Vija Celmins (b. 1938), Untitled (Moon Surface #1), 1969. Graphite on acrylic ground on paper. 13⅝ x 18½ in (34.6 x 47 cm). Estimate $600,000-800,000. Offered in Post-War to Present on 29

Collecting guide: works on paper

An expert introduction to the medium, illustrated with works offered in our upcoming Post-War to Present sale

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  • What are works on paper?

The phrase works on paper encompasses a diverse range of media — from drawings and paintings to prints and multiples. Traditionally, artists utilize paper to test out new strategies or think through a larger idea with the immediacy of pencil and charcoal. Oftentimes, this gives outsiders a more intimate glimpse into their creative process, as if the artist is giving you a personal tour of how their mind churns and sifts through ideas. More and more, artists are turning to the medium as a unique way to showcase these visualizations.

Artists known for working in a diverse range of media are prized for their works on paper. Richard Serra, known for his monumental sculptures, captures the same physical intensity on paper through texture by thickly applying paintstick and charcoal. Likewise, Lee Bontecou, showcases similar sculptural elements on paper. This offers collectors a unique and one-of-a-kind experience with the artist’s work.

Cy Twombly (1928-2011), Allusion (Bay of Napoli, Part I), 1975. Oil, wax crayon, paper collage and graphite on paper, in two parts. 27⅝ x 78⅔ in (70.2 x 199.8 cm). Estimate $180,000-250,000. Offered in Post-War to Present on 29 September 2022 at Christies in New York
Cy Twombly (1928-2011), Allusion (Bay of Napoli, Part I), 1975. Oil, wax crayon, paper collage and graphite on paper, in two parts. 27⅝ x 78⅔ in (70.2 x 199.8 cm). Estimate: $180,000-250,000. Offered in Post-War to Present on 29 September 2022 at Christie's in New York

On the other hand, Vija Celmins' photo-realistic paintings and drawings bring a sense of intimacy, allowing the viewer to engage closer to nature, almost as if it is under a magnified glass. While Cy Twombly gives viewers the chance to get a closer, sometimes more explicit, look at the artist’s style and motifs used through his unique masterworks.

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  • Why collect works on paper?

Works on paper are generally an accessibly priced medium, making it perfect for emerging collectors looking to get their feet wet or even for more experienced collectors to expand their holdings of a particular artist. Though typically more accessible than works in other mediums, unique works on paper can manifest at a masterpiece level — estimated in the millions.

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  • Where can I see works on paper in the art world?

You can find them at almost any arts institution, including galleries, museums, and libraries. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, both in New York, have departments dedicated to works on paper. The Drawing Center in downtown Manhattan reserves their exhibition space exclusively to the medium. Various museums also have libraries in which you can make appointments to peruse their collections revolving around works on paper such as drawings and prints.

KAWS (b. 1974), STUCK, 2022. Acrylic, pastel, charcoal and graphite on paper. 29¾ x 21⅞ in (75.6 x 55.9 cm). Estimate $40,000-60,000. Offered in Post-War to Present on 29 September 2022 at Christies in New York
KAWS (b. 1974), STUCK, 2022. Acrylic, pastel, charcoal and graphite on paper. 29¾ x 21⅞ in (75.6 x 55.9 cm). Estimate: $40,000-60,000. Offered in Post-War to Present on 29 September 2022 at Christie's in New York

Likewise, many different institutions have dedicated museum exhibitions towards works on paper. It can be useful for collectors to look these up to educate themselves. For example, Julie Mehretu featured 40 works on paper and 30 paintings in her major solo-exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2021.

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  • Where they originate from?

Paper dates all the way back to AD105 when it was attributed to Cai Lun, the Chinese Court Official. It was first made from the papyrus plant, hence its name, that lives in Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea. After being processed in China during the Eastern Han period (AD25-220), it spread to the Islamic world during the 8th century. However, it did not progress until it migrated to Medieval Europe in the 11th century when they devised the water-powered plant mill. This process not only assisted with the development of languages and cultures but with religion and art itself.

