Collage of magazine cuttings touched with green crayon, on a support of a greyish photograph of the New York skyline

Pushing paper: an introduction to contemporary drawing

By Isabel Seligman, Bridget Riley Art Foundation Curator

Publication date: 2 April 2020

Drawing can be so much more than just pencil on paper.

Curator Isabel Seligman takes a look at the dynamic drawings in our touring exhibition, and explains the creative process behind an exhibition co-curated with partnership galleries.

Pushing paper: an introduction to contemporary drawing

The British Museum holds more than two million prints and 50,000 drawings in its collection. While lots of people know about the Museum's outstanding works by Rembrandt and Dürer, they might be less familiar with the contemporary parts of the collection. Pushing paper: contemporary drawing from 1970 to now is the Museum's first exhibition to focus on this aspect of the collection, selected from more than 1,500 contemporary works. It's been a real pleasure to bring these diverse and thought-provoking drawings to a wider audience around the UK as the show travels to Durham, Stromness, Swansea and Barnsley.

In the last 50 years, artists have continually pushed the boundaries of what a drawing can mean and be – radically redefining drawing in an 'expanded field' (a term coined by art historian Rosalind Krauss in 1979 referring to sculpture, but which applies equally well to the expansion of drawing practice during this period). While artists continue to use traditional tools like pen, pencil or brush, artists in this show also used processes such as burning, cutting, scratching, sticking, writing and sewing, and unusual materials from wax and gold to rattlesnake poison. Drawings were made using a stopwatch, by rolling dice, while blindfolded, or while walking. These works blur the boundaries between drawing and other mediums such as sculpture, land art and even performance.

While some might not consider these works to be drawings at all, this exhibition shows how diverse the practice of drawing can be. The definition of what makes a drawing 'contemporary' is also up for grabs – while some might define this as work by artists who are alive, we decided to select artists whose work was made in the past 50 years, and still resonates with drawings made today. Now we've discussed how the terms 'drawing' and 'contemporary' are themselves open to debate, let's explore some current themes in contemporary drawing.


Untitled composition with a figure wearing a flounced dress and tail on all fours in the centre, and above six collaged fragments
Grayson Perry (b. 1960), Untitled. Coloured crayons, watercolour, gouache, pen and ink, with collage of photographs, magazine illustrations and silver glitter, c.1984. © Grayson Perry. © The Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced by permission of the artist.


Contemporary artists have often used drawing to think through questions of identity. One of the most glittering works in the show (literally!) is an early drawing by British artist Grayson Perry, made with collage, crayons and silver glitter. While he is better known as a potter (we also have his ceramic works in the collection) this drawing was made long before he won the Turner Prize in 2003. This is one of the earliest representations of his transvestite alter-ego Claire, dressed in a hoodie and rah-rah skirt. While the photographs are roughly cut from magazines (like the feminine lingerie model, or the pendant nestling in manly chest hair) Claire is much more carefully drawn and seems to take a dim view of these clichéd symbols of normative gender.

Gouache, kolanut pigment, pencil and watercolour on Arches watercolour paper showing abstract standing figure
Marcia Kure (b. 1970), Power: The Players II. Gouache, kolanut pigment, pencil and watercolour on Arches watercolour paper, 2012. © Marcia Kure. © The Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced by permission of the artist.

Another artist who uses drawing to explore questions of identity is the Nigerian-American artist Marcia Kure. Contemporary artists have made drawings using unusual materials including make-up, hair and blood. As well as gouache and watercolour, Kure uses traditional pigments such as coffee and kolanut. She also uses elements typical of traditional Nigerian Uli art, practiced by Igbo women to decorate bodies and buildings, such as sinuous line and attention to negative space (there's no background to the figure in this drawing, for example). Kure's combination of colour, pattern and form suggests the way history and culture shape who we are, and having spoken about the difficulties of leaving Nigeria to live in America, the artist has described her work as 'an argument for people who do not have a defined place'.

Place and space

Ink drawing of mountains in black and white
Minjung Kim (b. 1982) Mountain. Ink on hanji paper, 2009. © Minjung Kim. © The Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced by permission of the artist.


