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Mezzotints

Angel with flute
Mezzotint
 

As an art historian, as well as a printmaker, I love to reinterpret traditional methods of art- making for contemporary aesthetics, using modern materials. I especially love the qualities of mezzotints first created in the Baroque period, by such artists as Rembrandt and Durer.  Like etching, mezzotint is considered an intaglio printing process, since the ink must go “into” the plate rather than sit on the surface (as with woodcuts) before printing. Damp paper, which is forced into the groves or etched spaces of a metal plate, pulls out the ink to create the print. Of course, the finished artwork, as in most print methods, is a reversed, mirror image of the original drawing.

 

My angel series combines the mezzotint method of printing with Renaissance-style figures. The labor-intensive process that leads to the finished images is part of their appeal. I start with pre-rocked copper plates (available from New Zealand). The rocking (covering the plate in multiple directions with a curved serrated blade that creates pits to hold ink) raises burrs of copper in the process. At this point, if the plate were printed, it would be completely black. I draw directly or transfer my drawn image onto the plate. To created the whitest/lightest areas, I must remove the burr using a sharp, three-sided scraping tool, which brings the area back to its original shiny copper. Ink will not adhere to these surfaces. For tonal areas of shadows, shades or highlights, I press down the burr using a different tool to burnish the plate with varied amounts of pressure. Once the image is created to my satisfaction and proofs are taken, I apply thick black ink over the entire surface using a soft card to force the ink deep into the plate. I use modern, non-toxic, water mixable inks unavailable in the Baroque era. Then, with a traditional tarlatan (soft, mesh-like cloth,) I gently remove all the surface ink, leaving it only in the recessed areas to be printed.  Next, I pass the inked plate and high quality, thick paper (I use German-made Zerkall Copperplate paper), which has been water-soaked and blotted, through my studio printing press under very strong pressure.  The finished print is placed between sheets of tissue and pressed under heavy weights (books) to prevent buckling as the paper dries. The result is a rich, dark, velvet-toned picture, with a unique mezzotint quality.

 


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Previously published:

The Art and Writing of Barbara Rizza Mellin


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