Escher and the Art of the Mezzotint

Born of a labor-intensive process the master printmaker himself referred to as a “black art,” Escher’s mezzotints are perhaps among his most beguiling.
Artist Julie Niskanen demonstrates the process of creating a mezzotint print from a copper plate.

Throughout the course of his career, M. C. Escher created only eight prints using the mezzotint method–two of which, Eye and Dewdrop, are now on view at the NCMA, alongside the original plate Escher used to create Dewdrop some 60 years ago.  

“Having the actual mezzotint plate for Dewdrop on view next to the print only increases our sense of wonder at Escher’s accomplishment,” says NCMA curator David Steel.

The mezzotint printmaking process itself, developed in 17th-century Italy, is one of painstaking intricacy. Named for the Italian mezzo-tinto, or “half-tone,” this unique and time-consuming burnishing procedure is especially suited for capturing the subtleties of light and shadows with rich intermediate tones and gradient tonality.

Watch as artist and master printmaker Julie Niskanen demonstrates the mezzotint process, adopting much the same technique as Escher once used to create his masterpieces Eye and Dewdrop. This video appears on a tablet in the gallery, along with the exhibition’s other interactive multimedia features.https://player.vimeo.com/video/139641565?app_id=122963

“I particularly admire the way Escher captured the light striking the edge of the leaf in Dewdrop,” Steel reflects. “I wonder at how much time he would have spent studying dewdrops on leaves, pondering how to capture the mystery and beauty of such a simple and complex thing as a droplet of water. In fact, the only other artist I know who so carefully observed a dewdrop on a leaf was Leonardo da Vinci, whose observations are recorded in the Codex Leicester (folio 34v) [also presently on view at the museum.]”

After the copper plate is roughed up, or “rocked,” Julie creates an image by using burnishing tools and scrapers to smooth out and cut off the burrs.

Ruminating on his craft, Escher once wrote: “the thing that I mainly strive after is wonder, so I try to awaken wonder in the minds of my viewers.” Perhaps nowhere is that sense of awe so expertly captured as in the velvety tones of Escher’s mezzotints.

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