ARTIST ROOMS Vija Celmins: Process and Materials

Vija Celmins, ‘Night Sky #19’ 1998
Vija Celmins
Night Sky #19 1998
Tate / National Galleries of Scotland
© Vija Celmins

“As I was working with the pencil, I got into some of the qualities of the pencil itself. That’s how the galaxies developed.” - Vija Celmins [1]

During the course of her career Celmins has created sculptures, paintings, drawings and prints. Her painstakingly rendered works focus on a narrow range of subjects and are limited to a restricted monotone palette. [2] The rigour with which Celmins executes her work is evident throughout her process from the selection of paper and material, the decision of scale and the choice of source material. Her artistic process involves masking out a desired area within a photograph and then replicating what she has framed using a grey-scale palette, inspired by the actual black-and-white photographs from which the work was developed.

In 1968 Celmins stopped painting in favour of drawing in graphite, later saying “…when I started doing graphite I got really into it…I was obsessed. I pushed the limits of the pencil to hold the image and make for strong work.” [3] She spent the next few years drawing intense single images with no composition before she started putting images together on a single sheet of paper. Untitled (Desert-Galaxy)1974 is an early example of these double images, which sees Celmins return to the recurring motifs of the desert landscape and the night sky. [4]

Celmins returned to painting in 1983 feeling she had exhausted graphite and taken drawing as far as she could go. In 1994 she returned to drawing with a series of night skies but instead of graphite her materials were now charcoal and eraser. In drawings such as Night Sky #19 1999 Celmins builds on the surface of the paper using the charcoal and removes areas with various types of eraser, eventually exposing the paper. The white areas reveal the radiating strands of the web of stars in the night sky: “I like to see the paper, because the paper is a player.” [5]

Printmaking has also been an important part of Celmins artistic output and she has worked with print media since the early 1960s. The 1980s were a particularly productive period for the artist when she worked on series such as Concentric Bearings, Alliance and Constellation Uncello made at Gemini, G.E.L. in Los Angeles. Celmins works in traditional intaglio (see Alliance, 1983), lithographic (see Untitled Portfolio: Galaxy, 1975), and relief processes (see Ocean Surface Woodcut 1992) to make her prints.

Celmins has said that her galaxy paintings and drawings developed out of using the pencil. Look at drawings such as Untitled (Desert-Galaxy) 1974 and discuss how a subject might develop through a medium.

Use some charcoal to create a drawing working in reverse to reveal the white of the paper. Think about the distinct characteristics of the media when your applying it and what that effect that has on the finished image.

Artist Link
American artist Jasper Johns (b. 1930) was a major influence on Celmins. Johns is best known for his use of commonplace images such as flags or numbers. He is a painter and printmaker, working in lithographs, etchings, screenprints, and embossed paper and lead reliefs.

Notes and references
[1]. Susan Sollins, ‘Art: 21: art in the twenty-first century, Vol. 2’, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2003, p.171.
[2]. Her earliest paintings have little evident colour and she quickly eliminated all colour due to its decorative associations.
[3]. Betsy Sussler, ‘Interview with Vija Celmins’, The Museum of Modern Art, October 18, 2011,, p. 28, accessed, 1 April 2014. Quotation revised by artist Wednesday 11 June 2014, New York.
[4]. When working with graphite Celmins first coats the paper with acrylic to create a layer on the paper and reinforce the graphite.
[5]. Betsy Sussler, ‘Interview with Vija Celmins’, The Museum of Modern Art, October 18, 2011,, p. 36, accessed, 1 April 2014.