As a way to make more sales, some artists had a few paintings made into chromolithographs so that people in society would at least be familiar with the painter. Once people in society were familiar with the artist, they were more likely to want to pay for an original work.

Lothar Meggendorfer

German chromolithographers, largely based in Bavaria, came to dominate the trade with their low-cost high-volume productions. Of these printers, Lothar Meggendorfer garnered international fame for his children's educational books and games. Due to political unrest in mid-19th-century Germany, many Bavarian printers emigrated to the United Kingdom and the United States, and Germany's monopoly on chromolithographic printing dissipated.


Chromolithographs are mainly used today as fine art instead of advertisements, and they are rare to find due to poor methods of preservation and also because a cheaper form of printing replaced it. Many chromolithographs have deteriorated because of the acidic frames surrounding them. As stated earlier, production costs of chromolithographs were low, but efforts were still being made to find a cheaper way to mass produce colored prints. Although purchasing a chromolithograph may have been cheaper than purchasing a painting, it was still expensive in comparison to other color printing methods that were later developed. Offset printing replaced chromolithography in the late 1930s.
To find or purchase a lithograph, some suggest searching for ones with the original frame as well as the publisher's stamp. Both European and American chromolithographs can still be found, and can range in cost from hundreds to thousands of dollars. The least expensive chromos tend to be European or produced by publishers who are less well-known compared to Prang.


Lithography is a form of planographic printing, meaning that the surface is flat, in contrast to relief printing (using a raised surface) or intaglio printing (using an incised surface). The earliest lithographic prints were produced using Bavarian limestones from the Solenhofen quarry, where Senefelder himself had acquired his surface material. In order to create colored lithographic prints, printers made a series of impressions from different stones, each impression in register. The earliest chromolithographs relied on distinctive deposits of color ("side-by-side" printing). Rapidly, printers enhanced their palettes by overprinting colors. Stippling, intermingling dots of color much as the pointillist painters did, supplied a third mode of early chromolithographic printing that relied on optical color mixing. The use of lightweight zinc sheets -- a process that came to be called zincography -- eventually replaced the heavier and more expensive limestones. Offset printing superseded chromolithography around the 1930s, yet stone and metal plate lithography continue to be used by artists in the production of fine arts posters and limited edition prints.


  • Friedman, Joan M. Color Printing in England, 1486-1859. Yale Center for British Art, 1978.
  • Henker, Michael. Von Senefelder zu Daumier: Die Anfange der Lithograpischen Kunst. K.G. Saur, 1988.
  • Jay, Robert. The Trade Card in Nineteenth-Century America. University of Missouri Press, 1987.
  • Last, Jay T. The Color Explosion: Nineteenth-Century American Lithography. Hillcrest Press, 2005.
  • Marzio, Peter C. The Democratic Art : Pictures for a 19th-century America : Chromolithography, 1840-1900. D. R. Godine, 1979.

Further reading

  • Friedman, Joan M. Color Printing in England, 1486-1870: an Exhibition, Yale Center for British Art. New Haven: The Center, 1978.
  • Hunter, Mel. The New Lithography: A Complete Guide for Artists and Printers in the Use of Modern Translucent Materials for the Creation of Hand-Drawn Original Fine-Art Lithographic Prints. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1984.
  • Marzio, Peter C. "Lithography as Democratic Art: A Reappraisal." Leonardo 3(1971):37-48.


External links

chromolithograph in French: Chromolithographie
chromolithograph in Chinese: 彩色平版印刷術
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