The Mezzotint

Mezzotint: The mezzotint process achieves tonality by roughening the metal plate with a metal tool, a rocker. The small teeth of the rocker create tiny burrs that hold ink during the printing process. The rocked areas that are left alone will produce a rich black print, and areas that have been scraped and burnished (knocking the burrs down) will hold less ink, producing lighter values. The more an area is scraped and burnished, the lighter it will print. This process produces an image with a high level of quality and richness.

Mezzotint Tools
The Mezzotint Rocker: This is a steel tool with a beveled, curved edge, with many tiny teeth. Rockers vary in gauge (screen size) from 45 (coarse), 65, 85, to 100 (fine). These numbers tell how many teeth there are per inch on the blade. Rockers also vary in the width of the blade from 1/2 inch up to 6 inches.
Scrapers (also used in etching): These tools are triangular shaped tools made of high carbon tool steel, and come in a variety of sizes. The three sharp edges are used to cut off or scrape away the plate surface. The scraper is used to create an image and to making corrections on the plate. In mezzotint, the scraper is ideally the first tool to use once the plate is rocked. Since its sharp edge cuts the burr down, it is an efficient way to create tones in an image.

Burnishers (also used in etching): These tools are highly polished finish tools made of high carbon tool steel, and they also come in a variety of sizes. The burnisher flattens the burrs and polishes the plate surface. It can be used to create an image or to make corrections on the plate. The burnisher is typically used after the scraper, to finish polishing or smoothing an area of the plate.


The Process/Creating the plate
Rocking the plate is the first and most laborious step. Traditionally, the plate is rocked by hand as shown above. Rocking requires a significant amount
of pressure and consistency.
I have made pole rocker tools for my mezzotint rockers to help the process of rocking to be more consistent.
The entire plate is rocked in 24 different directions, which creates an organic texture of burrs across the plate. Once the plate has been rocked in 24 directions, the surface is ready for an image. It takes about 50 hours to rock a plate this size (18" x 24").
Smooth copper plate before being rocked.
Copper plate after being rocked.
Close up of rocked plate (you can see the beveled edge of the plate at the bottom). It is important to bevel the edges of the plate for several reasons. It is less likely to hurt the teeth of the rocker when rocking over a beveled edge than a square, 90 degree angle edge. This bevel also keeps the paper from tearing when it is printed (on what was before a sharp edge), and it is also easier on the press blankets and rollers. The edges of the plate are beveled to a 45 degree angle with a metal file and a scraper.
Close up of rocked plate (you can really see the texture from the burrs here).
Working the image into the plate by scraping and burnishing is the next stage. Scraping the plate. Burnishing the plate.
Burnishing the plate. Once the image has been scraped and burnished into the plate, it is ready to be cleaned and printed. Cleaning the plate.
Printing the Mezzotint
First step: Preparing for printing. The first thing I do is get out everything I will need for printing (the mezzotint plate, ink, tarlatan, rags, etc.). I also have my paper soaking in a tray of water before my hands get dirty.   Now that everything is organized and ready for printing, I start inking the plate.   Ink is carefully carded onto the plate, pushing ink into the textured surface.
The entire plate is covered with ink.   The next step in the process is wiping the plate. This is a delicate process, as it can be easy to over wipe the plate, removing too much ink from the image.   As I gently wipe the plate with tarlatan, removing excess ink, the image begins to appear. When the plate is done being wiped, it is ready to be printed.
The plate is placed on the press bed, inside the registration marks.   Then the paper is removed from the tray of water and blotted.   The paper is then lined up with the registration marks on the press bed, making sure that the print will be square and centered on the paper.
Then the felt press blankets are placed over the paper and run through the press.       Then the paper is carefully lifted up and the image is now transferred to the paper.
Here I am wiping the mezzotint plate, "Sanctuary" at Iowa State University, where I gave a workshop on mezzotints.   Again at Iowa State University, I am lifting the print after running it through the press as students observe.
The History of Mezzotint

Mezzotint was invented in Germany in the 17th century by an amateur artist, Ludwig von Siegen. At this time, the only method of achieving texture on the copper plate was cross-hatching, and the artists who reproduced the great works of art found that the techniques available did not convey the beauty and subtle qualities of the original paintings. By using this new method of mezzotint, nuances in the old master paintings were much easier to reproduce because of what the rocked plate offered: deep, rich blacks and textural hints that were not possible with the earlier methods. The genius of the mezzotint is not only the rich black and whites that are achieved, but also the unbelievable grays and subtleties that can be produced. This is where the name mezzotint comes from: mezzo, which means half, and tinta, which means tone in Italian.

The most important characteristic of the mezzotint and the starting ground of each one is rocking back and forth on the copper plate in twenty-four different directions with a rocker. A rocker is a steel tool with a very sharp, crescent-shaped, beveled edge with teeth on the edge. Rockers come in a variety of sizes and gauges. The most common gauge, 85, means that there are 85 tiny teeth per inch on the edge of the rocker blade. Rocker blades range from one inch wide to six inches wide. When moved in a rocking motion on the copper plate, the rocker raises burrs on the surface of the copper plate. Since the plate is rocked in different directions it produces an organic velvety pattern; and when looked at under magnification, many mountains and valleys are evident. This is called the ground. If inked at this stage, the copper plate, which has now become a textured surface (from the original shiny copper surface), would produce a rich, deep black (because this textured surface will hold a great amount of ink).

The image is then created by pushing down the burrs that were raised by the rocker with a scraper and burnisher. The scraper is a sharp, angled tool that cuts the surface of the burr, and the burnisher has a rounded edge that burnishes/smoothes the burr. The more the artist scrapes and burnishes, the more the burr of the rocked plate is depressed, shining the plate. Once the image has been scraped/burnished into the rocked plate, it is ready to be inked and printed. The rocked areas of the plate that were not scraped or burnished will hold the most ink and give a luscious black. The more an area is scraped and burnished, the smaller the burr becomes, thus holding less ink. This is how various gray tones and whites are created. The plate is printed in 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 with a sheet of paper, and the process is repeated. Because the burrs on the plate are delicate, 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.

Mezzotinting proved to be very important in the 17th and 18th centuries reproducing the great masters and even spawning some original work by artists who had been etchers and engravers. Holland, Belgium, France and Great Britain used the medium, and it also traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to be used in the new colonies. The invention of steel plates for etching and engraving, the French Revolution and the industrial revolution succeeded in making the mezzotint underutilized and almost forgotten. When photography was invented, the mezzotint was put aside almost completely. There was a modest recovery in England during the late 19th century, when a few of the printmakers of the Royal Academy in London produced original mezzotints. It was the re-birth of printmaking in post World War II France that brought the mezzotint back to its full glory. Workshops specializing in printmaking under the direction of Stanley William Hayter and his Atelier 17, and Johnny Friedlaender created the need to look at older techniques and it was the curiosity created by this ambience of change that allowed a young Japanese student, Yozo Hamaguchi, and a student studying with Marc Chagall, Mario Avati, to experiment and commit themselves to the mezzotint. Today, the mezzotint is used by hundreds of accomplished and emerging printmakers throughout the world, but it is still a relatively rare medium.


Mikio Watanabe