Mezzotint is an intaglio printmaking technique invented by the German amateur artist Ludwig von Siegen (1609 – c. 1680) which allows for the creation of prints with soft gradations of tone and rich and velvety blacks. Von Seigen’s earliest mezzotint print dates to 1642 and is a portrait of Countess Amalie Elisabeth of Hanau-Münzenberg.
Mezzotint prints involves indenting the metal printing plate by rocking a toothed metal tool across the surface. Each pit holds ink, and if printed at this stage the image would be solid black. To create dark and light tones, the printmaker gradually rubs down or burnishes the rough surface to various levels of smoothness to reduce the ink-holding capacity of areas of the plate.
The mezzotint plate is particularly prone to wear during printing. The result is that the earliest impressions are the finest and print very dark with strong definition whereas later ones are noticeably fainter.