How to value a painting

5 minute read

…for beginners

Art is just so complicated these days… It is intimidating even for the most educated of us to attend an art gallery and not be surprised by the cost of what can look like a child’s doodle. We are on one page: we want to understand and appreciate a painting without having to read a 500 page book or attend an art history course. And most of all, I am not sure how everyone feels about the huge variations in prices, but I think that not even the most subjective analysis of art can actually explain them consistently.

In an attempt to decompose the value of a painting without going into the complexities of the art market, I created a little framework for myself. And I would invite you to use it, if you like it, or slash it, if you don’t. Either way, do share your thoughts.

This is not an academic view. Nor is it the view of a critic, or an art dealer. Maybe it is a bit of the artist in me here. And the avid gallery and museum goer.

Without much knowledge of what goes into a painting, or what art has been like over the centuries, there are still three key elements that you can assess and the totality of which would give you a good idea of the value of the painting you may be looking at. One thing to remember, you are absolutely allowed and should be subjective! It won’t be an attack on the artist, believe me.

1. Your aesthetics

This is the ultra super subjective part of the whole assessment. The aesthetics of a painting is really up to you. It is whether you, as the viewer, like it or not. It does not matter if 100 critics like it and you don’t. If you don’t, you don’t. That’s it. This is not about the general idea of whether the painting is beautiful. It is whether YOU think is beautiful or it gives you those chills that you are looking for in a piece of art. This is the 5 seconds first impression.

2. The technique

Now this is a bit more difficult to assess as a beginner. However, not impossible. Still somewhat subjective.

Think of an athlete. It is so easy to know when an athlete has an excellent technique, either because they compete against someone and win or lose, or because there are all these scorecards that someone is keeping their tabs on.

There are loads of competitions for painters. And someone always wins. But first of all, it is never a one-on-one. And secondly, I haven’t seen any newspapers or magazines announce the scores and winners as they normally do for matches and sports medals. And i’ve rarely seen full-on shows of painters painting, unless for teaching purposes on youtube and other such media. A painter paints in their studio and shares the finished work.

These days you will find the rare occasion when a gallery shares videos of the artist working. And you should definitely take a look! When that isn’t there, here are my light suggestions:

  • anything that looks realistic is great; it is hard to achieve; it takes years of practice; but it’s like writing — you practice and you get there.
  • anything else is subjective; if you think you can do it, and you go home, take a piece of paper, try it out and you can indeed do it, then the technique is not that impressive.
  • if, however, you think you can do it, you go home, try it, and your outcome is terrible, then that is something to think about.

3. The title/story/theme

I think that the title, story or theme of a painting plays a huge role. Painting is a medium of expression. It is going to tell us something. It will touch or mesmerise us. We will get it. We are visual interpreters. And we love it!

And believe me, if the artist could express her concern in words, she would have done it that way. But she chose a painting. And she intends to convey whatever message she’s got. It is, of course and always, up to you, the viewer, to read that message.

You may think is witty, or interesting, or plain. Either way, it adds some value. There is one thing though, that I find completely unattractive and it absolutely decreases all value of a painting for me: when the artist’s description is unreadable. I understand the critic’s view will be complicated and intentionally hard to read because the critic is THE player on words and meaning. But sometimes even the artist’s explanation is twice as academic and using a parade of words that I have to look up on google. It doesn’t add to the value of their painting at all. In fact, when the description is complex, I totally discard it!

There are other factors that could play a big role in your own interpretation of a painting’s value. For example, its context and provenance. A cave painting from 10 thousand years ago will not have a price. Its value will lie fully in its provenance. It is a historical mark of human civilisation. So to some extent, you could say that the older a painting, the higher its value would be.

Of course this may not always be true, but there are instances where the provenance of a painting could literally trump any other aspect. If you are a big fan of, I don’t know, Kate Middleton. And she bought a painting by Carole Richardson, then the value of Carole’s paintings will increase for you and for everyone else who follows the Dutchess.

A last example, which I cannot help but mention, has to do with the context. A painting is so much more interesting if painted at the right time in the right environment. Mondrian’s paintings would not have been as cool in the seventeen hundreds. And Michelangelo, oh Michelangelo would probably shock us with an algorithm that would paint a 3D Sistine Chapel today.

All in all, a painting’s value will be subjective. But now you can think about more than just its aesthetics. I always consider at least the technique and the story.