Georgia O’Keeffe Leaves a Paper Trail
The artist’s choice of paper for her drawings and watercolors tells a story all by itself.
Laura Neufeld, Samantha Friedman
Apr 4, 2023
Georgia O’Keeffe was extremely meticulous about her material choices—not only in the types of charcoal, pastel, and watercolor she used for her works on paper, but in her choice of the paper itself. Whether using full sheets of high-quality stock or stacks of student-grade paper, her selections were intentional, and yielded particular effects. For Georgia O’Keeffe: To See Takes Time, I partnered with paper conservator Laura Neufeld to understand these methods and their results. Below, we discuss how paper is not just a support, but a protagonist in O’Keeffe’s drawings.
—Samantha Friedman, Associate Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints
Types of Paper
SF: Many of us don’t think as readily about paper, or the support on which a work is made, as we do about the materials the artist is using, like pastel or watercolor or charcoal. But of course paper itself is a key material, and different choices of paper have consequences in ways that we might not realize.
LN: She was absolutely as selective about her choice of paper as she was with other types of mediums. When she was drawing, even when it was a cheaper material, she bought very high-quality paper for charcoal and used full sheets of laid paper, a traditional choice that likely reflects her academic training. Laid paper has a ribbed texture that makes it ideal for holding that powdery medium and breaking up the surface in order to be able to show beautiful gradations of color.
SF: There’s also something physical about the way in which she made those early charcoals—she talks about working on the floor and being over the drawing.
From left: Georgia O’Keeffe. Blue #1; Blue #2; Blue #3; Blue #4. All 1916
“You have a sense that these were works she had to make. They engaged all of her.”
LN: Yes, you have a sense that these were works she had to make. They engaged all of her. She’s composing these images from shapes that she sees in her mind—making the imagined real. It’s a physical process: You see the whole sweep of her arm making the marks, reinforcing a line to get it to be darker, and then using rags or erasers to lift media up to create a highlight or a lighter tone. That paper is really the perfect support to hold that kind of work, because it was thick enough and sturdy enough and good quality enough to withstand that type of physical working process.
SF: O’Keeffe talked about both reveling in a cheap paper for certain watercolors, and she also experimented with a Japanese paper.
LN: She was definitely more open with her selection of paper for watercolors. She tried more things and seemed willing to accept more variation in the paper itself. But again, when you start looking closely, you also see that each paper was chosen for specific reasons. Most of O’Keeffe’s watercolors are on cheaper, student-grade paper. It was perfect for her because of its semi-absorbent quality, which allowed watercolor to be crisp, with defined brushstrokes. It also allowed her to blend and bleed strokes of color together to create saturated pools of color that would sit and dry on the surface. O’Keeffe wrote in a letter to Alfred Stieglitz that “a stack of [this paper] almost a foot tall makes her feel downright reckless,” and you can see the glee in the watercolors that she made on that paper, like the nude self-portraits or the Evening Star series, where she seems to be reveling in the watercolor and the way it flows over that surface. You can feel that she’s choosing quantity over quality at that moment. She also used a few different Japanese papers, and one paper is made from gampi fiber, which gives a smooth, beautiful sheen, but it is highly reactive to water, which makes it not an intuitive choice for watercolor.
In the series that O’Keeffe paints on this paper, Blue #1–4, you see that she’s playing with the fact that whenever she applies a stroke to the gampi, it cockles and wrinkles and moves. While that wasn’t something she could predict or control, it became an aspect of the work in the same way that each stroke of her brush was. It’s contributing to how we understand and interpret the abstract reductive composition that she’s making.
Georgia O’Keeffe. Evening Star. 1917
SF: For O’Keeffe, watercolor is so much about the relationship between abandon and control. In some instances she can coax the watercolor to behave in a certain way, and in others she revels in letting it flow or pool beyond her control.
LN: I feel like I can see the joy of her brushstroke, the way she is loving the feel of the stroke going over the paper, and being in tune with how that changes with different papers. You see this in the final Evening Star composition, where O’Keeffe chooses another Japanese paper that has qualities totally opposite to gampi. It has long fibers and is incredibly absorbent. The moment the brush touches the surface, the pigment is totally absorbed into the paper and wicked laterally through the fibers. It allows her to create soft, blurry strokes of color that are much different than what she would make on a sheet of the cheap student-grade paper. It’s the same action of the brush, but the result is totally different.
SF: The meanings of the works end up being totally dependent on the material choices.
LN: I think you really see her as an artist when you start to look at these decisions. It says a lot about what she was thinking about and how she approached making her art. She was a meticulous craftsman and was in control of her materials. It’s worth paying attention to what she’s using to make an image and think about why she might have been using it. Sometimes it might be a practical reason; at other times it might lead you to a greater understanding of how she developed her skills and understood how to recognize the inherent qualities of a material to create a composition.
Georgia O’Keeffe: To See Takes Time, organized by Samantha Friedman, Associate Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints, with Laura Neufeld, Associate Paper Conservator, The David Booth Conservation Department, and Emily Olek, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Drawings and Prints, in on view at MoMA April 9–August 12, 2023.
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