What collectors need to know about buying works on paper

All artists have a works on paper practice. Every artist has to sketch, scribble and map a future work of art. But it’s a robust category that goes beyond just drawings to include any work that uses paper as its primary surface and can include collage, photographs, watercolor, printmaking, etching, 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 to works on paper over the past five years. At art fairs alone, there has been an increase in the management of works on paper through dedicated booths, and fairs have been established solely devoted to works on paper, such as Art on Paper NYC, which will take place later this fall. Gallery owners 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 to sell were by artists who work on paper such as Charles Gaines, Christopher Culver and Huma Bhabha. As one of the oldest art traditions still in use, works on paper continue to thrive as a place of technical skill for many contemporary artists and remain an essential medium that collectors should seriously consider.

Contemporary artists such as ruby ​​onyinyechi amanze, Nijdeka Akunyili Crosby and Wangechi Mutu push the boundaries of 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 apart from any concrete spatial basis. Crosby uses detailed collages of personal and popular photographs to build tapestries of biographical scenes, and Mutu’s collage of magazine images constructs monstrous feminine forms evoking East African gods.

For collectors, works on paper not only provide a way to track contemporary artists, but also pay for works by contemporary masters. Stars like Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Faith Ringgold all have different methods of making prints, and the price for 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 some prints costing as little as $2,500, a long way from the $195 million price tag of Shot Sage Blue Marilyn (1964) which was sold at Christie’s earlier this spring.

One of the reasons collectors do not immediately turn their attention to works on paper is that they cannot be exhibited in galleries and museums for long periods of time. “The museum displays works on paper for short periods, changing or ‘changing’ exhibitions every few months,” wrote Clara Rojas-Sebesta, the Ellsworth Kelly conservator of works on paper at the Whitney Museum of American Art, referring to the fragility of paper for light and other conservation issues to explain the frequent rotations. For the same reasons, works on paper “can present a challenge to private collectors who want to live with their artworks for extended periods of time. Low light levels become even more important in this situation.”

However, owning a work on paper is not an instant death knell for a collector, as there are many papers that have an incredible longevity. “Artists have an extraordinary range of paper at their disposal. Artist paper varies according to its intended use, such as printmaking, watercolor painting, charcoal drawing or sketching,” Rojas-Sebesta further added. “There are Asian and European styles of papermaking; affects their appearance and function.” Papers such as the French arches platine or Japanese gampi papers are known 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 printing.

Rojas-Sebesta gave specific advice on how to keep works on paper in your collection. “Limiting exposure to light is… essential…. More light-sensitive media, such as watercolors, pastels, inkjet prints or color photographs, require less light; more robust media such as black and white prints on good quality paper can be reproduced in slightly brighter light.” In short, as long as a collector does not purposely damage their work through poor storage and harsh exposure to light, conservation issues should not prevent one from working on paper on to buy.

Works on paper can demonstrate an artist’s aptitude for experimentation, as well as the ways in which they extend ideas and skills across different media. The artist Joseph Beuys saw works on paper as an essential link in understanding an artist’s creative process and believed they were a way of translating ‘thinking as a formal technique’ to others. Due to the popularity of app-based note taking programs, many of us have the experience of drawing a strange doodle in our notebooks every now and then. Artists’ works on paper then remind us of our ability to create at any time and in any place, and remain an essential medium for collectors to take seriously.

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