Project Two – Research point: Vija Celmins (b.1938)

Vija Celmins is an Latvian-american artist who is devoted to drawing, painting and printmaking. She bases her works significantly on photographs, studying in detail the underlying patterns of the image. Especially her graphic drawing of the galaxy, the desert and the ocean show her intimate approach to texture and patterns.

In her earlier work ‘Night Forms‘ in monochrome with bold contrast of black and white and some grey mid tones (reminds me a bit of John Virtue) the reality is greatly distorted and only shapes are indicating an atmosphere. I can see a lake with reflection with the horizon going approx through the middle of the picture.

Night Forms, 1961 (gouache & charcoal with acrylic on paper)

Night Forms, 1961 (gouache & charcoal with acrylic on paper)

Than in her later works Celmins is much more into the detailed and nearly macroscopic view with no horizon of a regular repetitive pattern of a motive, like the water in ‘Ocean Surface (second state)‘.

  •  ‘Drypoint–Ocean surface (second state)’, 2013 [online image]. USA: Indianapolis Museum of Art. Available from: [Accessed 23 April 2015]

    Drypoint--Ocean Surface (Second State), 1985 (drypoint; 20.32x25.4 cm; Indianapolis Museum of Art, USA

    Drypoint–Ocean Surface (Second State), 1985 (drypoint; 20.32×25.4 cm; Indianapolis Museum of Art, USA

On Tate I’ve found a comprehensive article about Vija Celmins and her method (Straine, St., 2010). Especially her works:

  • Untitled (Desert–Galaxy)’, 1974, Graphite on acrylic ground on paper (442 x 956 mm) or
  • Irregular Desert’, 1973, Graphite on acrylic ground on paper (305 x 381 mm) (both available from: Tate)

Celmins starts from an acryl-gesso primed surface (she sprays this on the surface) to obtain a very smooth texture for the following pencil drawings so that the pencil marks and pencil dust sits on the surface. She works pretty hard on the paper so I think the surface needs to be very heavy and robust. The lights spots are done with an eraser and also a mechanical eraser as it allows for fine and deep marks. Celmins presents the ‘Galaxy‘ and the ‘Desert‘ side by side. One of her key interest is the depiction of space and to compare the physical space with the visual space. Interestingly the ‘Galaxy‘ drawing with a very deep physcial space is rather flat in it visual depth perception. On the hand ‘Desert‘ a rather flat physical space seems to convey a deeper visual depth. As Celmins comes from pintmaking her drawing are working on the flat theme compared to e.g. Sarah Woodfine, a sculptor, who works with physical space of her works.

For me comes clear through her drawings that working with dusty material like charcoal or pencil the characteristics of the depicted scene (galaxy or desert) are matching well.  However, this is not so true for her ‘water’ themes like ‘Ocean Surface‘. Overall, Celmins is working also in her more painterly works quite dry (compared to the wet media e.g. watercolor, ink) and it seems as the dryness is a key concept for her.


  • Celmins is rather a detailed working artist who bases her works heavily on photographs so that she can study the macroscopic level of the patterns quite intensively.
  • For the question of this course whether I could apply some of her techniques for cloud drawings I am a bit unsure. I can use photographs to study detailed patterns, but in exercise 1 it is more about quick sketches outdoors. I assume that possibly for future works on larger scale I could use some of the reference photographs.
  • The concept of how the physical space and the visual space are interlinked or not seems to be an interesting idea that I might want to consider in my future work.
  • I like her approach to spray an acryl-gesso on the paper surface to create a very smooth texture like a veil.
  • Personally I like more her expressive work ‘Night Forms‘, 1961 than her fine rendered pattern drawings.


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