Last updated
Saint Agnes, mezzotint by John Smith after Godfrey Kneller, usually thought to be a portrait of his daughter, Catherine Voss, by his mistress. Saint Agnes. Mezzotint by J. Smith, 1716, after Sir G. Knell Wellcome V0031505.jpg
Saint Agnes, mezzotint by John Smith after Godfrey Kneller, usually thought to be a portrait of his daughter, Catherine Voss, by his mistress.

Mezzotint is a monochrome printmaking process of the intaglio family. It was the first printing process that yielded half-tones without using line- or dot-based techniques like hatching, cross-hatching or stipple. Mezzotint achieves tonality by roughening a metal plate with thousands of little dots made by a metal tool with small teeth, called a "rocker". In printing, the tiny pits in the plate retain the ink when the face of the plate is wiped clean. This technique can achieve a high level of quality and richness in the print, and produce a furniture print which is large and bold enough to be framed and hung effectively in a room. [2]


Mezzotint is often combined with other intaglio techniques, usually etching and engraving, including stipple engraving. The process was especially widely used in England from the eighteenth century, and in France was called la manière anglais (“the English manner”). Until the 20th century it has mostly been used for reproductive prints to reproduce portraits and other paintings, rather than for original compositions. [3] From the mid-18th century it was somewhat in competition with the other main tonal technique of the day, aquatint.

Since the mid-nineteenth century it has been relatively little used, as lithography and other techniques produced comparable results more easily. [4] Sir Frank Short (1857–1945) was an important pioneer of the mezzotint revival in the United Kingdom along with Peter Ilsted (1864–1933) in Denmark. Today's practitioners of the mezzotint process include Craig McPherson (b. 1948), Frederick Mershimer (b. 1958) and Carol Wax (b. 1953).

Mezzotint is known for the luxurious quality of its tones: first, because an evenly, finely roughened surface holds a lot of ink, allowing deep solid colours to be printed; secondly because the process of smoothing the plate with burin, burnisher and scraper allows fine gradations in tone to be developed. The scraper is a triangular ended tool, and the burnisher has a smooth round end – not unlike many spoon handles. [5]


Ludwig von Siegen, Countess Amalie Elisabeth of Hanau-Munzenberg, 1642, is the first known mezzotint, using the light to dark method. Arolsen Klebeband 01 273.jpg
Ludwig von Siegen, Countess Amalie Elisabeth of Hanau-Münzenberg , 1642, is the first known mezzotint, using the light to dark method.

The mezzotint printmaking method was invented by the German soldier and amateur artist Ludwig von Siegen (1609–c.1680). His earliest mezzotint print dates to 1642 and is a portrait of Countess Amalie Elisabeth of Hanau-Münzenberg, regent for her son, and von Siegen's employer. This was made by working from light to dark. 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. [6]

Sir Peter Lely saw the potential for using it to publicise his portraits, and encouraged a number of Dutch printmakers to come to England. Godfrey Kneller worked closely with John Smith, who is said to have lived in his house for a period; he created about 500 mezzotints, some 300 copies of portrait paintings. In the next century over 400 mezzotints after portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds are known, by various hands. [7]

British mezzotint collecting was a great craze from about 1760 to the Great Crash of 1929, also spreading to America. The main area of collecting was British portraits; hit oil paintings from the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition were routinely, and profitably, reproduced in mezzotint throughout this period, and other mezzotinters reproduced older portraits of historical figures, or if necessary, made them up. The favourite period to collect was roughly from 1750 to 1820, the great period of the British portrait. There were two basic styles of collection: some concentrated on making a complete collection of material within a certain scope, while others aimed at perfect condition and quality (which declines in mezzotints after a relatively small number of impressions are taken from a plate), and in collecting the many "proof states" which artists and printers had obligingly provided for them from early on. Leading collectors included William Eaton, 2nd Baron Cheylesmore and the Irishman John Chaloner Smith. [8]

Frank Short, Ebb Tide, Putney Bridge, 1885 Frank Short - Ebb Tide, Putney Bridge - 2014.246 - Cleveland Museum of Art.tif
Frank Short, Ebb Tide, Putney Bridge , 1885

In the first half of the 19th century the "mixed" technique was popular in England, with other intaglio techniques, often used to start a plate off, combined with mezzotint. [9] Mezzotint was also often used for landscapes, being especially suited to rather gloomy British skies and twilights, that were popular subjects in the Victorian Etching Revival.

