How to Look at and Evaluate Art

Tips from Pros, Galleries, Collectors

Everyone has their own unique ways of looking at art, but professionals like gallery owners, experienced buyers and collectors, curators, critics and other informed individuals look at art very differently than the rest of us. With any art they have interest in, the inspection process is slow, methodical, deliberate, detailed, comprehensive and complete. Nothing is left to chance. They want to make sure artists consider every last detail when creating their art and overlook absolutely nothing in the process. In other words, they expect mastery of medium as well as materials. Now keep in mind that mastery can mean many different things to many different professionals, and can refer to all kinds of art as well, not just bright shiny market-pleasers. We're talking about how purposeful, conscientious and in control artists are of whatever outcomes they seek to achieve with their art. That's what experienced lookers look for.

Fully examining and inspecting a work of art is similar to what you might do before buying a car or a home. Even though a home or a car might look beautiful from the outside, you would never buy without first looking under the hood or touring the property from top to bottom. The same holds true for art. The only way to know for sure exactly what you're getting is to first "look under the hood."

To begin with, the pros study entire compositions, not just the parts the artists care the most about and want us all to see and admire. Every last aspect of the work, from the focal points all the way out the top, bottom, extremities and 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.

Gallery owners, for example, expect art they show to be perfect, and want it to stay that way. Discovering that an artist made a mistake on an artwork weeks or even months after after taking it on is never good. That's why experienced owners spend so much time inspecting any art they are interested in showing; they want to make sure nothing is amiss. They don't want buyers, collectors, critics or anyone else coming back at them and pointing out issues or problems EVER. They want to be aware of all possible shortcomings in advance. After all, their livelihoods depend on it. They cannot afford to make mistakes. Why? Because mistakes reflect poorly on them and their galleries.

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 central to appreciating the work, or areas with little in the way of detail or importance to the overall compositions. Professionals also look to see whether any areas have been reworked or overworked or that the artists were unable to resolve. They look for signs that artists weren't sure what they were doing or got lost in the process or decided to make changes midway through or paint or sculpt something over.

They look for details that don't seem to make sense with respect to the overall compositions. They want everything to have a purpose, look like it belongs there, look like what it's supposed to look like and not like something else. For example, if they see an area 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, to plainly painted backgrounds, or to other details that are not near the head or face or areas of primary focus within the compositions. 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. They gradually move beyond the love-at-first-sight parts and head on out to look at 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 medium, materials and construction in particular. Cheap materials are always a problem, like canvases that can't be stretched tighter as they age, factory stapled edges, inferior stretcher bars, low-grade canvas, 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 of materials 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 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 decay 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'd better have a pretty good understanding of whether or not your art will last, know its approximate life expectancy, be able to explain why it wasn't made to last (if it wasn't), and what specifically is 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 can tell 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? Do random paint drips, marks or smears make the edges look sloppy? Is the back as satisfying to look at as 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 I like looking at it right side up or from the front? I hope so.

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 difficult to find or 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 purpose 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 love nothing more than perfection and are too perceptive not to pick up on anything you may have glossed over during the course of your art's creation. 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 profit when gallery owners, collectors or prospective buyers have questions about your art and you have ALL the answers.


(images of art by Peter and Madeline Powell)

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