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.
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.