Escher used the mezzotint technique for the first time in 1946. In this special, labour-intensive intaglio technique, the surface of a copper plate is roughened using a rocker. The raised edges along the incised lines are known as burrs. A lot of ink is caught by the burrs, leaving a deep black on the paper when printed. Lighter areas are created by removing the burrs using a sharp scraper. These areas do not catch as much ink. A burnisher is used to create the lightest areas. Burnishing softens the edges and produces slight tonal gradations, such as the light on the upper eyelid in the mezzotint Eye (1946). More or less burnishing allows different grey tones, or half tones, to be achieved, hence the name ‘mezzo’ (half).
Dewdrop (1948) is a good example of how rich, almost velvety, the black is in the roughest areas. Escher used a printing press to press the inked plate onto a piece of paper. This requires a great deal of force, as the paper has to be pressed onto the plate so firmly that the ink on the rough parts is transferred in its entirety from the plate to the paper. Escher printed several states, or stages, to check his progress.
The mezzotint technique is sometimes called the ‘black art’, as the black is so dark and velvety, and it can be used to work from dark to light. The blacks and greys in mezzotint create a rich, almost photographic image. The drawback of the technique, however, is that the copper plate is relatively soft, and every time it is passed through the press, the burrs are worn away, making each print progressively lighter. None of Escher’s mezzotints was printed in an edition of more than 50. Since the technique for making and printing the plate is so difficult and time-consuming, and because only a few good prints can be made with each plate, Escher made only a small number of mezzotints: eight, to be precise.
The mezzotint procedure was invented by a German professional soldier called Ludwig von Siegen (1609-1680). His earliest mezzotint print, a portrait of Countess Amelia Elizabeth of Hesse-Kassel, dates from 1642. The portrait was made using the ‘light to dark’ method.
It is said that the rocker was invented by Prince Rupert, a famous cavalry commander in the English Civil War, but the Dutchman Abraham Blooteling is sometimes credited with the invention. Blooteling and Wallerant Vaillant popularised the technique in the Netherlands. The process was used until the mid-eighteenth century, mainly to reproduce portraits and other paintings. After that it fell somewhat into disuse. Peter Ilsted (1861-1933) and Robert Kipniss (b. 1931) are among the artists to have used the technique later.