Developed in Germany, this technique was introduced to Britain by Prince Rupert (1619-82). First practiced by Luwig von Siegen, he instructed the Prince regarding this new method and the first dated British example was by William Sherwin in 1669 and was a portrait of Charles II.
The British engravers excelled at mezzo tinting, producing both portraits and landscapes. Mezzotint prints displayed a tonal quality which was not possible until the introduction of aquatints in the late eighteenth century. Until circa 1820 and the invention of mild steel, prints were usually prepared on copper plates which due to its soft nature, limited the size of editions.
John Faber II antique mezzotint of The Earl of Willmington
Antique Mezzotint Prints- Technique Explained
The first step in the process was to 'ground' the plate and for this, the engraver used a tool called a 'rocker'. With it he traversed the plate, working at first horizontally across the surface, then vertically and finally diagonally. The sharp file-like teeth of the rocker scored the surface of the plate producing a rough finish similar to that of coarse sandpaper.
Work with the rocker was far from popular and proved to be tedious and time consuming, the task usually fell to a senior apprentice or journeyman. From this we derive the well known phrase 'off his rocker', probably an indication of the stress induced by this initial preparation.
The plate was then passed to the engraver who commenced scraping up the highlights, working from dark to light with a sharp scalpel-like tool. This 'scraping' demanded a great degree of skill , the more an area was scraped, the smoother it became, thus reducing its capacity to retain ink at the printing stage. The light areas on a portrait, especially the skin tones were treated in this manner and would print white, due to an absence of ink. This ability to depict light and shade by scraping, resulted in the tonal excellence and almost photographic quality of many of the fine portraits mezzotints of the 18th and 19th century.
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