Mezzotinto (from the Italian mezzo “medium”, tinto “tinted”) is a gravure printing technique in which a form for printing on paper is created by smoothing the rough surface of the board with a cutter (rocker). The term “mezzotinto” also refers to a popular form of metal engraving.
Mezzotinto noticeably differs from etching in velvety tones, smooth borders of the image, as well as a rich variety of color shades. This technique was widely used in the 17th and 18th centuries to create printed portrait reproductions.
Types and features of Mezzotinto
Mezzotinto includes 2 main methods of processing printing plates:
- “From light to dark”. The metal mold is carefully polished to a perfectly smooth state. Then the master uses a special tool to process individual sections of the surface of the form to give them varying degrees of roughness. The saturation of the black color on the print directly depends on the depth of processing of the plate.
- “From dark to light”. The master completely processes the metal polished plate with a cutter (rocker) to give it a uniform roughness. Then, using a scraper (a sharp triangular cutter) and a trowel (a blunt tool with a rounded end), the engraver smoothes out certain areas of the form.
In both cases, the smooth areas of the plate will be white when printed, and the rough areas of the plate will retain ink. As a result, a print of a black and white artistic image will be obtained on paper.
When making multi-colored engravings, the artist sequentially processes several printing plates using one of the above technologies. The number of processed plates should correspond to the number of colors on the print (print).
Mezzotinto is significantly inferior to etching in terms of the number of printed images due to the relatively small depth of form processing. This technique rarely produces more than two hundred good quality impressions from the original plate.
The history of mezzotinto goes back almost 4 centuries. Invented this printing technique, or rather the method “from light to dark”, German self-taught artist Ludwig von Siegen (Ludwig von Siegen) in 1642. He also owns the authorship of the earliest work an engraving depicting Countess Amalia Elisabeth from Hanau-Münzenberg.
Twenty years later, Prince Rupert of the Rhine invented the second method of mezzotinto (“black to light”). This outstanding man not only made a brilliant military career in England, but also left his mark on art. During his stay in Germany, Rupert became acquainted with von Siegen’s invention and became interested in engraving. With an inquisitive mind, the prince came up with an alternative method of graphic technique, which soon attracted great interest in England.
In the early 18th century, a descendant of French refugees, Jacob Christoph Le Blon, who lived in Amsterdam, invented the three- and four-color mezzotinto printing system. His developments in the middle of the 19th century became the basis for the creation of another printing technique chromolithography.
Until the 30s of the twentieth century, mezzotinto enjoyed immense popularity in England.
Here, from the middle of the 18th century, a large number of enthusiasts appeared who collected engravings-portraits created in this technique. In other European countries, the passion for mezzotinto was more restrained. In Germany and France, it was quickly replaced by lithography as the main technique for making color reproductions of paintings.
The invention of offset printing and the rapid development of photography were the main reasons for the decline in interest in mezzotinto at the end of the 19th century. The old type of engraving could not compete on equal terms with the new printing techniques the process of its creation was too laborious and complicated.
Nowadays, only a few artists use mezzotinto in their work. But the works of graphic masters of the past eras, exhibited in the halls of museums and galleries, are still admired by the public.
Notable masters of mezzotinto
Among the renowned mezzotinto masters, there are both professional artists and amateurs. But each of them, no doubt, deserves a separate mention in our article:
- Ludwig von Siegen is the founder of mezzotinto, a man of noble aristocratic origin, a professional military man. Von Siegen’s creative heritage includes only 7 prints, but no one disputes his primacy in the invention of this graphic technique.
- Prince Rupert of Rhine is a German by birth, who rose in England to the rank of admiral and the post of governor of Rupert’s Land (a huge overseas colony in the territory of modern Canada). He devoted most of his life to military service, but he always remained an ardent lover and popularizer of engraving.
- Wallerant Vaillant is a Flemish portrait painter and printmaker, the eldest of five artist brothers. He is widely known for his portraits of German and French monarchs, including Louis XIV. Vilant, through his own imprudence, revealed the secret of mezzotinto to the son of his coppersmith and unwittingly made this technique widely available.
- Jacques Fabien Gautier d’Agoty is a French artist and anatomist, a student of the inventor of the mezzotinto color printing method, Jacob Christophe Le Blon. He left to descendants not only a gallery of portraits of famous men and women, but also many bright color anatomical albums.