Continental use of the technique was much less; in the late 17th century Abraham Bloteling was one of a number of Amsterdam printmakers to use it, but in the 18th century only Augsburg (Johann Jacob Haid and Johann Elias Ridinger), Nuremberg and Vienna (Ignaz Unterberger) had schools, led by artists following London styles. [10]

Interest in learning and using the technique revived after the publication in 1990 of the book The Mezzotint: History and Technique by artist Carol Wax. The Wax book was responsible for a substantial upsurge in the number of artists creating mezzotints in the United States and worldwide.

Light to dark method

Early mezzotint by Wallerant Vaillant, Siegen's assistant or tutor. Young man reading, with statue of Cupid. Probably made using light to dark technique.
.mw-parser-output .frac{white-space:nowrap}.mw-parser-output .frac .num,.mw-parser-output .frac .den{font-size:80%;line-height:0;vertical-align:super}.mw-parser-output .frac .den{vertical-align:sub}.mw-parser-output .sr-only{border:0;clip:rect(0,0,0,0);height:1px;margin:-1px;overflow:hidden;padding:0;position:absolute;width:1px}
27.5 cm x 21.3 cm (10+13/16 in x 8+3/8 in) 6409 bassenge2vaillerant.jpg
Early mezzotint by Wallerant Vaillant, Siegen's assistant or tutor. Young man reading, with statue of Cupid. Probably made using light to dark technique. 27.5 cm × 21.3 cm (10+1316 in × 8+38 in)

The first mezzotints by Ludwig von Siegen were made using the light to dark method. The metal plate was tooled to create indentations and parts of the image that were to stay light in tone were kept smooth. This method was referred to as the ‘Additive method’; that is, adding areas of indentations to the plate for the areas of the print that were to appear darker in tone. This technique meant that it was possible to create the image directly by only roughening a blank plate selectively, where the darker parts of the image are to be. 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". [11]

Dark to light method

This became the most common method. The whole surface (usually) of a metal, usually copper, plate is roughened evenly, manually with a rocker, or mechanically. If the plate were printed at this point it would show as solid black. The image is then created by selectively burnishing areas of the surface of the metal plate with metal tools; the smoothed parts will print lighter than those areas not smoothed by the burnishing tool. Areas smoothed completely flat will not hold ink at all; such areas will print "white," that is, the colour of the paper without ink. This is called working from "dark to light", or the "subtractive" method. [12] It was first used by Prince Rupert of the Rhine. The all-over roughening does not require huge skill, and was normally done by an apprentice. [13]

Two great advantages of the technique were that it was easier to learn and also much faster than engraving proper, as well as giving a rich range of tones. Mezzotints could be produced very quickly to respond to or depict events or people in the news, [14] and larger sizes of print were relatively easy to produce. This was crucial for what was known at the time as the furniture print, a mezzotint that was large enough and with sufficiently bold tonal contrasts to hold its own framed and hung on the wall of a room. Since mezzotints were far cheaper than paintings, this was a great attraction. [15]


Jacob Christoph Le Blon (1667-1741) used the dark to light method and invented the three and four-colour mezzotint printing technique by using a separate metal plate for each colour. [16] [17] Le Blon's colour printing method applied the RYB colour model approach whereby red, yellow and blue were used to create a larger range of colour shades. In Coloritto, his book of 1725, Le Blon refers to red, yellow and blue as "primitive" colours and that red and yellow make orange; red and blue, make purple/violet; and blue and yellow make green (Le Blon, 1725, p. 6). A similar process was used in France later in the century by Le Blon's pupil Jacques-Fabien Gautier-Dagoty and his sons; their work included anatomical illustrations for medical books. [18] Other black and white prints were hand-coloured in watercolour, which was especially useful after the plate became worn. [19]


Emma, Lady Hamilton as Nature, print by Henry Hoppner Meyer after the painting by George Romney, "posture" size. Henry Hoppner Meyer - Lady Hamilton as Nature - B1970.3.335 - Yale Center for British Art.jpg
Emma, Lady Hamilton as Nature, print by Henry Hoppner Meyer after the painting by George Romney, "posture" size.

