Selecting and Buying Art or Design

Having finalised a decorative scheme for our room, we are in a stronger position to select and buy art. However, it should be added that there is some latitude in this method. After all, it is also important to purchase art that we like and not simply because its colour or shape fits a scheme. The operative word is ‘balance’. The aim is to select art that fulfils a decorative purpose and that we enjoy. For example, an artwork may be the correct shape but displays a negative theme, which is cathartic for the artist but depressive for our family. We should take time to research art and exercise care. We have already looked at some of the ‘wrong’ ways to buy art in an earlier chapter. It remains to consider what we should look for when assessing the quality of art. However, we are not going to discuss quality across genres, which is highly subjective. Rather, we are more interested in practical matters to do with production. When we buy a new coat, we do not simply judge the style. We also check the quality of the stitching and dye because these are part of its quality too. It is the same principle when assessing the quality of art. In the paragraphs that follow, imagine that we have already planned our room and know what specific art is required. When we attend a gallery or art fair (or online market place), and find a work compatible with our scheme, how should we assess the production quality? We will now answer this question.

Before purchasing any artwork, we should investigate many examples of art. In order to assess these examples, there are some practical things that we need to know. For example, we should be informed about different the artistic media (painting, sculpture, printmaking etc) and the methods within each category. Likewise, we need to know the basic differences between a digital print and etching, or a watercolour and acrylic painting. We can easily learn all this online today or by visiting galleries. It is important to bear in mind that media categories are not rigid. Art objects can be considered a blend of materials, and this is sometimes referred to as ‘mixed media’. It is also important to know something about artistic technique too. For example, we need to know the differences between carving, modelling, and construction in sculpture. It would be good to have some idea about painting methods too. Likewise, all this can be learned online today, but we should also visit galleries to look at examples. Understanding these details is important for a number of reasons, but a fundamental point is to help guard us against fraud. If we know how to spot a digital print from an original painting, it ensures that we are not deceived into paying more for a copy.

We would advise studying twenty to thirty similar artworks (but more would be better) before buying anything. Our ability to make comparisons will be easier with more particulars. In this regard, the uniqueness of art is only true up to a certain point. It is possible to compare and contrast works within a narrow scope, such as when artists have similar aims. Beyond that, it is impossible, which is why selection committees in galleries or art fairs are pointless. They are theatre really. It is also a mark of the ‘amateur’ buyer to think that there is a difference between amateur and professional artists, terms that are meaningless in a digital economy and where most professionally ‘trained’ artists hold a secondary job anyway. We must not think like this. We must inform ourselves and become open-minded. If we require a piece of abstract art for our decorative scheme, for example, we should research as much abstraction as possible to build up a mental stock of images. A mental stock, or photographic memory, plays an important role in adjudicating between artworks. Imagine that there are two works before us and the aim of each artist is to portray the human figure naturally, like a still life. We can judge between them because the criterion is naturalism. If an artist lacks knowledge and technique, it will show. We do not need to be anatomical experts to discern when a leg is drawn incorrectly or unconvincingly. However, when it comes to art with a different intention, though still optical, we have to judge according to artistic technique. For example, not all abstract or semi-abstract works are equal. Some are better designed, or the handling of paint is more controlled and experienced. However, this is not determined by university qualifications.

