Mezzotint on Aluminium: a new tool to play with!

I had a search going on Ebay for a Mezzotint Rocker. The search has probably been running for a couple of years and I think only once or twice did it turn up this rather obscure printmaking tool and at full price, which is not cheap. So when one appeared at half price last week, I could not resist…

mezzotint rocker
mezzotint rocker

This post is mainly a series of photos of my experiments with mezzotint on a piece of aluminium (copper being the traditional material for this printing technique). If you would like to know more about how mezzotint – a slightly obscure branch of printmaking – actually works, I posted some of my first attempts on ready-prepared copper plates with more explanation here:

When I have a more complete set of photos and a final image that I am happy with, I might do a ‘how to do mezzotint’ post, but for the moment I am very much learning, and playing with a new toy, so these are mostly pictures…

I decided to try out mezzotint on a piece of aluminium, because I have lots of old aluminium printing plates. This one of the drypoint coasters that I printed last year. Because the plate was worn, and no-longer printing a decent image, I had never bothered cleaning it, so there is a lot of ink left on it. I set about attacking it with the mezzotint rocker:

old plate, partly already rocked
old plate, partly already rocked

I have already run over the plate with the rocker a few times, to get the feel of it – with a rocking action you roll it across the face of the plate, a bit like one of those herb-choppers, only instead of cutting, it leaves a series of indentations and burrs:

close-up of mezzotint rocker marks
close-up of mezzotint rocker marks, just beginning to ‘rock’ the plate

The idea is to build up an even surface of these pock-marks and raised bits, which will eventually hold ink for printing. To get an even covering traditionally the rocker is rocked over the plate in eight different directions as I’ve shown below with the red and white arrows.

the plate is rocked in 8 directions
close-up of mezzotint rocker marksthe plate is rocked in 8 directions – the white lines and the red lines

Below is the finished texture on the plate (not expertly done, but this was my first attempt!).

close-up of the rocked mezzotint plate and the sharp edge of the rocker
rocked mezzotint plate and rocker

The idea is that now the plate is throughly covered in a heavy, even texture, which will print black, and then the light areas of the image are put in by burnishing the plate to make areas of it smooth again. The interesting thing was that the image on the plate was still visible, so, having no better plan, I burnished the existing image back in again (for more of this process, see the previous posts I listed above), Here is my finished plate – the bright bits are where the plate has been burnished:

burnished aluminum
burnished aluminum

On goes the ink:

the mezzotint plate, still covered in excess ink
the mezzotint plate, still covered in excess ink

Off comes the ink:

the mezzotint plate, ready for printing
the mezzotint plate, ready for printing

And finally, the print – my first attempt at mezzotint on aluminium –  this was one of the good ones:

one of the good prints
mezzotint rockerone of the good prints

It is, however, very easy to over-wipe a mezzotint plate (or at least I have found this to be the case) Here is a selection of prints that were variously successful:

three prints, of varying success
three prints, of varying success

And a close-up of the left-hand one, very much over-wiped:

not a very good print - this one is overwiped
not a very good print – this one is overwiped

And that’s my first aluminium mezzotint! Actually only a test plate to prove the concept – the burnishing is clumsy and  I am not going to attempt to improve this image, I shall start again next term with something new. Until then, the print studio is closed and I have some weeks to come up with an image…


  1. Well, I absolutely love it – it has a fantastic ‘new’ dimension to it that works exceedingly well with your style of drawing. It reminds me a bit of a well printed silver gelatin print form high speed [grainy] film.

    1. Thank you! And yes, I see what you mean – mezzotint has that grainy quality to it, and because you work from dark to light they are often surrounded by a sea of velvety black. I like the slightly sinister quality of light it it has. But then I would 🙂

  2. Nancy, this is great. There is something really appealling about this process. I went off to buy plates online straightaway – I have to start playing with this whole technique. Neil

    1. ah yes, you can buy pre-rocked copper plates. Copper being less soft than aluminium you might need a scraper as well as a burnisher (quite often sold as a dangerous-looking double-ended tool)…. but really, it’s down to having a go and getting a feel for the metal surface you are working with. Have fun!

  3. Mgon ♥

    Amazing how transformed that is and how WONDERFUL it comes out when you’re done tweaking it.

    1. Oh I don’t think this one will be tweaked, Mgon – I started off too carelessly, wanting to just get a test plate done to prove the concept… no point trying to perfect it, better to do a new ‘proper’ one, but I will do new ones! 🙂

      1. Mgon ♥

        Oh, I see. I meant I like the final product, as compared to the overwiped example. I didn’t word it right. Sorry. Heh. But, heck, you have SO many different techniques and you’re so skilled. It is actually fun to see you show examples of things gone wrong or done wrong. The comparison really helps us appreciate your skill all the more. I would not dare attempt most of what you do, ’cause it would be one endless disaster after another. Heh-heh. Plus, the money (**sounds of a toilet flushing**). LOL

  4. I love it! A new tool – bliss! And recycling an old plate and image – brilliant!

    1. and not even having to re-draw the image again – how handy is that?!

  5. […] I had another play with the mezzotint rocker yesterday, with a proper sketch first and everything. I took some photos as I went along, but I’m not going to explain the ‘rocking’ process in much detail as you can see that on this post of a few weeks ago. […]

Tell me what you think!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s