WHAT IS A MEZZOTINT PRINT?
© CAROL WAX, 2018
Mezzotint is a tonal form of engraving that was invented in 1642 by Ludwig von Siegen, a German soldier on leave in Amsterdam. The medium's ability to render subtle tonal gradations and replicate brushstrokes made it ideally suited for translating paintings, particularly portraits, into prints. Once introduced into England by Prince Rupert of the Rhine, mezzotint quickly developed into a vital industry for creating and disseminating reproductive prints. Although little known today, mezzotint prints had a profound impact on the course of Western art, especially Colonial American art. The medium fell into obscurity after the invention of photography made the need to copy images manually obsolete. Today, mezzotint engraving is experiencing a virtual renaissance as an art form for original expression.
As opposed to burin engraving, in which black lines are incised on a white background, mezzotint begins with a black background from which tones are deducted. It’s similar to the method of drawing in which a white sheet of paper is blackened with charcoal and the image is “drawn” with an eraser. In mezzotint, a copper plate is substituted for the paper, and the black background is created using a tool called a rocker.
burnisher scraper plate rocker
The rocker has a curved serrated blade that is rocked back and forth over the plate surface. As the blade’s teeth prick the copper they plow up rows of tiny burrs that, when printed, hold ink. Systematically rocking over the entire plate surface in many directions produces a field of closely spaced burrs, called a ground, which prints as a solid black tone. Variables in this process can imbue the ground and image with unique textures.
To create an image, the burrs are either shaved away with a scraper, or squashed and polished with a burnisher. Only by completely removing the burred ground can the plate be made to print white again. Altering the ground in minute increments produces subtle gradations and a broad range of grays or half tones. In fact, the word mezzotint is derived from the Italian mezzo, for half, and tinto, for tone.
CROSS SECTION OF IMAGE IN MEZZOTINT GROUND ON COPPER PLATE
To print a mezzotint, viscous ink (made from burnt linseed oil and pigment) is applied to the plate surface. Excess ink is wiped away using starched cheesecloth and the skin of one’s hand. Ink adheres to the unaltered burrs and wipes off in varying amounts where the ground has been altered. Areas that have been scraped and burnished more vigorously hold less ink and print as lighter tones. Sufficiently wiped, the plate is then placed on the bed of a rolling press and covered in dampened printing paper. Wool felts are placed over the paper, and the plate is run through the press under enormous
pressure that forces the ink to transfer to the paper. The printed impression is then placed in blotters under weighted boards to dry flat. As with other printing techniques, the printed image appears in mirror image, or in the opposite direction, from the image on the plate.