The Mezzotint : an original and rare technique of copper engraving


Let's talk about engraving ... The word covers a varied set of techniques leading to the production of a print; an image printed on paper, by hand, in limited numbers, by means of a mechanical press. The impression is made from a matrix engraved by the artist on a given medium; most often wood (xylogravure, embossed), linoleum (linocut, embossed), metal (engraving intaglio) , in regards to mezzotint, it’s copper.


There are six variants of copper engraving. Five of them (the dry point, the chisel, the etching, the aquatint and the soft varnish) produce a print traditionally composed of black lines on a white background.


The mezzotint is the only technique of copper engraving whose work reproduces whites on a black background; beyond technical originality, this inversion gives it its own aesthetic value.



The first task is to "flip" the surface of a copper plate a millimeter thick, like a gardener returning his land with a tillage implement. The tool of this graining is called rocker, a chopper held in one hand whose semicircular blade is bristling with tiny triangular tips. Swaying the hand forward break down the surface of the metal evenly. The plate thus grained - it is a long and fastidious work which requires at least 40-50 passages in all directions on each point of the surface – if an inking proof is made at this stage, the impression would give a perfect black.


To make the drawing appear, the artist must crush / burnish or scrape like a guillotine, the graining waves using various tools (scrapers, burnisher, fine charcoal). The engraver can thus gradually lighten the drawing areas that will retain more or less ink and give the shades of gray and white ...

The forms seem to come out of the shadows!


Since copper is a relatively soft material, each press pass is flattening the matrix and only a limited number of copies of equal quality can be printed.


Developed in the seventeenth century, the mezzotint is, because of the level of its technical requirement and low prints output, the rarest of copper engraving techniques ... But also, one of the most appreciated by collectors.

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© 2020 by  Jason Reittom