The Artful Collector: Your Guide to ArtSpeak – Part 3 (final)

Private viewing room
One example of a Private viewing room: located in the Greg Thompson Fine Art gallery and dealership, ‘specializing in the genre of Southern Regionalism, and in the works of prestigious Modern artists of the 20th century.’ I have no connection to this gallery, this room is shown on their website.

For the past two weeks I’ve focused on “art speak,’” for two reasons: (1) art collecting is something I know more about than, say, collecting Meissen china (2) even if you never plan on collecting art, it’s useful to get a feeling for the way language can be bent to particular purposes when the objective is the buying and selling of objets d’ art . [a French term used to designate works of art that have intrinsic material worth over and above their aesthetic qualities. It is applied to all sorts of decorative and precious articles, but ordinarily denotes relatively small objects, owned privately, rather than displayed in a museum.]

And if you’re like me, you live in hope that what you personally collect – as ugly and irrelevant as it seems to others – will someday be elevated to the rank of objets d’ art.   Hence the desirability of learning at least some elementary “art speak.”

This week we conclude the saga of Paul’s visit to a gallery, and as before, highlight those terms and expressions that Paul might hear during the time he spends there; some of the lingo is specific to the artwork he’s being shown, and while other terms are just “art babble” requiring translation that you will not find in a standard art dictionary.

Have other words and phrases you’d like the committee (me) to consider for possible inclusion? Don’t hesitate to get in touch – this is a work in progress!

Paul’s Visit to an Art Galley Concludes . . .

“Here’s a beautiful, mature work by ‘x’, painted alla prima, that you should consider. It’s in good condition for its age, and – as you know – he was a popular artist, and quite prolific.  Nancy Harris, the well-dressed and seemingly expert sales consultant is referring to a painting she has just retrieved from a side cabinet.   “Can’t you just feel its aura of eternal mystery and melancholy?”

Paul takes a closer look at the crazed surface. “Yes, I know, it has a few problems, but a bit of inpainting, or professional restoration will help, plus a good cleaning. Apparently, the previous owner was not a stickler for conservation so when this was bought-in after being put up for auction, she left it with us at a good price.   Perhaps you’d like to take a look through his catalogue raisonne?”

“Actually, I’m into collecting contemporary art,” Paul responds, so this painting is a bit traditional for my tastes.  How much did you say you were asking for that Vampire painting I was looking at before?”

“Ah,” exclaims Ms. Harris, the art consultant, “you’re in luck!  Let me tell you why as we look at it under better light!” She walks Paul into a side viewing room, a private gallery, brightly lit and tastefully decorated. Note how this work  pay special attention to how this piece displays a deeply pervasive emotional and psychological tension” 

Kathy appears with a refill of his coffee, and there are brochures and art magazines on the table to pass the time.  “I’ll be right back,” Nancy chirps.  And sure enough, a minute later she’s back carrying the Vampire painting.  She rests it on a shelf just under a spotlight, at just the right height for viewing. while enthusiastically exclaiming “Oh, my; until now I wasn’t aware that this work would be so ethereal, luscious and nuanced”  Paul is pleasantly surprised to see how wonderful it looks under the light.  But he doesn’t want to appear too interested, so when Nancy says, “So, Paul, your thoughts?  It is rather provocative and disquieting, don’t you think?”  Paul answers,” tell me more about the painting, what is the medium?”.

This artist works in oil based alkyds – not to be confused with protein-based processes such as casein or tempera – which have much the same appeal of classical oils. It’s very painterly, don’t you agree?

“I do,” Paul agrees, “now tell me again, how much were you asking for the Vampire?”  Nancy immediately moves the Vampire painting to the center position on the wall, while smiling in pleasure, “this one is hard not to like, isn’t it?”   Paul nods, waiting. but growing impatient.  He remembers, of course, the list price the painting was carrying when he first saw it hanging in the alcove back in the main gallery.  But that was then, and this is now . . .  and who should go first?   Ahh, the bargaining begins!  🙂

 Glossary for Part 3

a few problems: The art world’s equivalent of a “handy-man special,” this indicates potentially severe, and perhaps irremediable damage or problems that may not be apparent to the naked eye. Including questionable provenance. Vagueness in description always benefits the seller, while also leaving the seller free to claim, when condition or other issues arise, that the buyer “was told.” Fixable problems will be more readily pointed out than others, but in every instance it’s the buyer responsibility to probe further. Which is why auction house Terms of Sale read “as is/where is” – meaning caveat emptor. Inspect what you’re bidding on during “previews” – because there are no returns.

alkyds: a group of synthetic resins with excellent film-forming properties, which have good retention of color and flexibility. Oil-modified alkyds contain a drying oil as part of their make-up and so have advantages over traditional oil paints for illustrators who need to finish work quickly, but desire the coverage, depth and color retention of oils.

alla prima: a method of oil painting in which the final effects are achieved in the initial application of paint; also called “direct painting” (but it sounds artsier to use the Italian phrase, meaning “at the first” or the French equivalent,”au premier coup”).  Painting this way is the preferred alternative for artists who don’t care for (or have the time or patience for) covering their canvases with layer upon layer of paint, and waiting for each layer to dry.  

asking (price): formally, the price at which something is offered for sale. Informally, “asking” signals a certain lack of confidence in price on the part of the seller, perhaps a ‘coming out’ price, to test the waters and see if anyone will bite.  And note: Just ’cause you ask, doesn’t mean you’ll “get” – something to keep in mind whenever you hear “I’m asking . . . ” especially when followed by a “but”.  As in, “I’m asking $4500 for it, but . . .  (I’m willing to talk/be flexible/have a little wiggle room/can do a little better if you twist my arm – you fill in the blank).  

