It’s a pretty common desire, to fill one’s home space with artwork that ‘speaks’ to you. Like many forms of collecting, acquiring art can feel intimidating when you’re just getting started. You might have concerns about how to take care of the piece, or how to conserve or repair it. Or you might wonder how to know if you’re paying a fair price for a work. You may worry about where you’re going to display it, how to properly hang it or if it needs a frame. Maybe you’re just not sure where to start or how to decide if a piece of art is right for you. And maybe you think you can only collect art if you have a lot of disposable income. The good news is anyone can collect art, no matter where they live, what they like or what their budget is. If you’ve been wondering how to start collecting art on a budget, take a look.

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How to start an art collection

How do I start collecting art? How do I know if I’m buying good art?

I think this is one of the things that holds people back the most. Let’s get one important thing out of the way. Art is subjective. The appeal of a piece is 100% in the eye of the beholder. Yes, some pieces of art are widely regarded as being superlative examples. Often these works display fairly objective criteria that make them “good”. But at the end of the day, a piece of art is only as “good” to you, the viewer, as you think it is.

With that in mind, listen to your gut. If you look at a piece of art and you immediately feel that you love it, listen to that. And vice versa. I firmly believe that if you pick art you really, truly love you cannot go wrong. And remember, it doesn’t matter if someone else doesn’t like it. They can’t see it from their house.

Learning about art

There is, however, also something to be said for cultivating deeper knowledge of art and art forms, and of actively working to expand your own tastes and perspectives. Loving art is a journey, not a task you check off your list. Visit museums, especially those with very broad collections from diverse cultures. Go to art galleries. Read art books. Scroll online listings. The more you look at art, the more you’ll dial in your own tastes and preferences. As you do that, your understanding and appreciation will increase, which will help you feel more confident in your choices.

And remember, you can appreciate a piece or an artist without loving it. I acknowledge and appreciate a huge amount of art work, but I don’t want to LIVE with most of it.

Collecting Art Costs Too Much – How do I start collecting art on a budget?

I’m starting with money because I think it’s easy to view art collecting as a hobby only for the wealthy.  Yes it’s true that works by old masters or hot new artists can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction. Art work on that level is unattainable for the majority of us, but that’s ok.  There are artists creating new work all the time, and old work by unknown or relatively under the radar artists available. It is possible, easy even, to purchase pieces of art you love for very little money.

Tips for collecting art on a budget

  1. Buy work directly from artists. The internet and social media are full of amazing artists and many of them are selling their work directly. This might include artists who offer pieces via their social media accounts, a website or storefront sites like Etsy and Ebay. Many artists sell their work at art fairs or festivals, too. When you purchase work directly from an artist you’re not just growing your own collection – you’re showing support for their work and making it possible for them to keep creating.
  2. Follow auction sites. Ebay and Everything but the House, Ruby Lane, and many other online auction sites are full of art work. Some is contemporary, and may be listed by the artist directly. But most of it is older art that has been in someone’s collection. Pieces can be relatively new or centuries old. They may be unaccredited or works by amateur or minor artists. Expect to sort through a lot of chaff to find your wheat, simply because there is very little curation on these sites. Be wary of a piece attributed to a significant artist unless the seller has excellent documentation to support the claim.
  3. If you’re buying from a dealer or third party seller (ie, not the artist), you can attempt to negotiate the price. The worst that can happen is the seller says no. But often, especially for unattributed pieces, the seller will be willing to make a deal.
watercolor portrait at the framer

If I’m getting started collecting art, what do I do with it? How do I arrange them?

For most people, the purpose in acquiring art is to display it somewhere in their home. That might be on the walls, or on surfaces, or even in book or folio form. Many people, however, hold off buying artwork because they can’t quite imagine bringing it home and putting it up. They’re not sure where to hang it or how to frame it. They worry it doesn’t “Go” with their decor or that it’s too big or too small.

Those are reasonable concerns. If you contemplate a painting and you love it but you truly can’t picture it anywhere in your home space (now or in the future), it’s ok to say no. On the other hand, if you love it, it’s ok to bring it home without a definite plan. Sometimes you need to have a work in your home for a little while before you know where you want to display it.

Deciding if a piece will work in your home

From a practical standpoint, it’s a good idea to identify a few spots in your home where you would very much like to have art on display. For many homes, there are certain common focal points – above a couch or over the fireplace, for example. Identify a few places in your home space and then measure the area. Take photos of the spots on  your cell phone so you can reference them when you’re out shopping or looking online. Being able to look at a photo of your living room wall while you’re considering a piece of art can make it easier to evaluate the item. And it can keep you from bringing home a piece that simply will not fit in the space you have in mind.

Keep in mind that you’ll probably end up rearranging your art work. Likely more than once.

If a piece is unframed or otherwise not ready to hang, add at least three inches to the dimensions in every direction. And remember that you can potentially alter the visual impact and literal size of the piece through careful framing and/or matting, or by hanging it with out art.

What do I need to know about framing art?

Questions and concerns about frames and framing come up a lot when people are trying to figure out how to start collecting art.