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. [20]

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, although plates were often "refreshed" by further rocker work. [21] In 1832 a writer in Arnold's Library noted: [22]

...the uncertainty as to the number of impressions this kind of engraving will afford—some plates failing after fifty or even a less number are printed; from two to three hundred are the most that can be taken off, and then it is often necessary to refresh the ground and restore the lights during the progress of the printing."

However, if performed by the printer or the artist's apprentice, refreshing the plate was often done to a lower standard. Bamber Gascoigne says of an example he illustrates with before and after details "the dark tones have been clumsily renewed with the roulette; the result is brutal in close-up but will seem adequate when the whole print is viewed at a normal distance". [23]

Standard sizes used in England were known as "“royal,” 24 x 19 in., “large,” 18 x 24 in., “posture,” 14 x 10 in., and “small,” 6 x 4 in", and ready-made frames and albums could be bought to fit these. [24]

Detailed technique

Plates can be mechanically roughened; one way is to rub fine metal filings over the surface with a piece of glass; the finer the filings, the smaller the grain of the surface. Special roughening tools called 'rockers' have been in use since at least the eighteenth century. The method commonly in use today is to use a steel rocker approximately five inches wide, which 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 and will print a completely solid tone of black. [25]

Mezzotint engravers


  1. Portrait of Miss Voss as St Agnes 1690s
  2. Griffiths (1996b), 85; Barker; Mayor, 513
  3. Mayor, 511; Barker
  4. Griffiths (1996b), 87
  5. Mayor, 511-513; Barker
  6. Mayor, 511; Griffiths (1996b), 85
  7. Griffiths (1996b), 85-87
  8. Griffiths (1996a), 134–137 and 141–142; Barker
  9. Griffiths (1996b), 87
  10. Griffiths (1996b), 87; Barker
  11. Griffiths (1996b), 85; Mayor, 511; Barker
  12. Barker
  13. Mayor, 512-513; Griffiths (1996b), 83-84; D'Oench, 7-8
  14. D'Oench, 7-9
  15. Barker; Mayor, 513
  16. Le Blon, Jakob Christophe (1725). Coloritto; or the Harmony of Colouring in Painting: Reduced to Mechanical Practice under Easy Precepts, and Infallible Rules; Together with some Colour'd Figures . Retrieved 4 July 2020.
  17. Mortimer, Cromwell (1731). "An Account of Mr. J. C. Le Blon's Principles of Printing, in Imitation of Painting, and of Weaving Tapestry, in the Same Manner as Brocades". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. 37 (419): 101–107. doi:10.1098/rstl.1731.0019. S2CID   186212141.
  18. Barker
  19. D'Oench, 76
  20. Griffiths (1996b), 31-35
  21. Griffiths (1996b), 83; Barker
  22. Quoted by D'Oench, 8
  23. Gascoigne, ills. 60-62
  24. Barker
  25. Gascoigne, section 16a; Griffiths (1996b), 83-84, for detailed contemporary instructions see the National Portrait Gallery link below.

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lithography</span> Printing technique

Lithography is a planographic method of printing originally based on the immiscibility of oil and water. The printing is from a stone or a metal plate with a smooth surface. It was invented in 1796 by the German author and actor Alois Senefelder and was initially used mostly for musical scores and maps. Lithography can be used to print text or images onto paper or other suitable material. A lithograph is something printed by lithography, but this term is only used for fine art prints and some other, mostly older, types of printed matter, not for those made by modern commercial lithography.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Etching</span> Intaglio printmaking technique

Etching is traditionally the process of using strong acid or mordant to cut into the unprotected parts of a metal surface to create a design in intaglio (incised) in the metal. In modern manufacturing, other chemicals may be used on other types of material. As a method of printmaking, it is, along with engraving, the most important technique for old master prints, and remains in wide use today. In a number of modern variants such as microfabrication etching and photochemical milling it is a crucial technique in much modern technology, including circuit boards.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Printmaking</span> Process of creating artworks by printing, normally on paper

