Looking Closely at the Drawings of Vija Celmins

by Amanda Hunter Johnson, July 2019

In preparation for the upcoming Vija Celmins retrospective, “To Fix the Image in Memory,” co-organized by SFMOMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and as part of the Artist Initiative Project at SFMOMA, a small group of curators and conservators researched and examined Celmins’s works from every chapter of her fifty-year career.

The retrospective offered an opportunity to take a deep dive into exploring Celmins’s materials and techniques ― her drawings especially were an area of interest. Beginning in the late 1960s, Celmins turned from oil paints to graphite pencils to create small-scale, detailed drawings on paper based on photographs. The iconic resulting images include a range of subjects such as the ocean, the night sky, spider webs, and desert landscapes. For over a decade, Celmins worked exclusively in graphite and explored the scale of light grays to deep blacks by using pencils of different grades.


Vija Celmins, Untitled (Ocean), 1977; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, bequest of Alfred M. Esberg; © Vija Celmins


Pencils are manufactured in different grades, which refer to the concentration of graphite to clay in the pencil core. A lower concentration of graphite, such as a pencil with an H grade, draws a lighter, harder line and a pencil with a B grade has a high concentration of graphite and draws a dark, soft line.

Celmins explored the entire progression of pencil grades, “I would do a drawing with an H pencil and it would have a certain quality, and I would do a drawing with an F pencil and it would have another quality. I explored this quality in a series of scales . . . fourteen oceans moving from H’s to B’s. I hit each one like a tone, the graphite itself had an expressive quality.” (Larsen, Susan C. “A Conversation with Vija Celmins,” Journal of the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art, no. 20 [October/November 1978]: 38-39.)

The delicate and detailed drawings were produced slowly. Using a photograph as a subject, Celmins explained her work as “re-describing” the image ― working from a photograph and re-inventing it mark by mark in another medium.

Celmins noted, “It seemed very natural for me to have that graphite point touch the paper and be like a point of reality where it touched. No smudging, no making marks, no grading, no manipulating to make sure that it spread out. Every little mark that I made was a mark that fit with the image and fit with the surface and fit with the space.” (Larsen)

She employed a series of self-imposed directives such as never using an eraser, abandoning a drawing if there was a mistake, and beginning the drawing from the lower right corner of the paper and continuing to the upper left corner. She used a bridge to suspend her hand over the drawing to accommodate this technique.

By using this method, the composition is obscured by the drawing hand and Celmins could keep her attention focused on applying the graphite stroke by stroke. Attuned to the nuances of the graphite pencil interacting with the paper support, Celmins prepared the paper with a light layer of acrylic ground. The ground layer was applied with a sprayer very thinly ― almost invisible on some works. The edges of the paper were lightly covered during the ground application so the edges were sometimes slightly different in color from the interior of the sheet. The ground was so thin it was often imperceptible ― so why did Celmins add this layer?

Using a paper prepared with a ground is not rare, but is an uncommon practice with contemporary artists. What was achieved by using the ground layer and how did it change the act of drawing?


Mock-ups to learn about materials or techniques

Conservators often create mock-ups to learn more about an artist’s materials or techniques. The process can reveal information about which types of marks or conditions in an artwork are a result of making the work as opposed to areas that have been damaged by handling or environmental causes.

In our recreation, we prepared paper of similar weight and texture to that used by Celmins by airbrushing half of the sheet with a light layer of white Golden acrylic paint. Just as Celmins did with her drawing studies, we tested a range of pencil grades on the paper with the ground layer and the unprepared side of the paper.


Pencil tests on paper sprayed with acrylic ground paint. Photo: James Gouldthorpe



Variety of pencil and charcoal tests on prepared paper. Photo: James Gouldthorpe


The ground layer created a thin, hard surface on top of the paper. The ground layer was so thin that it did not completely cover the texture of the paper, but created a smooth finish that allowed the pencil to glide across the surface. This quality was important to Celmins, who noted, “The paper has a skin and I put another skin on it. There is a kind of integrity between the tooth of the paper and the graphite. When all is in balance it projects in a clean and strong way and feels right.” (Larsen)

Using a ground, the graphite could lie directly on the surface of the paper rather than digging into the surface and embedding in the fibers. The ground layer was hard and smooth, allowing the pencil to move quickly over the surface, complementing Celmins’s process of building an image a single graphite stroke at a time.

The ground layer also increased the visual contrast between the paper support and the graphite, keeping the graphite on the surface, rather than embedding into the texture, and reduced the surface sheen of the paper, creating more contrast overall.


Extending this practice to participants in workshops

As a part of the Artist Initiative, SFMOMA hosted three small workshops to complement the Celmins retrospective. One of the main goals was to provide means and access to close observation and discussion of Celmins’s materials and techniques.


Photo: Don Ross


The workshop participants engaged in the practice of testing different grades of pencils on papers with a ground and without a ground. This activity led to an enriched discussion about the physical interactions of materials and how the ground layer changed the sensation of drawing. The pencil moved over the surface of the ground in a different manner than the unprepared paper ― even the sound of the pencil on the two surfaces were distinct. The practice engaged more of the senses: touch, sound, and sight. This was a fairly simple exercise, but it led to nuanced discussion and observations that we probably would not have arrived at without physically handling the materials. “Drawing on the gesso ground seemed to give me more control of the line, make for a more even line weight, and lifted the line above the surface of the paper,” said John Zurier, an artist and workshop participant.

Another participant noted that using a ground elevated the graphite to “main player,” taking the interaction with the paper out of the equation.


Photo: Don Ross

Physically interacting with and handling the same materials as the artist brought a deeper level of engagement and observation when examining the artwork. Danielle Lawrence, artist and workshop participant, observed, “The pencil tests on these different grounds definitely made me rethink how I have been using pencil on paper all these years and certainly revealed Celmins’s magical graphite touch.”

This hands-on activity also fostered camaraderie in the group as everyone engaged with the same process at the same time, and the activity itself felt very familiar (who hasn’t spent time drawing with pencils?). This helped create a more informal atmosphere ripe for an exchange of ideas.

In retrospect, the material studies, initially undertaken for research and technical analysis by the conservation department, created avenues to raise audience awareness and appreciation of an artist’s work. Tactile experiences like these offer a rich pathway for future programming and audience engagement.