About the Artist
Dorothea Wight, printmaker and artist, born 23 September 1944; died 23 May 2013
The intaglio plate offers artists a wide range of mark-making: line etching, engraving, aquatint, mezzotint, soft ground (to imitate pencil) and sugar-lift (which looks like brushmarks). Few artists have realised the full potential of the medium; even fewer master the subtleties inherent in taking a good impression from the plate. For more than 40 years, Dorothea Wight ran the Studio Prints intaglio editioning workshop, printing for well-known artists such as William Turnball, Lucien Frud, Tess Jaray, Kim Lim, Ken Kiff and Celia Paul. Dorothea was at the forefront of printmaking in Britain.
She grew up in Devon, where her father ran a pottery. Dorothea went to Totnes high school and, after a year at Dartington School of Art, spent four years training to be a painter at the Slade, in London, where she was drawn to the print department under Anthony Gross andBartolomeu dos Santos. Gross's method of combining line etching with engraved textures made using unconventional tools was technically challenging to print, but created rich results.
When she left the Slade in 1968 Dorothea had a dream of setting up an intaglio workshop – and had secured a job to print an edition of etchings for Julian Trevelyan – but she had no money. She found a basement in a semi-derelict building for £2 a week, got a loan from the bank to buy a press, and Studio Prints was born.
The workshop expanded to cope with demand; a second then a third copperplate press arrived and assistant printers were required. Of all the problems that arise from working with sometimes difficult artists, and trying to get the best out of their plates, Dorothea said that the problem of finding suitable assistant printers was the most taxing. Not only does the printer have to override their own creative ambitions, but they have to be tough enough to work a heavy cast-iron hand press, print after print, throughout the day. Dorothea trained her staff to become excellent printers.
Previously, artists had made their own plates and, usually ineptly, printed a few copies on demand in the art school where they taught. Times were changing, however, and a new breed of entrepreneurs saw that there was a hunger for art at modest prices and a demand for complete editions from artists. Studio Prints moved into premises on Queen's Crescent in north London, which had once been a Sainsbury's store. The original decorative tiling was still on the walls and the marble countertops proved ideal as ink-mixing slabs. Twice a week you could see the street market through the studio's original plate glass window; artists loved it.
An upstairs room became a small gallery, opened by Lord Sainsbury, to show the work of young artists, but that had to give way for more space to dry and flatten prints. As the print boom continued, the demand was for more complicated multiplate colour images, which became the speciality of Studio Prints. In 1969 the BBC made a film in the workshop, with Dorothea demonstrating the printing of etchings by Gross to illustrate poems by Archilochus in a book published by Douglas Cleverdon.
The financial crash of the early 70s changed everything. The publishers fled, leaving editions unpaid, and artists who had come to rely on a steady income from printmaking were left distressed. Studio Prints had to think again. Mark Balakjian became a partner in the workshop and they set about reorganising the facilities for artists. Plate-making in house meant they could guide inexperienced artists to make plates so that they printed beautifully.
The bonus in the situation meant that Dorothea and Mark, who married in 1973, could develop their own printmaking. Mark's fascination with the lost art of mezzotint led him to explore this most arduous way of making a printing plate. The copperplate is first indented with tiny pits to hold ink; the surface is then burnished to smooth the ink-holding pits to varying depths. Dorothea, too, adopted mezzotint in preference to aquatint for her own work, appreciating the subtle tonal gradations. Her colour mezzotints reflected memories of the Devon countryside but cunningly seen through ambiguous window frames, so that you are never sure if you, as the observer, are inside or out.
She taught at Morley College, in London; was a visiting tutor at many art colleges; and exhibited widely both in the UK and internationally. Her work is found in major collections including those of the Arts Council, the British Council, the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, and in national collections in Paris, Brussels and Warsaw.
Studio Prints closed in 2011. Dorothea is survived by Mark and her son, Aram, and daughter, Tamar.
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