On the mezzotints

The mezzotints of Bert Keller

The mezzotint, also called 'the black manner', was a new technique that originated around 1650. To create the mezzotint, the whole copper plate is first roughened, or grounded, with a so-called 'rocker', a tool with a fan-shaped, serrated blade that leaves rows of pits and burrs on the copper plate. The tool is rocked in all directions across the plate. The ink adheres to this rough surface, it sticks to the irregularities as it were.
    If you were to print the plate at this stage, it would produce an evenly black surface. To apply an image, certain parts of the grounded plate are then burnished with a scraper or burnisher. Those areas retain less ink and thus produce the lighter areas in the print. By burnishing more or less it is possible to achieve different grey tones, or half tones, hence the name mezzo (half) tint.
    The mezzotint was used regularly in 17th century art education, one of the core components of which was copying famous sculptures and paintings. The mezzotint lent itself particularly well to the reproduction of paintings, because it allows for flowing transitions between grey tones. No other technique could better translate the colour variations of the painting into black and white.
    The prints that were made invariably had very modest dimensions because the grounding of the plate with the rocker took at least as much time as the application of the eventual image.

The modern mezzotint
Today there are very few artists who make mezzotints. The Dutch artist Bert Keller lost his heart to this traditional technique and by making use of modern technical aids he managed to bring it into the 21st century. He does not ground his plates manually but has them grounded by a blasting company, so that he can spend all his energy on applying the image. By outsourcing the labour-intensive preparation phase, it becomes possible to work in much larger dimensions. Whereas in the past a print of 20 x 30 centimetres was considered large, Keller now never works any smaller than 100 x 70 centimetres.
    In order to have any control in applying an image in that size, he makes use of another modern technique: slide projection. You cannot draw or sketch on a roughened metal plate as you would on canvas, and therefore the artist has no guidelines when he starts working. In a small size, that is not a problem but when the plate is as large as a dining room table, it becomes more difficult. By projecting a slide onto the plate, the outlines of the image are visible and Keller can concentrate on the detailed burnishing of the plate. That burnishing is still done by hand and still is a laborious process. In a dark room (otherwise the projected slide would not be visible enough) he works up to two months on a plate before it is ready for a first proof. Often he then goes back into the dark room to perfect the image.
    Finally the print is run through an enormous press to make about twelve prints. The pressure of the press smoothes the plate down until there comes a point when no more good prints can be produced. Because the plate loses its depth, the black also becomes less deep. At first sight the final result looks a bit like a photograph, especially since Keller usually works with (almost) black ink, but if you look closer you can see that the mezzotint has a much softer, velvety quality and in addition a beautiful, deep matte colour that is almost tangible.
    Needless to say that in Keller's work the images have also kept up with the times. The traditional composed still-lifes, often with objects that emphasised the transient nature of human existence (skulls, hour glasses), have made way for tranquil images of flowers and plants as they grow in your garden and mine. The attention to detail and the absence of colour lend a meditative quality to the prints, which keeps drawing the viewer in. The artistic quality of the work is beyond dispute. Keller has won several prizes with his mezzotints and several museums have included his prints in their collections.
    In short: with his mezzotints Bert Keller has successfully breathed new life into an old technique. He has managed to combine an old technique with modern technical aids and modern images. They form an artistically very successful marriage of old and new, of traditional and modern, of technique and hand work.

Hester Eymers

- http://www.rijksmuseum.nl
- Grafisch ABC: Korte verklaring van termen uit de grafische kunsten (Varik: Uitgeverij de Weideblik, 2004)