The Play of Light and Shadow

By Robert Flynn Johnson, Curator Emeritus Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, excerpted from the catalogue Holly Downing, Penumbrae: Paintings and Mezzotints 

An example of an old and nearly forgotten medium that has been adapted by the artist Holly Downing to her contemporary aesthetic sensibilities is the mezzotint. It is the most difficult of all graphic art processes but also the one that yields the most luxurious results.

For over thirty-five years, Holly Downing has been an artistic stage manager directing the play of light and shadow over what she feels worthy of transforming from the seemingly ordinary in life into the extraordinary, through the subtlety of her art. Being a representational artist has not limited Downing. In fact, her relative choices of seemingly simple subjects has allowed her to work moods and meanings into the commonplace that would be lost if her art had to compete with more grandiose or distracting subject matter. An artist one could compare her to is the masterful yet humble Italian, Giorgio Morandi.

After studying at the Royal College of Art in London, Downing pursued research on the mezzotint in the U.K. with a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. It led to meeting an elderly mezzotint engraver, Lawrence Josset, who once studied with the virtuoso printmaker Sir Frank Short. Through Josset, she was able to learn many of the refined techniques of the medium. Mezzotints have had a co-equal status with Downing’s paintings and drawings throughout her career, and, in fact, seem to inform her paintings - pushing their chiaroscuro tonalities and increasingly strong and distilled compositions, stripped of unnecessary detail. Time and patience are as crucial as inspiration and energy in the creation of mezzotints. Downing has written, “This extraordinary time consuming process, while laborious to some, is meditative and highly satisfying to me. Using only the pressure of my hand on the scraping tool, I can imbue simple still life objects….with a reserved strength and beauty that I obtain in no other medium. Light and shadow have the power to transform the seemingly immutable. Somewhere along the way psychological states of mind reveal themselves, and outer and inner worlds connect.” 7

There is a beautiful consistency in Downing’s choice of subject matter that is true regardless of medium. Holly Downing is an artist of her time employing the painstaking methods of another era. Her clarity is a welcome respite from the visual chaos that surrounds us. Her art is an environment of implied human activity yet containing a deChirico-like sense of absence and loss. Through the intelligence of her art, we are encouraged to appreciate the beauty in the commonplace, not just in her art, but in the world around us. Holly Downing has given value to all the time that went into her work and, in turn, has enriched the lives of those that still know how to see.