jim hubbman - painter/printmaker
    The Mezzotint Process
An explanation, somewhere between cursory and exhaustive

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1. Overview (very brief) of Printmaking
2. Intro to Mezzotint
3. A Little History
4. The Mezzotint Process Illustrated
5. Rocking the Plate
6. Creating An Image on the Plate
7. Inking and Printing
8. The Printed Image
9. Building an Intaglio Press

Just What is a Mezzotint, Anyway?

So, you’ve looked at a picture on the wall, and then you read the handy little label on the wall next to it. Has the usual information, right? The title of the work, the individual who is guilty of its creation, how much it will cost you to take it home, etc. Also, under the heading of Medium is the cryptic term: Mezzotint. What the dickens is mezzotint, anyway?

  Love Me Tender

Jim Hubbman Mezzotint
5”H x 7”W

The simple and not-too-helpful answer: It’s an intaglio printmaking method.

OK, so let’s back up and explore another question:

What’s printmaking? Or, more specifically, what is printmaking in the fine arts world?

What it Is:

Sometimes these works are called Original Prints. That means that this type of image is developed and executed by an artist specifically for the printmaking medium.

The original artwork is done by the artist on a plate or board of some type, called a Matrix. The matrix is covered with ink, a piece of paper is laid over that whole mess, and then the paper is rubbed or run through a press. This transfers the ink from the matrix to the paper, and voila! you have a print. Often, printmakers create multiple images from a single matrix, or plate in the case of mezzotint.

What it Is Not:

All right, just so w e’re clear about this - it is NOT a method of mass-reproducing artworks originally executed in another medium.


There are many different techniques used by printmakers, and each one produces a different type of image. Here is a quick rundown on:
Different Printmaking methods


(No, not as in “Oh, what a relief!”) - If you’ve ever used a rubber stamp, you know what relief printmaking is all about - The matrix is carved away in the areas the artist wants free of ink, and the ink is rolled onto the remaining un-carved areas, which then print onto the paper.

Stencil -

Think screenprinting here - the matrix is a stencil, and the ink or paint is applied through the empty spaces onto the paper.

Planographic - Most of the stuff you see printed is done this way. Newspapers, magazines, etc. We won’t cover this technique here, as it is used to create posters, which we, of course, are definiitely not making.


Ahh, that great foreign-sounding five-dollar word. This set of techniques requires a matirx or plate that has lines or dots etched or engraved into its surface. The ink is forced into these depressions in the plate, and then the excess ink is wiped off the high surfaces. Paper is laid over the top of the whole mess, just like a relief process, then that sandwich is run through a press under very high pressure. The ink is forced out of the low spots on the plate, and onto the paper, creating the print.

Examples of intaglio print techniques:

Etching (As in, “Hey, baby, come up to my pad and I’ll show you my etchings, pant, pant!”) - the low spots are burned into the plate using acids and other fun chemicals

Engraving - sunken lines are literally carved out of the plate, usually made of copper or steel. Take out a dollar bill, and you can see what an engraving looks like.

Mezzotint - Ahh, here we go, the real stuff, what you came to see today! Read On, and we can find out more about this technique!

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Enough with The Big Picture Already
Just what is Mezzotint
all about?

Okay, so now we know what printmaking is all about, and that Mezzotint is an intaglio printmaking process.

Here’s the quick description of what makes mezzotint so darned special: Most intaglio techniques use linework to build images, and any dark areas need to built up from lots of lines, and it’s hard to develop really rich tones. Not so with mezzotint - rich tones are what the medium is all about.

To start, the artist completely covers a metal plate, usually copper, with a texture of small pits and burrs, which hold ink to create a rich velvety black.

Next, that artist uses scraping and burnishing tools to smooth out the texture of the plate. These smoother spots will not hold as much ink, and print in varying shades of gray, depending on how much texture is removed.