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  • What terms should I look out for when collecting works on paper?

It can be daunting to begin collecting new medium. Below are some common definitions that will help you get started.

Artist pinholes: This refers to the tiny pinpricks left on some artworks upon completion, usually at the corners of the paper or centre edges. These are created when an artist chooses to pin a sheet of paper down during production and provide a fascinating insight into an artist’s practice. Artist pinholes are not considered to have a negative effect on an artwork’s overall condition or value.

Backing board: This is a rigid piece of acid-free board that is placed behind the paper to prevent warping or buckling.

Louise Bonnet (b. 1970), Untitled, 2020. Coloured pencil on paper. 14 x 17 in (35.6 x 43.2 cm). Estimate $15,000-20,000. Offered in Post-War to Present on 29 September 2022 at Christies in New York
Louise Bonnet (b. 1970), Untitled, 2020. Coloured pencil on paper. 14 x 17 in (35.6 x 43.2 cm). Estimate: $15,000-20,000. Offered in Post-War to Present on 29 September 2022 at Christie's in New York

Deckled edges: Certain high-quality handmade papers used by artists have a ‘deckled’ or rough edge. Much like artist pinholes, this is not a detail that negatively affects condition or value — many artists prefer to work with deckled-edged sheets. Similarly, perforated edges do not pose an issue to overall condition but are evidence that the artist was using sheets from a bound album or notebook.

Hinging: This refers to how a work on paper is attached to a secondary support like a matte or backing board without harming the artwork. If a work is ‘hinged’ at the upper corners, it can be lifted so that the sheet reverse (the back of the drawing) is visible — much like a door hinge. Works that are described as being mounted along all four edges are pinned down at each corner, meaning that they cannot be lifted from their secondary support.

Delita Martin (b. 1972), She Who is Brown A Reflection of Earth, 2022. Acrylic, charcoal, printed paper collage, relief printing and thread on paper. 60½ x 40½ in (153.7 x 102.9 cm). Estimate $25,000-35,000. Offered in Post-War to Present on 29 September 2022 at Christies in New York
Delita Martin (b. 1972), She Who is Brown: A Reflection of Earth, 2022. Acrylic, charcoal, printed paper collage, relief printing and thread on paper. 60½ x 40½ in (153.7 x 102.9 cm). Estimate: $25,000-35,000. Offered in Post-War to Present on 29 September 2022 at Christie's in New York

Matting: Today, most secondary supports used for works on paper are acid-free; however, this has not always been the case. Many works on paper have come into contact with acidic cardboard and paper over the course of their history. Prolonged exposure can cause paper to darken. A skilled conservator may be able to improve affected works, depending on the severity of the damage, and the media used.

Mat staining: Mat stains are faint rusted lines where the matte board would have touched the paper, this occurs from too much light exposure to the work.

Time stains: This term refers to yellow or darkening of the paper outside of the matte border, sometimes fading the image altogether. This occurs from exposure to light and failure to use UV-protected glass or plexiglass to protect the work.

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  • How do you care for works on paper?

The key to caring for a work on paper is to pay attention to the environment. As paper is sensitive to its surroundings, such as temperature, light, and humidity, it is integral to store it in a dry, temperature-controlled location away from direct sunlight.

Amy Sillman (b. 1955), Untitled (April Drawing 2, Version 4), 2014. Pastel on paper. 30 x 23 in (76.2 x 58.4 cm). Estimate $18,000-25,000. Offered in Post-War to Present on 29 September 2022 at Christies in New York
Amy Sillman (b. 1955), Untitled (April Drawing 2, Version 4), 2014. Pastel on paper. 30 x 23 in (76.2 x 58.4 cm). Estimate: $18,000-25,000. Offered in Post-War to Present on 29 September 2022 at Christie's in New York

It is also beneficial to protect your works on paper by matting your pieces and framing them with UV-protected glass. Likewise, it is integral to speak with a trusted skilled conservator about how to properly take care of your pieces.