Interview with the Person Who Wrote the Book on Mezzotint
Carol Wax on "the Black Manner"
The Artist and Author
Carol Wax, one of the United States's leading authorities on--and practitioners of--the art of mezzotint printmaking, is also a popular author, educator and lecturer on the subject. Her book, The Mezzotint, History and Technique, published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc. in 1990 and reprinted in 1996, is a standard mezzotint reference work. Carol was born in New York City, and never strayed far from there. She has recently moved upstate to the town of Peekskill, lured there by a municipal program to attract artists, which includes an innovative government-subsidized Art Lofts project.
When not painting or printmaking Carol dedicates her time to giving
mezzotint lectures and hands-on courses. Her hour-long slide lectures,
attended by "artists/printmakers, master printers, collectors,
curators, dealers and anyone with a general interest in art history,"
are full of fascinating information and images, documenting the history
of mezzotint ("la manière noir" or "the black
manner" as images are worked from black to white) from the very
first print done in this technique in 1642 to the present day. Her mezzotint
courses come in several formats, from a day to a week. Carol emphasizes
that "prior printmaking experience is helpful but not required."
For information on lectures and courses, she may be contacted by phone,
914 788 5329, or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
WP: Why are there so few mezzotint artists?
CW: Countless artists have tried their hand at mezzotint engraving in some form. Many combine the medium with other techniques, or use alternative grounding methods. Even if one considers the number of artists concentrating their efforts on traditional mezzotint, there are quite a few and the number is increasing all the time.
CW: I think all printmaking suffers under this antiquated misperception. In an age when we are inundated with visual information, there is a great deal of ignorance about how any of it is made, and incredible insensitivity to subtle nuances of papers, surface, and processes. I think it's safe to conjecture that at least 75% of students graduating from art school couldn't even tell you the difference between an etching and lithograph. Even within the printmaking community there is disagreement about what constitutes an original hand-pulled fine art print. Digital "printmaking" is only the latest newcomer to this debate.
Many of the issues in this debate and confusion about originality that stem from the age of reproductive prints are still relevant today. Joshua Reynolds's dependence on reproductive engravings for ideas to use in his paintings often called into question his status as an "original genius". Today we might even label him an appropriation artist. Images, like folk songs, are recycled all the time without being labeled reproductive. Yet, printmakers do bear the brunt of prejudices in this area by virtue of the "multiples" factor. Therefore, it is necessary to constantly educate people on what constitutes an original image printed in multiples versus an image that is a reproduction.
CW: This statement implies that images rendered in a realistic style aren't creative. I strongly disagree with this implication. On the other hand I would have to agree that there is not a lot of conceptual work being done in mezzotint. However, there isn't that much conceptual work being done in printmaking across the board. Perhaps this is because of a shift in one's creative energy when working through certain processes or, in the case of conceptual artists who try to incorporate prints, because printmaking is often collaborative. Also, conceptual artists who do incorporate prints into their work are rarely, if ever, identified as printmakers, so there may be more conceptual prints being made than we are aware of.
Mezzotint is capable of satisfying the demands of almost any image, working style, or concept. Just because one hasn't yet SEEN a lot of mezzotints handled in a loose or abstract style, doesn't mean the medium isn't suited for it. The medium seems to attract people with a certain sensibility, and repel those who feel it requires a lot of control. But this is a fallacy - the medium can be handled quite freely. Take, for example, Susan Rothenberg who uses mezzotint merely for the fact that she likes to render light images from a dark background; her prints exhibit the same raw energy as her paintings.
I think a good analogy might be made between sculptors who like to weld or make assemblages (working additively as one would with etching) versus those who carve in marble, which is similar to mezzotint engraving. One can work freely by hacking away at the marble and make any form, from representational objects to abstract shapes. However, if all one has ever seen carved in marble are Michelangelo's more polished works, it might not occur to TRY other ways of working in the medium. Moreover, for anyone thinking this controlled way of working is something unique to mezzotint, a person can obsess over the tiniest weld, collaged element, or abstract expressionist element in ANY medium. But to sum it up, I do see quite a lot of creative work in ALL styles being done in mezzotint, I just don't see other styles being SHOWN as much.
CW: Yes, I do. It's not a big deal if you have the proper tools and technique. I don't think it's essential for everyone, but for most of my images, I need to have control over the grounding process. In addition to choosing rockers of different gauges for different images, I may also alter the grounding pattern or purposely infuse a ground with a certain texture to suit particular image concerns. Rocking a ground can be a very creative part of the artistic process. Also, rocking the plate myself gives me a great deal of information about the type of copper I'm using. I can tell whether the metal is more or less tensile, hard, soft, brittle, and how the surface is being tempered as I rock, and I'll know to adjust my scraping and burnishing techniques accordingly. Or, knowing what kind of copper I'm using in advance, I can select a rocker that's more appropriate for that particular sheet of metal and image.
