Lithography originally used an image drawn with oil, fat, or wax onto the surface of a smooth, level lithographic limestone plate. The stone was treated with a mixture of acid and gum arabic, etching the portions of the stone that were not protected by the grease-based image. When the stone was subsequently moistened, these etched areas retained water; an oil-based ink could then be applied and would be repelled by the water, sticking only to the original drawing. The ink would finally be transferred to a blank paper sheet, producing a printed page. This traditional technique is still used in some fine art printmaking applications.
In modern lithography, the image is made of a polymer coating applied to a flexible plastic or metal plate. The image can be printed directly from the plate (the orientation of the image is reversed), or it can be offset, by transferring the image onto a flexible sheet (rubber) for printing and publication.
As a printing technology, lithography is different from intaglio printing (gravure), wherein a plate is either engraved, etched, or stippled to score cavities to contain the printing ink; and woodblock printing or letterpress printing, wherein ink is applied to the raised surfaces of letters or images. Today, most types of high-volume books and magazines, especially when illustrated in colour, are printed with offset lithography, which has become the most common form of printing technology since the 1960s.
The related term "photolithography" refers to when photographic images are used in lithographic printing, whether these images are printed directly from a stone or from a metal plate, as in offset printing. "Photolithography" is used synonymously with "offset printing". The technique as well as the term were introduced in Europe in the 1850s. Beginning in the 1960s, photolithography has played an important role in the fabrication and mass production of integrated circuits in the microelectronics industry.
Lithography uses simple chemical processes to create an image. For instance, the positive part of an image is a water-repelling ("hydrophobic") substance, while the negative image would be water-retaining ("hydrophilic"). Thus, when the plate is introduced to a compatible printing ink and water mixture, the ink will adhere to the positive image and the water will clean the negative image. This allows a flat print plate to be used, enabling much longer and more detailed print runs than the older physical methods of printing (e.g., intaglio printing, letterpress printing).