What is a mezzotint?
A mezzotint (in the Italian sense ‘half-tone’; French manière noire; German schabkunst) is a print made using a copper plate which has been worked over (‘grounded’) using a semi-circular fine-toothed tool (‘rocker’) so that the entire surface is roughened. In this state, when inked the plate will print solid black. The design is then created by scraping down and polishing areas of the plate. These will hold less ink and so print more lightly than the unpolished areas. The mezzotint plate is particularly prone to wear during printing. The result is that the earliest impressions are the finest and print very dark with strong definition whereas later ones are noticeably fainter. The early mezzotints published by Tompson and Browne have a characteristic coarse ground. The later ones were ‘rocked’ more thoroughly usually by apprentices, and present a finer finish
The introduction of the mezzotint
The distinctive printmaking technique of mezzotint was invented in the mid-17th century. The German soldier Ludwig von Siegen is usually cited as the first to use it in a crude form although it appears that he used a roulette tool rather than the rocker used in mezzotint proper. Prince Rupert, Count Palatine (Ruprecht von der Pfaltz), a prominent Royalist during the English Civil War, who was also an early member of the Royal Society, encountered the technique while he was in exile in Holland. He developed the rocker that was the key to facilitating the process. While Prince Rupert made only a small number of mezzotints his assistant Wallerant Vaillant, a professional printmaker, made many more and refined the technique further. His prints are particularly impressive and exploit to the full the rich black and velvety tonal effects that can be achieved. Vaillant settled in Amsterdam in 1665 and as a consequence mezzotint was rapidly taken up in Holland by printmakers such as Abraham Blooteling. By the end of the 1660s a market in mezzotints had been established in the European centres of printmaking in France, Germany and Holland.