Mezzotints Explained

Mezzotint was invented in 1642, by Ludwig von Siegen, a German soldier on leave in Amsterdam. The medium’s ability to render subtle tonal effects made it ideally suited for reproducing portraits painted by famous artists. The creation and dissemination of mezzotint prints, particularly in England, spawned a vital industry that had a powerful effect on art history. Indeed, mezzotints were the most important means of learning about art in colonial America where there were no art books, art schools, or trained artists from which to learn. The invention of photography eventually made the need to copy images manually obsolete, and the medium fell into obscurity.

Today, mezzotint engraving is experiencing a virtual renaissance as an art form for original expression. Mezzotint is a tonal engraving process. 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 starting with a sheet of paper, blackened with charcoal, where 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.

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 tiny burrs. When printed, these burrs will hold ink. Systematically rocking over the entire plate surface in many directions produces a field of burrs that will hold ink all over and print as a solid black tone. Variations 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.

To print a mezzotint, viscous ink (made from burnt linseed oil and pigment) is rolled over the entire plate surface and rubbed into the ground. The excess ink is then wiped away. Ink sticks to the unaltered burrs and wipes off in varying amounts where the ground has been scraped and burnished.

The more an area of the ground has been altered, the less ink it will hold, and the lighter the tone will print. After wiping the plate, it is placed on the bed of a rolling press. Damp paper is placed over the plate, 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 paper is then placed in blotters to dry. As with other printing techniques, the printed image appears in mirror image, or in the opposite direction, from the image on the plate.

A resident of Peekskill, New York, Carol Wax is an internationally recognized artist whose oil paintings and works on paper have been widely exhibited. Her prints are in numerous museum collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Museum of American Art and the Boston and New York public libraries.

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