It's also interesting that throughout much of the history of mezzotint, you can trace the teacher-student relationships by the character of the grounds. One can look at the grounds prepared by William Pether and those of Thomas Frye's and make a definite connection. However, some engravers, such as J.R. Smith, often used different grounds for different projects. For example, a plate with a more commercial image that was suited to being hand-colored might be rocked with a more open pattern so that the white of the paper accepted the watercolor pigments. A more serious subject by a prominent painter might be ground more thoroughly so that finer gradations and nuances could be achieved. The skill required to be so flexible is also evident in one of J.R. Smith's best known apprentices, William Ward.
WP: It certainly looks like a task which could be mechanized.
CW: Yes, there are plates that are ground by various types of machines. Some of these "pre-ground" plates are run through rollers with teeth and their grounds usually have a pronounced warp-and-woof pattern and are more fragile than those whose surfaces have been tempered by the rocking process. Pre-rocked plates, usually made with rockers attached to devices that imitate rocking by hand, also often exhibit this pattern, but are usually deeper. If one of these plates works for you, then use it. Personally, my grounding needs are more diverse and require more personalized handling of the process.
CW: What about aquatint mezzotints? Do you consider that cheating?
WP: Images can be rendered in any medium in the "mezzotint manner"; that is, by working from dark to light. Alternative grounding processes that produce a burr have advantages over those that do not, such as aquatint. One can also combine aquatint with mezzotint to produce interesting effects or to make the work go faster. No, I don't consider it cheating. One uses the techniques that suit one's artistic temperament and meet one's imagery needs. It's great to have options.
CW:I suppose. But working this way may enhance the image and infuse it with interesting textures not attainable any other way. In my longer workshops I can get into alternative grounding process and mixed-method grounds and mezzotints in great detail. I can also present techniques that will help make scraping and burnishing aquatints and other etched plates a more efficient and productive process.
CW: That's a pretty long list. I do, however, have some favorites. I love the energy in Cornelius Dusart's mezzotints from the 17th century. In the 18th century, I admire the finesse in prints by James McArdell, James Watson William Pether and Valentine Green. Thomas Frye's life-sized mezzotint portraits are tour de forces. The inventiveness of Richard Earlom's prints is impressive. John Raphael Smith is a particular favorite who influenced a whole generation of artists, including the painter J.M.W. Turner. Of the 19th century engravers who worked on steel plates, no one could match Samuel Cousins. These are just the obvious few who come to mind.
CW: Do they? Perhaps their imagery doesn't call for areas of pure white. Some people feel a pure white tone is too jarring, and that a few specks of tone in their whites creates a sparkling effect more appropriate to their image needs. On the other hand, I have noticed that artists new to the medium who may have just rocked their first plates, are fearful of making a "mistake" or messing up their grounds, and this makes them approach the plate so tentatively that they don't get down to the white tones. In my workshops, I'm continually encouraging people to be more aggressive as they manipulate the ground, especially if they want to achieve those white tones. I have to convince them that so-called mistakes are usually corrected quite easily. Also, I show them how to sharpen and handle their tools properly, which makes a huge difference in their ability to control their tonal values and get the tones they want.
all that said, I assume artists are happy enough with the image if they've
signed their name on the print. If, on the other hand, they WANT to achieve
white and can't, it might be they aren't reading the plate reflections
or handling tools correctly, or perhaps they aren't using the proper wiping
technique when printing to compensate for the unique topography of mezzotint
It is also a myth that mezzotints are extremely fragile and can produce only a few good impressions before the plates break down. Unlike drypoint, rocking over the plate surface in many directions tempers and toughens the metal. A hearty mezzotint ground can withstand more printings than a fine aquatint. Personally, I don't take that risk and usually have my plates steelfaced. However, it should also be noted that steelfacing (the electro-deposition of a fine coating of iron on the copper plate surface) is only a partial protection and plates can eventually wear down under the facing, too.
The fear of squashing a mezzotint often makes people fearful of using adequate pressure when printing. In fact, mezzotints require more pressure than other intaglio plates to print properly. To those who are holding back on pressure to increase their edition size, I say I'd rather see 25 well printed mezzotints from a plate than 50 impressions printed improperly. Using good blankets, is also essential to insure that all subtle tones are picked up and to minimize ground breakdown.
Many of the myths and misconceptions about mezzotint are debunked in my book, The Mezzotint: History and Technique. The paperback edition, also published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., is still in print. I do think it helps to understand the history of the technique; the reasons certain techniques evolved as they did have great relevance and can be useful in 21st century image concerns and when trying to solve technical problems. It is easier to improve upon the wheel if one isn't always so busy trying to re-invent it. Our predecessors had an incredible understanding of materials and their properties. I firmly believe that a solid understanding of materials and physical properties can be inspiring and liberating for artists, and this is usually what most people learn to appreciate in my workshops.
The other thing people get from my workshops is the conviction that you don't need a lot of expensive equipment to make interesting prints. Because most artists learn about printmaking in well-equipped studios with large presses, powerful ventilating systems, aquatint boxes, acid rooms, etc., they think that these things are necessary to make prints. However, for centuries most printmaking was a cottage industry in which engravers worked out of their homes. There are limitless creative possibilities in working directly on the plate without acids or equipment used in more process oriented techniques, making it possible to create richly textured, interesting prints safely in one's own home. When asked, I also discuss ways to etch safely at home.
Advice for Young Printmakers
Carol's explanation of "What is a Mezzotint
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