Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A beginner's guide to buying art

I thought I wasn't a collector of anything until I looked around my living room the other day and realized, shit, this counts as a art collection. I think I own about 80 pieces if you count those too big to transport across the Atlantic (gathering dust in my parents basement).

It's a thrilling and scary thought considering I'm still in my twenties.

So, as a novice art collector of sorts, and a former art gallery salesperson, here is what I know about buying original art.

1.1: There are three common places to buy art (four, if you count The Internet): In a gallery, in an artist's studio, or at an auction.

I'll cover auctions in a separate post, as most beginners will buy in a gallery setting.

A note on The Internet: Artwork can photograph differently than it looks in person. If you're a beginner buyer looking at large or big-ticket pieces, I highly recommend buying that kind of artwork at a gallery or studio. Plus, shipping big artwork is almost always a nightmare.


No matter how old you are, or how much you make, you belong in an auction or gallery as much as anyone else. Don't feel awkward. Don't feel under or overdressed. Don't feel like you have to show your pay stub at the door to gain entrance. Art is for everyone.


Galleries are (rather frustratingly) quiet places, but it doesn't have to be that way. Don't be afraid to chatter away about the stuff in front of you. There has never been a rule against talking at a regular volume in any gallery I've visited.

After all, the best pieces are the ones that keep you talking. 


Gallery-width canvases have thicker sides (about 1.5 inches to 2 inches), making them sturdier and less likely to warp over time. Bonus: They also look best when unframed (hello, savings!)

My rule of thumb is to buy gallery-width canvases whenever possible, but especially if the artwork is bigger than twelve inches squared.

Worried about warping? Larger canvases, and thin-sided canvases, are more likely to warp. The fix for warping is generally to have the canvas re-stretched on a new frame ($$$)


In many (but not all) gallery and studio settings bargaining is a no-no. If you're intent on getting a good deal, you can mention it to the artist or gallery directly, but do so gently.

Most artwork is fairly priced to reflect the time and materials invested in the piece. Remember, artists have to eat, too.

Curious about commissions? Gallery commissions range from 5-50% (and can sometimes be startlingly higher) depending on the gallery. Some artists discount their prices in-studio to account for this commission, but this is (obviously) frowned upon by galleries. 


I used to work at a not-for-profit art sales and rental gallery and it was fabulous. I can't tell you how many people walked away from that gallery relieved and triumphant that they could purchase art in a low-commitment, low-stress atmosphere. I loved that the option to rent artwork made art more accessible, too.

If there isn't a rental gallery in your area, you can sometimes borrow artwork from galleries or studios (against a deposit).

Renting or borrowing is particularly ideal if you aren't confident in choosing artwork for a particular space, if you are worried about the size or shape of what you're buying, or if you have an inkling you might not be able to live with a piece long term. 


Every time you frame something in anti-reflective (aka frosted) glass a kittens dies.

Now that we've got that covered, if you're buying framed pieces keep the frame colours and styles simple: it's easier in the long run. For awhile I bought all black (great for bright rooms), now I buy all white (great for dark rooms). I always buy frames I can spray paint different colours, later, too.

An insiders note on framing: unframed pieces are usually much cheaper. Some artists and galleries are able to significantly increase the price of pre-framed pieces, since they are more convenient for the buyer (although you may not be getting the exact style and size you want). In rare cases, artists and galleries may intentionally price pieces to make extra money off of the frame: what cost them $50 will be factored into the price as $200. Whether or not framing is that much of a value-added service is up to you.

Not sure about framing styles? I have a personal distaste for huge, elaborate frames that overwhelm the artwork they display (especially given their price tag). A trip to any doctor's waiting room will show you that these kinds of frames become outdated quickly, too. 

It will save you major (MAJOR) money to learn how to do minor repairs, wire, and clean frames on your own. 

Worried about wires? Invest in coated wire to save yourself from sliced-open hands, or thoroughly tape up the ends of uncoated wire to stop fraying. And buy a good, strong gauge (thickness) wire!