There are two options for framing art – custom frames and ready-to-hang frames. The first kind has to be special ordered, and in most cases the framer retains the art work, put it into the frame and then returns it ready to hang. The process can take weeks, or even months. Ready-to-hang frames are sold in common sizes and you simply put the art into the frame at home.

Framing paper

In general, drawings, prints, water colors or other paper medium needs to be framed. That will protect the work from dust and moisture. For work that’s very old, valuable, fragile or that you want to preserve for the future, consider having it framed professionally. It will cost a lot more but it will greatly increase the lifespan of the work. Whether you go to a framer or frame it yourself, use archival materials and glass that is UV resistant. Light, dust, acid and moisture will destroy fragile art if it’s not framed properly.

Framing paintings

Many older paintings are sold in their original frame, though not all, of course. Some contemporary paintings are also framed, though many are intended to be hanged without a frame. In general, oil, acrylic and other mixed media paintings aren’t framed under glass, but there are exceptions to this. For contemporary pieces, framing them is as much a question of aesthetics as anything else. But antique paintings should be kept in frames, and that’s not just for looks.

Old canvas is far more vulnerable, especially where it’s been pulled over the wooden stretcher on the reverse of the painting. An open frame protects this vulnerable area.  Finally, if a painting is framed correctly, the back is sealed under a layer of brown paper, which offers further protection.

The truth about custom frames

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a custom frame can cost as much or more than the art itself. This is perhaps the greatest financial barrier to collecting art. While it’s pretty easy to find a range of both open and closed (glass front) frames in standard sizes, lots of older art isn’t a standard size. And, as mentioned, old or fragile art has special needs and should be handled by an experienced framer.

A custom framer will have a large selection of frame stock, so you can select the color, thickness and overall style that works best for the piece of art and your own preferences. The frame stock is cut to size and then assembled. If the piece is being put under glass, the framer will also cut the glass and any mattes or liners to size.

Custom framing on a budget

Candidly, I don’t have a workaround for this. There’s really no way to cut corners when it comes to custom framing. Yes, you can shop around, and some large chain craft stores offering coupons for their framing service. If the piece isn’t especially valuable or fragile, then that’s a perfectly reasonable choice. But if you have a work that is old, fragile or has a lot of sentimental value, I would encourage you to wait until you can afford to have it framed by someone who specializes in that type of work. I have held on to several pieces of art for years until I could afford to have them framed. It was lousy to have art I loved and not be able to display it but worth it to know the art would be presented and preserved for years to come.

Considering framing before you buy

Just know, when you are buying art, that if it’s old, fragile or a non-standard shape, you’ll probably need to take it to a custom framer. Plan to spend at least $200 and up in addition to the cost of buying the art.  The larger the piece, the more the frame will cost. Frame stock comes in a range of price points, but generally, the larger or more ornate the stock, the more it will cost per linear foot. Framing that includes glass, especially conservation or museum glass generally costs more than open framing.

I try to think of framing as an investment in the future of the artwork. By having it framed well, I’m ensuring it will survive to be loved by future generations. A good quality frame can also increase the overall value of the piece, in the event you sell it. Although there are many reasons to have work framed, there are times it just might not make sense for the piece or your budget. I have decided not to buy art before because I realized that I simply couldn’t afford to have it framed. I have also passed on art that I liked but not enough to spend hundreds of dollars framing.

Torn canvas on an old painting

What about art that needs to be repaired, restored or conserved

Like framing, cleaning and repair can be an unavoidable aspect of collecting older or antique art work. Paper, especially old paper, degrades. Paint and pigment fade or flakes off. Paintings get slashed dramatically with swords or shot accidentally during duels…ok, not so much those two. But paintings do suffer damage from fire, water, smoke, sun and the ravages of time. They sag or crease and need to be re-stretched. And yes, sometimes, they get ripped or torn or rodents gnaw holes in the canvas. At the very least, older paintings will need to be cleaned and re-varnished once in awhile.

Proper care and storage can prevent a lot of this, or at least stave it off. But if you buy a piece that’s already been damaged, you’ll have to decide if you’re willing to spend the necessary money to have it cleaned or repaired. In some cases, you can still hang and enjoy the piece despite surface grime or even damage. But in other cases, a piece simply needs to be repaired before it can safely be hanged.

Cleaning, repairing and conserving art.

Much like custom framing, this can be a barrier to some types of art collecting, and there’s really not a good workaround for it. A damaged painting or drawing will only degrade further. At some point, it will need to be fixed if it’s going to survive for another generation. It pays to be brutally realistic about both your own interest or ability to pay for art restoration and, honestly, whether the piece itself is worth a pricey repair or restoration.

The cost for restoration or repair work will depend on how complicated the work is. Like framing, the larger the pieces or the more complicated the presentation, the more it will cost. In most cases, the art restorer will need to see the work before they can give you an estimate. But it’s best to assume even basic cleaning or repair work will costs hundreds of dollars. For a valuable piece or a piece you love, that may well be worth it. But for other work, it might mean you don’t purchase the pieces.

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