Guide to Buying Paintings
Painting is among the oldest and most popular mediums in the art market today. The earliest paintings were found in caves and date back to more than 30,000 years ago. While the materials and styles have advanced since then, paintings continue to adorn the walls of homes and offices around the world.
Paint is created by mixing colored pigment with a binder. Options range from natural plant oils and crushed minerals to synthetic products produced for commercial use, such as house paint. Pigments ground in water, such as those used for tempera and watercolor, tend to be lighter and less transparent than those ground in oil unless spread thinly.
Analyzing a painting’s iconography – its visual symbols or clues – helps to determine whether the narrative depicts history, portraiture, genre scenes, landscape, or still life subject matter. Modern and contemporary paintings become more difficult to interpret, as many artists choose abstract styles and experimental media.
Among the world’s growing community of art, collectors is a select few who are shattering sales records. The highest price paid for a single painting occurred during a private sale in early 2015, when Paul Gauguin’s 1892 piece “Nafea faa ipoipo? (When will you marry?)” was purchased for $300 million. Just three months later, Christie’s New York announced the sale of Pablo Picasso’s 1955 “Les Femmes d’Alger (Women of Algiers)” for $179.4 million – the most expensive painting ever sold at auction.
Recent ballooning figures reflect a long-recorded trend that closely ties paintings sales to the cyclical expansion (and contraction) of the economy.
A Brief History
Old Masters, or artists born before 1760, reinvented painting during the Renaissance period. The Italian painters are known to have studied and used linear and atmospheric perspective in their works, while some Northern artists developed photorealist treatments of still lifes and portraits. Masterpieces from this time period are most often held by museums or long-time owners, so quality pieces are rarer at auction.
Works by early modern and Impressionist masters like Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, and Paul Cézanne are among the most sought-after paintings by 19th-century artists. During this time, the technological development of portable tubes of paint enabled artists to paint en plein air, or outside their studios.
The period between 1860 and 1920 is one of the most popular periods for collectors of Western art. Leading artists include Francis Bacon, Pablo Picasso, and Mark Rothko.
Post-war and contemporary art is experiencing a boom in the art market. After WWII, art movements fractured to reveal a multitude of responses to the death and destruction in Europe and Japan. This led to Abstract Expressionism, Pop art, and more. Among the most coveted post-war paintings are works by Andy Warhol and Gerhard Richter.
Secondary market sales of contemporary paintings breaking historical records within the art world at large – not only within the category of paintings. Leaders include Jean-Michel Basquiat, Peter Doig, and Christopher Wool.
Painting Terms to Know
Collectors should build a basic vocabulary regarding the art of painting:
- Support: the physical structure on which the painting is executed (i.e. wooden panel, stone, canvas, paper, etc.). If canvas was used, a second layer, or lining, may be affixed to the back to later add physical support.
- Preparatory Layers: in the case of a painting on canvas, a product made of gelatin or glue – known as a size – is used to influence the fabric’s absorbency. A primer made from a mixture of plaster or chalk and water prepares the support to hold the paint. A final white basecoat layer of gesso is often applied before painting begins.
- Tempera: best represented in the luminous paintings of the 14th and 15th centuries, the pigment is mixed with water and egg.
- Watercolor: made of finely ground pigment bound with gum arabic or glue, its application can appear both transparent and opaque. The most common opaque watercolor material is gouache.
- Oil painting: first widely adopted by 16th-century artists for its transparency, ease of manipulation, and rich colors. It can produce an incredibly smooth surface but can also be mixed with sand and other course materials to create texture. Oil paintings can take days, months, or even years to dry depending on the thickness of the paint as well as its chemical makeup.
- Acrylic paint: introduced in the 1950s, acrylics were quickly embraced for their ability to look as matte as gouache or as translucent as oil paint. They are bound with a synthetic acrylic polymer emulsion.
- Brushes: several brushes of a different shape, size, and stiffness can be used to create a single painting. Some artists choose more unconventional tools, such as palette knives, rags, sponges, fingers, and spray cans. Well-known Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock found that housepainter’s brushes worked best to drip, splatter, fling, and smear paint onto his mural-sized canvases, which he laid out on the floor.
- Varnish: the role of this solid, relatively transparent layer of resin is to protect the paint surface and intensify the colors; however, solutions made with natural materials tend to discolor or darken with age. Conservators can fix this problem by removing and replacing the old varnish with a synthetic product.
- Scale: the size of a painting may speak to its period of origin. Large-scale works grew in popularity at the height of the Paris Salon between 1748 and 1890. The annual or biennial art event exhibited hundreds (if not thousands) of paintings at a time. Limited gallery space and high demand forced many exhibited works to be hung wherever space allowed – even high on walls (and far away from a viewer’s ideal vantage point). As a result, artists increased the size of their supports. Soon artists saw that selling smaller works to the bourgeois for their homes was a more lucrative business. These easel paintings maintained their ranks until the Abstract Expressionists circled back to large-scale canvases
- Markings: artist signatures and dates of completion may be found on either the front or back of paintings. These markings help establish authenticity, but not all artists sign their work. Therefore, collectors should look at any labels or stamps on the back of the support or its frame. These can provide information about the origin and age of the artist’s materials as well as about previous sales and owners.
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