I always wire my artwork on both sides of a piece, about 1/3 of the way from the top, with eye hooks that screw into the frame. This makes the artwork easier to carry, safer to hang, and easier to level. 

Scratches or nicks in wooden frames? No problem. Invest in a paint pen, and some wood repair putty, and patch it up yourself (no need for fancy frame repair kits). Shoe polish and permanent markers also cover 'character marks' quite nicely too. 

When you're handling artwork and mattes make sure your hands are very clean: paper and matte board absorb body oil very rapidly. To clean up marks on mattes use an art gum eraser.

Damaged canvas? Ripped or punctured canvas can sometimes be sewn together, but it's best to go to a professional for this. If your canvas is dented (concave or convex - this can happen if something has been leaning against a canvas in storage, for example) on acrylic paintings only gently dampen the back of the canvas with a cloth. When the canvas dries, the fibres will re-tighten and eliminate the dents.


Many art schools have small galleries dedicated to selling student work. Student galleries are most full of 'inventory' at the end of the semester, and many carry both two-dimensional (paintings) and three-dimensional (sculpture, installation) work.

Buying from student galleries is a great way to snag big pieces at beginner's prices and support emerging artists. You can also take comfort in knowing that the money earned generally goes straight back into buying art supplies or paying down student debt; art schools almost never profit from student galleries. 

Because they are usually not-for-profit ventures, student galleries are not usually very well marketed. Search and ye shall find, and it shall be worth it. 


You don't have to go to art school to buy art, but any gallery or artist should be able to provide you with basic care information for your piece. You'll want to ask about hanging in direct sunlight (okay for acrylic and oil paintings short term, disastrous for prints and paintings on paper), dusting and cleaning paintings, hanging prints in bathrooms (don't), etc. 

Ask questions. Gallery staff and artists are generally quite happy to share knowledge about art: That's usually why they're working in a gallery or studio, anyway.


Not what art history tells you to like. Not what your friends like. What you like.

Not sure what you like? You aren't alone. I can't tell you how many people used to walk into the gallery and have no inkling of their preferences. Don't be afraid to window shop in galleries for awhile before committing. Don't be embarrassed if you can't explain why you like something, either.

You can also easily learn what you like without going to art school. There are a lot of wonderful art blogs out there (The Jealous Curator, Colossal, Buy Some Damn Art). Explore them. Pin or save images you like (I collect mine here), and you'll notice patterns emerge in what kinds of images and mediums you gravitate to.

Now, go buy some damn art. 

graphics © Jess Gerrow


  1. Thanks for such an enjoyable, informative post. I'm a total novice when it comes to buying art, have bought a couple of paintings in the past just because I loved them and some textile pieces directly from artists who I've met through blogging. But have always fely a bit too intimidated when it comes to walking in to galleries or seeking out auctions, but inspired but your advice I will be braver and go look around

    1. Hoorah! I'm so glad I've inspired you to visit more galleries.

      I don't currently own any textile pieces but it's something I've becoming very interested in as of late, and I'd love to get some directly from textile artists. I would love if you could give me some names :)

      The great thing about galleries is that they are an immediately gratifying way to discover a bunch of new artists at once. Many galleries are designed to host selected exhibitions and don't carry a large inventory 'for sale' (I often find those to be the most intimidating). I would suggest seeking out high quality galleries in your area that carry a larger inventory of items in-house that are for sale (you can usually tell from their web site). More bang for your buck :)

  2. I've done a bit of research and found some galleries in the towns near me that I want to visit and have ear marked a few weekends to travel out and explore them later in the year.

    In the meantime I managed to pick up an original painting that I loved at a local secondhand shop for the equivalent of about 2 euros. Its on my blog http://angelcatuk.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/thrifty-finds.html

    As for textile art well it's the same as any other kind I guess and really depends on your tastes. There is something out there for everyone. Mr X Stitch is a good blog to follow as they have lots of artist interviews and details of exhibitions among all the other stuff http://www.mrxstitch.com/

    1. I love finding little (affordable) art in thrift shops, too!

      Thanks for the links Angela :) Mr X Stitch is fabulous!


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