Mezzotint is an intaglio process in which ink is deposited in pits in a metal plate and then transferred to a piece of paper. Tiny burrs of metal raised at the side of the pits are also involved in holding ink and enriching the tonal effect. According to the Oxford English Dictionary “The process was invented by Ludwig von Siegen of Utrecht, whose first dated mezzotint was made in 1642. The introduction of mezzotinting to England is generally ascribed to Prince Rupert, the nephew of Charles I. He was also formerly regarded by some as the inventor of the technique.” Mezzotint, with its ability to mimic continuous gradations of tone, was seized upon as the best available method of reproducing paintings. We should also remember that the word mezzotint can be applied to a straight painting to refer to tints neither dark nor light — mid-tones.

Photo of a mezzotint rocker from Magical Secrets by Crown Point Press, San Francisco

A mezzotint rocker, a curved metal block with raised teeth, often narrower than the one shown, is used to roughen up a metal (usually copper) plate with even pits all over. Ink it up in this state and print it on an intaglio press and you’ll get an even, rich, black solid. After the rocker has applied its texture, the mezzotint artist then uses a burnishing tool to flatten out some areas of the plate, smoothing out some completely to print white, and leaving others with varying depths of pit and burr so that a complete range of color can be printed with deeper (darkest) and shallower (lighter) tones creating the image. Because the raised burrs are integral to the process, and these are very subject to damage, the number of copies that can be (successfully) printed form a mezzotint plate is quite small. As the plate gets squashed it will begin to lose detail.

The nickname for the mezzotint process was manière noire, pointing to the fact that the picture was extracted from darkness. As Richard Benson suggests in The Printed Picture it’s a bit like creating a drawing by using an eraser on a completely black field — a tricky skill. In many mezzotints, he suggests, technique dominates with the result that the picture suffers. Mr Benson uses as an example of excellence this portrait of King Charles I. Of course in the book, beautifully printed by GHP of West Haven Connecticut from separations made by Mr Benson, what we are seeing is a fine-screen lithographic representation of a mezzotint, so the mezzotint’s structure is reproduced using a fine halftone screen. What you are looking at here is a digital representation of a photograph of a halftone reproduction of a photograph of a mezzotint. Hey, we do what we can!

One disadvantage of the mezzotint process is that large dark areas tend to survive with little detail in them though Isaac Beckett has done a good job of avoiding such a fate. In fact his shadows show a bit more detail than the original (at least in this tiny reproduction of Van Dyck’s portrait) — see the underarm and the detail in the armor nearby. You can click on the picture to enlarge it.

Below is an enlargement of the detail of the eye, which shows the rocker pattern.

As the Metroploitan Museum tells us, while the earliest mezzotints reproduced the works of past masters, living painters soon realized that here was a way to promote their own work. A mezzotint can be made more rapidly, thus less expensively, than a line engraving (although it yields fewer impressions) and “British portrait and subject painters would work closely with mezzotint engravers to prepare skilled reproductions of their work, which were frequently shown alongside their painted prototypes in London’s annual art exhibitions. Such images often gained greater currency than the artists intended: to meet the increasing demand, less reputable publishers did not hesitate to plagiarize copies of popular works.”

Mezzotint remained principally a British craze from the 1750 through the nineteenth century. In Paris Jacques-Fabien Gautier-Dagoty did develop a process of four-color printing from mezzotint plates, an enterprise which did not survive the Revolution. Here’s a detail of his print, “The Tapestry Worker”, which is to be found at The Art Institute of Chicago.

In so far as mezzotints appeared in books they would tend to be printed separately from the text and bound in to letterpress sigs. Inevitably with the invention of photography and fine-screen lithographic printing the finicky process of mezzotinting declined in commercial importance. Yet, as with any old technique, artists are still producing mezzotints, and printers exist who can print mezzotint plates. (See the caption of the photo of the rocker at the top of this page.)