Mezzotint is an engraving technique developed in the seventeenth century which allows for the creation of prints with soft gradations of tone and rich and velvety blacks

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  • John Martin, 'Plate from 'Illustrations to the Bible': Belshazzar's Feast' published 1835
    John Martin
    Plate from 'Illustrations to the Bible': Belshazzar's Feast published 1835
    Mezzotint on paper
    image: 190 x 290 mm
    Purchased 1987
  • Samuel Palmer, 'Evening, engraved by Welby Sherman' 1834
    Samuel Palmer
    Evening, engraved by Welby Sherman 1834
    Mezzotint on paper
    image: 149 x 178 mm
    Presented by Herbert Linnell 1924
  • Vija Celmins, 'December 1984' 1985
    Vija Celmins
    December 1984 1985
    One-colour mezzotint on Rives BFK paper
    image: 407 x 388 mm
    Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008© Vija Celmins

The process 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. However the printmaker creates dark and light tones by gradually rubbing down or burnishing the rough surface to various degrees of smoothness to reduce the ink-holding capacity of areas of the plate.

The technique became particularly popular in eighteenth-century England for reproducing portrait paintings.