aura of eternal mystery and melancholy: “It’s not a pretty picture, but I want you to buy it.”

bought-in: failed to sell at an auction, either through lack of any bids or bids which did not meet the reserve price, therefore remains the property of the owner: see also “passed”.

casein: paints made by mixing artists’ pigments with a solution of casein, a milk protein used as a binder. The colors dry rapidly to a pleasing and durable mat (flat, non-shiny) finish which can be varnished to obtain a glossy finish, or be used as an underpainting for oil paints or glazes.

catalogue raisonne’: a French phrase, meaning a comprehensive record of an artist’s life’s work; in addition to a detailed biography, there is also a listing – if not a reproduction- of every work the artist produced in his or her lifetime.

conservation: the purist’s approach to restoration. For example, the unsightly stains on a watercolor are merely chemically neutralized rather than removed; a restorer will normally thoroughly clean the paper of a watercolor leaving it considerably whiter (the same applies to freshening and making stronger colors which have faded through time). At issue is whether scientific conservation of a piece should take precedence over aesthetics.

contemporary art: art produced by an artist who is still alive. Alt. meaning 1: all-purpose label for art that looks relatively modern, and you don’t know what else to call it.

crazed a network of small cracks in the paint caused by dryness/brittleness (but sometimes can be used to describe an enthusiastic collector)   🙂  .  See also: alligatoring, alligator cracks, crackle, or – if you want to sound fancy – say it in French “craquelure“.

display such a deeply pervasive emotional and psychological tension: “I have no idea what I’m looking at, but I want you to buy it.”

ethereal, luscious and nuanced: “I have no idea what the artist is trying to say but I want you to buy it”.

good condition for its age:  good, “considering” (and what may be considered is more than age) Often used to describe illustration art which – historically – was likely to have been poorly handled and knocked about.  Can be applied to a painting even of recent vintage, therefore, if a certain amount of damage is par for the course.  See also “wear and tear”. If you collect Pulp, classic, or vintage illustrative art you must learn to be tolerant, and deal with the scars of mistreatment, ranging from bent corners, and scuffing to severe abrasions, crazing and paint loss . . . even while paintings from the 18th century remain in pristine condition.

hard not to like: I have no idea why anyone would like this, but I’m not in the business of judging peoples’ tastes.

inpainting: in the conservation (or restoration) of paintings, coloring or painting an area that has been damaged or obliterated so that it blends with the surrounding colors, without covering any of the original paint that still remains.  Sometimes these restored areas are called ‘repaints” but repainting is not an accurate description for the procedure, it’s more like “filling in was is missing”  

list price: sometimes referred to as “retail” price, to distinguish it from “wholesale” or “net” price.  This is the $ figure quoted in an ‘offering’ (“offered at $$$”) or (as in this story) the $ amount that is marked, quite clearly, on the tag or label.(see related “asking”)  Which is why collectors say “what did it sell (or ‘go’) for?”, not “what was the price?”

mature work: “He could barely see the model, let alone his palette and easel”; work produced after the artist’s prime.

medium: when used in this context, Paul is referring to the specific tool and/or material used by the artist, for example: brush and oil paint, or acrylic and air brush.  Often, the substrate (surface or ground, painted upon: pressed board, wood panel; stretched canvas) is also assumed to be relevant, and so is considered part of the media (plural) used.  Medium however can refer to liquids or gels added to paint to extend some property, like manipulability or to retard drying

painterly: having the quality of expertly brushed workmanship; technically excellent in terms of control of the brush and the medium of painting: also, pleasing in terms of the handling of color effect. Used to refer to paintings in which every element, including content, is handled in accordance with high technical and aesthetic standards.

popular artist: translation – “lots of people want to buy his work, but I don’t know why” Typically, this refers to an artist who painted appealing subjects in pretty colors but whose works rarely have any real substance.

prolific: “he turns them out by the hour”, a state of affairs not necessarily – but usually – linked to the artist’s reputation (see also ‘facile’)

provocative and disquieting: “There’s a good chance it will lead to nightmares, but I want you to buy it.”

restoration: processes which bring an art work back as nearly as possible to its original state. In practice, this can range from adding a dab of paint to cover a small area of damage (inpainting) to finishing an ‘unfinished’ painting, in the artist’s style. Restorers at times must be plastic surgeons; at issue  is whether their services should be employed to act as cosmetic surgeons, improving upon the images which the artist has neglected.

tempera: a technique of painting that that employs colors made by dispersing pigments in a water-miscible emulsion vehicle, especially one in which the emulsion is egg yolk and water. Tempera colors do not blend, and are particularly suited to linear styles of painting where a soft, glowing color quality is desired. It is extraordinarily tough and durable, so that defects do not develop in a properly mixed color during centuries of aging.

traditional: boring

viewing room: usually a smaller room off of the main gallery floor, with a door that can be closed for privacy. It’s designed for isolating prospective buyers alone with their sales associates, and for showing art so that it looks its absolute best. . . for the purpose of closing the sale.  Predatory galleries –  those preying on “art targets” – are not good places to end up in unless you already know the value and significance of the works of art that you’re thinking about buying, or you know and trust the gallery that’s selling the art and have done business with them before.   This and other great advice can be found in an excellent article on identifying deceptive practices and avoiding becoming an “art target”  see and also the follow-up article

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