Art Market

5 Essential Tips for Collecting Drawings

Scott Indrisek
Sep 13, 2019 9:44PM

While prints are a common entry point into the art market, there may come a day when a budding collector yearns for a unique artwork, rather than an edition. Works on paper, specifically drawings, can be a fruitful place to start: a way to access an artist’s intimate process without breaking the bank. While some artists, like Robert Longo or Kara Walker, make drawing a centerpiece of their practice, for many the medium is one tool among many.

Drawings can be sketches or studies pointed toward fuller paintings or sculptures; they can be whimsical diversions, quick experiments, or fully fleshed-out artworks in their own right. They “can provide a very different creative outlet to the artist’s primary practice,” said Sueyun Locks of Philadelphia’s Locks Gallery, “and thus can offer us a more complete story about an artist’s oeuvre.”

David Hockney
Yosemite II, October 5, 2011, 2011
Jonathan Novak Contemporary Art
David Hockney
Benedikt Taschen, Jr., 2nd Jan 2020, 2020
Annely Juda Fine Art

They may never have the commanding wall power of a massive Abstract Expressionist canvas, but that’s part of the point. Drawings have a quieter energy, one that welcomes deep, close-up contemplation. And unlike larger works—which, in many cases, may have been completed with the aid of studio assistants—a drawing is one of the easiest ways to commune directly with the hand of the artist, hunched over her desk or drafting table. Here are a few key tips for anyone looking to start collecting this singular medium.

Learn to appreciate the “movement of the mind”

Louise Bourgeois
Le Defi Glasses and Potteries, 2002
Lillian Heidenberg Fine Art
Louise Bourgeois
Untitled,, 1997
Carolina Nitsch Contemporary Art

“In determining whether a work on paper can or can’t be a drawing, what carries through is a question of the line,” said Drawing Center assistant curator Rosario Güiraldes. “To me, the most compelling definition of drawing has to do with a way of conveying and translating thoughts. It’s a medium that captures the movement of the mind.” That means drawings are often not as slick or polished as paintings might be—but a would-be collector should acknowledge that, and celebrate what drawing does best.

The rawness and immediacy of the medium, Güiraldes added, is precisely its charm. “The hand can’t lie,” she said. “You can’t be fooled by a line, you can’t hide in a drawing.” It’s a place where pure personality spills out, from the Surrealist’s Exquisite Corpse sketches to Louise Bourgeois’s otherworldly visions or even David Hockney’s 21st-century “drawings” made using an iPad.

“I’m attracted to work that documents a direct, immediate, unfiltered experience,” said Derek Eller of the eponymous New York gallery. “An illumination of how the mind and soul function both in concert and opposition. I most often find this in drawing.”

Seek out drawings that spotlight a fresh side of an artist’s practice

Ellsworth Kelly
Siberian Iris, 1989
Susan Sheehan Gallery

Ellsworth Kelly is best known as a pioneering Minimalist painter and sculptor. Yet he was also a prolific draftsman whose elegant, spare drawings of plants would shock anyone who knew him only for his hard-edged geometric compositions. Andy Warhol may be world-famous for silkscreen prints produced in factory-style conditions, but he got his start making drawings—for both commercial and fine art purposes. (These tender, delightful pieces were arguably the most striking works in the artist’s recent Whitney Museum retrospective, and were also the subject of their own show at the New York Academy of Art.) In many cases, drawings aren’t simply companion pieces to larger artworks; they’re a way for the artist to indulge urges and interests in an entirely different way.

They’re more affordable than related large-scale works

Leonora Carrington
Woman with Bird, 1978
Heather James Fine Art

“Drawings are usually less expensive than other mediums, they’re often more available when other works aren’t, and they can give you an interesting peek into an artist’s practice,” said Corydon Cowansage, artist and co-founder of the aptly named Drawer, an e-commerce site for affordable works on paper, formerly called Flat File. She’s fond of the graphite-on-paper works of GaHee Park, which often pop up on Drawer. “They really give you a sense of her thought process. She often makes a number of preparatory drawings for a single painting, experimenting with different versions of an idea—and they’re each interesting in their own right.”

Eller continues to be thrilled by the drawings of Karl Wirsum, who was a member of the Hairy Who group; his gallery will open a drawing-focused survey of the artist’s work this October. “I’m just as interested in his preparatory (and finished) drawings as his paintings,” Eller said. “I feel a certain excitement when I pore over his rigorous line and attempt to decode his various notes and puns. There’s an immediacy and intimacy inherent to drawing that I find very seductive.”

