Mezzotint (called "manier noir" or "dark manner"), is a printmaking process of the intaglio family. Especially difficult and exacting method (even physically painful) in which the atist roughens the entire surface of a soft metal (copper) plate. Mezzotint achieves tonality by roughening the plate with thousands of little dots made by a special metal tool- instrument with serrated half-moon edge with small teeth, called a "rocker" or mechanically. It has between 45 and 120 teeth per inch on the face of a blade in the shape of a shallow arc, with a wooden handle projecting upwards in a T-shape. Rocked steadily from side to side at the correct angle, the rocker will proceed forward creating burrs in the surface of the copper. The plate is then moved . either rotated by a set number of degrees or through 90 degrees according to preference . and then rocked in another pass. This is repeated until the plate is roughened evenly - a texture similar in structure to the sandpaper. The plate is eventually covered with thousands of tiny "pits", which hold ink and would print a deep velvety black if not further worked. Everything you need to be printed lighter than black is scraped off by hand with a metal tool (called schaber) and then smoothly polished with another tool to get gray and white tones. The artist essentially draws light areas into the image using a burnisher, rocker, scraper, burnisher, roulette to smooth out areas of the plate. A burnisher has a smooth, round end, which flattens the minutely protruding points comprising the roughened surface of the metal printing plate. In printing, the tiny pits in the plate hold the ink when the face of the plate is wiped clean. Areas burnished smooth hold no ink.
Specifically, in this type of intaglio (nonrelief) print, subtle gradations of light and shade, rather than lines, form the image. This is called working from "dark to light", or the "subtractive" method. The artist can achieve a range of tones by varying the smoothness or roughness of the metal surface. the smoothed parts will print lighter than those areas not smoothed by the burnishing tool. A high level of quality and richness in the print can be achieved.
Printing the finished plate is the same for either method, and follows the normal way for an intaglio plate; the whole surface is inked, the ink is then wiped off the surface to leave ink only in the pits of the still rough areas below the original surface of the plate. The plate is put through a high-pressure printing press next to a sheet of paper, and the process repeated.
Because the pits in the plate are not deep, only a small number of top-quality impressions (copies) can be printed before the quality of the tone starts to degrade as the pressure of the press begins to smooth them out. Perhaps only one or two hundred really good impressions can be taken.
Many artists of the mezzotint print in color - for each color requires a new plate and press on the previous print with a single stroke of the press to each plate equal to precise markings prior to the printed image. Because of all this mezzotint graphics are usually very expensive.
By varying the degree of smoothing, mid-tones between black and white can be created, hence the name mezzo-tinto which is Italian for "half-tone" or "half-painted". The mezzotint process was first developed in the printmaking center of Amsterdam in the second quarter of the seventeenth century. An engraving technique capable of producing very fine gradations of tones. The mezzotint printmaking method was invented by the German amateur artist Ludwig von Siegen (1609.c 1680). The rocker seems to have been invented by Prince Rupert of the Rhine, a famous cavalry commander in the English Civil War, who was the next to use the process, and took it to England. Sir Peter Lely saw the potential for using it to publicise his portraits, and encouraged a number of Dutch printmakers to come to England. By 1700, England boasted several talented mezzotint engravers. The mezzotint served primarily to translate oil paintings into printed form. Velvety black and rich brown shades matched a widespread seventeenth-century taste for strong chiaroscuro in oil painting.a style that remained vital in eighteenth-century British painting as well.
By the mid-1770s, as framers and gilders (rather than publishers) came to dominate the trade in furniture prints, the mezzotint began to lose favor to another tonal intaglio printmaking technique: stipple engraving (punctir-manier), first developed in France in the 1760s. The stipple process uses dots (made with an etching needle or roulette) to create tone, and its plates can withstand longer print runs than mezzotint plates. For eighteenth-century printsellers.who typically sold stipples in ready-made gilt frames.the method offered an additional benefit: the possibility of color printing . la poup.e (dabbing selected areas of the plate with color). Faced with this competition, mezzotint printmakers and publishers changed tack. The process was especially widely used in England from the mid-eighteenth century, to reproduce portraits and other paintings. Since the mid-nineteenth century it has been relatively little used. Robert Kipniss and Peter Ilsted are two notable 20th-century exponents of the technique; M. C. Escher also used mezzotint from time to time.