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Robert Ecker: Mezzotints and Quirauk Mountain Paintings

August 30 - November 16, 2008


Robert Rodgers Ecker was born in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania in 1936. Growing up there and also spending significant periods of time in Hagerstown with his maternal grandparents and two aunts, his childhood exposure to the fine arts came at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts where his work will be exhibited from August 29th to November 14th. (right: Robert Ecker, Quirauk Mountain Painting, Acrylic on wood panel)

Ecker currently resides and works in north county San Diego, California and suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He received his bachelor's degree from Shippensburg University, attended The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and received his Master of Fine Arts degree from Penn State in 1965. He taught in the Art Departments at Washington State University from 1965 to 1972 and the University of Colorado from 1972 until 2001. He has had more than thirty solo exhibitions in the U.S. and abroad and has been included in more than 150 national and international group exhibitions where he received 30 prizes and purchase awards, including the President's Purchase Award at the Society of American Graphic Artists 58th National Exhibition in New York City and the Award of Merit at the First International Small Print Exhibit in Seoul, Korea. He was also awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Artist's Fellowship, a D. H. Lawrence Fellowship from the University of New Mexico, the Colorado

Council on the Arts Recognition Award in Painting, a Centrum Foundation Residency and Fellowship and two Faculty Fellowships from C.U. His work is in numerous public and private collections including the National Collection (Smithsonian), Yellowstone Art Center, The Printmaking Workshop, New York City, Boston Printmakers, Benziger Family Winery, Denver Art Museum, Pratt Graphics Center, Library of Congress (Pennell Fund Purchase) and the Crocker Museum in Sacramento.

Ecker's exhibition will highlight both his mezzotints and his more recent paintings of Quirauk Mountain, the highest point on South Mountain in Washington County. A special opening reception will be held Sunday, September 7 from 2:30 to 4:00 p.m., light refreshments will be served.


Quirauk Mountain

Quirauk Mountain is the highest point on South Mountain. The 2145' peak is located in northeastern Washington County, Maryland. It lies just southwest of the Fort Ritchie Military Base in Cascade. The Appalachian Trail and South Mountain State Park are about one-half mile to the west of the mountain's summit. About one-half mile to the west-southwest of the summit is High Rock (on the Appalachian Trail), which provides an excellent view of the surrounding countryside.


Mezzotint: Technique and a Brief History

Intaglio (pronounced in-TAL-yo) is a family of printmaking techniques in which the image is incised into a surface of a copper or zinc plate. The incisions are created by etching, engraving, dry point, aquatint or mezzotint. Mezzotint achieves tonality by roughening the plate with thousands of little dots made by a metal tool with small teeth called the rocker. The rocker makes tiny pits in the plate that hold ink when the face of the plate is inked and then wiped clean. A high level of quality and richness in the print can be achieved.

The whole surface (usually) of a copper plate is pitted and roughened evenly with the rocker. If the plate were printed at this point it would show as solid black. The image is then created by smoothing parts of the roughened surface with scrapers and burnishers so that the smoothed parts will print in grays or white. This is called working from "dark to light", or the "subtractive" method. By varying the degree of smoothing, mid-tones between black and white can be created, hence the name mezzo-tinto, which is Italian for "half-tone" or "half-tinted". The plate is printed in the normal way for an intaglio plate; the whole surface is inked, the ink is then wiped from the surface to leave ink only in the pits of the still rough areas below the original surface of the plate. The plate is put through a high-pressure printing press next to a sheet of paper, and the image transfers to the paper. Multiple prints can be pulled, but because the pits in the plate are not deep, only a limited number of top-quality impressions (copies) can be printed before the quality of the tone starts to degrade as the pressure of the press begins to smooth them out. Mezzotint is known for the luxurious quality of its tones because an evenly, finely roughened surface holds a lot of ink producing a rich black and secondly because the process of smoothing the plate with the burnisher and scraper allows fine gradations in tone to be developed.

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 dry point), biting with acid and criblé. 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 realized 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, realizing 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 recognized 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.


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