What’s your stance on works on paper – enthusiastic, or wary? We see both types of collectors pass through the Dickinson doors, and we’re here today to declare ourselves firmly in the former camp. Whether we’re talking drawings or watercolours, in pencil, charcoal, pen and ink or pastel, works on paper are among the most exciting – and, relative to paintings in oils, relatively affordable – options on the market. We hope that, after you finish reading this insight, any works on paper sceptics will be joining us in the fans camp!
P. Picasso, Nu agenouillé, étude pour ‘Trois Femmes’, 1908, watercolour on paper
There are as many reasons to love works on paper as there are varieties. To begin with, they can be just as freshly and vibrantly coloured as their counterparts on canvas or panel. A watercolour like Picasso’s 1908 Nu agenouillé, for example, combines Cubist forms with saturated washes of blue, lemon yellow and rust. And Joan Miró’s Mur de la Lune (The Wall of the Moon) offers celestial shapes in the same intense, primary hues as the artist’s most sought-after oil paintings. We hear collectors expressing concerns about colours fading, and it’s true that sunlight is not going to do watercolours any favours – but the reality is that, in the modern era, we know how to protect them from the light. Museum glass is specially formulated to filter out the harmful UV rays that fade colours, and we always recommend it to protect valuable drawings. Many of the faded examples familiar to collectors will unfortunately have lost their vibrance many years ago, before modern technology made preserving them an easier proposition.
J. Miró, Mur de la Lune (The Wall of the Moon), 1955, gouache, watercolour, ink and pencil on paper laid on masonite
G. Condo, Untitled, 2017, graphite on paper
Works on paper can also offer the opportunity to collect pieces by big-name Modern and Contemporary artists whose paintings can command millions of dollars, but at a more affordable price point. Take current Contemporary favourite George Condo, for example. The auction record for an oil painting by Condo was set in Hong Kong last July for the artist’s Force Field (2010), which fetched nearly $6.9 million. But if you love Condo’s unmistakable mash-up of leering, Pop Art figures and Cubist planes, yet don’t have millions to spare, drawings such as Untitled (2017), a portrait of Picasso, offer similar subjects in the artist’s characteristic style, for a fraction of the price. Even works by an artist like Jean-Michel Basquiat – one of a handful of names so sought-after that a masterpiece such as Untitled (1982), sold in 2017, can break the $100 million barrier – can be acquired for considerably less than that if you look at examples on paper. Basquiat’s oilstick drawing Untitled, executed in the same landmark year as his record-setting painting, is currently available at Dickinson.
J.M. Basquiat, Untitled, 1982, oilstick on paper
We also see collectors drawn to the directness and immediacy of works on paper, which for most artists represent the means of capturing their initial ideas and visions. Although a few artists preferred to work directly in oil on canvas, most would work out their thoughts on paper first, and thus, in a sense, these works on paper can be seen as a more ‘true’ and un-edited image lacking the polish of the studio painting. Surrealist Yves Tanguy makes this very clear with the title of his Dessin Automatique (Automatic Drawing) of 1927: Tanguy’s emphasis on the role of the subconscious in his methods reflects the central Surrealist concern with automatism as the means by which the inner impulses of the artist might be revealed without being mediated by his conscious impulses. Where his paintings are precise and organised, his automatic drawings are loose, free, and spontaneous.
Y. Tanguy, Dessin Automatique (Automatic Drawing), 1927, India ink on paper
And, finally, works on paper offer a unique aesthetic that is different from – but no less appealing than! – oil paintings. In works like Juan Gris’s Jean le musician (1921), the artist employs a linear, classical style reminiscent of earlier artists such as Ingres; the combination of the smooth contours of the subject’s face and the even, formally-lettered title stretching across the bottom of the page gives the drawing a timelessness as well as associating it with modern print advertising. The choice of pencil on paper as a medium suits this composition and achieves the desired effects.
J. Gris, Jean le musicien, 1921, pencil on paper
At Dickinson, we know many collectors who prefer works on paper for one or more of the reasons noted above. So, the next time you find yourself thinking works on paper are just ‘less good’ version of oil paintings, we urge you to think again!
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