The invention of mezzotint is attributed to Ludvig Von Siegen. Born in Utrecht in 1609 he began printmaking in the 1630's. Until that time there were only three known forms of printing from metal plates. These were engraving (or drypoint), biting with acid and crible. The later most closely resembles mezzotint since the image is formed by a series of holes or dots punched into the metal, the additive effects of which produce areas of varying tonal contrast. Von Siegen began to use a variety of tools to create different kinds of dots and burrs. These tools were mainly roulettes of various designs that had been used for centuries by bookbinders, leather and metal workers. He used them as one might use a drawing instrument, in an additive way, correcting mistakes using scrapers and burnishers. Close examination of Von Siegen's prints reveal a zig-zag configuration of dots characteristic of a flat rounded chisel with a serrated edge similar to what later became known as a 'mezzotint rocker'.
It is not clear whether Von Siegen ever met Prince Rupert of the Rhine who was himself an etcher and experimenter, or whether the Prince learned of Von Siegen's work from studies of his prints. It was Prince Rupert however, who began to use the scraper and burnisher not as tools of correction but as drawing instruments in themselves, working deductively over a fully grounded plate. In doing so he realised the potential of this technique for chiaroscuro effects and continuous tonal gradations.
As the art of mezzotint spread throughout Europe, methods of grounding the plate improved with refinement of the rocking tool and its usage. Painters, realising the potential of this process for the reproduction of their own work, were keen to promote the use of mezzotint for this purpose. Although many printmakers continued to produce their own original prints, the market for this work was overshadowed by that for the reproduction of work by fashionable painters of the day.
During the first half of the 19th century other graphic printing processes such as lithography (which can yield an unlimited number of copies) began to supersede the use of mezzotint for mass reproduction. The demise was further hastened with the development of photographic techniques, which allowed painters to reproduce their work exactly without having to compromise with the printmaker's own personal artistic interpretation. As a result many of the traditional skills used by the professional mezzotint engravers have been lost. Towards the end of the 19th century there was a resurgence of interest in intaglio techniques as artists began to explore the possibilities of printmaking for new artistic expression. Thanks to artists such as Sir Frank Short, who represents an important link between the reproductive engraver and the artist/printmaker and was among the first to be recognised for his original mezzotints, these traditional skills were not entirely lost. Throughout the 20th century artists continued to use traditional forms of printmaking, often combining different techniques and adding those of their own. In so doing, printmaking has become firmly established as an art form in it's own right with unlimited scope for artistic freedom and individual expression. Among the ever-growing number of printmaking techniques available, mezzotint continues to offer unique qualities of rich, dark tonal contrast unrivalled by any other process.