The Lithophane

Have you ever experienced an amazing work of art so magical you just had to keep looking to understand how it was created? A quote from writer William Safire captures the essence of this experience as follows,

Knowing how things work is the basis for appreciation and is thus a source of civilized delight. William Safire

Throughout history, light has been used in many ways to reveal intriguing human creations or to steal a moment in time. Think about the stained glass windows in great cathedrals, the kaleidoscope, or the camera. The light in these objects reveals color, pattern or an image. One of the more interesting and somewhat forgotten forms of light dependent art is the lithophane.

What is a lithophane?

In its word root form, it is from two Greek words, “litho” and “phainein”. Litho means stone and phainein means to cause to appear. Ergo, lithophane means “to appear in stone” or “light in stone.” In its simplest form, it is an opaque object that reveals an amazing image when light penetrates from the back. The thinner material lets through more light and the thicker less light.

When was the Great Age of Lithophanes?

The great age of porcelain lithophanes began in the late 1820’s in Europe and ran through the later part of the 19th century. In this time, many amazing images were captured by artisans who carved the images in wax that was used in a multi-stage process to create the final porcelain objects. It may be coincidental, but as light bulbs relieved the night of dark and oil fired lamps were replaced, the popularity of the lithophane diminished. Perhaps the greater impact on the decline in lithophane demand and production was the camera and photograph. The first photographic images were created within a decade of the early European lithophane period. However, the photographic process took several decades to perfect. As photographs became populuar and affordable starting in the later part of the 19th and into the 20th century, this was more than likely the most influential factor affecting the decreased popularity and subsequent decreased production of lithophane.

Who created porcelain?

The creation of porcelain objects in the orient was about 1000 years before the great age of porcelain lithophanes. In the time between, objects were created in the orient in limited quantities that could easily be classified as lithophane. This includes porcelain and items carved in marble that when back lit show amazing images.

For a thorough understanding of the history of the lithophane, Margaret Carney, Ph.D., wrote a comprehensive book that I highly recommend. It spans the great age, the oriental age, the production processes and many other aspects of the lithophane over time.

What is happening with lithophane today?

In the contemporary age, artisans and craftsmen are exploring different media and the variety of designs is expanding. Artisans are using traditional porcelain methods to crate amazing works of art captured in a variety of formats. A few artisans are applying color with delightful results.

Craftsmen are exploring new materials like corian, a variety of plastics and Plexiglas with surprising results. With the advent of modern tools and the computer, the lithophane is enjoying discovery by home craftsmen and small tool shops across at least Canada, Great Britain, and the United States. This is largely made possible by a  tool called the Computer Numeric Controlled (CNC) router and capabilitie emerging with 3 dimensional (3D) printers.

What is a CNC router?

The CNC is a software driven tool that is a deductive machining method. The CNC is dependent on Computer Aided Design (CAD) and Computer Aided Machining (CAM) software. The CAD software enables the creation of 2D and 3D design objects. The CAM software transforms these images into machine language that moves a CNC router along the X, Y and Z axis. The Z axis give elevation from the surface while the X and Y axis move on a single plane from bottom to top and from left to right.

What formats possess lithophane?

Lithophane have come in many formats over time from decorative to practical. The formats span from the purely decorative plaques and panels to the utilitarian fireplace screens, lamp shades, votives, lanterns, night lights, tea pot warmers and drink ware like cups, mugs and steins. Lithophane have been carved in chocolate, stone and as marketing material like candy wrappers. They have even been integrated into clothing and watches.

Who manufactures lithophane today?

In the United States, there are but a few manufactures producing lithophane in any quantities. Perhaps the key manufacture of modern and unique designs is The Porcelain Garden. There are many small companies producing custom lithophanes out of a variety of formats. Notable is that Lladro, a Spanish high quality porcelain manufacture, carries a line of lithophane votives.

What is the purpose of this website?

This website is dedicated to present and future of an art form called lithophane. In time, it will cover production techniques, product reviews, product sources, software, materials, machines, and emerging news form foreign and domestic sources.

The audience will be those who create and collect lithophane art work and the general public. Posts will be added at least once a week. I am doing this to learn about the past, present and future of the lithophone art form and, subsequently, to share discoveries made over the course of research and study. In time, I intend to create lithophane with a CNC router and record this adventure to share the experience of creating a work of art.

How did I get interested in lithophane?

My first exposure to lithophane was the purchase of an old German military stein at an auction in 2007. Although it had some damage, the paintings on the outside were wonderful and the cover was pewter with a horse on it. When cleaning it, I noticed some bumps on the bottom. After a while, when I held it up to the light, a beautiful women looked back at me. The detail revealed was amazing and I wanted to learn more about this miracle. How could so much detail come from such a blurred image? It got me to wonder how it was made. I just had to know.