For other types of art, the relationship between what the artist is trying to communicate and the final form of the artwork is important. So, imagine two artists each displaying a natural or imagined figure, but neither are concerned with naturalism. Instead, their focus is an aspect of identity politics. In effect, the artwork is a metaphor for ideas in literature. In order to make a judgement between the works, then, we need to read the same literature as the artists and understand the topic. We can then ask informed questions, such as whether they comprehend the subject or have made errors. We can also assess whether their treatment is superficial, banal, or one-sided. However, artists are not professional philosophers with command of all the literature on a topic, so we should not expect a unique theoretical contribution. The reason why some people are confused about Conceptual Art is because galleries and museums display it poorly. They tend to overemphasise the visual aspect of an artwork. They rarely provide enough contextual material, in terms of academic debates, to help the viewer make a proper assessment. Thirty years of academic discussion, for example, cannot be summed up on a small museum label next to a work, and interactive explanations are just as concise. They overly generalise and tend to mythologise the work. This creates an aura of sacerdotalism and, in some cases, errors of judgement. Understanding the literary ideas behind Conceptual Art is important because an artwork may be visually stunning but utterly inept when we grasp properly what the artist is trying to communicate. If we are judging between two artworks and are satisfied that the artists understand the topic and have something interesting, but not necessarily unique, to say about it, we should consider which artist has communicated the topic in the clearest visual terms. After all, their purpose for making the art is to communicate an opinion, so clarity is fundamental. Even when an artist is trying to obfuscate, whether they do that clearly or not is important. However, some people argue that there is no ‘objective’ interpretation of artworks. That, of course, is contradictory. Besides, we are not interested in an ‘objective’ interpretation but what the artist believes that they have communicated through visual metaphors. Some facts are simple. Basically, we are judging the quality of a metaphor when it comes to this genre, much as we criticise a good or bad choice of metaphor in literature or poetry. Some metaphors are simply inadequate. They do not work or do not perform as well as others. This is really the essence of critiquing all forms of Conceptual Art.

When we start researching art, we should make a note of the pieces that strike the eye and entice us. They do this for two reasons. Firstly, they fit the idea of our decorative scheme, and, secondly, their technical aspects (line, shape, values, and colour harmony) are satisfactory. It might turn out that all the examples from this initial research phase could work equally well in our room. However, further reducing our selection helps to focus on the detail. Time is an important factor because our eye is refreshed when we return to artworks after an interval. Problems, at first unseen, become apparent over time. For some pieces, this might even take a year. It is important not to pay too much attention to the prices when conducting our research. Even if the price is out of our range, the piece is still important for comparison. Besides, as our research progresses, it might turn out to be overpriced. We will discuss pricing shortly.

Our thoughts must turn to other matters after the research phase. When we have found the right piece for our decorative scheme, the key question to ask is, does it ‘look’ high quality? If yes, we should check by asking if we can look at the artwork in isolation. This is for the purpose of studying the art physically, not aesthetically. We should explain this to the artist. Understandably, in case of damage, many artists do not like people touching their works. However, if we explain why we would like to view the work, and suggest that they come with us, they may be more willing. Most galleries and some art fairs have separate rooms to view art. Generally, artworks do not need lots of hanging space to function really. So, we need to consider whether a viewing room is necessary at the appropriate time. This is because studying an artwork in isolation can give a false impression. Remember, it will not hang in isolation at home. It is part of a decorative scheme. Handling the object, then, is the main reason for asking to view the work. Why this is important will become obvious in the next few paragraphs. This crucial step in the buying process, often neglected and not always understood by artists either, cannot be done online, which is why buying art online is inadequate. It is not something that we advise, except for temporary pieces, exact replicas, and possibly monochrome works, such as drawings and prints. Another problem with buying online is colour. Digital cameras suffer from metameric failure. They cannot match physical colour, which changes under different lighting conditions. That is why a painting bought online often looks a different colour when it arrives by post. Colour, as we have seen, is central to a decorative scheme. So, viewing the actual colour of a piece is important before buying. Indeed, that is why some artists and galleries allow potential buyers to first loan art as part of the buying process. It enables a buyer to experience the work in the actual lighting conditions of their room.

We should ask if an artwork was made by the person claiming to be the artist. Sometimes an agent might represent an artist, or, in some cases, it may be someone from the artist’s estate or even a reseller. Check if the work has more than one artist involved in its creation, as it could be a collaboration. What role did the artist, speaking to us, perform in the team? Another important thing to check is the manufacturing process. Some artworks are not produced by the artist but simply assembled by them. There is nothing wrong with this, but it is important to check. Some jewellers, for example, manufacture every aspect of their products, whereas others buy parts in bulk and assemble them. The assemblages might each be unique, of course, but the artist did not produce every aspect of the item. In some cases, the jeweller might be the designer only and hired a specialist studio to manufacture the product. We should check this with sculpture too because specialist studios can add a metal or glazing finish that was not controlled by the artist. Again, there is nothing wrong with this, but it is important for us to know, should the artwork need restoring in the future.

