Invaluable Guide to Buying Drawings

"L’heure de bain (Bathing Time)" by Henri Lebasque, 1925, watercolor on paper, Guarisco Gallery

Drawings are prized by new and established collectors for the rare glimpse they provide into the thinking, methods, and creative process of great artists. In the past, the opportunity to study drawings was available only to a small group of scholars and connoisseurs. In recent years, however, museums and institutions have sought to make drawings available to the public, making the artist’s working method more accessible than ever.

“As the market has become increasingly polarized and sales of contemporary art are frequently record-breaking, drawings tend to be more attractively priced,” says Alexandra Dubodel, Associate Specialist and Curator at Shapiro Auctions.

Rising prices of paintings and sculptures in the market allows both new and established collectors to “acquire works by some of the more sought after artists at a fraction of the cost associated with pieces created in other media,” Dubodel added. As a result, the demand for drawings is steadily increasing.

Artists working today have unprecedented creative freedom. Their drawings, like those from the 19th and 20th centuries, are often advantageous to buyers, as they sell at a lower price point than sculptures, paintings, video works, or installations. At the same time, drawings are an important part of each artist’s creative and intellectual agenda. Artists such as Zeng Fanzhi, Jasper Johns, Yayoi Kusama, Chris Ofili, and Lee Ufan are examples of contemporary masters whose drawings circulate in the market today.

Untitled” by Roxy Paine, 2012, ink on paper, Paul Kasmin Gallery

Drawings: A Brief History

A great revolution happened with the advent of modern art in the middle of the 19th century. Artists in Paris were frustrated by a state-sponsored art world that demanded years of labor, rewarded only a few, and placed tight constraints on how artists could express themselves. Therefore, they sought to create a new style and independence.

The modern art revolution made possible unprecedented levels of experimentation, including the use of materials in finished works that the Academy of Fine Arts would not have accepted. With increasing frequency, artists created drawings as stand-alone works of art, instead of as preparatory studies, and used a variety of mediums in the drawings.

Drawing continued its expansion in the 20th century. The Cubists, German Expressionists and Italian Futurists drew prodigiously. Images became flat, intellectual, and abstract. After World War II, the Abstract Expressionists embraced the medium to create dynamic compositions.. Conceptual art reduced drawing to a set of instructions on paper for producing the piece. Land artists drew lines in fields and the desert. Pop art returned drawings to the gallery wall with simplified motifs and commercial appeal.

Untitled (abstract)” by Arshile Gorsky, 1944, graphite & crayon, Woodshed Gallery

Today, a substantial number of works by modern and post-war masters are available through art dealers and the auction houses. Henri Matisse, Georgia O’Keeffe, Pablo Picasso, Louise Bourgeois, and Andy Warhol are a few of the legion of 20th century artists whose drawings are available to the market at any given moment.

Types of Drawings

With patient examination, the materials and process by which a drawing was made will reveal themselves. First notice the general method used, and then focus on those used to supplement it. All drawings have two parts: the medium and the support.


The medium, or combination of mediums, forms the lines and shading. It can be categorized as solid or liquid.

The oldest solid medium is charcoal, or burned wood. Charcoal has a powdery, dry finish. During the Renaissance it fell out of favor, replaced by chalk. In the 19th century, charcoal resurged in popularity, along with graphite.

Red and black chalk both work well for modeling nude forms. Red chalk, also known as hematite, gives a rich variation of skin tones. Black chalk is made of soft slate cut into sticks. By the 18th century, artists were using chalk in landscapes. Pastels are a man-made chalk containing oil and sometimes clay, pigmented in a variety of colors.

Sail” by Jon Imber, c. 1995, Alpha Gallery

The first liquid medium, ink, is a pigment carried in water. It might be applied with a quill or a square-cut reed. India ink dries with a sheen, and iron gall from apple nuts turns brown while corroding its paper support.

Watercolor and gouache are siblings. Watercolor is made from a combination of pigment and transparent gum, such as gum arabic, which is then diluted in water. Depending upon the amount of dilution, the white of the support shows through the watercolor and becomes part of the picture. Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer was a master of watercolor, using different levels of dilution to paint lighter and darker areas giving depth to his landscapes.


The support is usually paper from the 16th century onward. It includes any surface that has been added to hold the medium in place. There are four types of support; paper is the most prominent example. Supports that pre-date paper are tablet, cloth and parchment.

Paper might contain a watermark. Through the advice of a specialist or reference to a watermark index, the paper’s origin and possible dates of manufacture can be established. Sometimes paper makers apply a colored tint to the paper, such as the Venetian blue paper of the 16th century.

Building Your Collection

As you contemplate buying drawings and begin building your own collection, spend time looking at as many drawings as possible while getting clear about the purpose for your collection. Consider asking the following:

  • What drawings attract you?
  • Which artists, styles, and movements are you most drawn to?
  • Which ones drive you to learn more about the artist?
  • What is your budget?
  • How much time and expense are you willing to devote to traveling to art fairs?

