How to fill your home with art you love — even if you aren’t a collector

October 7 2011 |
Offbeat Home & Life runs these advice questions as an opportunity for our readers to share personal experiences and anecdotes. Readers are responsible for doing their own research before following any advice given here... or anywhere else on the web, for that matter.
Michelle Summers' ceramics, courtesy thejealouscurator.net.
So y'all might know this already: I'm a painter. Before I joined the Offbeat Empire, I worked for an arts non-profit helping artists to get business skills and foster the creative economy in the midwest. I'm also the co-director of a monthly indie craft fair in Des Moines called Market Day — where we basically do the same thing, but better.

I'm passionate about art, guys. Making it, buying it, hanging it, talking about it — it's all gravy. But my jobs have also given me the chance to understand that art is no longer a part of everyday life as it once was — it's downright intimidating to a lot of people. It makes sense: whereas art used to show up in the baskets we made and the jewelry we wore, we now have such a luxury in mass-produced items that Art — real, handmade goods with or without a purpose — is relegated to the elite few who don't have to shop at Target.

I love that my jobs have given me the chance to help people put art in their homes — good art, bad art, big art, small art; it's all meaningful. I want to talk today to anyone who loves beautiful objects but feels trepidation about bringing them home.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder OR "But how do I know what I like?"

The art school kid in me rails against this. Art isn't subjective! she cries. If you can't communicate a purpose or a message then the artist has failed! That's fine, Art School Cat, when you're talking about what gets shown in the Museum of Modern Art. But what people take home? You can't judge that.

It can be very, very frightening to buy art because to buy art means you, personally, deem it to be "good." What if people don't agree with my taste? What if people judge me based on the art in my home?

Fuck those people. The next time you're shopping art, pretend you're perusing DVDs instead. If a painting has enough impact to convince you to spend $700 (or even just $30!), bring it home; critics be damned.

Okay, so now that I know what I like, how do I find what I like?

Attend art events

Buying from an artist you know — or at least can meet! — is ideal. If you want to hang a piece of work in a difficult place, like say, the bathroom, it's nice to be able to know who you can ask about the durability of this particular piece in a humid room. Getting to know artists means you don't have to learn everything there is to know about every art material and framing method out there — and artists will often give loyal customers first pick of new work (or last pick of work otherwise getting painted over.)

If you're completely new to the art scene, look at your local rag magazines to see what shows are coming up. Attend new openings which interest you and don't feel shy about asking artists questions, even if you feel dumb. I promise you, artists are so happy to get to talk about their work! You don't need to know anything — give an artist an honest impression and, as long as the artist has people skills, you'll have a nice conversation.

You can also visit indie craft shows, where art often meets craft. My favorite website for finding shows is Indie Craft Directory. Keep your eyes open, also, for posters and flyers in local shops. Remember how beauty is in the eye of the beholder? It really doesn't matter where you buy creative goods. Gallery or indie craft pop-up shop — they've all got the good stuff.

Shop online

Etsy has good art, but it can be hard to find. Society6 does a better job curating what you see, so it's easier to find "good" things. They only sell prints, but they're good quality.

If you're really into it, start finding blogs of artists you like or designers, who also tend to collect pretty things. I like The Jealous Curator and Art Hound.

Learn about your new hobby

If you're going to dedicate yourself to buying original art, there are some things you'll eventually need to learn. If you're not in an art city, artists are sometimes just as clueless as the buyers, which can lead to overpricing and misinformation. Arm yourself with a few vocab words and you'll benefit.

Original: In the case of paintings and drawings, "original" is clear: and original is the only one the artist made. It's the first. But it gets a little more complicated when you talk about photography or printmaking. Photos, intaglio, lithographic, and screen prints can all be called "originals," even though there are multiple copies. Original should mean that each copy was pulled by the artist — these are not machine-printed pieces.

