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mezzotint


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(It., mezzotinto: ‘half-tint’).

A printmaking method that produces subtly graduated tones rather than lines; the term also applies to a print made by this method. A metal (usually copper) plate is laboriously roughened with a serrated steel tool called a rocker, creating a texture somewhat like that of fine sandpaper over the whole surface. If inked and printed from in this condition, the plate would produce solid black. The design is formed by scraping away the textured burr to varying degrees. When the plate has been inked and then wiped, the ink is retained where the plate is rough and will print an intense black, but where it has been smoothed, less ink is held and a lighter tone results (for the highlights the burr is completely removed and the metal polished smooth). Mezzotint was invented in the Netherlands in the early 1640s by Ludwig von Siegen. Another notable pioneer, formerly thought to be the inventor, was Prince Rupert. The Netherlands remained the chief centre for the technique in the 17th century, but in the 18th century it became recognized as a British speciality and was much used for reproducing paintings, especially portraits. This was the heyday of mezzotint, but memorable use was made of it in the following century by John Martin, one of the few eminent artists to make original creative use of the medium rather than reproducing someone else's designs. Like drypoint, mezzotint yields only a small number of good impressions before the burr wears down. The technique virtually died out in the later 19th century with the development of photographic methods of reproduction, but it is still used by some original printmakers who value its rich tonal qualities.


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