What is a mezzotint?

Mezzotint is a printmaking process and tonal method of the intaglio family that is akin to drypoint (see What is a drypoint?). It was designed to allow for the creation of prints with half-tones as well as rich, opaque blacks.

In the mezzotint process, you can achieve tonality by roughening the surface of a metal plate, usually copper, with a spiked metal tool called a “rocker”. Ink is then applied to the entire metal plate, and the plate is then wiped clean. The small pits achieved in the roughening proccess however retain the ink, allowing for the creation of half tones when put in contact with paper through a printing press. A high level of quality and richness can be achieved using this method. The earliest mezzotint print dates back to 1642 and it is believed that the process was invented by an amateur artist from Germany around this time in the 17th-century.

There are two different methods of mezzotint. The first and most common method is called the dark-to-light method. For this, the whole surface of the metal plate is roughened using the rocker, or now more commonly using a machine. If inked at this point the resulting print would be entirely black. The image is created by smoothening selected areas of the plate with a burnishing tool. The smoothed parts will print lighter than those not smoothed by the burnishing tool, i.e.—areas can be made to varying degrees of smoothness or flatness to create the half-tones, which is what the process was initially created for. This method is called dark-to-light because the print starts out completely black but areas are made light through the smoothening.

Alternatively, you can use the “light-to-dark” method. This involves selectively roughening the metal plate in areas where you want the darker parts of the image to be. The very first mezzotints were made this way, and the areas of the plates not submitted to roughening were typically combined with other intaglio techniques, such as engraving.

In both mezzotint techniques, the whole surface of the prepared metal plate is inked and the ink is then wiped off so that it remains only left in the pits of the roughened areas. The plate is then put through a printing press with a sheet of paper, on which the final product is subsequently achieved.

For examples of mezzotints see Vija Celmins’ Untitled (Web 1), 1999.

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