Tips for Buying Drawings Online

Red Wedge” by Carey Maxon, 2009, ink & pencil on paper, Jenn Singer Gallery

You can now easily buy drawings online from auction houses and galleries. Buyer beware, however, as sales are often final and you will likely not have an opportunity to inspect the item in person.

“Ask questions – double check the provenance, request additional photographs, or send a trusted representative to inspect the piece on your behalf. Works are typically sold ‘as is where is’ and you should make sure that you are comfortable with what you are acquiring,” recommends Dubodel.

Consider following these guidelines:

  • Ask to see the condition report from auction house or gallery. What does the documentation say or prove? Are the sources credible?
  • If a document serves to authenticate the artist of a work, who has paid for the authentication? What warranty is extended to you, in the case that the authentication is later demonstrated to be erroneous?
  • What is the provenance of the drawing?
  • Has it been altered, or is it fully intact? What damages or restorations are there?
  • If bidding in an auction, register to bid several days in advance. Each auction house has its own registration requirements. For example, on Invaluable, you must register to bid with each auction house on the platform and wait to be approved. The entire process is straightforward, but is better done a day or two in advance of the sale.
  • If bidding at auction, do your research beforehand to make sure you are confident that your bid is in line with past prices. Make sure your bid is competitive, but not so high that you’d be significantly overpaying.
  • Familiarize yourself with the terms and conditions of online auctions or sales. Ask: 
    1. How does the seller handle taxes?
    2. If buying at auction, will a buyer’s premium be added to the hammer price?
    3. How will the item be shipped?
    4. How long do you have to pay for the item?
    5. How do you contact the seller with questions?
  • If you are not absolutely certain you want to win an item at auction, do not bid on it. All sales are final. If you win, you can pay the auction house the next day and pick up your drawing to carry home. For larger items, the auction house will provide a list of good art handling or shipping companies.

Tips for Conservation

Ideally, drawings are made on archival paper, which is acid- and lignin-free paper made from a vegetable leaf such as abaca (banana leaf) or cotton. Wood pulp paper yellows and then disintegrates rapidly, while cloth- or plant-based papers last for centuries if they are treated with care. If you acquire a drawing on wood pulp paper, a conservator can examine it and make recommendations for stabilizing the deterioration.

Midsummer, Boston” by Liz Haywood-Sullivan, 2011, pastel on paper, Vose Galleries

Mounting materials are available that can counteract acidity; and dips are available, to be used only in extreme cases, that can further nullify the acidity of wood pulp paper. If you are buying the work of a living artist, verify the type of paper used with the artist or dealer.

When mounting drawings, consider the following:

  • Drawings should be mounted to a back mat made of a chemically stable material, such as 100 percent cotton.
  • Two hinges are placed at the top edge of the paper. Half of each hinge is adhered to the paper, and the other half to the mat with wheat starch or rice starch, both reversible, water-activated adhesives.
  • Conventional tapes change color, permanently adhere, and damage the work on paper. The rice paper hinges with starch adhesive can be removed with no impact on the work, and are flexible enough that the paper will not tear if the mat expands or contracts.
  • The mount can be made into a folder by attaching the back mat to a front window mat with conservation gummed white paper tape or linen tape. The mats should be at minimum 1.3 mm thick.
  • A sheet of chemically stable interleaving tissue paper is laid down between the face of the work on paper and the opening of the window mount. The works on paper in their folders are kept in drawers. Do not keep works with loose media, such as charcoal or chalk, in a folder.
  • For drawings with loose media, or for convenience of displaying any work, the drawing on its back mat can be stored in a frame. For works with loose media, static-dispersive acrylic is used to prevent static electricity from removing any part of the media. A thicker back mat provides further protection against static buildup.
  • With ink or solid media that will not rub away, ultraviolet ray protected Plexiglas can be used, and costs less than acrylic. The acrylic or Plexiglas must be coated with material to filter out ultraviolet rays.
  • Museums rotate works on paper on and off of display every three to six months to further minimize the exposure to light. When they are not on display, framed works are kept in drawers or on sturdy shelves.
  • Works on paper can be kept in filtered air at 72 degrees Fahrenheit, with the relative humidity between 30 percent and 50 percent. A stable environment protects the paper, which expands and contracts with temperature fluctuations. Sometimes, paper gets small spots, a process called foxing. The precise cause of foxing is not yet known, but there is less likelihood of foxing in a controlled environment.


All works of art should be insured at their full potential retail value, or at least for the maximum possible if you limit the amount you are willing to spend on insurance. Buy the insurance from a company that specializes in insuring art – homeowners’ insurance does not adequately cover the value of art.

Having the work insured not only protects your investment but also supports any assertion you make regarding its value, if you wish to re-sell the work or donate it to a museum. In addition, have the work re-appraised every three to five years to make sure it is insured at an appropriate value for the current market.

Additional Resources