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  • How to Look at and Evaluate Art

    Tips from Pros, Galleries, Collectors

    Everyone has their own unique ways of looking at art, but people who look at art professionally, like gallery owners, experienced collectors, curators, critics and other informed individuals look at art very differently than the rest of us. With any art they are interested in, the inspection process is slow, deliberate, detailed, comprehensive and complete. Nothing is left to chance. They want to make sure the artists considered every last detail when creating their art and overlooked absolutely nothing in the process. In other words, they are looking for total satisfaction. Now keep in mind that total satisfaction can mean many different things to many different professionals, and can refer to all kinds of art as well, not just bright, shiny, commercially viable, market-pleasers... not even close. What does remain constant, however, is how purposeful, conscientious and in control artists are of whatever outcomes they seek to achieve with their art. That's what experienced lookers are looking for.

    To begin with, the pros study entire compositions, not just the parts the artists care about and want us all to look at, but everything. Every last aspect of the work, from the focal points all the way out the top, bottom, extremities or edges gets close and careful attention. Everything counts equally because sooner or later no matter who you are or how little or how much experience you have looking at art, you will eventually get to know every last nook and cranny of any art you own. That's simply the way things happen over time; the longer you live with it, the more you look at it.

    You think it's perfect when you buy it, and if you're like most fine art owners, you want it to stay that way. Discovering that the artist made a mistake weeks or even months after buying the art or if you're a dealer, after accepting it for a show at your gallery, is never good. That's why people who are experienced looking at art spend the amount of time they do when looking at it; they want to make sure everything is perfect. They don't want whoever they're inspecting it for coming back at them and pointing out issues or problems EVER. They want to be aware of all possible problems or shortcomings in advance. In most cases their livelihoods or the quality of their collections depend on it. They cannot afford to make mistakes. Why? Because mistakes reflect poorly on them.

    Among other things, pros look to see whether the artist considered every single aspect of a composition, no matter how minor or insignificant. For example, some artists think no one will ever look at parts of a painting or sculpture that are not necessarily central to appreciating the work, or areas with little detail or importance to the overall compositions. Professionals also look to see whether any areas have been reworked or that the artists were unable to resolve. They look for signs that artists weren't sure what they were doing or got lost, or decided to make changes midway through and paint or sculpt something over.

    They inspect for details that don't seem to sense with respect to the overall compositions. They want everything to look like what it's supposed to look like, and not like something else. For example, if they see something in an abstract that could be interpreted as a representational form or object that doesn't seem to belong, they might ask about it. Hopefully the artist will have a good explanation. In portrait paintings, some artists think no one will ever pay attention to the hands, or other details that are not necessarily near the head or face or integral to the compositions, including the most plainly painted backgrounds. But people do. To repeat, sooner or later anyone who spends any amount of time with any work of art gets around to looking at everything, not just the parts they fell in love with when they first laid eyes on it. Once they know those parts, they gradually move on out towards everything else. As an artist, it's your job to make sure their love will last.

    So assuming the composition passes muster, in other words it's beautiful to behold and has no perceptible flaws, the pros now proceed to the technical stuff, the construction and materials in particular. Cheap materials are always a problem, like canvases that can't be stretched tighter as they age, prefab stapled edges, or ingredients that may have tendencies to degrade over time. With sculptures, materials that chip, dent or bend easily can be a problem. Artists who skimp on costs in this regard give the impression that they do not really care that much about their art. And if they don't care about it, why should anybody else?

    Experimental materials can sometimes also be an issue. Longevity is an extremely important consideration with any work of art that's supposed to last. Buyers are reluctant to spend money on art that may substantially degrade or deteriorate over time, unless they are aware in advance and buy the art with full knowledge of the facts. If you use experimental or nontraditional materials in your art, you should be able to answer any questions about longevity. You have to have a pretty good grip on whether your art will last or not, and if it will not last, you have to give some sort of informed approximation of its life expectancy, or why it is meant to be temporal, or what's supposed to happen over time. If you don't know the answers to these questions, perhaps take a step back, do the necessary research or testing, and then decide how best to represent your work to the public once you better understand what the long-term consequences or implications are likely to be. Experienced professionals know when artists fudge on answers to longevity questions or aren't sure what they're talking about.

    Next, the pros move on to the structure the art, how it's put together, not only in terms of aesthetics but also how well built it is. This includes the backs, the bottoms, the sides, the edges, the ingredients, and any other details comprising the art. On a painting for example, does the artist pay attention to the edges? Are they stapled or tacked? Are the staples or tacks neat and pleasing to the eye, or are they sloppy or slapdash? Can I flip it around, hang it with the back facing out and be just as delighted as I am when looking at it from the front? With three-dimensional works, how do the backs, bases and interiors look? Is everything cleanly finished or not? Are they pleasing to the eye? Are they solid and well constructed? Is anything fragile, shaky or loose? Can I enjoy and appreciate looking at it upside down or backside facing front just as much as looking at it right side up or from the front?

    It all boils down to this: Is the artist thinking about the quality of the viewer's experience no matter where they look or what they look at? The pros require that everything satisfies and is beautiful to behold. Haphazard technicalities are clear indications of artists who fail to devote 100% care, consideration and attention to every aspect of their work. The truth is that points get deducted for shortcomings, no matter how hidden from view they might be. And if too many points get deducted, the art won't get shown or sold.

    As an artist, not only must your work stand on its own, but you should also be able to convincingly answer every conceivable question you may get asked about it, including questions about your overall sense of purposefulness and direction with respect to any aspect or process involved in its creation. If you feel defensive in any way or like you have to hide something, best procedure is to return to the studio and work all that out to the point where you're sure you have good solid work and explanations that make sense. Experienced viewers are too perceptive not to pick up on anything you may have glossed over during the course of your art's creation. On the other hand, we love nothing better than perfection. Hardly anything beats spending time with art you can respect, appreciate, admire and love right down to the very last detail.


    If you're wondering what a professional might have to say about your art, I am always available to critique it in detail. Give me a call at 415.931.7875 or drop me an email at and make an appointment. We're only talking about a half an hour here, that's $75, but in the long run that $75 will be nothing compared to how much you stand to make when gallery owners or prospective buyers have questions about your art and you have ALL the answers.


    (art by Peter and Madeline Powell)

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