Limited edition: Limited Editions would be considered originals. If you are buying an original print or photo at an "original" price, it should be labeled with a number, like "3/11". That tells you which particular print this is and how many are in this edition. It's kind of hard to make originals that are infinite, right? Artists need to make limited editions — they set a number for printing each drawing or litho, and stick to it. If they want to print it again, they'll often do special editions with interesting inks or something. No more prints matching this edition will be pulled after that 35 prints, unless the printing plate is altered.

LEs are often mislabled at art fairs. Any given edition of a limited edition run should be the same price. This is important because an artist is able to charge more for a limited edition print than they charge for a poster, which is an unlimited, un-touched-by-the-artist machine-printed piece.

Letterpress, litho, intaglio and more: If you're going to buy prints, it's smart to learn what each print entails. A letterpress, for example, should have indentations around all the shapes. An intaglio should have an indentation all around the image where the plate was pressed into the paper. Surprisingly, I've seen many mislabeled prints, like digital prints labeled as intaglios. Most artists are honest and eager, but this kind of knowledge can save you money!

Artists are just like you

Except maybe we drink more. Other than that, artists are no different than anyone else. One of my biggest pet peeves is the opinion that artists are "magic" or "better" than "normal" people. That's simply… weird. Everyone I know who makes paintings and installations is just like everyone I know who works for Nationwide Insurance or makes cakes. Except we drink more. Anyway, this artificial divide prevents people from appreciating art!

Don't be afraid to commission

Say you see an artist whose style you admire, but you can't find a piece in the show which speaks to you. Feel free to approach said artist and say, "Yo! I love how you paint. Are you accepting commissions? I'd really like a t-rex conquering Middle Earth in your style." The worst this artist will say is no. Most artists, though? They'll say fuck yes.

Don't try to negotiate on price

I'm sorry: every artist I know is offended when buyers try to lowball their work. This might be different in the Big Leagues, but otherwise only exception is when you are buying more than one piece.

The bottom line is:

Buy what you like and don't be shy

Like I said: I've met a billion people who are unsure about buying art. With a little education, you can be sure you're not getting taken for a fool AND you're getting pieces you like — even if everyone else hates them. It's sad that Art is an inaccessible thing nowadays, because most artists are just like you and respond to the vox populi.

Take a chance and buy a piece of original art and I bet you'll be hooked. There's nothing quite like picking out a piece you know is one of a kind and bringing it home with you.

  1. I love this post so much! I just want to say yes to every point.

    A lot of places that offer art classes also do art sales of student or faculty art a couple of times a year. One of our local art centers does an event each year that's almost like a silent auction for commissions. You can buy a time slot with an artist and the two of you work together to create an original piece. How awesome is that?

    1 agrees
  2. I've always dreamt of filling my home with art, but even more so lately, after seeing L'Amour Fou. It's a documentary about Yves Saint Laurent and the tremendous art collection that he and his partner accumulated over almost fifty years. Some of the pieces were sold for tens of millions of euro at auction. They owned ancient Egyptian/Roman/Greek sculptures, vases, Chinese bronzes, Picassos, Mondrians, a Matisse… Oh, to be filthy rich!

    As it is, my husband and I mostly decorate with posters, prints and postcards. We got cash as wedding gifts from a lot of relatives, so we bought two paintings. At a gallery at the mall, so it doesn't feel entirely legit, but that might be just me being snobby. We hope to buy many more art pieces in the future!

  3. When we bought our first home about a year ago, one of my biggest anxieties was what we would put on the walls. Up until that point, we'd lived in one "charming" rental after another, and it made sense to keep hanging up mass-produced prints of stuff we liked-but-not-loved, because we didn't know how long we'd be there and we were saving up for our home. So when we moved into THE HOME, we felt like it was finally time to start collecting stuff we love, and I felt like we suddenly had to decide on our "style." I felt like we had to pick some kind of pallet of art that we would stick to 'til kingdom come, and like that "style" would be on trial every time someone visited.

