Encompassing a diverse range of media — from drawing and painting to collage and beyond — works on paper can offer a glimpse into the artist’s creative process. For many, the freedom and immediacy afforded by working on paper became instrumental to their practices, spawning new techniques, subjects and methods.
Not confined to studies and experiments, works on paper represent important modes of art-making in their own right.
On average, works on paper do tend to cost less than paintings — though of course they cover a wide range of price points.
It’s a category that allows you to buy a work by a leading name that might otherwise stretch your budget in another medium.
Major museum and gallery exhibitions continue to underline the central importance of works on paper to many different artists. As Cy Twombly, for example, turned increasingly to drawing and works on paper in the early 1970s, so too did scholarship on his oeuvre.
The year 1973 — in which he created On Returning from Tonnicoda, pictured at the top of this feature — saw both the Kunstmuseum Basel’s seminal retrospective of his drawings, and the publication of the first volume of the drawings catalogue raisonné by Heiner Bastian.
Works on paper were vital to Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose drawings and paintings represented a constant, direct outpouring of creativity. Numerous solo exhibitions have been dedicated to these works, and they played a key role in the groundbreaking 2017-18 Barbican show, Basquiat: Boom for Real.
The acclaimed recent retrospective of David Hockney’s career at Tate Britain, meanwhile — recently on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York — devoted an entire room to works on paper, displaying the keen, delicate visual immediacy that underpins Hockney’s entire practice.
Many artists placed working on paper at the core of their practices. For Basquiat, an avid draughtsman since childhood, paper was a transportable outlet for his visual imagination — he would frequently work in restaurants or while watching TV. According to curator and critic Robert Storr, the results bear ‘the direct imprint of his urgency’. Drawing, for Basquiat, ‘was something you did rather than something done, an activity rather than a medium.’
While artists such as Vija Celmins have worked almost exclusively on paper, relishing its texture and luminosity, others have adopted it at carefully chosen moments.
In Lucian Freud’s Untitled (1944), above, and Agnes Martin’s Words (1961), below, working on paper produces a linear intensity that is unmatched in their canvases of the same periods. Executed early in their careers, both works demonstrate the artists’ attempts to hone their aesthetics in delicate, concentrated detail.
This is a question that has always been central to this market. By its nature, paper is fragile, and up until fairly recently this was a factor that made some collectors nervous — particularly those who lived in countries with high humidity or prone to extreme changes in temperature, which could impact the material in drawings.
Today, significant advances in conservation have removed many concerns collectors might have once had. Most framers now know to use archival material in their work. For collectors, conserving a work can be as simple as making sure that their frame has the right type of glass in it. If a work is not under protective glass, however, it’s a good idea to avoid direct exposure to very strong sunlight, or hanging works above hot radiators, for example.
It’s not unusual to find a drawing without a signature. As specialists, we can often identify the hand of the artist — and we will never put a work in one of our catalogues unless we have confirmed its authenticity with the recognised authority, which is always external to Christie’s.