Image above is a detail of the image to the right, showing tone as it is built up from varying densities of inked dots

If the texture is completely removed to leave smooth, polished copper, the ink wipes away completely, allowing white paper to show through.

Once the plate is completed, and the image scraped into the copper, it’s time to print.

To do that, a thick, tarry ink (eww, gross) is rubbed all over the surface of the plate, and into all that texture.

Next, the excess ink is wiped off the surface of the plate, uncovering those places where the plate is smooth.

Then, a sheet of paper is laid over the plate, and this stackbetween the rollers of a press. Think of an old-fashioned wringer, only with a whole lot more pressure (no buttons left on those shirts, for sure). This forces the ink out of the plate and onto the paper.

Then do it all over for the next print (lather, rinse, repeat - you get the picture)

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Hysterical Sidebar:
He Went Down in History
(But it seems he kept his grades up in Art Class)

Credit for inventing the Mezzotint technique usually goes to one Ludwig van Siegen, a German solder living in the 17th Century. The earliest known example of his mezzotint work, done in 1642, is a portrait of one Amelia Elizabeth, Landgravine of Hesse-Cassel, shown below. (And gosh, wasn’t she a dish?)

  Portrait of Amelia Elizabeth, Landgravine of Hesse-Cassel, 1642
Ludwig von Siegen
16 1/2 x 11 7/8
From the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The mezzotint technique reached the height of its popularity and technical development in England during the 18th and 19th centuries. The English used it primarily to offer affordable reproductions of paintings. This, of course, came to a screeching halt when some smart-aleck developed cheaper and faster photographic techniques to reproduce images.

In the 20th Century, fine artists resurrected the medium to produce their own original artworks. Mezzotint work remains a little obscure, in part because of its time and labor intensive nature, proving once again, that, on the whole, artists are a pretty shiftless lot.

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How to Make a Mezzotint
Just Enough Knowledge To Be Dangerous

It All Starts Here: A shiny new plate of copper, awaiting the assault of the artist’s tools

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Rock ON:
Covering the plate with Texture

The first step in creating a mezzotint is to cover the entire plate with a texture which will hold the ink. this process is called Grounding.

To do this, the artist uses a tool called a rocker. No, he does not call Mick Jagger out of retirement to do the work for him - a rocker is a tool shaped a bit like a spatula, but the business end is curved and covered with a row of small teeth.

The rocker is, well, rocked, back and forth, back and forth over the surface of the plate. the teeth push small holes into the surface of the plate, at the same time raising burrs.

How long must this go on? Well, a 5” x 7” plate can take around 4-6 hours to cover properly. Talk about a repetitive motion injury risk.

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Just Scraping By

Once the plate is textured, the fun can begin, creating an image on the plate.

First, it helps to know what picture you want. At this stage, a pencil line drawing is made on the textured plate, or traced from a drawing made on a piece of paper.

Then, the artist uses a number of tools to scrape and burnish, or polish, the copper plate in the areas that need to be gray or white.

This is the part of the process where the artist is actually making art - Think of it as drawing the picture, but instead of paper and pencil, the art is made with copper and scrapers.

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Playing in the MUCK

Like to play in the mud?

Well, most artists do, one way or another. This is the point in the process where there’s no real way to stay clean. The artist has scraped the image into the copper plate, and now it’s time to see what it looks like printed onto paper.

The ink is rolled onto the plate, just as you see in the photo. Unlike the ink in your ball-point pen, this stuff is amazingly gooey. It has the thickness of bathtub caulk, the stickiness of clover honey, and the color of the inside of a deep, deep cave.

Once the ink is on the plate, and rubbed into all of the pits and burrs, it’s time to wipe the excess away from the surface. This will allow all of those scraped and burnished sections to print in grays and whites. All the parts of the plate that still have the rocked texture will print in rich, velvety blacks. See the photo below to find out what this process looks like.


Get to Work, Will You?

