All artists have a works on paper practice. Every artist has to sketch, doodle, and map out a future work of art. But it is a robust category that also goes beyond just drawings and includes any work that uses paper as its primary surface and can include collage, photographs, water color, printmaking, etchings, and more. From the standpoint of viewers and collectors, since paper is the first medium we work with as children, it remains one of the most accessible practices for us to understand and relate to an artist’s creative practice.
Although the medium was historically considered inferior to stone or canvas by collectors, the art market has warmed up to works on paper over the last five years. At art fairs alone, there has been an increase in curation of works on paper through special booths, and fairs exclusively dedicated to works on paper have been established, like Art on Paper NYC which runs later this fall. Gallerists are paying attention to this and selecting and selling 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 art traditions still in use today, works on a paper continue to thrive as a site of technical proficiency for many contemporary artists and remain a vital medium that collectors should take serious consideration of.
Contemporary artists like ruby onyinyechi amanze, Nijdeka Akunyili Crosby, and Wangechi Mutu push the limits of the form through their complicated collage and layering techniques, while also commenting on identity, gender, and nationality. For amanze, paper allows her to explore ideas about space and perception. In her larger pieces, hybrid animal-human collage figures are weightless and exist untethered from any concrete spatial grounding. Crosby uses detailed collaging of personal and popular photographs to build tapestries of biographical scenes, and Mutu’s collaged magazine images construct monstrous feminine forms that evoke East African deities.
For collectors, works on paper provide a way not only to follow along with contemporary artists but to afford works by contemporary masters. Stars like Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Faith Ringgold all have various printmaking practices, and the price for these works can range from a couple of hundred dollars to several thousand. The dream of owning one of Warhol’s famous celebrity portraits is possible with some prints going for as low as $2,500, a far cry from the $195 million price tag of Shot Sage Blue Marilyn (1964) that sold at Christie’s earlier this spring.
One reason why collectors may not immediately direct their attention towards works on paper is due to their inability to be exhibited in galleries and museums for long periods of time. “The Museum displays works on paper for short periods of time, changing or ‘rotating’ exhibitions every few months,” wrote Clara Rojas-Sebesta, the Ellsworth Kelly conservator of works on paper at the Whitney Museum of American Art, citing paper’s fragility to light and other conservation concerns to explain the frequent rotations. For the same reasons, works on paper “can be challenging for private collectors who want to live with their artworks for longer periods. Low light levels become even more crucial in this situation.”
However, owning a work on paper is not an immediate conservation death knell for a collector, for there are many papers that have an incredible longevity to their existence. “Artists have an extraordinary range of papers available to them. Artist papers vary according to intended use, such as printmaking, watercolor painting, charcoal drawing, or sketching,” Rojas-Sebesta further added. “There are Asian and European styles of papermaking; these are quite different in both fiber makeup and manufacture, which affects their appearance and function.” Papers like the French arches platine or Japanese gampi papers are renowned for their longevity, lasting for a minimum of 500 years. These papers are likely to be utilized for alternative photographic processes like cyanotypes, water colors, and charcoal and ink prints.
Rojas-Sebesta offered some specific advice on how to preserve works on a paper in your collection. “Limiting light exposure is…essential.…More light-sensitive media, like watercolors, pastels, inkjet prints, or color photographs, require lower light levels; more robust media like black and white prints on good quality paper can be displayed at slightly brighter light levels.” In short, so long as a collector is not purposefully damaging their work with poor storage and harsh exposure to light, conservation concerns should not deter one from acquiring works on paper.
Works on paper can demonstrate an artist’s aptness for experimentation as well as the ways they expand upon ideas and skills across different mediums. The artist Joseph Beuys saw works on paper as a vital link to understanding an artist’s creative process and believed that they were a way to translate “thinking as a formal technique” to others. Due to the popularity of app-based notes programs, many of us are removed from the experience of drawing the occasional odd doodle in our notebooks. Artists’ works on paper then remind us of our ability to create at any time and in any place, and remain a vital medium for collectors to take seriously.