Mezzotint engraving is a relatively obscure form of printmaking that creates dramatic chiaroscuro, with white highlights emerging out of rich velvety dark tones. Italian for “half-tone,” mezzotint was a 17th century improvement on engraving’s tonal cross-hatched lines, because it can produce an even gradation of tones. Known as the black manner, its unique process entails working from black to white. An initial “roughing up” of the copper plate with a rocker tool forms a textured field of copper burrs, which prints as flat black. Lighter, grey passages and white highlights are created by slowly erasing the texture.
Mezzotints are created with three tools. First, the rocker tool is used to ground the copper plate, which creates the black field matrix from which the image will be created. The bottom curve of the rocker has sharp serrated teeth and when the blade is rocked back and forth on the copper plate, the teeth dig into the metal. To create an even ground, the entire plate is rocked in eight to sixteen different directions.
After the plate has been rocked, the other two tools — the burnisher and the scraper — are used to create this image. The way these two tools work is to smooth down and reduce the depth of the textured, pitted surface, controlling the amount of ink that will print onto the paper. The white areas of the print are achieved when the burrs are trimmed below the deepest cut of the rocker and the plate is polished smooth. Working on a plate is also like relief sculpture in that developing the image means shaving away part of the plate. A finished plate is like the surface of a coin with the white areas being the lowest point.