    Fast forward to most of a year later, and we still had blank walls thanks to that policy. Slowly we've gritted our teeth and made a few purchases– things that don't go with any particular style or design element, but we just felt connected to. Thank goodness we did that or our walls would still be empty. We've got a long way to go. At this point, a goal is to start a savings specifically for those times when we find something we really love, because it is rare for us to agree on something, and when it happens, we need to ACT!

    1 agrees
    • It sounds like your "Style" is just – your style! I don't think an art collection needs to have a "look" or has to hang together thematically. If you're buying things that you and your partner both like, you'll probably notice a sort of style developing as your collection grows – things that reflect a certain time period, or palette of colors, or a pattern that seems to pop up often. Things that you LIKE. As my husband and I collect things, I begin to understand better what our "style" is as the collection grows and I see traits forming in what we've picked. I feel that an art collection, more than being "cohesive" or "complete" should give outside viewers a sense of what the collection's owners are like as people, and what makes them tick.

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  4. I love it! I've both purchased and sell art on etsy. It's easy to find art there when you browse by category. My home is filled with art. It makes life better. I recommend an affordable original vs. a print. Handmade has a soul. Viva L'Art!

  5. I love this article and the whole sentiment behind it. Own what you love. Fill your house with unique things that make you happy. Support real people. Yay for art!

  6. Funnily enough the thing that has helped me figure out what i like is Pinterest.
    I'm certainly not shy about pinning stuff i like (if my number of pins is anything to go by!!) and after a couple of weeks of pinning stuff i liked i went back and looked at what i actually had on my "Artstuff" board.
    Turns out i really like illustration, bold colours, kitchy prints and mixed media. Some of this i already knew and some i didn't – i certainly didn't realise HOW MUCH i like certain colours and illustration styles.
    It's also introduced me to types of art i didn't even know about – i've discovered i have a thing for really good paper-cut art! I now have my eye on a few artists online i've been consistently pinning, and am waiting for something to pop up for sale or for commission slots to open up. (even though we're meant to be moving soon and i'm meant to be saving, shhh)
    I really love this article, and with all of the artist friends i have i can definitely say: they drink a lot!

    1 agrees
  7. I have to second, third, a fourth the buy what you love!! Surround yourself with things you like, not what makes others happy.

    As a professional picture framer and artist, however, I have to say don't necessarily trust the framing an artist has put on a one of a kind drawing, painting, etc if you want it to last years. Most artists are poor and the materials they choose for framing will damage the artwork in the long run. Your best friend when buying originals is a locally run picture framing shop. Do NOT go to Michael's or Hobby Lobby, where they upcharge their materials in order to offer a 'coupon'. Typically their sale price is a local framer's everyday price with MORE experience AND with the local framer your artwork never leaves the store.

    • I just want to say that, as far as Evil Day Jobs go, big chain art/ frame shops are pretty awesome for artists, and tend to be full of them. I work for Aaron Brothers (but do not in any way claim to speak for them), and I think we do good work at a price few indie frame shops can match because of economies of scale, and indie frame shops can be really hard to find these days, unfortunately. I don't know about other chains, but at Aaron Brothers your art never leaves the store, either. If you've got a good indie shop near you, please patronize them! But if you don't, or can't afford it, don't feel bad
      about going to a chain. They keep artists fed too, and chances are you'll have one helping you.

      • Ps I'm sorry my phone won't let me edit, but feel free to delete or edit if I'm violating the self promotion rule here.

    • Your art doesn't leave Hobby Lobby. I'm not about to sing a million praises to my second day job, but your art isn't leaving my sight, I swear it.
      And a big HUGE amen to the "don't try to lowball and artist". I don't even want to deal with people who try that on me. I have enough issues selling my work for what it's worth and having some confidence in that degree I worked towards without a stranger questioning my prices. I too have to eat. 🙂
      I have so much art in my house, but you wouldn't know it because it's all stored away until I can frame it properly.