Printmaking is the process of creating artworks by printing, normally on paper, but also on fabric, wood, metal, and other surfaces. "Traditional printmaking" normally covers only the process of creating prints using a hand processed technique, rather than a photographic reproduction of a visual artwork which would be printed using an electronic machine ; however, there is some cross-over between traditional and digital printmaking, including risograph. Except in the case of monotyping, all printmaking processes have the capacity to produce identical multiples of the same artwork, which is called a print. Each print produced is considered an "original" work of art, and is correctly referred to as an "impression", not a "copy". However, impressions can vary considerably, whether intentionally or not. Master printmakers are technicians who are capable of printing identical "impressions" by hand. Historically, many printed images were created as a preparatory study, such as a drawing. A print that copies another work of art, especially a painting, is known as a "reproductive print".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Engraving</span> Incising designs by cutting into a surface

Engraving is the practice of incising a design onto a hard, usually flat surface by cutting grooves into it with a burin. The result may be a decorated object in itself, as when silver, gold, steel, or glass are engraved, or may provide an intaglio printing plate, of copper or another metal, for printing images on paper as prints or illustrations; these images are also called "engravings". Engraving is one of the oldest and most important techniques in printmaking.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Drypoint</span> Intaglio printmaking technique

Drypoint is a printmaking technique of the intaglio family, in which an image is incised into a plate with a hard-pointed "needle" of sharp metal or diamond point. In principle, the method is practically identical to engraving. The difference is in the use of tools, and that the raised ridge along the furrow is not scraped or filed away as in engraving. Traditionally the plate was copper, but now acetate, zinc, or plexiglas are also commonly used. Like etching, drypoint is easier to master than engraving for an artist trained in drawing because the technique of using the needle is closer to using a pencil than the engraver's burin.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Aquatint</span> Tonal printmaking technique

Aquatint is an intaglio printmaking technique, a variant of etching that produces areas of tone rather than lines. For this reason it has mostly been used in conjunction with etching, to give both lines and shaded tone. It has also been used historically to print in colour, both by printing with multiple plates in different colours, and by making monochrome prints that were then hand-coloured with watercolour.

Collagraphy is a printmaking process introduced in 1955 by Glen Alps in which materials are applied to a rigid substrate. The word is derived from the Greek word koll or kolla, meaning glue, and graph, meaning the activity of drawing.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Photogravure</span> Photographic printing technique

Photogravure is a process for printing photographs, also sometimes used for reproductive intaglio printmaking. It is a photo-mechanical process whereby a copper plate is grained and then coated with a light-sensitive gelatin tissue which had been exposed to a film positive, and then etched, resulting in a high quality intaglio plate that can reproduce detailed continuous tones of a photograph.

Color printing or colour printing is the reproduction of an image or text in color. Any natural scene or color photograph can be optically and physiologically dissected into three primary colors, red, green and blue, roughly equal amounts of which give rise to the perception of white, and different proportions of which give rise to the visual sensations of all other colors. The additive combination of any two primary colors in roughly equal proportion gives rise to the perception of a secondary color. For example, red and green yields yellow, red and blue yields magenta, and green and blue yield cyan. Only yellow is counter-intuitive. Yellow, cyan and magenta are merely the "basic" secondary colors: unequal mixtures of the primaries give rise to perception of many other colors all of which may be considered "tertiary".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Intaglio (printmaking)</span> Family of printing and printmaking techniques

Intaglio is the family of printing and printmaking techniques in which the image is incised into a surface and the incised line or sunken area holds the ink. It is the direct opposite of a relief print where the parts of the matrix that make the image stand above the main surface.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ludwig von Siegen</span>

Ludwig von Siegen was a German soldier and amateur engraver, who invented the printmaking technique of mezzotint, a printing-process reliant on mechanical pressure used to print more complex engravings than previously possible. He was a well-educated aristocrat, and a Lieutenant-Colonel who commanded the personal guard of William VI, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, and acted as a personal aide to the ruler, with the title kammerjunker or Chamberlain.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Line engraving</span> Engraved images printed on paper

