As part of the exhibition Ropes, Ribbons, Twigs, and Things in the GAAC’s Lobby Gallery, Traverse City artist Dorothy Anderson Grow talked with Sarah Bearup-Neal, GAAC Gallery Manager, about the venerable art of printmaking as she practices it with 21st century tools and materials. Dorothy maintains an active practice focused entirely on printmaking. Working in her home-based studio, she creates hand-pulled, one-of-a-kind prints full of bold shapes, colors, and the sensation of texture. Ropes, Ribbons, Twigs, and Things is on display September 2 through December 15, 2022.
Describe the process of making an intaglio etching plate.
Initially, I create an image. I work and think both abstractly and non-objectively. My images may begin both the familiar or unfamiliar; real or unreal. My inspiration can come from such things as ribbons, ropes, fabric, twigs, clay forms, or my own drawings. In order to input these images into my computer and began the process of making an etching plate, they need to be photographed. For me photography is a tool not an outcome. It’s absolutely necessary that I use photography for my process. That’s the only way I can load an image into my computer so that I can make a transparency, and a print.
So, you’re not taking dictation. The photograph is just a way to record or generate an image on which you do more work.
Given my generation, working from photographs was a no-no. You had to be more creative. Some realistic things are reproduced in my work now, but it’s not like I’m copying from a photograph.
Once in the computer, I use Photoshop to recreate, manipulate, distort, and arrive at an 8” by 10” composition. I work in gray scale with no color. Color enters into my thoughts later when I am inking the etching plates. So for now, I am using the computer (another tool) to produce an 8” by 10” clear transparency with black ink only (like in the first photo). My second step is to create the etching plate (second photo). Instead of using the old traditional method of engraving metal plates with toxic chemicals, I use a DuPont film [known commercially as ImagOn] on a plastic plate, a UV light, and soda ash to create a toxic free plate. There is a lot of equipment, timing, testing and chemistry that goes behind this method. Some printmakers use a similar and simpler method called Solarplate. The plates are already prepared and use only sunlight to develop them. I find them far more costly and not as controllable. On step three, once the plate is made, it needs to be hand inked and tested on my printing press. If the print details are not clear enough, I need to recalculate and go back to step two.
How is the plate hand inked and transferred onto paper?
This is the long awaited step in my printing process. To hand ink a plate, I mix a color and spread the water based ink over the plate. I use a form of cheese cloth to rub off the excess ink and continue to whip the plate with recycled paper to clean the raised surfaces. The ink will remain in the recessed areas that are etched out. When the plate is placed in the bed of the press, a sheet of printing paper is laid over top. In order for the paper to pick up the recessed ink from the etching groves, a felt blanket is placed on top. As the drum rolls over the paper, the pressure creates an intaglio print.
At times, I will ink up to eight 8” by 10” plates and place them next to each other of the bed of the press to create a final 16” by 32” print. The number and how I place these plates will determine if I have a large or small; symmetrical or asymmetrical print. The initial etched prints are only the first step to my finished work.
What media and concepts do you apply to make the final work?
This final stage is the most exciting. There are several techniques I use and I am always experimenting with new ideas. I usually start by adding blends of color with an inked brayer onto a sheet of Plexiglass producing a monotype. I will also, at times, go back into the etching with colored pencils to create some shading effects or clearer definitions. Not all the details in the etching plate come out perfect, so I check for detail. I touch up the gaps. I will also try to shade, although it’s hard to shade into a print.
Next, collage elements are critical to my thinking which add elements of juxtaposition and interest. Many of the collage pieces are inkjet printed sections of my previous prints, modifications of color and scale of the current print, or a newly formed image. I also add textures created from ink, paint, and a variety of sources. Conceptually, my goal is to arrive at a new and unknown place.
Using all these tools and processes, I want to create a visual form of communication that’s stands apart from other ways of communicating. To me art is a language with a visual vocabulary
How have printmaking supplies and methods evolved since you have studied printmaking?
