Martin Maywood is an experienced mezzotint artist. He is well-practised in traditional mezzotint engraving and has also developed some new alternative ways of printing with mezzotint plates, which he supplies to other artists around the world.
Martin is running a workshop as part of our RBSA Summer School. He tells ART BLOG about how he got into this little-known area of printmaking…
People often ask me how I got into mezzotint engraving.
Looking back I feel that somehow it was fate. As a method of printmaking, the art of mezzotint engraving had been virtually lost in mists of time, so the chances of me coming across this technique were pretty slim.
I first became interested in printmaking during the second year of my degree. I had decided to stop using colour as I wanted to develop my drawing skills. I looked around for other mediums that were monotone and experimented with all kinds of different media such as paint, collage, etching, woodcut and later on lithography, but never came across mezzotint.
I also tried working with white pastel and acrylic paint on black paper. This required a different approach to drawing. I was used to working with black on white, not vice versa. Instead of making dark marks to represent the shadows, I had to think in terms of drawing the lights and highlights, gradually drawing the image out of the darkness. I didn’t know at the time but this way of working is exactly the approach needed for mezzotint engraving, as I learned a few years later at working for T.N.Lawrence and Son in their London shop on Clerkenwell Road in the 90s.
At that time Lawrences had a couple of Japanese-made pre-mezzotinted plates in the cabinet. We never sold any and they had been there for years. A colleague read up about mezzotint and tried using one. He became fascinated with the art. However, he quickly found that the pre-mezzotinted plates we sold did not perform as well as they should – the burr was too fragile. He tried rocking his own plates and made some impressive engravings but soon grew tired of the laborious process of hand rocking.
He showed me some photographs from Carol Wax’s book The Mezzotint – History and Technique of one-off rocking machines built in Japan by enthusiasts. I could see how the machines could work but I realised that they would be very slow and limited in the size of plate they could rock. I had an idea for a fresh approach to machine rocking by going back to first principles and studying how the mezzotint rocker moves across a plate and trying to imitate the motion.
I bought a six-inch rocker ( with staff discount ) from Lawrences and made a crude model in my London flat. The principle seemed to work but I had neither the tools nor the knowledge needed to build a fully working prototype.
It just so happened that my father had recently retired as a factory engineer and had the know-how and equipment. Next time I visited I showed him my prototype and explained the idea. I asked him to think about the possibility of building it and we could discuss it next time I came home. Next time I came home, a month or so later I found he had already gone ahead and built it!
The first motor-driven prototype. It worked, but it was slow and could only rock up to A4 size.
There was also a tendency for the rocker to wander across the plate rather than travel in a straight line. The trouble was, because my father had welded the thing together, there was no way to adjust anything. Nevertheless, I took the machine back to London and started trying to rock plates for my colleague. I also tried engraving myself and became hooked on mezzotint.
I did manage to rock several A4 plates on that machine, but it was no quicker than hand rocking and had to be constantly watched to control the spacing and ensure the rocker didn’t stick in one place and carve an arc into the surface of the plate. I began to realise that if I could improve the machine and speed up the process that there might be a market for pre-rocked plates.
By another quirk of fate I parked my car one day in London and happened to notice an old dismantled shelving unit made of angle iron, put out with the rubbish. I realised that I could build the machine by bolting the angle iron together – using bolts would allow me to adjust the machine. I loaded up the car and took the pieces home. There I rebuilt the machine on a larger scale using some of the components from the original machine that my father had made.
I managed to iron out the spacing problem and speed up the rocker.
Over the years I have continued to make improvements to the machine which has now grown to the size of a snooker table allowing me to rock much larger plates ( up to four foot square).
I have continued to make mezzotint engravings over the years and run regular workshops at my local art centre. Using no chemicals, mezzotint engraving is a very green and environmentally friendly method of intaglio printmaking with the ability to render images in photographic detail with a full range of velvet tones. As well as traditional engraving I have also experimented using alternative ways of printing from mezzotint plates, with some interesting results to show.
I will be delighted to return to the RBSA again this year where I hope to de-mystify the art, which, at it’s heart is very straightforward, absorbing and meditative.
Join Martin on his mezzotint workshop which takes place on 23 August.
Receive expert guidance on how to create and print a mezzotint engraving. This workshop is suitable for both beginners and experienced printmakers. Ready-rocked Mezzotint plates will be provided.
During Martin’s workshop you with be shown how to engrave and print your own mezzotint engraving and also try out one or two new techniques. The course will cover suitable subject matter and how to transfer images from life, sketch or photograph onto the plate. You will then be shown how to use the scraper/burnisher to engrave your image. Finally how to ink up and print onto thick acid- free paper through an etching press.
Subject matter will be provided, but please feel free to bring your own sketches, photos and ideas. Included in the materials cost is a mezzotint plate 50x60mm, small enough to engrave and print in a day with remarkable detail. Other sizes will be available to buy at reduced cost. All tools and materials will be provided but feel free to bring your own etching tools if you have any.
To book please contact the gallery on 0121 236 4353. Payment can be made in cash or by card or cheque. Cheques are to be made payable to RBSA.
Places are limited to 10 students per workshop. Allocation will take place on a first come first served basis, subject to receipt of full non-transferable and non-refundable payment.