Mindful that digital manipulation of imagery is a recent phenomenon, what are some of the techniques used by early printmakers to alter images?
One of the more interesting traditions of what is now described in digital terms as “cutting and pasting” began in the seventeenth century with English portrait engravings. Some of the more enterprising (and perhaps less ethical) printmakers and their publishers at this time sought to reduce the labour cost of producing portraits of their clients by erasing the faces portrayed in earlier printing plates and substituting portraits of their new clients. Sometimes these replaced faces were augmented with minor changes to the figures’ surroundings. For example in John Faber's mezzotint, George Byng, Viscount Torrington, not only is Byng’s face replaced in the altered plate, Edward Vernon, but the ledge on which Byng rests his right hand has been replaced with the barrel of a cannon on which Vernon’s hand rests.
The removal and replacing of imagery in plates such as these is made almost seamlessly by the medium of mezzotint. In a way the process of mezzotint is a bit like the building up of an image by pixels in that the image on the plate is created by tiny dots. In Frank Short’s demonstration print of the mezzotint process The Elements of Mezzotint (shown below) Short explains this engraving process:
The upper portion is intended to exhibit the work of the rocker, and for that purpose it is divided into two parts. The uppermost or lightest part was prepared in the same way as the darker subdivision immediately under it, but it was afterwards scraped quite clear of bur so as to exhibit the effects of the rocker’s teeth in digging into the copper. The nine strong dotted lines are lines of “ways,” showing the direction of rocking. Here they are etched; in a plate intended for future work they are temporarily marked in chalk [see detail below].
The whole of the lower example was rocked “full,” showing the depth to be obtained by leaving bur untouched and also qualities of shade to be obtained by its partial removal with the scraper [see detail further below]. (Hamerton, PG 1892, Drawing & Engraving: A Brief Exposition of Technical Principles and Practice, Adam and Charles Black,
p. 148 [tissue guard].) London
This print has been sold
Detail of upper portion|
Detail of lower portion|
The alterations to these early plates often went further than a chopping and changing of faces and their surroundings. Like the facility offered by “Exposure” and “Curve” tools in Adobe’s Photoshop software, the mezzotint engravers could also adjust the tonal contrast in the plates by applying the process outlined above by Frank Short to either give or remove a note of theatrical drama produced by lighting. Compare for instance the change in the tonal contrast between R Williams’ Thomas Betterton and the transfiguration to William Faithorne’s Sir William Read (see below). Interestingly, Thomas Betterton (1635–1710) was, according to Layard (1927), the “most eminent tragedian of the Restoration period.” Sir William Read (d. 1715), on the other hand, was “an itinerant quack, and was knighted for curing seamen and soldiers of blindness, and made oculist to Queen Anne” (Layard, George Somes 1927, Catalogue Raisonne of Engraved British Portraits From Altered Plates, From the Notes of George Somes Layard, Arranged by H. M. Latham, Philip Allan, London, p. 9.)
Even the most acclaimed and accomplished mezzotint artists engaged in altering their plates to accommodate fresh faces. For instance, Valentine Green (1739–1813) is arguably one Britain’s finest mezzotint portrait artists and yet he too loosened his artistic integrity to allow his print, Isabella, Duchess of Rutland, to be morphed into Frederica, Duchess of York (shown below). In terms of what may be seen as minor changes to the portrayal of Isabella to accommodate Frederica—alterations to the hat, upper section of the gown and, of course, a facial reconstruction (see both images further below)—there is a significant change to the projected meaning of the two portraits. In the portrait of Isabelle, our focus is allowed to move away from her face to dwell on the exquisite rendering of her gown and the composition as a whole. In the portrait of Frederica, however, our eye is held by contact with Isabelle’s attention directed to us. In short, Frederica is looking at us in a way that is difficult to disengage from. This seemingly subtle shift in projected meaning is what makes both images uniquely different even though they are both essentially made of the same pictorial ingredients.
Valentine Green (1739–1813)
Frederica, Duchess of
After Sir Joshua Reynolds
Mezzotint, 63.4 x 38.8 cm
Detail of Frederica, Duchess of |
Although the practice of altering images (i.e. changing an image so that the adjustments present a different interpretation of the subject) seems on the surface to be a straight forward activity in terms of pushing imagery around, the issue is usually more complex than this. For most artists their practice is governed by intention (i.e. a leaning to rationalise one’s practice and to “say” something that goes beyond the creative urge). There is also the problematic issue of ethics (i.e. a set of professional values that determines whether the use of certain imagery is appropriate) and aesthetics (i.e. a personal concern for quality that is lightly married to a concern to be authentic to one’s personal sensitivities). Essentially the practice of altering images is usually underpinned by discipline specific issues guiding an artist’s hand.