The art has its charms because of the unique way it’s displayed. It’s usually a straight surface of thin material which contains a hidden secret. This secret will only reveal itself when light shines on the back of the material and shows its true beauty.
This special revelation is expressed in a piece of beautiful art that can include highly detailed images. The multiple elements required to reveal the hidden images make the lithophane so interesting to observe! No wonder that the lithophane is so unique and special in the world of art. How does a lithophane work?So how do these images become revealed? The lithophane needs to be a thin material, formerly end mostly porcelain, with varying thicknesses. It’s fundamental for a lithophane to have variations in thickness. Thicker parts within the lithophane will block more light than the thinner parts. This way the material can manipulate different intensities of light passing through the material.
This creates different contrasts which can be seen with the eye as different intensities of gray. When the contrast is carved out of the material very detailed and precisely it can display very realistic images. 3D printed lithophanesFor centuries, they carved lithophanes out of porcelain. Only artists with years of practice could master the art of the lithophane. The artist carved very precisely on the surface of the porcelain to create wonderfully detailed images. They discovered that 3D printers and lithophanes were a perfect match. This discovery gave new light to the beautiful art. And because we save every image digitally nowadays, we can make a lithophane of everything!
Note: The representation of the 3D printed lithophane will, just like the porcelain variant, still be 2-dimensional.
Modern lithophanes were first produced in Europe during the 1820s. Their name comes from the greek words litho and phainen which mean “to cause to appear.” The original process to create lithophanes, called email ombrant, was first developed by a Frenchman named Paul de Bourging in 1827. A Brit named Robert Griffith Jones bought the right to produce lithophanes in 1828 and sold production licenses to English factories. Hundreds of thousands of lithophanes were made in the 1800s throughout Europe and in United States. Some scholars suggest that the idea originally came from China during the Tang or Ming Dynasties, but there is no known lithophane plaque produced anywhere in China prior to 1800.
The earliest lithophanes were made by carving an image into wax, creating a plaster gypsum (or sometimes metal) mold from the wax, and casting porcelain at 2000 degrees C. Porcelain lithophanes would often crack from thermal stresses during this process, and finished lithophanes were typically 1.5 to 6mm thick. These characteristics made lithophane production labor intensive, risky, and expensive. Common scenes focused on religion, portraits, literature, and artistic masterpieces. Lithophanes were incorporated in decorations, fine china, and even the bottom of beer steins (to let you know when to refill).
Lithophanes have become easier to make with the development of new methods of manufacture. In the 1900s, the advent of CNC machining made possible the production of lithophanes by carving the lithophanes from translucent, nonporous materials. This greatly decreased the risks associated with producing a lithophane. Today, the most common way to create a lithophane is by 3D printing them from plastic or resin. The 3D printing process is always quite tricky, but can result in exquisite lithophanes for significantly less labor and material cost than either casting or CNC machining. 3D printed lithophanes can easily include an interface to a backlight, so that their image is visible.