The most relevant change for me has been the switch from oil based inks to water based inks. The new Akua inks will remain moist for five years if not in contact with paper or cloth. They print on dry paper (Arches 55), as opposed to soaked paper. They are nontoxic. I have already mentioned the safe way of making etching plates with film versus acid etching. Also, I attended a lithography workshop a couple of years ago where an image is printed onto a rubbery type surface from a computer printer instead of the traditional hand drawn image on a stone or metal sheet. It is amazing how much technology has effected the visual arts.
After 30 years as a painter, you decided to concentrate 100% on printmaking. Why?
I loved being a nonobjective painter. But also during my past years of study and two degrees in art [a BA/Art Education from Baylor University, 1965; an MFA from Michigan State University, 1976], I had also studied several types of printmaking. I found that my processes with painting and printmaking were quiet similar. Printmaking had evolved from a toxic art media into a safe media. Slowly, I began experimenting with forms of collagraph and monotype [printing], and found them challenging.
While I was teaching art at Northwestern Michigan College [1999 – 2005], I enrolled in Photoshop and other computer graphic classes. I searched for a way to incorporate these new skills into my printmaking. I then discovered ImagOn. DuPont had collaborated with Keith Howard from Rochester Institute of Technological and developed a film and technique to produce toxic free etching plates. Using this new process, I was able to apply my new computer knowledge. This became my new focus.
Some of your work is translated into a three-dimensional print. Talk about that.
This courage came gradually. I had been a member of the Washington Printmakers Gallery in Washington D.C. for several years when I began taking my printmaking seriously. The gallery held a very traditional view of what types of prints were acceptable. Prints needed to be matted and framed according to a specific standard and computer generated inkjet prints were not allowed. Since then, they have expanded their views and so have I. I began by creating wall relief prints without frames and eventually free standing prints with multiple views.
But because these three-dimensional works are intaglio prints, they needed to be printed first on my etching press. The idea was to combine several two- dimensional prints together. This was a very exciting move for me. I would print out several 8” by 10” sheets of paper containing the etching image and then cut, fold, bend and glue the pieces together. Because the majority of my prints are symmetrical, this was an advantage. So compositionally, my current three-dimensional works are an extension of the processes and techniques I use on my two-dimensional pieces. I have future ideas of creating asymmetrical 3-D work and prints on cloth.
Where and how did you learn to print? Formal training?
In my undergraduate studies in art education and studio art, I was exposed to relief printmaking like linoleum block printing. In graduate school, I did extensive coursework in screen printing. Post graduate, I studied several intaglio forms of printmaking including collagraph, monotype, etching, and embossing. Once I decided to make intaglio printmaking my focus, I had to search for these new processes on my own. Since there is very little intaglio printmaking happening in this area, I traveled to instructional workshops in Santa Fe, New Mexico and spent a month of immersion in Italy.
The subject, and title, of this exhibition is ropes, ribbons, twigs and things. What is it about these objects and shapes that interest you?
I began studying art following the Abstract Expressionism period. Most of my creative thoughts were grounded in Formalistic thinking.
Explain what you mean by the term “formalistic thinking.”
As opposed to creating art to tell a story, to represent an image, or to promote a cause, I create art so that I can use the elements of visual art to compose and create something new. The colors, the shapes, the forms, how they interact with each another, and how the outcome arrives: that’s formalism.
So today, I still find myself searching for pure visual expression in abstracted realism or non-representational art. My art is not about social change, political ideas, environmental awareness, or other commendable issues.
As my work has evolved, I am currently working with imagery that is non-solid, stringy, flexible, and temporary. They can be twisted, tied, folded, curled, or looped. They can be tangled, intertwined, overlapped, or repeated. Many of the images are familiar and relate to my past. Once items of my childhood play, they are now a part of my serious art. I am so excited that these images transcend into the three-dimensional realm.
Read more about Dorothy Anderson Grow’s work here.
Sarah Bearup-Neal develops and curates exhibitions for the Glen Arbor Arts Center. She maintains a studio practice focused on fiber and collage.