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How to make a mezzotint etching
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Mezzotint Printing: A Brief Overview by Noelle Fink
           
            Mezzotint would definitely have to be one of those words that just sounds intriguing, but really, no one knows what in the world it is. This printmaking process is not overly popular today, which is another reason why many people, even artists, are unaware of the uniqueness and quality results of this process. It is also not very popular because of the sheer amount of work and intensive labor that is required to produce a quality image. According to Jim Hubbman, it can take up to 6 hours just to get the plate ready for engraving the actual image. However, according to an interview done with Carol Wax, mezzotint printing is becoming more popular and an increasing number of artists are exploring this technique.
Carol Wax is one of the most premier mezzotint artists of today, and she has authored the book The Mezzotint: History and Technique.2 Wax says, “Mezzotint is capable of satisfying the demands of almost any image, working style, or concept. Just because one hasn’t yet seen a lot of mezzotints handled in a loose or abstract style, doesn’t mean the medium isn’t suited for it.”2 As another source said, “Mezzotint’s history as a vehicle for reproducing paintings has proved the medium able to accommodate the technical demands of almost any image.”
The mezzotint process was more prominent in Europe, after its development in the late 17th century. “From its introduction into England in 1669 until the early nineteenth century the mezzotint was to all intents an English monopoly.” “It was the invention of Ludwig von Siegen, whose first dated mezzotint was published in 1642, but it was carried to much greater refinement by Prince Rupert, the nephew of Charles I, and his large plate of the Large Executioner is the method’s first masterpiece.” Siegen’s first work was Portrait of Amelia Elizabeth, Ladgravine of Hesse-Cassel.1
            Mezzotint printing is a form of intaglio printing, yet another word that baffles people, myself included. It could also be considered a tonal engraving, as the ink is applied and wiped off to produce an image with beautifully gradated tones.6 Carol Wax gives a good analogy to describe this unique process: “…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.”
In short, intaglio printing is the umbrella term for any printmaking technique wherein a large network of lines or dots is engraved into a plate, then ink is applied to the plate, pressing ink into the lines and dots.1 Then the excess ink is wiped away from the raised areas of the plates, leaving little inkwells in the depressed areas of the plate, where the lines and dots were engraved. Then the plate and the paper laid on top of the plate are run through a press, which squeezes the ink from the plate onto the paper surface.1 Mezzotint is just one method of intaglio printing, as will be seen by the following explanation of the mezzotint process.
Essentially, the image will be engraved into a metal plate, typically copper, that is smooth.1 Then the entire plate will be engraved with a texture of “small pits and burrs, which hold ink to create a rich velvety black [tone].”1 This texture is created using a tool called a rocker. A rocker is a chisel-like tool, with a serrated blade that scratches the surface of the plate.4 “One side of the blade is deeply engraved with lines from edge to handle, and it is this that gives mezzotints their peculiar ‘warp and woof’ texture.”4 After this overall texture is created, the artist will use scraping and burnishing tools to smooth out the pits and burrs created by the rocker; where the pits and burrs are smoothed is where the ink will not collect and later will be wiped away.1 This is why the mezzotint process is considered one in which you work from dark to light,5 because you start out creating a series of little ink wells, then you gradually and strategically erase them, leaving areas of white and gradated tones in between when the image is printed.
After the image has been completely inscribed, that is all of the light and mid-tone areas have been scraped or burnished, leaving all of the ink wells in the places where dark tones are desired, the plate will be completely covered with ink. Then the ink will be wiped away, leaving ink only in the areas with pits and burrs of varying depths (and, when printed, tones of darkness).1 Once the ink is removed from the smooth areas, then the intaglio process continues, and the plate and paper are run through
Mezzotint prints have a truly unique quality and a very specific look. It is certainly an interesting process, one that is worth the time and effort of anyone desiring to produce a quality image. It would be of great value to teach more about this process in both high school and college printmaking classes, and I think students could enjoy the process.


Hubbman, Jim. "Mezzotint Process - Jim Hubbman." Jim Hubbman - Watercolor Artist & Printmaker. Jim Hubbman. Web. 04 Apr. 2011. <http://jimhubbman.calkinsc.com/mezzotint/mezzotint.htm>.

Booth, Miguel. "Carol Wax - Mezzotint." World Printmakers. World Printmakers. Web. 04 Apr. 2011. <http://worldprintmakers.com/english/wax/interv.htm>.

Wax, Carol. The Mezzotint: History and Technique. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1996. Print.

Penrose, Boises. "Georgian Colour Prints." Bulletin on the Pennsylvania Museum 26.139 (1931): 27-31. Jstore. Jstore. Web. 04 Apr. 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3794564>.

Godfrey, Richard. "Mezzotint." The Oxford Companion to Western Art. Ed. Hugh Brigstocke. Oxford Art Online. 9 May. 2011 <http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/opr/t118/e1735>.

David Alexander. "Mezzotint." Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. 9 May. 2011 <http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T057653>.

Booth, Miguel. "Carol Wax - What Is a Mezzotint Print." World Printmakers. World Printmakers. Web. 04 Apr. 2011. <http://www.worldprintmakers.com/english/wax/whatis.htm>.

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