Mezzotint is a printmaking process of the intaglio family, technically a drypoint method. It was the first tonal method to be used, enabling half-tones to be produced without using line- or dot-based techniques like hatching, cross-hatching or stipple. Mezzotint achieves tonality by roughening a metal plate with thousands of little dots made by a metal tool with small teeth, called a “rocker”. In printing, the tiny pits in the plate hold the ink when the face of the plate is wiped clean. A high level of quality and richness in the print can be achieved.

The mezzotint printmaking method was invented by the German amateur artist Ludwig von Siegen (1609–c. 1680). His earliest mezzotint print dates to 1642 and is a portrait of Countess Amalie Elisabeth of Hanau-Münzenberg. This was made by working from light to dark. The rocker seems to have been invented by Prince Rupert of the Rhine, a famous cavalry commander in the English Civil War, who was the next to use the process, and took it to England. Sir Peter Lely saw the potential for using it to publicise his portraits, and encouraged a number of Dutch printmakers to come to England. Godfrey Kneller worked closely with John Smith, who is said to have lived in his house for a period; he created about 500 mezzotints, some 300 copies of portrait paintings.

The process was especially widely used in England from the eighteenth century, to reproduce portraits and other paintings. Since the mid-nineteenth century it has been relatively little used. Robert Kipniss and Peter Ilsted are two notable 20th-century exponents of the technique; M. C. Escher also made eight mezzotints.

British mezzotint collecting was a great craze from about 1760 to the Great Crash of 1929, also spreading to America. The main area of collecting was British portraits; hit oil paintings from the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition were routinely, and profitably, reproduced in mezzotint throughout this period, and other mezzotinters reproduced older portraits of historical figures, or if necessary, made them up. The favourite period to collect was roughly from 1750 to 1820, the great period of the British portrait. There were two basic styles of collection: some concentrated on making a complete collection of material within a certain scope, while others aimed at perfect condition and quality (which declines in mezzotints after a relatively small number of impressions are taken from a plate), and in collecting the many “proof states” which artists and printers had obligingly provided for them from early on. Leading collectors included William Eaton, 2nd Baron Cheylesmore and the Irishman John Chaloner Smith.

In the scraping technique, the smoothed is copper plate having a toothed Granierstahl (also cradle iron or mezzotint knife called), or with the grain Roller (Roulette), an occupied with teeth wheel or a ball (Moulette) by pressing small wells completely roughened until the plate covered with a dense, completely uniform grid. If, in this state, a print of the printing plate made, would create a uniform, velvety black print.

On the prepared surface, the artist uses a scraper or polished steel to smooth out the places where he wants brightness. The plate must be the more polished, the brighter the print tone is desired. During the subsequent blackening process, depending on the smoothness and roughness, the copper will absorb less or more color and release it to the paper during printing. This makes it possible to produce all the tonal values from very light to very dark for a high-contrast light-shadow effect.

The graphic process, which involves a great deal of time, is particularly suitable for reproducing the effect of large paintings. However, since the plates are very delicate, at most a print of less than 100 prints per printing plate in high quality is possible unless the plate is ironed.

Dark to light method
This became the most common method. The whole surface (usually) of a metal, usually copper, plate is roughened evenly, manually with a rocker, or mechanically. If the plate were printed at this point it would show as solid black. The image is then created by selectively burnishing areas of the surface of the metal plate with metal tools; the smoothed parts will print lighter than those areas not smoothed by the burnishing tool. A burnisher has a smooth, round end, which flattens the minutely protruding points comprising the roughened surface of the metal printing plate. Areas smoothed completely flat will not hold ink at all; such areas will print “white,” that is, without ink. By varying the degree of smoothing, mid-tones between black and white can be created, hence the name mezzo-tinto which is Italian for “half-tone” or “half-painted”. This is called working from “dark to light”, or the “subtractive” method.

Light to dark method
Alternatively, it is possible to create the image directly by only roughening a blank plate selectively, where the darker parts of the image are to be. This is called working from “light to dark”, or the “additive” method. The first mezzotints by Ludwig von Siegen were made in this way. Especially in this method, the mezzotint can be combined with other intaglio techniques, such as engraving, on areas of the plate not roughened, or even with the dark to light method.

Printing the finished plate is the same for either method, and follows the normal way for an intaglio plate; the whole surface is inked, the ink is then wiped off the surface to leave ink only in the pits of the still rough areas below the original surface of the plate. The plate is put through a high-pressure printing press next to a sheet of paper, and the process repeated.

Because the pits in the plate are not deep, only a small number of top-quality impressions (copies) can be printed before the quality of the tone starts to degrade as the pressure of the press begins to smooth them out. Perhaps only one or two hundred really good impressions can be taken.

