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The Painter becomes a Printmaker

Ask most printmakers how they got started and they will tell you about wandering into a printing studio late one night or perhaps tell you a story about a teacher with black fingernails. Ask Dorian Allworthy, and you’ll hear about an illicit goat feeding episode. The severity of her infraction is not entirely clear, but she felt guilty enough to feel caught when a young man entered the petting zoo barn. Soon, however, she sensed that he too was an outlaw and encouraged him to join the frenzy. Somehow the high sign was passed, and the two realized that they were both artists. When they parted, he pulled from his pocket some copper etching plates and presented them to her as a token of newfound friendship. This was Dorian’s initiation into the black art of printmaking. Knowingly or not, the stranger would cause Dorian to break an injunction far more serious than that against feeding livestock. Eight years earlier, her beloved adoptive father, painter Joseph Allworthy, had forbidden her to continue drawing—an artistic passion and self imposed discipline that she had pursued in reaction against what she regarded as the superficial works of fellow art students at the Pennsylvania Academy. Joe believed in the purity of painting and encouraged her to focus on light and color, leaving line to take care of itself. So her pencil had required no sharpening for the remainder of Joe’s life. The chance gift of metal plates helped to free her to chart her own artistic direction.

Dorian set about teaching herself to make prints. Instead of the fluidity and freedom of etching or the chameleon-like versatility of lithography, she chose the intractable demands of drypoint—the direct incision of lines into metal with the tip of a sturdy needle. The technique involves a number of trade-offs. It is very direct but equally demanding. It allows the artist to produce rich, velvety lines by raising a ridge—or burr—of metal above the surface of the printing plate. This burr transfers an added charge of ink in the printing process to make the rich—“burry”—lines. Artists whose names are long forgotten pioneered this technique in Germany in the 15th century. A generation later, the great Albrecht Dürer elevated drypoint to a high art, but he made only a few examples. He was probably dismayed by the rapidity with which the burry effects attenuated as the raised bits of metal wore away. In 17th-century Holland, Rembrandt engaged with drypoint more profoundly than any artist before or since. Apparently he aimed his most ambitious drypoints at a circle of connoisseurs who could appreciate his unique abilities. Since then, artists as different as Whistler, Kirchner, and Diebenkorn both made drypoint a mainstay of though in completely different ways—soft as a brush, forceful as an ax, and calculatedly hesitant.

So there was Dorian, who had not drawn for eight years, setting out to become a graphic artist in a medium that demands draftsmanship so definite that each stroke is inscribed in metal. Typical Dorian—if you want to learn to swim, dive into the deep end.

Dorian’s autodidactic procedure often involved the production of copies—a very traditional approach. Her copies are by no means slavish. Taking images from books or magazines, she translates them into a linear vocabulary that attempts to match her control of values in her paintings. Here she operates in a separate world of images, detached from her usual realm of observation and experience. Where in her paintings do we see elephant families, prize fights, and saloon gamblers? In these works, she sees through the eyes of others and the resulting body of work exists in a netherworld between illustration and perception. Of the boxers, she reports that she likes the subject, even though she would like to remain distant from its reality. At this writing she continues to alter the plate, but the last impression that I saw spoke to her distance from the subject.

Other of Dorian’s prints seem more like a direct extension of her painting. They have the direct engagement that marks her work when the motif inspires her. Her studies of dogs are filled with her delight in and sympathy for these creatures. “Lucky Dog” and Samson are portraits of friends. Even without descriptive surroundings, the figures exist in space and have personality. A plate in which Dorian proves that she has hit her stride is the straight-on head study of a heavy-lipped, lop-eared dog. The glassy surface of the eye, loose skin, and underlying mass of bone and muscle are all convincingly rendered. The viewer truly gets the sense that the unblinking dog looks right back at him.

Dorian seldom produces a numbered, limited edition of uniform impressions from her plates. Instead she explores the potential within a given image by printing variant impressions from the plate. For her, each and every impression is a unique work of art. Between impressions, she frequently reworks her plates, sometimes adding new lines, scraping away lines that no longer please her. Many printmakers are fanatical about preserving the drypoint burr. Often they electroplate iron onto the surface to strengthen it. Dorian accepts the degradation of her delicate plates. She finds that as lines break down, they can create soft, appealing tonalities. Her work becomes an organic process in which her work causes the plate simultaneously to degrade and to be renewed. At times the image on the plate becomes so difficult to see that she works as much by touch as by sight.

Many contemporary painter/printmakers rely on professional printers to produce an edition from a plate. Dorian does her own printing. She uses an old press given to her by the same artist who gave her those first plates. At the press, she continues her explorations of the image beyond the work on the plate itself. Dorian’s interest in tone and color has led her to vary her inks and their application. Lately Dorian has begun using thicker, more viscous ink. It seems to appeal to her painterly interest in the subtle manipulation of tonal values. What the whites are to her painting, the grays are to her drypoints. She tries papers of different thickness, color, and texture. A highly unusual technique that Dorian came to independently—without the knowledge that Picasso had tried it in the 1930s—involves the arrangement of bits of colored tissue on the printing surface so that they adhere to the main sheet of paper under the force of the press. Dorian calls the process “spot chin collé. It produces an effect somewhat like stenciled watercolor.

Artists often place tight restrictions on their own work. Whether or not Dorian will continue to confine herself to drypoint as the means to work her plates remains to be seen. Etching and its cousins, such as aquatint and sugarlift, have proven attractive to many contemporary painters, especially those who collaborate with master printers. Perhaps the visceral physical challenge of drypoint and its simple, unyielding demands hold for Dorian more appeal than the less direct chemically-based processes. Recently, a friend urged her approach the printing of each impression with the intention of making it the best work of art that she has ever made. I hope that she doesn’t let that advice make her too self-conscious. It is easy to see the pleasure that she finds in painting. Years of application and ingenuity are now beginning to yield a similar sense of gratification in her printmaking.

Tom Rassieur
February 2005