Alessandro Mastro-Valerio: A Retrospective opens this Friday, September 20th (come to our opening!) with over 25 original prints on the OPG walls. Although celebrated for his mezzotint nudes, Mastro-Valerio also experimented with etchings, wood engravings, and monotypes, before creating continuous and spit-bite aquatint abstractions in the final years before his death (1950-1952). Today on the OPG blog, we would like to explain the different mediums that Mastro-Valerio so artfully employed, using his prints to show the difference in styles. We hope you enjoy!
Etching has been a favorite technique for artists for centuries, largely because the method of inscribing the image is so similar to drawing with a pencil or pen. An etching begins with a metal plate that has been coated with a waxy substance called a “ground.” The artist creates a composition by drawing through the ground with a pointed stylus, to expose the metal. The plate is then immersed in an acid bath which “bites” or chemically dissolves the metal in the exposed lines. For printing, the ground is removed, the plate is inked, and then the plate’s surface is wiped clean (leaving the ink only in the etched lines). It is then covered with a sheet of dampened paper and run through the printing press, which not only transfers the ink but forces the paper into the lines, resulting in a raised character of the lines on the impression. Etched lines usually have blunt rather than tapering lines.
Mezzotint is a technique of engraving areas of tone rather than lines. In this method, the entire surface of the printing plate is roughed by a spiked tool called a rocker. If inked at that point, the entire plate would print in solid black. The artist then works “from black to white” by scraping or burnishing areas so the plate will hold less or no ink, yielding modulated tones. Because of the capabilities for producing almost infinite gradations of tone, mezzotint has been the most successful technique for the black and white adaptation of oil-painted images to the print medium.
Wood engravings are made from the end-grain surface of very hard wood, usually boxwood, as opposed to woodcuts, which are made from side-grain planks of wood neither so hard nor so expensive. Rather than cutting away non-printing areas with a knife, wood engravings are made with fine engraving tools which are used to engrave the non-printing areas with incredible precision and detail. As in woodcuts, it is the surface that takes the ink and prints.
Aquatint is an etching process concerned with areas of tone rather that line. For this technique, the plate is covered with a ground or resin that is granular rather than solid (as in an etching) and bitten with acid. The acid bites in between the granules. The design, wholly in tonal areas not line, is produced by protecting certain areas of the plate from the acid with an impervious varnish, by using multiple bitings to produce different degrees of darkness, and by using several different resins with different grains.
If you have any questions about the techniques or want to share which medium is your favorite, feel free to leave a comment below!