  8. I am a glass artist and I work in a shop where we make commission stained and fused glass pieces quite often. I am amazed at how many people are afraid of colour in art, incase they change the colour of their sofa or their walls. I often try to let people know that art is not about matching things to their sofa. Art should be something that you love and the colour of your house should not dictate the look of the art you have in your home. Some people listen and may make a bolder choice, others still will be afraid and make a bland choice.
    As for my self and my husband we love collecting original art and have all forms of it in our home, paintings, pottery, glass and photography. The engagement gift my parents gave us is a blown glass jellyfish chandelier, which we absolutely love, they bought it directly from the artist for us. For wedding gifts most of our artists friends gave us original art, they are our favorite gifts.

    2 agree
  9. I remember, as a university student, going to an artists and crafts market and seeing the most beautiful tiny statue (two people made from copper sitting on a piece of rock). It was far beyond anything I oculd afford. All day long I would return to this particular piece, and the artist must have realized it, because in the end he offered me the piece at 2/3 of the price on the tag, saying that if he would sell it at a shop, the shop owner would usually claim 1/3 as commission. It was still expensive, but I bought it nonetheless, and have loved it ever since.

  10. So, I spent my childhood hanging out with artists, have them in the family, decorate my walls with old stuff, art photos, paintings by myself and my friends.

    However, I now live with the fiance, who did not enjoy the same upbringing and just wants to hang posters (and cheezy un-asthetic family pictures).

    'But posters are not art!' I say. 'But they're pretty! What's the difference?' he says.

    (note: we are mad poor students, and the original art I hang up is mostly free or super cheap found art. So it's not so much an issue of supporting artists financially as spiritually)

    Beyond saying 'No! Real art is made by a real artist and we're supporting art if we hang it up!' how can I explain the difference?

    Thank you for any help on this front!

    • Start by telling him that posters are generic and cheesy. Then go get some canvas, paint, and brushes. Then make some art together. Trace images and paint them. Just play with the medium. Get friends involved. Trade your work and encourage each other.

      1 agrees
    • Posters can work in a home, too! If you've got 'em, go with 'em for now. Just start adding art, too.

      We've had a post of Captain Kirk since we moved in together. It got a lot more tolerable when I put it in a cheapo frame — and now it's a part of our home. We can't get rid of Captain Kirk!

      • I think you can easily turn posters into classy home decor by adding a frame! True, they weren't created by hand by a person you may have met, but someone somewhere put those images together at some point. I know lots of people who have old movie posters or French cabaret posters framed in their homes, and they look awesome. We have a large poster of Edward Gorey's Gashley Crumb Tinies that's been with me since I was in college. It just gets a nicer frame-job each time I feel like taking it to the next level of classy. It might not be high art, but it amuses me and I enjoy looking at it, which to me is the main point of hanging stuff on your walls.

        • I love the inherent life in an original creation, but we do have two posters that I will never grow tired of. One is an aerial/satellite image of our city (Albuquerque), and the other is Charley Harper's The Sierra Range. If loving those posters is wrong…

  11. Whee, art! Most of mine comes from my family; Dad did ceramics for years, Mom did drawing and painting (and now she makes awesome art quilts). As a result, lots and lots of people happily own pieces made by my parents.

    So that's another route: befriend prolific artists. Chances are they've got extra prints or pots or canvases that they'd be willing to let you baby-sit… or barter for… or keep.

    I know how it feels to lust after a piece of artwork and not be able to buy it, though. Ah, so many sculptures, glasswares, intaglios! Alas. Poverty sucks.

  12. Also, if you happen to live near an art school (most major cities have at least one) check out their student art sales! Students are DYING to sell some work and get some exposure, and it tends to go for cheaper than what you would find in a gallery. And you're helping out with art school tuition 😛

    1 agrees
    • One of my favorite pieces I got from a senior thesis show. Looking at how much I've spent on art pieces since I can't believe how little I got it for. He may have been a student, but he was an incredibly talented one.