The next step is to ascertain the media and check if it matches the label. Is the work original, or is it a print? If a print, how was the image produced? Is it formed of copyrighted elements by someone else (a digital print, for example)? Check what kind of printing ink was used, if known, and its quality in terms of lightfastness (the degree to which it fades in light). We can also test the quality of the ink by slightly rubbing it with our thumb in an obscure place, such as a corner or where the canvas turns on the edge of a stretcher, if there is no frame. This is also an excellent method for checking whether a drawing is genuine. For prints, we should check what kind of paper they are printed on because some artists will use a higher grade to guard against lightfastness. We can also place the artwork in raking light by positioning it side-on to a light source. Where the paint or drawing is raised, it will produce deep shadows on the surface. The method helps us to discern whether it is a genuine painting or not. If it is a print, the surface will likely be flat and without shadows, unless the artist has further worked over it. If the label has the term ‘mixed media’ on it, we should check which media precisely. This is important because we do not want the work to deteriorate in the next two or three years. Regardless of the visual quality of an artwork, training college of an artist, or gallery brand, a good rule of thumb is to remember that the majority of paintings today are not always technically accomplished in terms of their materials. This is due to twentieth-century educational reforms, mentioned in chapter two. It is important to double check the materials then. For example, if the artist has mixed up watercolour, acrylic, and oil paint, ask them in what order, if they have an order that is, because spreading water-based over oil-based media is not a good procedure in the long term, due to cracking and peeling paint. Remember, we are not talking about aesthetics or concepts but production quality (the final image could still be considered ‘excellent’, if temporary, because peeling and cracked paint might be integral to its concept). In some cases, the process might be very complex, embracing numerous resins or casting procedures, so we will have to take the artist at their word. For example, a label might state that a work is gilt (the application of small sheets of gold to a surface) when it is actually made from metal paint on closer inspection. We can only test this by slightly scratching the surface to reveal the underpaint, which is usually red beneath gilding. The main point is that we must ensure that a work is made from the materials stated on the label. Remember though, labels are restricted by their size. The artist might not detail all the materials. However, sometimes an artist might have a Certificate of Authority listing the materials.

Once we are confident that the product description is accurate and know what we are viewing, the next thing to consider is the size. There are two modes of size that we need to know. The first is the actual size of the work, and the other is its optical size. In terms of the physical size, is the work too large or small for the place needed? Check it with a tape measure. This is why having a decorative scheme, prior to looking at art, is important. How does it compare to some of the other examples we viewed? We should already be clear about what size we need but should adopt some flexibility because we are unlikely to find the exact dimensions. If a reduction in scale is needed, the artist might produce a smaller print from the original. The artist might also be able to produce a smaller replica. This is also possible with sculpture too. The size may be influenced by its frame. Perhaps the frame is too wide and smaller would better fit our decorative scheme. If this is the case, we may be able to purchase the art without its frame. The other mode of size is optical size. This is when an artwork changes scale or appearance through optical illusion. This happens because its values and colour interact with those of other objects in a room. This is why it is bad practice to study art in isolation, especially against white walls or on a computer screen. This is important to bear in mind because we need to compensate for the colour of the viewing room and the fact of isolation. It is good practice to walk backwards and forwards in front of an artwork, even turning at an angle, so that we ‘capture’ a work in different moments. A pattern might look wonderful close up but ‘vanishes’ at two metres, which is the actual viewing distance in our home (on a stairway, for example).

We briefly mentioned the frame in terms of size. If we are happy with its scale, we should check its quality. Who made it and can we have the manufacturer’s name? Are we happy to display it in our room? Perhaps the picture is right, but the frame is not. We should inspect the back of the work. Are there any cracks or damage? Does it have fixtures for hanging? Some artworks have slat fixtures, for example, and require a strip of wood or metal to be attached to a wall to facilitate hanging. Investigating the back of a work is also important for ascertaining if the frame is made from wood or resin. Resin can be highly deceptive when imitating wood, especially when plain. However, its weight gives it away because resin is lighter than wood. There is nothing wrong with a resin frame, but you should obviously not pay extra thinking it is carved wood. Check the joint at each corner of the frame. Is it tight, or is there a gap due to a faulty joint? How does the artwork actually fit into the frame? Is it taped in, or are there metal holders? Check the front of the frame. Is it plexiglass (plastic) or real glass? Are there any cracks (check the corners) or scratches?