Detailed technique
Plates can be mechanically roughened; one way is to rub fine metal filings over the surface with a piece of glass; the finer the filings, the smaller the grain of the surface. Special roughening tools called ‘rockers’ have been in use since at least the eighteenth century. The method commonly in use today is to use a steel rocker approximately five inches wide, which has between 45 and 120 teeth per inch on the face of a blade in the shape of a shallow arc, with a wooden handle projecting upwards in a T-shape. Rocked steadily from side to side at the correct angle, the rocker will proceed forward creating burrs in the surface of the copper. The plate is then moved – either rotated by a set number of degrees or through 90 degrees according to preference – and then rocked in another pass. This is repeated until the plate is roughened evenly and will print a completely solid tone of black.

Mezzotint is known for the luxurious quality of its tones: first, because an evenly, finely roughened surface holds a lot of ink, allowing deep solid colors to be printed; secondly because the process of smoothing the plate with burin, burnisher and scraper allows fine gradations in tone to be developed. The scraper is a triangular ended tool, and the burnisher has a smooth round end – not unlike many spoon handles.

The plate must be prepared by roughing its surface, so that the inking of the same results in a deep black that later becomes nuanced to achieve halftones and white, through a polishing process. To obtain the granulate of the plate the graneador and the berceau (or raedor) are used, and the targets are obtained on the black using burnishers and scrapers. Black can also be obtained by repeatedly using the aquatint technique on the plate to achieve a deep black tone, this technique being known as “false black way”.

The necessary instruments are different types of radents and the half- tone graner, a heavy utensil with a serrated semicircular blade, which when applied with a rolling motion on the copper sheet leaves the marks of the teeth on the surface, leaving this cover of fine parallel grooves bordered by beards, as in the technique of drypoint engraving.

It is a long and tedious procedure, because the artist has to work graining first in one direction and then at right angles in that direction, then diagonally in both directions and finally between all the diagonals, so that the entire surface is finely grainy. If at this stage of the process the inking and stamping of the sheet was proceeded, the resulting image would be of a solid black velvety color.

The engraver must create the image by eliminating the roughness of the surface of the plate, reducing or in some cases completely eliminating the marks of the graner. When the image is finished, the sheet is inked and the engraving is stamped. The plate progressively crushes the granulate, so this technique does not allow reproducing a large number of copies.

The tonal gradations from the areas of solid black to those of pure white produce strong contrasts, which make the medium ink especially suitable for the chiaroscuro technique, so it was widely used to reproduce paintings, especially in the 18th century, being later its place occupied by the aquatint engraving.

The first work consists of graining the plate evenly with small holes, using a tool called cradle, a spiked half-cylinder fixed on a handle. The tool discovered by von Siegen was entrusted to the Englishman John Evelyn, who mentioned it in 1662 in his book entitled Sculptura. He was later perfected by Abraham Bloteling.

According to Jacob Christoph Le Blon and Antoine Gautier de Montdorge, sharpening is tedious: “The tool will be ironed on the reverse of its bevel; and care will be taken in sharpening it to always preserve the same perimeter; this perimeter must be drawn from the center of a diameter of six inches; too roundness caverait copper, and less roundness would not bite quite”.

A swaying movement of the handle, first from front to back then from left to right, starts the metal evenly and evenly. “One must be careful not to go to the ends of the instrument – which must be rounded – in order not to hurt the metal and leave only equal marks”. The grain must be regular to retain the ink during printing and will thus obtain a deep solid.

We speak of a turn when we made a first pass in the three main directions (from top to bottom, from left to right and diagonally) on the surface of the plate. The engravers of the 17th century 18th century advocated twenty laps so that the plate is properly grained. The graining can also be achieved by a roulette, which saves time, but gives a poorer rendering.

The engraver will smooth the areas of the plate that need less ink retention with a scraper or a burnisher.

“The instrument used to rake grain is called a scraper. This scraper usually has a burnisher on the same rod; the burnisher is used to smooth the parts that the scraper has raked… It is about working, to keep the grain in its bright tone on the parts of the copper that must print the shadows; to blunt the tips of the grain on the parts of the copper which are to print the half-tints, and to rake the parts of the copper which must spare the paper, so that it can furnish the glistening ones. ” – Jacob Christoph The Blon

Thus, a print having shades of gray.

Since the time of this quotation, technique and tools have evolved well. The cradle first no longer has a radiating but parallel grooving, and its sharpening is simplified by the use of various instruments.

Current technical process
Long and delicate, the technical process used to obtain a monochrome mezzotint includes several well differentiated stages:

1. Beveling: The bevels of the ordinarily unpolished copper plate can be made using various tools called bevelers or simply sketched with the file, then finished either with the emery cloth or with the scraper and burnisher to blunt the sharp edges of the plate. Other metals than copper are hardly suited in the black way.