  13. I love this post! My husband and I met while living in Japan, and we've made an effort to collect things we love during our travels. We've bought something beautiful in every country we've been to: a calligraphy horse painting made by monks at a temple in Korea, Maori carvings, a didjeridoo, loads of ceramics from Japan. We decided that every piece we brought into the house would have special meaning to us. I bought his birthday present last year from a website (en.art-meter.com) that sells art by the square centimeter. I got a gorgeous black-and-white Asian dragon, and he loves it. And hey, they have an English website too! (That would have been useful last summer when I was shopping…)

  14. I was fortunate to have a lot of artist friends in college, and I started my art collection buying from them. They were happy to sell some pieces for prices I could afford, even as a student and I think they get a kick out of seeing their stuff hanging in my house like a decade later (has it really been that long?!). Probably my favorite is a portrait of Frida Kahlo. My friend Pat painted it on a whim – he was an English major but discovered a new hobby painting portraits of famous people using really wacky colors. Frida consequently has a green unibrow and a purple nose, but her colors are amazing and vibrant and she hangs in our dining room looking stern. Lots of people are taken aback by the portrait, but I adore her!

  15. I wanted to comment on the negotiating thing. No, don't low ball an artist or sit there and haggle. However, don't be afraid to be honest, either. Sometimes an artist would prefer to sell a piece at half price to someone who REALLY loves it than at full price to someone who thinks it would match the bedspread in their second guest room.

    I had been looking for just the right piece to go in my bedroom for sometime. One day, I walked into a Starbucks and there it was on the wall – a beautiful ocean goddess surrounded by the reflection of stars. It didn't have a price. Heck, I wasn't even certain if it was for sale or just the art of the coffee shop. I contacted the artist and told her how much I loved it. She told me how I much she sold pieces of that size for. I regretfully told her that that was twice my budget (and my budget was only as high as it was because my parents, seeing me moon over it, agreed to throw in $150 as my Channukah/Christmas present). She said that she could tell how much I loved it and would sell it to me at my price.

    To this day, that painting defines home for me. I have moved 5 times since I bought it. The moment it makes it onto my wall the house becomes a home. On my most stressful days I just lay in bed and stared at it until I calmed down. I would never have claimed that it wasn't worth every cent the artist was asking for it, but I'm so glad she was willing to meet my budget.

  16. As an art student that put off a formal qualification in the area for a loooong time (due to pressure – mostly self inflicted – of needing a 'real' job), I love this post! My house is full of art — all of it my own!I'm going to change that in the very near future, I hope — swapsies with my classmates! Not to mention the bar where I work, all the staff and the owner and superweird and crafty — my boss is a crazy bicycle man! I love it, and I think everyone should have art, and have what they *like*, not what they feel they should have (or what matches …). Unfortunately the hubby isn't so easily convinced, but I rule the roost 😛

  17. I first started buying art while traveling. It felt more legit to be like "oh well even if you think it's ugly, I got it in Argentina. So there." I have graduated to buying art on etsy, etc, but I found that a) it was easier to find art as a tourist (weird? perhaps) and it was also less intimidating.

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  18. I remember buying my first piece of art. It was from some random dude on a beach in South Carolina and it was the first time I actually had my /own/ money to spend on a family vacation. I bought what I think of as an awesome painting from him and then had it custom framed and everything. It practically felt like a right of passage. 🙂 I didn't hang it up until about say four years later, but it didn't matter. I kept it in my room shrink wrapped and loved it all the same.

    I also bought a piece when I visited France of the Eiffel Tower. Cliche yes, but it was all in purple(!!!), and I keep it on my desk for me to love since everyone I know dislikes it. Haha. Guess what? I love it and that's all the matters. That is what buying art is about.

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