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Mezzotint: History and Technique

Mezzotint: History and Technique

Mezzotint is an intaglio process, and is easy to recognise thanks to the distinctive way the image is revealed through lighter tones emerging from a black background. It was particularly important in England for the reproduction of portraits, and was used extensively in the eighteenth century, its popularity peaking in the late eighteenth century.

The Process and Technique

Firstly the plate is grounded (systematically roughened with a rounded blade with cutting teeth known was a rocker). The blade is held at right angles to the plate and rocked repeatedly over the surface. This has to be repeated as many as forty times in order to result in a uniform ground (and as many as eighty to achieve improved results). In this state the plate holds a lot of ink and prints a rich black.

The engraver then scrapes and burnishes the plate, smoothing the away the burr (the raised roughened metal) in proportion to the lightness of tone required. Dark grey only needs gentle burnishing, while pure white would require the burr to be completely scraped away and burnished until there is no trace of the teeth from the rocker on the copper plate. The pale grey areas of a mezzotint are the best place to see the characteristic straight lines of the rocker. This process was usually left to a professional mezzotinter, but was also probably occasionally attempted by non-professionals.

However, the inking and printing of the plate was particularly complicated and, in intaglio printing, the more densely worked the plate the more complicated to ink. Some mezzotints could only be produced at the rate of eight to ten impressions a day, as in the case of large mezzotints by John Martin.

Furthermore, the burr (as with the burr in a drypoint) is quickly worn down, limiting the number of impressions that can be taken with the depth of tone associated with the mezzotint. Various methods were employed to overcome this; professionals often reground worn parts of the plate to refresh it, and the emergence of steel plates in the nineteenth century increased the lifespan of the plate to yield as many as twenty to thirty thousand impressions, although the image was less rich. The leading eighteenth century mezzotinter, Valentine Green came up with another solution by declaring in the conditions of sale of some of his prints that the proofs of the mezzotints would be limited to fifty impressions and be twice the cost.

In the nineteenth century mezzotint was also often combined with other processes, usually etching, where the heavy lines were etched before the plate was grounded. It was perhaps the refreshing of the worn areas of plates that led to this technique of partially grounding the plate to create areas of mezzotinted shadow in etched prints.

Depending on the skills of the printer, plates could be made to last for more impressions before wearing out. Quality printers were sometimes specifically mentioned in contracts between artists or publishers and an engraver.

As with all intaglio, mezzotints could also be printed in colour. Printing in colour once the plate began to wear was another way to prolong the life of the plate. From the 1690s the mezzotint was also the most widely used print to produce glass colour plates. The dampened mezzotint was placed face down on the glass, and the paper was rubbed away, leaving the ink on the glass. The surface was then varnished to turn any remaining bits of paper transparent, and the image was painted from the back.


The first steps in the development of mezzotint were made by a German soldier, Ludwig con Siegen of Utrecht and described in his letter of 1642. He used a fine roulette and worked from light to dark rather than the dark to light enabled by the development of the rocking tool in the 1650s (credited to Price Rupert).

After settling in England in 1660, Prince Rupert demonstrated the mezzotint technique to John Evelyn who made it public in his 1662 Sculptura, or the History and Art of Chalcogaphy and Engraving in Copper. Rupert also instructed William Sherwin who made the first dated English mezzotint in 1669.

The first English mezzotinter to establish an international reputation was John Smith, who produced his first mezzotints in 1683. Largely thanks to Smith, the mezzotint became a serious competitor to the more traditional engraved portrait (specialised in by the French). The technique became known as la manière anglaise.

Portrait painters wanted the best mezzotinters to reproduce their paintings for publicity purposes as much as making money from the prints, and they were often involved in supervising production. Indeed, John Smith lived in the house of the portrait painter Sir Godfrey Kneller for a time. After quarrelling with Smith, Kneller went straight to John Smith's leading rival, John Simon.

Standards of mezzotint during the mid-eighteenth century were poorer, and the best known mezzotinter of the period was John Faber the younger. Standards improved with the arrival of a large number of mezzotinters from Ireland, the Dublin-group, the best known member being James McArdell, and which dominated the profession until the mid 1770s.

Portraits were the most popular subject for mezzotints, but towards the end of the eighteenth century there was also a flourishing tradition of animal subjects. The nineteenth century also saw J.M.W. Turner and John Constable produce mezzotints, with Constable producing some of the finest English mezzotints in twenty-two plates in his Various Subjects of Landscape, 1883.

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