While Wirsum’s works on paper aren’t exactly cheap—Eller said that studies from the 1960s can run between $12,000 and $15,000—they might be the only way for a budding collector to access his output from this rich era. “Paintings from that period only occasionally show up at auction or on the secondary market,” Eller said. The current auction record for a Wirsum painting is $57,500 for a work from around 1970.

In general, drawings can open doors when funds are limited. “A collector might be able to access an artist’s work that is typically beyond her budget,” said Ashley Carr of New York–based art advisory Modica Carr, “and this lower price point can also create an opportunity to collect an artist in depth.” Matthew Barney’s Cremaster film cycle (1994–2002) and massive sculptural projects get all the headlines, but he also makes wonderfully eerie, enigmatic drawings. Leonora Carrington, who in recent years has secured her place as a Surrealist icon, made paintings that now earn six- and seven-figure sums at auction; her deeply personal drawings, however, can be had for $18,000 or less.

“One of our clients was very interested in figurative works by certain key artists,” Carr added. “In the end, we thought that building a mini works-on-paper collection within the larger collection would be both an interesting and more economical approach to this desire. They were able to find amazing historical examples by Alex Katz, Willem de Kooning, and Wayne Thiebaud.” A different client, she continued, had an affinity for Land Art but wasn’t logistically able to acquire that notoriously challenging medium. As an alternative, the client pursued a sketch by Michael Heizer: a highly personal study, and a way to collect something that is generally considered “uncollectable.”

Follow like-minded, specialized institutions

The aptly named Drawing Center is a venerable New York institution dedicated to the medium (and open to pushing its boundaries and definitions). This summer, they showcased the drawings of Neo Rauch, and recent exhibitions and projects have centered on Terry Winters, Ellen Berkenblit, Gary Simmons, Judith Bernstein, and Eddie Martinez (whose show included a manic space wallpapered with countless small sketches). The Morgan Library and Museum also has an extensive drawing collection, and has hosted unique and focused surveys spotlighting drawings by everyone from Jack Whitten to author J.R.R. Tolkien.

“Drawings have, over the years, become much more accepted as legitimate works in and of themselves, and many institutions have serious collections and exhibitions,” said Joe Amrhein, an artist and co-owner of New York gallery Pierogi. He nodded to New York institutions (the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum) as well as the Menil Collection, the Weatherspoon Art Museum in North Carolina, and the Arkansas Arts Center for their embrace of the medium. And even when works aren’t on public display, it still might be possible to experience them; many collections, Amrhein noted, allow visits by appointment. Pierogi itself has long been instrumental in promoting drawings and works on paper via their Flat Files initiative. Their archive is extensive, and packed with gems—like sub-$1,200 drawings by Gary Panter, Joey Parlett, Ryan Mrozowski, and Erica Prince.

Set Artsy’s search functions to focus on drawings, and you’ll uncover multitudes, from artists including Jeanette Hayes (for $1,600) to Niki de Saint Phalle (for $4,000), Andy Warhol (for $14,000), and Edward Hopper (for $15,000).

Preserve, preserve, preserve

Drawings must be framed properly. Amateur framings can easily lead to damage, dirt, and dust. An insecure backing also provides egress for insects (and gross flyspecks). Drawing media like graphite or pastel are also liable to smudge—so don’t cut corners and place a work you love in an IKEA frame, where its surface will be pressed flush against the glass or plastic surface. Sueyun Locks suggests a floating frame, which can have the added benefit of allowing the “character” and idiosyncrasies of the drawing’s paper (and its borders) to shine through.

When touching unframed works on paper, it’s imperative to wear cotton gloves, as Susan Swenson of Pierogi noted. “Even if you wash your hands, it’s the oils in our skin that degrades paper over time,” she said. “You may not see it at first, but years later, yellow marks appear at the edges of drawings which have been handled.”

Willem de Kooning
Untitled, circa. 1975
C. Grimaldis Gallery

In terms of installing your well-framed drawing, “sunlight—especially raking light—is the enemy,” Carr, the art advisor, stressed. She recommends collectors consider UV-protected windows and window shades—and, for the drawings themselves, frames with UV-protective covers. “For [those] who have residences that are exposed to a lot of natural light,” she added, “we often suggest that they have removable cloth covers made for the works, so that they can be covered and protected when the client is away for extended periods of time.” Humidity can also be a killer, so Carr recommends keeping that in mind when choosing where to hang a drawing.

“Drawings are more fragile than paintings, sculptures, and other media,” she admitted, “and therefore we tend to see condition issues more frequently, particularly with historical works.” The upside of all this fragility? “This makes discovering rare drawings in good condition all the more exciting for collectors!”

Scott Indrisek