2. Graining: it is usually done in the cradle, a tool with a semicircular edge more or less finely serrated leaving a dotted line on the copper, much more rarely on the wheel. less effective, or rocking machine, not widespread. The operation consists in covering the copper with tiny cavities, at the sides of which are formed pimples which have the property of retaining the ink. There are cradles of various sizes and finesses. The cradle can be held by hand approximately vertically or attached to the end of an English cane, apparatus for facilitating graining. The position of the cradle with respect to the copper, or, more precisely, the angle of attack of the teeth on the plate is likely to modify the graining and the advancement of the cradle on the copper. It varies significantly from one engraver to another. Some are in favor of an acute angle, others of an obtuse angle, others of a right angle. Each engraver has his method of graining which, to obtain a deep black, must include at least thirty passages in all directions. Engravers often use a scheme where angles are indicated, or, a rotating circular plate. It is indeed necessary to change the position of the copper plate regularly, for example to add 10° angle to each turn, to obtain a satisfactory graining. When the copper is matte, the engraver “reads” the copper using a magnifying glass or wire count to check that no bright surface remains, sign that the plate has been sufficiently cradled. It takes at least ten hours to rock a plate of 20 x 30 cm.

3. The drawing: the sketch or the postponement of the drawing is usually done in pencil directly on the grained copper or with a carbon paper to postpone, if necessary, a preparatory drawing.

4. Engraving: the engraving work is done with a scraper to sharpen or rake the grain, then to burnish to flatten the surface so as to obtain light gray or white on important areas, or even directly to the burnisher or the stone agate. The more the grain is raked or flattened, the more the value obtained will be clear when printed. The progress of the work is controlled by the engraver using a bright screen usually consisting of a layer stretched in front of a lamp. By varying the angle of the copper plate placed on an engraving cushioncompared to the screen, the engraving is revealed in every detail. Some engravers coat the charcoal plate to control the state of the engraving. The burner can additionally use a binocular loupe to execute the details.

5. The draw: it allows the engraver to control the rendering of his work. First, there are the famous prints of artists traditionally marked EA (artist’s proof) in pencil at the bottom left of the bowl left in the paper during the printing. The paper used must be wetted or moistened with the spray bottle before use. It is usually thick (about 300 g / m 2) and sweet little or no glue, says “love” of ink, capable of making all the details. For a black print, different types of ink can be used. The inking of the plate is delicate. Copper is often heated to thin too thick ink and avoid adding oil that may eventually cause stains on the print. The plate inked uniformly is wiped with tarlatan, then either skimmed with Meudon white or wiped with tissue paper to remove the light film of ink that covers the light or white areas. The bevel of the plate is then wiped with a cloth. The copper placed on the tray of the intaglio press set to obtain a high pressure. The wet paper is placed on the copper, then covered with two or three diapers.

6. Corrections: the work of copper is taken again to eliminate the defects identified on the test of control. The corrections are followed by a new control print. When this is satisfactory for the engraver, the test becomes the “good to shoot”, that is to say the reference print for the printer who will eventually make the commercial prints.

7. Steeling: this optional operation which aims to make hard copper like steel, becomes necessary if one wishes to draw more than thirty prints. It consists of electrolytically covering the copper with a very thin layer of iron. Successive impressions under high pressure tend to crush the grain of copper and thus to deteriorate the range of values of the black way.

Mezzotint engravers
Ludwig von Siegen – inventor
Prince Rupert of the Rhine
Wallerant Vaillant (1623 – 1677, the first professional mezzotinter)
John Smith (c. 1652 – c. 1742)
Jan van der Vaardt (c. 1650 – 1727, Dutchman working in England)
Jacob Christoph Le Blon (1667 – 1741, German, developed colour printing, using different plates)
Bernhard Vogel (1683–1737)
George White (c. 1684–1732)
Jacques Fabien Gautier d’Agoty (1716–1785, French, developed a four-colour mezzotint process)
James MacArdell (1729?–1765, Irish)
Johann Jacob Ridinger (1736–1784), youngest son of Johann Elias Ridinger, who worked in mezzotint himself, too
David Martin (1737 – 1797, Scottish)
William Pether (c. 1738 – 1821)
Valentine Green (1739 – 1813)
John Dixon (about 1740–1811)
Richard Earlom (1743 – 1822)
John Raphael Smith (1751 – 1812)
John Young (1755–1825)
James Walker (c.1760 – c.1823, British, moved to Russia)
Charles Howard Hodges (1764 – 1837, English, moved to Amsterdam)
John Martin (1789 – 1854)
John Sartain (1808 – 1897, English pioneer of the technique in America)
Alexander Hay Ritchie (1822–1895, Scottish, moved to US)
Richard Josey (1840–1906), engraver of James McNeill Whistler’s Whistler’s Mother
Yozo Hamaguchi, (1909-2000)
M. C. Escher
Peter Ilsted (1861 – 1933, Danish)
T.F. Simon
Toru Iwaya
Carol Wax, born 1953
Robert Kipniss, born 1931

Source from Wikipedia