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From woodcut to photograph: techniques of book illustration

Mezzotint

Mezzotint engraving of the solar system reflecting the light of the sunMezzotint engraving of planets of the solar system reflecting the light of the sunThe plate on display is an example of a mezzotint engraving. In the intaglio techniques we have examined so far, engraving, etching and stipple engraving, the engraver has worked from white to black. In mezzotint the engraver works from black to white. Furthermore, while engraving and etching are linear in method, mezzotint (deriving from the Italian word mezzotinto, or ‘half tint’) is a tonal one.

The technique became popular in Holland in the mid-17th century and in England during the 18th century. It was primarily suited to reproducing portraits, oil paintings and night scenes.

In the plate on show the astronomer Thomas Wright (1711-86) puts its effect to good use to illustrate the planets of the solar system reflecting the light of the sun.

The engraver roughened the entire surface of the copper plate with a tool known as a ‘rocker’, which raised rough edges or burrs of metal. If inked at this stage the surface would print entirely black. To achieve tones of grey, the burrs were smoothed with scrapers to varying degrees. By burnishing areas completely smooth the printer could ensure that these areas held no ink when the plate was wiped clean, resulting in highlights of pure white.

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