Mezzotint Artist and Painter
Holly Downing, painter, printmaker and teacher, was born in San Francisco in 1948. She studied art history and studio art at the University of California, Santa Cruz and in 1972, shortly before graduating, made her first mezzotint engraving at the suggestion of her mentor, Hardy Hanson and with assistance from her printmaking teacher Kathryn Metz. It was not entirely successful. Her printmaking studies continued at the Royal College of Art, London in 1973 where no one knew much about mezzotints. Then in 1974 she received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1974 to further study mezzotints and produce a suite of prints. She found a classical British reproductive mezzotint engraver, Lawrence Josset, who shared with her “secrets” of the trade that helped her resolve technical difficulties, and began making and exhibiting mezzotints in the U.K., where the technique was popular as a reproductive technique in the 18th and 19 centuries but had largely died out. While in the UK she earned a M.A. from the Goddard College graduate program in Europe, and in 1980 returned to California with her husband, new baby, and a British Harry Rochat etching press.
Holly says she was seduced early on by the elegant simplicity and sensuousness of the mezzotint’s deep blacks and subtle grays. Forty years later, at her studio in Sebastopol, California, she still finds deep pleasure in scraping images out of blackness, and exploring their potential as quiet metaphors for the human condition.
Her mezzotints are prepared by “rocking” a copper plate with a small, toothed mezzotint rocker. This rocking is done until the plate has thousands of tiny holes, each with a raised burr holding ink, allowing her to scrape images out of darkness and create a rich velvety black unparalleled by any other medium. Through this process she infuses quietly dramatic imagery into seemingly simple and humble subject matter. Donald Kuspit, critic, writer and Professor of Art History, State University NY wrote: “Downing is in fact a master of chiaroscuro, as her mezzotints show: light and dark are fundamental to her geometry, and her geometry is complex and multidimensional, especially her extraordinary images of drapery.”
Holly taught art for twenty-three years at the Santa Rosa Junior College and prior to that she taught at the University of California, Santa Cruz and San Francisco State University and Brighton University, U.K. Her paintings and mezzotints have been exhibited internationally. Besides the National Endowment for the Arts she is a recipient of grants from the Greenshields Foundation, Canada; the Arts Council of Great Britain; the Graham Foundation, Chicago; and the San Francisco Phelan Foundation. Holly is an elected member of the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers, London. Her work is in many museum collections including the Victoria and Albert Museum; Ashmoleon Museum, Oxford; Scottish National Art Gallery, Edinburgh; Bibliotheque Nationale de France; Chi-ba Art Museum and Nakasatsunai Art Museum, Japan; New York Public Library; Library of Congress; Fine Arts Museums, San Francisco; Stanford University Art Museum. Downing’s mezzotints are included in a number of publications, including The Mezzotint, History and Technique by Carol Wax, 1990; Holly Downing, 25 Years of Mezzotints, catalogue raisonné, 2001; and Printmakers’ Secrets edited by Tony Dyson, 2009.