What is mezzotint ?
Mezzotint is a printmaking technique where the surface of a copper plate is worked with special tools in order to produce an image. The technique is part of a family of techniques called intaglio, where once the plate (matrix) is ready for printing and ink is applied, the ink will sit in grooves and pits lower than the surface of the plate.
A mezzotint is an original print: this means that the print is not a reproduction of another existing artwork, like a digital print would be a photocopy of a drawing or painting for example, but is an original in itself. Original prints may be part of an edition; in the case of a mezzotint the edition generally is made of only a few dozens as the copper plate degrades after a certain number of impressions. Some mezzotints have larger edition because the artist has had the plate steelfaced ( plated with a thin layer of steel) which makes it harder hence more durable.
The characteristic of mezzotint is that it is a tonal technique ( no lines !): the image is created by producing black, gray and white areas, and it is possible to obtain some very smooth transitions between these different shades. Mezzotint, also called maniera nera in Italian, manière noire in French and manera negra in Spanish, is well known for producing the richest and darkest black of all the intaglio techniques.
Mezzotint is a very laborious process as it needs a long preparation before the artist can even start working on the image. The plate needs to be roughened up with a special tool, called a rocker, that indents the surface with thousands and thousands of small pits that will later function as receptacles for ink. This preparation takes many hours, depending on the size of the plate.
Once the surface is ready, in order to produce an image the artist has to scrape with a blade or smooth the metal with a burnisher so that the pits become more shallow (and will produce grays once printed) or disappear altogether ( for whites). This too is a lengthy process.
Once the artist is happy with the image on the plate, it is time for printing it on paper. The plate is covered in creamy ink, which is then carefully wiped with a gauzy cloth and with the palm of the hand so that the excess is removed and the ink is only left in the pits. The plate is then placed flat on the bed of a printing press with a sheet of damp paper on top and as they pass under the roll the ink is transferred from the plate to the paper: the image finally appears in black and white.