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It was an orchid, now it is a Blackadder orchid

THE Scottish painter Elizabeth Blackadder has translated into a print medium not just the characteristic vigor of her drawing but also something of the transparent, flowing quality of her This etching, ``Orchid,'' is printed by the Glasgow Print Studio. Technically speaking, it is a ``soft ground'' etching. A ``ground'' is an acid-resisting coat of wax or varnish over the metal printing plate. An etching is made by removing some of the ground to expose the metal under it. When the plate is subsequently immersed in acid, these exposed parts are bitten out or ``etched.'' Next the plate is cleaned. Then ink is worked into the etched lines. Surplus ink is wiped from the flat surface of the plate. And the image is finally printed on paper.

In the ``soft ground'' technique the linear parts of the print are made by drawing on tracing paper placed on the plate. The ground under the pencil-pressure sticks to the sheet of paper and is lifted away at the same time as the paper. The character of the line, as in this Blackadder print, is softer and grainier than in etchings made with other grounds and varies in strength according to its width.

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The tonal, watery parts of her print, which are also the colored areas of the image -- a gentle magenta run into by yellow for the flowers and their centers, and a charcoal-green for the leaves and stems -- were done by the ``spit-biting'' technique. These blotches and washes are produced by painting acid directly on the plate -- a different plate from the one used for the linear work.

Blackadder has freely explored the liquidity and movement of this method. The end result is a print, re- produced in this case 50 times, and so made available at a lower price for a wider market. Nevertheless, it retains much of the quality and character of the artist's drawings and watercolors.

From a collector's point of view, an original print of this sort, being in a limited edition, with each one numbered and signed by the artist, comes much closer to the artist's hand than a more mechanized, less supervised, mass type of reproduction. Its extra worth is not just monetary: The subtlety and quality of its texture and tone, and even the fineness of the paper on which it is printed, all add to its appeal and value.

Blackadder has earned a reputation well beyond the boundaries of Scotland (where she was born and still lives). She has traveled extensively and has exhibited all over the world. When just out of Edinburgh College of Art in 1954, she visited Yugoslavia, Greece, and Italy. Byzantine architecture and mosaics, and early Italian painting held a particular interest for her.

Since the 1970s, her paintings have evidenced a new sensitivity to the kind of rich, concentrated color found in Indian miniatures, and an original and delicate appreciation of the qualities special to watercolor -- delicate, but also extraordinarily economical.

Still-life in her hands turns the smallest of objects into arrangements of color on paper, precious images painted with affection, like items in a collection, specimens of delight set out on a table. Toys, feathers, paint brushes, an Indian purse, tiny Oriental objects, become almost separate paintings within a painting, itemized, loved. So do flowers.

Blackadder's interest in painting flowers has grown to a significant preoccupation in her work, and many of her most striking paintings have been of flowers in her garden. (Cats, haunting the same habitat, also find their way into her work.)

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Bearded irises, particularly in watercolor, have made a strong mark. She captures their mix of vigor and generosity, and the contrast of bold, simple stem-and-leaf with the complicated flourish of color -- red-purples, blue-purples, salmon, gold and brown -- of their flowers. Again this is rich color translated into terms that belong to the quality of paint, to the translucency of watercolor on plain paper. The paper acts in lieu of the white light passing through the color of the flower petal.

In the case of her print ``Orchid,'' the drawing seems to grow as the orchid has grown -- vigorous, rounded, rising out of itself in stages. The plant's pseudo-bulbs, roots, sheathed stems, and the slight heaviness of its leaves are all caught by the assured but investigative line. The color is ``added'' to the drawing but is not merely a filler, a coloring-in; it suggests the feel, the surface and fiber, of petal and foliage.

As with her watercolors, the plant has become the picture. It was an orchid. Now it is a Blackadder orchid.

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