Line engraving is a term for engraved images printed on paper to be used as prints or illustrations. The term is mainly used in connection with 18th- or 19th-century commercial illustrations for magazines and books or reproductions of paintings. It is not a technical term in printmaking, and can cover a variety of techniques, giving similar results.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Carborundum printmaking</span> Printmaking technique

Carborundum mezzotint is a printmaking technique in which the image is created by adding light passages to a dark field. It is a relatively new process invented in the US during the 1930s by Hugh Mesibov, Michael J. Gallagher, and Dox Thrash, an artist working in Philadelphia with the Works Progress Administration (WPA)). "Carborundum Collagraph" collagraph is a different printmaking technique, invented in 1952 by Henri Goetz, an American abstract artist living in Paris. The carborundum mezzotint uses the grits to create pits below the surface of the metal that then hold ink, like traditional mezzotint. The carborundum collagraph creates the image above the surface of the matrix, which does not have to be metal. In one method, the grits are mixed into a paste using an acrylic base that is painted onto the matrix, creating the image much like painting. Once dried, this holds the ink; the wiping and printing are done the same as etching. The techniques described following and below are alternatives to the paste mixture technique, yet all are creating the image above the surface of the matrix. Carbordundum collagraph allows artists to work on a large scale. Normally, cardboard or wood plates are coated in a layer of carborundum or screen, and the lights are created by filling in the texture with screen filler or glue. Carborundum prints may be printed as intaglio plates.

Viscosity printing is a multi-color printmaking technique that incorporates principles of relief printing and intaglio printing. It was pioneered by Stanley William Hayter.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Jacob Christoph Le Blon</span> Painter and engraver from Frankfurt

Jacob Christoph Le Blon, or Jakob Christoffel Le Blon, was a painter and engraver from Frankfurt who invented the system of three- and four-colour printing, using an RYB color model which segued into the modern CMYK system. He used the mezzotint method to engrave three or four metal plates to make prints with a wide range of colours. His methods helped form the foundation for modern colour printing.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Vitreography</span> Glass art printmaking technique

Vitreography is a fine art printmaking technique that uses a 38-inch-thick (9.5 mm) float glass matrix instead of the traditional matrices of metal, wood or stone. A print created using the technique is called a vitreograph. Unlike a monotype, in which ink is painted onto a smooth glass plate and transferred to paper to produce a unique work, the vitreograph technique involves fixing the imagery in, or on, the glass plate. This allows the production of an edition of prints.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Stipple engraving</span>

Stipple engraving is a technique used to create tone in an intaglio print by distributing a pattern of dots of various sizes and densities across the image. The pattern is created on the printing plate either in engraving by gouging out the dots with a burin, or through an etching process. Stippling was used as an adjunct to conventional line engraving and etching for over two centuries, before being developed as a distinct technique in the mid-18th century.

Carol Wax is an American artist, author and teacher whom the New York Times called "a virtuoso printmaker and art historian" for her work in mezzotint and her writings on the history and technique of that medium.

<i>À la poupée</i> Inking method in colour printmaking

À la poupée is a largely historic intaglio printmaking technique for making colour prints by applying different ink colours to a single printing plate using ball-shaped wads of cloth, one for each colour. The paper has just one run through the press, but the inking needs to be carefully re-done after each impression is printed. Each impression will usually vary at least slightly, and sometimes very significantly.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Surface tone</span>

In printmaking, surface tone, or surface-tone, is produced by deliberately or accidentally not wiping all the ink off the surface of the printing plate, so that parts of the image have a light tone from the film of ink left. Tone in printmaking meaning areas of continuous colour, as opposed to the linear marks made by an engraved or drawn line. The technique can be used with all the intaglio printmaking techniques, of which the most important are engraving, etching, drypoint, mezzotint and aquatint. It requires individual attention on the press before each impression is printed, and is mostly used by artists who print their own plates, such as Rembrandt, "the first master of this art", who made great use of it.


Further reading