Buying a Painting: How Do I Know If an Artwork Is Good?

31 Jan

Madonna and Toddler by the Norwegian Artist, Steve Henderson

Describing art is as subjective as saying that an elephant is big.

You’ve got that right.

Especially in today’s climate, in which actual paintings by elephants are hung side by side with those done by humans, and litterbox sculptures by cats are hawked as masterpieces of feline thought (felines . . . think?), it is difficult for the average person to know the difference between good art and bad.

And do not be misled — just as there are good movies and bad movies, and well written books and poorly plotted ones — there are standards by which one can call one painting excellent, and another one, not so excellent.

The problem is, the standards differ depending upon who is talking. The modern expressionist art movement dominated the conversation in the room for most of the 20th century, drowning out sensible questions like, “That is a large red square with a yellow line going through the middle and a blue dot on either side, and it looks like something my eight-year-old could draw. So why is that painting ‘better’ art than the ocean picture with waves that not only look like waves, but seem as if they are splashing in my face?”

Amber Waves, by the Norwegian Artist, Steve Henderson

Thanks to the re-emerging representational movement, people of the 21st century are feeling freer to express their opinions about a piece, and both clients and artists are wriggling out of the stranglehold of the upper crusty elite artistes who insist that the only good art is something that not only does not look remotely like anything, but also requires hundreds of multi-syllabic words to describe what it is supposed to be.

While modern, abstract art has its place, it is not the evolutionary pinnacle of humanistic thought, transcending the works of Rembrandt, Renoir, Chagall, Cassatt, or Da Vinci. Some of it is good, and some of it really is no more than the average 8-year-old could do. If you like it, and the price is right, then buy it. If you don’t like it, then don’t let anyone convince you that you should — either like it, or buy it.

If your tastes lean toward representational work — meaning that what is painted actually looks like something, then you as the viewer have the right to wonder why the artist painted something a certain way, and whether he made the head of a figure large and out of proportion because he wanted it that way, or because he couldn’t do it any other way. Drawing is a skill, and not all artists have it.

Again, because art is subjective as well as being subject to the interpretation of the artist, there are no hard and fast, quick and easy rules for determining whether a piece is professionally or amateurishly done (Naive Art comes to mind), just as there are no hard and fast rules to determining whether a person is a Christian or not (“Does he drink? Smoke? Swear? Watch R-rated movies? Dance, play cards, or wear lipstick? Not a Christian”).

As in The Emperor’s New Clothes, however, common sense does come into play.

While good representational art does not have to look just like a photograph (after all, if you want a picture of the ocean that looks like exactly like a photo of the ocean, then feel free to buy a photo of the ocean), it does need to stand up to a viewer’s logical questions:

1) If people or animals are in the piece, and their body parts look out of proportion, why is this so? Is it because the artist wanted it that way, or because he couldn’t do it any other way?

2) If the colors are garish and odd, do they work? Despite the oddness, does the painting still appeal?

3) The painting looks flat, the images without dimension. Again, is this because the artist wanted it that way, or because he couldn’t do it any other way?

4) The paint is really, really thick — all over the entire canvas. Would it have been better if the artist had confined the thickness to certain areas, and played with thinner paint in other areas?

5) Why did the artist choose this specific subject matter?

The questions are limitless, and the answers enlighten.

Enjoying and collecting art is a pleasurable journey, one in which you learn more as you ask questions; visit artist studios, galleries, and museums; and read. If someone makes you feel stupid, then no matter how much they profess to know about art, they are not the professor for you.

Because the art you hang on your walls is for your pleasure, one of the primary considerations that comes to play is whether or not you like it — has the artist used his skills with color, brushstrokes, perspective, lighting, shadow — in effect, paint — to engage you to the point that when you walk into the room, you walk toward the painting because its immediate visual impact is so arresting and strong?

Do you love this piece?

Incandescence, by the Norwegian Artist, Steve Henderson

Then, regardless of whether it is abstract or representational, large or small, colorful or monochromatic, a portrait or a landscape, focusing on a penguin in pink tights or a girl walking down the beach, and, most importantly, whether or not Someone Else tells you that you should, or should not, like this piece, then this is the piece for you.

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