The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger


Simran Thadani’s wild guess for the December Crocodile Mystery, backed up by Martin Antonetti and Deborah J. Leslie, is our winner. This month’s image is a close-up of the lower right edge of a mezzotint engraving. The lines that look like warp and weft are, in fact, rows of tiny black dots crossing each other at right angles.

Detail of lower right edge of a mezzotint.
Detail of lower right edge of a mezzotint.

This happens to be a fairly coarse mezzotint, with the grain easily visible to the naked eye. Here’s the full image, which depicts Mary of Modena, consort of King James II, and their baby son. (Or was he their son? Anti-Catholic rumor-mongers called James Francis Edward Stuart “the warming-pan baby,” an impostor allegedly smuggled into the birth room in a warming pan to take the place of a still-born child.) Our crocodile image was a detail of the bottom right portion of the plate, where the image meets the text.

Mezzotint of mother with baby
Peter Schenk (1660–1718 or 19). The young prince of Walles [sic]. Mezzotint, circa 1688. Platemark 249 x 182 mm. Folger ART 230988 (click to enlarge)
The word “mezzotint” (or “mezzo-tinto,” as it was often called in the early modern period) comes from the Italian for “half-tone.” It was the first printing technique that allowed for tonal gradations between dark and light—grayscale, as opposed to black-and-white, to use today’s language. Until the mezzotint’s invention in the mid-17th century, the only way to print shades of gray was to vary the thickness and proximity of black lines. 1 Instead of lines, mezzotints use dots to build up an image.

To create a mezzotint, the printmaker starts by roughening up the entire surface of the metal printing plate with a mezzotint rocker, a hand tool resembling a chisel:

Fine-toothed (left) and coarse-toothed (right) mezzotint rockers. Photo by Toni Pecoraro [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Fine-toothed (left) and coarse-toothed (right) mezzotint rockers. Photo by Toni Pecoraro [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Known as “rocking” the plate, the laborious process involves gripping the handle like a dagger and rapidly rocking the tool back-and-forth across the surface the plate to make little pits in it. This 24-second video by Gravat Serigrafia shows a simple pattern of two passes at right angles to each other, and a third 45-degrees:

If you inked and printed a fully-rocked plate, you’d get a matte black rectangle. In order to create the image, the printmaker scrapes and burnishes parts of the surface so those areas will hold less ink, and appear gray. Pressing really hard with a burnishing tool removes the mezzotint grain altogether, leaving a smooth area that won’t hold ink at all. 2 The image emerges from the shadows, as it were, making the technique particularly well suited to night scenes.

This detail shows that the plate was burnished smooth for Queen Mary’s forehead, cheeks, and the bridge of her nose, partially smoothed for her chin and the side of her nose, barely touched for her hair and the background, and untouched (or nearly so) for the edge of the black curtain at upper left:

Face in shades of gray
Detail of area around Queen Mary’s face (Folger ART 230988)

Printmakers today use mezzotint to create original works of art, but in the early modern period, the technique was almost exclusively used for reproductive work, especially reproductions of painted portraits. A mezzotint can capture subtle skin tones at one extreme and dazzling fabrics at the other. Consider John Faber’s mezzotint of a painting of Kitty Clive, for example, where her skirt manages to have more life and character than she does:

Portrait in shades of gray
John Faber after Pieter van Bleeck. The celebrated Mrs. Clive, late Miss Raftor in the character of Philida. Mezzotint, 1734. Folger ART Vol. d45 no.47

I can’t resist showing a detail of the skirt:

Detail of Folger ART Vol. d45 no.47
Detail of skirt fabric (Folger ART Vol. d45 no.47)

To finish off, here’s a selection of additional 17th- and 18th-century mezzotints from the Folger’s digital image collection, ending with a rather creepy portrait based on David Garrick’s death mask. (If the Javascript widget doesn’t work  on your browser, you can go directly to the slide show.)

  1. See the The Collation post “Woodcut, engraving, or what?” for more information.
  2. I haven’t been able to find a good video of the entire process of the traditional way of  making a mezzotint, but printmaker Martin Langford has some good still pictures under “How is a mezzotint created?” on his website.

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