If we are happy with the quality of the product, from a material point of view, we should do a quick check of its technical aspects, in terms of design and arrangement, as we learnt in relation to set pieces. The same techniques, of course, also apply to works of art and raise issues of quality. Firstly, does it adequately depict what it claims to show? Having a mental stock of other examples will help us compare and contrast here, as we mentioned earlier. Does the artist have a good sense of values and colour? What about the artist’s sense of line and shape? If the work is about a particular subject, is the artist knowledgeable? Are they informed about the subject? Ask them to describe how they made the work because this will tell us a great deal about the object. It is also a good way to check whether the artist made the work. Is it adequately composed, or does it seem dashed off with little thought or care? Remember, this does not refer to the brushwork or handling of clay. What can appear swift may be carefully planned. We are talking about an obvious lack of care, which is visible and does not appear to be part of the subject. Spotting technical issues will come with practise, but the trick is to build up a body of research for comparison.

If we wish to purchase the artwork after our risk assessments, it is time to consider the asking price. We need to bear in mind that what is on a price label is a mixture of fixed and non-fixed costs. Some of the fixed costs are non-negotiable because the artist has to make a living. However, we can negotiate some of the remaining costs. An important fixed cost is the price of the materials. This includes all the materials, not just those observed. A painting obviously involves the cost of paint but also the support (the canvas or panel etc), varnishes, resins, dry materials (for the underdrawing), glues, as well as framing. Another fixed cost is the artist’s hourly charge. This should obviously be over the minimum wage, and it should take into account taxes. When discussing the price, then, we should ask the artist to give details in terms of materials and their hourly charge. Other fixed costs, sometimes neglected, are transportation, shipping, taxes, insurance, and the cost of marketing, which involves exhibition costs. The commission that a gallery or art fair adds to a price (it can be as high as forty to sixty per cent) is also a type of fixed cost too. Remember, in most art fairs the galleries are substantially marking up the artworks to cover their commission and also the art fair’s commission. In effect, you are paying a double tax. The artist should have incorporated all these fixed costs into the final price of their work in some way. The remaining difference is their profit. This is the amount we can negotiate. It should be noted that most artists are inexperienced at pricing their work, unless they have a long track record of negotiating offline sales. Do not be surprised if there is a degree of amateurishness in this area. Some artists may not even know how to produce an invoice or receipt, for example. The reason is complicated and outside the scope of this book, but it is partly connected with twentieth-century adjustments to art education, which minimized business skills. If we detect some naivety, then, it is important to be honest in our dealings with artists. After all, an honest price is fair value. However, if we discover a perfect artwork for our decorative scheme but the price seems very high, it likely is, so have the confidence to ask the artist how they arrived at the price.

It should be clear from the discussion in this chapter that buying an artwork is not a random process. It involves two deliberate factors. The first is a decorative scheme for our room, which helps to guide us during research. The second, once we have located an artwork, and before we negotiate its price, involves a series of risk assessments to ascertain the material quality and true value of the work. We stress that more time spent on research, building up a mental stock of images, will lead to a greater chance of finding and selecting the best product for our room. Practically, we can research a lot of images using the internet, but it is extremely important that we consider the problems associated with looking at digital images and art in isolation. Likewise, we should keep in mind that art tends to be overpriced. Even at the higher end of the market, or when displayed in a museum, art is not truly worth its stated value. Considering all these points in the buying process, then, helps us to think rationally about the value of an artwork and what price we should pay. Most importantly, and as we have stressed throughout this book, having a definite plan for our room leaves us in a much stronger negotiating position because we can focus on production quality, instead of buying aesthetically, historically, or randomly.

Extract from A Guide to Selling Art by Dr C G Barlow. Copyright © 2022 C. G. Barlow.

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