August Issue 1999
How a Mezzotint Print is Made
by Tony Saladino
I will try to make this explanation simple. It is only an overview to give you an overall understanding and appreciation of the process.
First, the mezzotint is a fine art print. This means that the print is not a reproduction made commercially, but an image on fine, rag paper. Usually, it's made in the artist's studio by the artist. I make each print myself on an intaglio (pronounced: "in-ta-lio'') press at my studio.
Mezzotints are similar to etchings and engravings in that they are both intaglio type prints. That is, the image is made from markings below the surface of the copper or zinc plate. Actually, the markings for a mezzotint are both below and on the surface of the metal plate. The mezzotint is made with mechanical means, rather than by chemical means as in etching.
The plate is scored, or roughened with a tool called a rocker. This is done over the entire surface of the plate, producing a "burr" which holds the ink. If ink were put on the plate now, it would print a rich velvety image (in whatever color the artist is using). But the artist scrapes, and burnishes the plate with various tools to make the image. Where the plate is smooth, no ink will stay so this area appears white on the paper. Where there is a burr remaining, it holds the ink. In other words, the artist works in reverse of the usual "positive" way. I take away everything that is not part of the image I want to remain.
I do both black and white, and color prints. The color prints are much more complicated. More plates are needed to get additional colors in the image. The plates have to line up evenly (by registration) to make a print that doesn't have that double, or shadow image that used to be a commonplace in newspapers. I usually have what I call a matrix plate, and it, typically, is the last one, and is printed with black ink. The first plates have parts on them that I produce to fill in the parts of the image that are color. If you look at one of the color plates, you may not see an identifiable image because it may only be that part of the image that is green, or blue or whatever color.
Often, I'll print more than one color on the same plate. This is tricky because each color has to be put on without smearing that color onto another one that is near it. There are times when I can use this problem to advantage by blending colors that are adjacent to produce nuances of color that are pleasing.
After the color is put on the plates, the excess ink is wiped off with tarlatan (something like cheesecloth). They are, now, ready to be run through the press. Dampened paper is first blotted, then put onto the press bed. It is trapped under blankets (layers of felt) which move between the rollers of the press, under great pressure. The plate is placed under the paper. First, the color plates, then the matrix plate is printed, transferring the image from the plate to the paper. Next the paper is dried between blotters, and is almost ready to be sent to the gallery.
The last step is the documentation of each print. As I make the print, I "pull" proofs, to see how the image is developing. These are usually sold as "artist proofs", and they are so noted in pencil as "A/P" under the image. I usually limit these to 10% of the edition; so, in an edition of 100, there are actually 110 prints. The numbered part of the edition will be l/100, 2/100... so that I can make sure that the integrity of the edition is preserved, I keep a book where each print's number is recorded. When the edition is reached, I can't sell any more. I want whoever buys one of my prints to be confident that they have one of only a few (usually my editions are 100) that will ever be made. When I've signed my name to the print, it means that I have recorded its number in the edition, and that no other with that number will ever be sold. When I sign number 100/100, that is the last print of that edition that I can sell.
I hope this explanation helps you to enjoy looking at mezzotints, and all other fine art prints.
Editor's Note: An exhibition of Tony Saladino's works
will be at Hampton III Gallery, Ltd., Taylors, SC, through Aug.
28. The exhibition will include mezzotints, etchings, lithographs
and mixed printing techniques.
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