All artists have a practice of works on paper. Each artist must sketch, doodle and trace a future work of art. But it’s a robust category that also goes beyond simple drawings and includes any work that uses paper as its primary surface and can include collages, photographs, watercolors, etchings, etchings, and more. From the perspective of viewers and collectors, since paper is the first medium we work with in childhood, it remains one of the most accessible practices for understanding and relating to an artist’s creative practice.
Although the medium has historically been considered inferior to stone or canvas by collectors, the art market has warmed to works on paper over the past five years. At art fairs alone, there has been an increase in the conservation of works on paper through special stalls, and fairs exclusively dedicated to works on paper have been created, such as Art on Paper NYC which will take place more late this fall. Gallerists pay attention to this and select and sell more works on paper to collectors. At Frieze New York this year, some of the best booths and key works that sold were by artists who work on paper like Charles Gaines, Christopher Culver and Huma Bhabha. As one of the oldest artistic traditions still in use today, works on paper continue to thrive as a site of technical skill for many contemporary artists and remain a vital medium that collectors should seriously consider. .
Contemporary artists like ruby onyinyechi amanze, Nijdeka Akunyili Crosby and Wangechi Mutu push the boundaries of form with their intricate collage and layering techniques, while commenting on identity, gender and nationality. For amanze, paper allows him to explore ideas about space and perception. In his largest pieces, the animal-human hybrid collage figures are weightless and exist without any concrete spatial foundation. Crosby uses detailed collages of personal and popular photographs to create tapestries of biographical scenes, and Mutu’s collaged magazine images construct monstrous female forms that evoke East African deities.
For collectors, works on paper make it possible not only to follow contemporary artists but also to afford works by contemporary masters. Stars like Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Faith Ringgold all have various etching practices, and the price of these works can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand. The dream of owning one of Warhol’s famous celebrity portraits is possible with prints for as little as $2,500, a far cry from the $195 million price tag of Blow Sage Blue Marilyn (1964) sold at Christie’s in early spring.
One of the reasons collectors do not immediately direct their attention to works on paper is their inability to be exhibited in galleries and museums for long periods of time. “The museum presents works on paper for short periods of time, changing or ‘rotating’ exhibits every few months,” wrote Clara Rojas-Sebesta, Ellsworth Kelly curator of works on paper at the Whitney Museum of American Art, citing the fragility light paper and other conservation concerns to explain the frequent rotations. For the same reasons, works on paper “can present a challenge for private collectors who wish to live with their works for longer periods of time. Low light levels become even more crucial in this situation.
However, owning a work on paper is not an immediate death knell for a collector, as there are many papers that have incredible longevity to their existence. “Artists have an extraordinary range of papers at their disposal. Artist papers vary depending on the intended use, such as printmaking, watercolour, charcoal drawing or sketching,” added Rojas-Sebesta. “There are Asian and European styles of papermaking; these are quite different in both fiber composition and construction, which affects their appearance and function. Papers like French platinum bows or Japanese gampi papers are renowned for their longevity, lasting a minimum of 500 years. These papers are likely to be used for alternative photographic processes such as cyanotypes, watercolors and charcoal and ink prints.
Rojas-Sebesta offered specific advice on how to preserve works on paper in your collection. “Limiting exposure to light is…essential.…Media that are more sensitive to light, such as watercolors, pastels, inkjet prints or color photographs, require lower light levels; more robust media such as black and white prints on good quality paper can be displayed at slightly brighter light levels. In short, as long as a collector does not intentionally damage their work with poor storage and high light exposure, conservation concerns should not deter them from acquiring works on paper.
Works on paper can demonstrate an artist’s aptitude for experimentation as well as how they develop their ideas and skills in different mediums. Artist Joseph Beuys viewed works on paper as a vital link to understanding an artist’s creative process and believed they were a means of translating “thought as formal technique” to others. Due to the popularity of app-based note programs, many of us have fallen away from the experience of drawing the occasional weird doodle in our notebooks. Artists’ works on paper remind us of our ability to create at any time and in any place, and remain an essential medium to be taken seriously by collectors.