  So it’s not all playing with mudpies and sitting around dreaming up cool pictures to inflict upon an unsuspecting audience. Sometimes an artist has to shift his carcass out of his desk chair and do a little work.

The plate has been inked. Now it’s time to place it on the bed of the intaglio press, lay a piece of paper over the top, and crank it all between the rollers.

The press must put a very large amount of pressure on the plate in order to press the ink out of all those nooks, crannies and burrs and out onto the paper.

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The Moment of Truth

May we have a drum roll, please! No matter how long someone’s been making art, even the most jaded and world-weary artist feels a bit like a kid at Christmas when the plate has been run through the press and it’s time to pull the inked paper away to see the print.


It All Pays Off In The End...

  Love Me Tender

Jim Hubbman Mezzotint
5”H x 7”W

...Or so we would like to believe. the first print is called a proof, or state proof - one that the artist/printer uses to determine what work remains to be done on the plate, to make the image better and better

After the state proof comes off the press, the artist kick starts his critical faculty (if he is not impaired by sleep deprivation or recreational liquids), and takes a hard look at the result of all this work. Inevitably, parts of the image will nag and whine to be adjusted, corrected, or maybe even replaced. Then it’s time for the artist to take in hand once again the scraping and burnishing tools, and work the plate over, bringing the image to a suitable state of perfection.

Once the cycle of platework and proofing is complete and the image is just right, it’s time to run an edition of prints. How many? Well, a bare copper plate will tend to show signs of wear after about 50 prints, more or less. Seems all that high-pressure printing and ink wiping take their toll.

And this, my friends, concludes the nickel tour of the mezzotint process. Thank you for visiting, we’re here ‘til Tuesday (unless they wise up and throw us out sooner), try the veal.

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A Studio Outfitting Primer
for the Certifiably Insane Artist


Printmaking is, as you will have guessed by now, a pretty labor-intensive pursuit. Complicating life yet further for the lazy and impecunious artist is the fact that it requires some fairly expensive equipment. The main tool an intaglio printmaker requires is a press.

Shopping for a commercially made press left the author of this essay with a severe case of sticker shock. Not allowing reality to intrude upon his plans, however, he came up with the next best alternative: wheedling his father, a retired machinist, into helping him construct a press of his very own.

  The artist's father, bolting things together
  Larry the machinist, at the lathe, turning a length of rusty pipe into a gleaming steel press roller

The process of building a press was a fairly simple one, and it can be outlined thus:

1. Get a harebrained idea that making your own press is a great way to spend a few months of time and energy.

2. Steal ideas for construction from others, by looking at existant presses elsewhere. This is actually pretty easy, as:
A. Press design has not changed much for several centuries, and
B. Most presses are pretty much alike in design and function, and
C. The principles used in press design and operation are so simple that even I could puzzle them out successfully.

3. Organize your thoughts into a coherent set of drawings. I understand that some people use more sophisticated drawing tools than a fast-food napkin and the charred end of a match, but I don’t hold with such sissy stuff, myself.

4. Wheedle and whine till your beleaguered father agrees to help you with the project, ostensibly because he’s happy to help. Really, I suspect he got sick of me pestering him. At any rate, it’s best to have qualified eyes and hands in the job, because, though a press is simple, it must be built with care and precision. Otherwise, it will be just about fit for rolling out pizza dough, but not much more.

5. Tour steel yards in some of the more interesting sections of town, gathering up the bits of ferrous metal required - around 1000 pounds of steel, once you add in the bolts, bearings and gears.

6. Find facilities and people qualified to use them for cutting, lathing, grinding and polishing the metal parts that are too big to handle in a garage workshop.

7. Spend several nights drilling, fitting, bolting, grinding, painting and generally putting pieces together. Hopefully you don’t end up with more pieces left over than you expected.

8. Stand back, admire the results, and for goodness’ sake don’t forget to shower thanks on all the people who helped you put the monster together.

9. Quit loafing around, for pity’s sake, and get printing.

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