Contemporary artists have often used drawing to examine questions of place and space. South Korean artist Minjung Kim trained in the art of calligraphy for 15 years, getting to know the materials of ink and traditional mulberry paper (hanji) so well that she says 'today, I only have to touch the paper with my fingers to know how it will absorb the water, how the ink will spread on it, how the flame will burn it'. In Mountain (2009), ink was brushed on while the paper was wet – bleeding upwards to create delicate tidelines which suggest a hilly landscape receding into the distance, but which could also suggest the ocean or soundwaves. Kim was inspired by a trip to southern Italy, but the drawing also recalls the mountainous landscape of South Korea, which she left more than 25 years ago to settle in Europe.

Collage of magazine cuttings touched with green crayon, on a support of a greyish photograph of the New York skyline
Liliane Lijn (b. 1939), Hanging Gardens of Rock City. Collage of magazine cuttings touched with green crayon, on a support of a photograph of the New York skyline, 1970. © Liliane Lijn. © The Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced by permission of the artist.

Meanwhile, this drawing by American artist Liliane Lijn was made as an idea for a project to create luxuriant walkways across the tops of the skyscrapers of Manhattan – a bit like the High Line public park, but nearly 40 years before it opened. Lijn doctored photographs of her hometown, collaging garlands of greenery and adding a haze of green crayon. Lijn has said 'I have always found the rooftops of the buildings in Manhattan exciting and strange as if their architects had allowed their fancies free at that distance from the ground'. This drawing shows her desire to open up these rarefied spaces for all to enjoy.

Time and memory

'Ruchla', head and shoulders portrait of young girl with pink background
Jan Vanriet (b. 1948), Ruchla. Watercolour over black crayon with white gouache, 2011. © Jan Vanriet. © The Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced by permission of the artist.

Drawing is an inherently time-based practice, as opposed to the instantaneousness of photography, for example, and it's no wonder that contemporary artists have used drawing to think about the workings of time and memory. One drawing concerned with the act of remembering, by Belgian artist Jan Vanriet, depicts Ruchla, a young girl who, along with more than 25,000 other people, was deported by the Nazis from Dossin barracks in Mechelen, Belgium, to the death camps of Auschwitz. The drawing is based on a black and white photograph, and is rendered in slightly acidic watercolour, the most fugitive (or light sensitive) of mediums. Details such as her open smile, and the broad ribbon pulling back her hair, attempt to restore her humanity in the face of the devastating scale of Nazi atrocities, offering a poignant and evocative memorial.

Drawing showing a table viewed from above on which rests an iPhone at left and two glasses at right; one figure sits at the far side of the table, another moves to sit on a chair in the foreground
Michael Ditchburn (b. 1991), One sat, another sitting. Graphite on paper, 2018. © Michael Ditchburn. © The Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced by permission of the artist.

One of the most recent drawings in the show is by the British artist Michael Ditchburn. It creates an uncanny sense of rhyming and repetition through the use of axonometric perspective. This system of perspective was developed by Asian artists hundreds of years before traditional linear perspective (sometimes called vanishing point perspective) was discovered in the 15th century. Things further away do not appear smaller, which makes you feel as if you're hovering at an uncertain distance from the drawing. The Department of Prints and Drawings acquired it at a recent show at Camberwell College of Arts and, along with canny acquisitions such as early drawings by Rachel Whiteread and Peter Doig – which are also on display – it was my inspiration to apply for an Art Fund New Collecting Award, which will now provide funding to acquire more drawings by emerging British artists.

Power and protest

Queen's head drawn in  in acid greens and yellows and surrounded by gurning skulls, eyes and devil's horns
Hew Locke (b. 1959), Sovereign 3. Watercolour on Arches paper, 2005. © Hew Locke. © The Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced by permission of the artist.

Contemporary artists have often used drawing to engage with the world around them and to draw attention to systems – and abuses – of power. This drawing by British artist Hew Locke examines the role of the Queen as a symbol of nationhood and keeper of political secrets. Locke grew up in Georgetown, Guyana, which had achieved independence from the UK in 1966, but where the Queen's head still appeared on school exercise books, signs and statues. Drawn in acid greens and yellows and surrounded by gurning skulls, eyes and devils horns, this drawing prompts us to question the Queen and what she represents.

Drawing of woman in profile, long hair styled up, nurse's hat, large eye replacing face
Ellen Gallagher (b. 1965), An Experiment of Unusual Opportunity. Graphite on handmade paper, 2008. © Ellen Gallagher. © The Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced by permission of the artist.

