Guide to Researching Works on Paper
‘Works on paper’ is a broad term that includes any artwork that uses paper as its support. Some media such as prints, artist books and photographs often exist in ‘multiples’, that is, they are created as one or more identical copies. Others such as drawings, watercolors, collages, and monotypes are one-of-a-kind or unique.
Key to understanding your collection is knowing the right questions to ask. To get you started, here is a list that will assist in your identification and research of a work on paper. It may take some detective work, but what you learn can be extremely rewarding and further your enjoyment of your art.
Is the artwork signed or have other identification marks or monograms?
Some signatures are very apparent, while other artists work their signature or mark into the composition itself. A good place to begin looking is in the lower parts of the work. Modern prints, for example, are often signed in the margin below the image with an edition number. Signatures may be hard to read, but dictionaries of artists’ signatures and marks can help. Once you have identified the artist’s name, consult biographical dictionaries to learn some basic, important facts about the artist.
Is it dated?
Artists may date the work with their signature, or it may be noted on the back of the work. If there is no date, look for clues in the work to determine an approximate date range. How long has it belonged to you or your family? Is there anything depicted in the image that would help date it?
What is the title or subject matter of the work?
Not all works have a title. If yours is titled, it might be noted in the margin or on the back of the work. Regardless, make note of the subject matter as this may help determine the artist or date.
What medium is it?
Can you identify it as a print, photograph, drawing, or other medium? Is it unique or a multiple? Once this is determined, you can begin to investigate what specific process or materials are used.
What is the history of the work?
Knowing the provenance (record of ownership and exhibition history) of the work is very helpful in determining its authenticity and monetary worth.
Once you have answered as many of these questions as you can, a public library can assist you with more specific research and direct you to helpful books and other resources. Additionally, the Toledo Museum of Art Reference Library and its staff is available to a help visitors conduct research.