This work was made by the American artist Ellen Gallagher to draw attention to a gross injustice that was perpetrated in the name of science. The delicate strokes of pencil show a nurse's cap perched on an elaborate hairstyle, giving a clue to the profession of the person it commemorates – Eunice Rivers, a nurse who co-ordinated the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment. In 1932 she recruited 399 black men from Alabama who were denied treatment for syphilis so that doctors could observe the untreated progress of the disease, even after penicillin was found to cure it in the 1940s. The drawing is a study for Gallagher's 'medal of dishonour', seeking to bring to light this dark chapter of American history.

Systems and process

Long, narrow piece of wood, horizontal, marked with straight vertical and curved scorched lines
Roger Ackling (1947–2014), An hour walk along forest paths from one shaft of sunlight to the next/ Ashridge Hertfordshire/ May 1978 England. Sunlight on found wood, 1978. © Roger Ackling. © The Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced by permission of the artist.

I really enjoyed finding out about some of the more experimental drawing processes represented in the collection, for example British artist Roger Ackling, who used a lens (like a magnifying glass) to burn marks into a piece of wood, 'drawing' on the wood with the heat of focused sunlight. The gaps between these marks are where he moved from one patch of sunlight to the next, under the shadow of tree branches or when a cloud passed over the sun. This way of thinking about drawing, as a way of recording how we spend time – or a way of translating experience – is perhaps suggested in its visual similarity to Morse code. Ackling used this particular system of working throughout his life – on driftwood, broken branches or other found objects, the particularities of time and place creating a great diversity and subtlety in his work while remaining dedicated to this particular process.

Abstraction of outlined strips of white and blue on graph paper, inscribed with numbers
Kenneth Martin (1905–1984), Metamorphoses Blue. Blue and white gouache, ink and graphite on graph paper, c. 1973–1977. © Kenneth Martin. © The Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced by permission of the artist.

Kenneth Martin was known as one of the pioneers of kinetic art – art concerned with movement, especially gracefully moving sculptures. But he noted that his art was kinetic 'whether the result is still or moving' as they are concerned with change. He used rolls of a dice to dictate the lines in this drawing – creating a dynamic illustration of the workings of chance.

Curators collaborate

This exhibition was the result of collaboration between five different museums and is a new way of working for the British Museum. Curators from Durham University (Alix Collingwood-Swinburn), the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness (Andrew Parkinson) the Glynn Vivian Gallery in Swansea (Katy Freer) and the Cooper Gallery in Barnsley (Alison Cooper) were all involved in the curation of the exhibition, from developing its themes and concepts to deciding which works would be included.

The process began with the partner curators visiting the British Museum to view works in the Departments of Prints and Drawings, Asia and the Middle East. After viewing drawings in the collection and using our database and Collection online to view other works, we discussed themes and currents in contemporary drawing, and decided which would be most relevant to our various audiences.

The decision process was aided by a giant spreadsheet listing all the drawings, and allowing each of the curators an equal number of votes on what should be in the show. Once the votes had been cast, we then got out all of the longlisted drawings in the gallery for a 'dummy run' to see which drawings worked in the gallery space, and spoke to each other. This allowed us to make connections both within each theme and between the different sections. This was a difficult process, with many fantastic drawings left on the cutting room floor. Don't worry though, when we re-open you can always make an appointment to come and see any of these in our Study Room (which is where you can see prints and drawings not on display in our exhibitions).

Once we had decided on the final works to be included in the show, each curator adopted a theme. Alix wrote about identity, Alison place and space, I looked at time and memory, Katy power and protest and Andrew systems and process. Each of the curators then came back to the Museum to research the works in their section, and write the exhibition labels and text for the book that accompanies the exhibition. The exhibition will now tour to each of the partner venues, and each museum will add works from their own collection to create a new version of the exhibition at each place, highlighting the diversity of contemporary works on paper nationwide.

You can buy the accompanying exhibition book from Thames and Hudson.

The exhibition toured to: The Oriental Museum, DurhamThe Pier, Arts Centre, StromnessThe Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea and The Cooper Gallery, Barnsley

Take a look at all our current exhibitions including those touring the UK and internationally.