The Artful Collector: Your Guide to ArtSpeak – Part I

The language of art collecting can be strange, wonderful and at times totally mystifying to outsiders.  It’s a vocabulary rife with very specific descriptors (“etching, serigraph, remarque”) as well as a baffling assortment of slang, jargon and doubletalk.  As peculiar to the ears as the language of techies or circus carnies, it also can be just as inpenetrable.  So I’ve come up with this short guide to “art babble”

For more comprehensive clues to art methods, products, processes and materials, art collectors can, of course, consult traditional compilations, like (as only one example) The Harper Collins Dictionary: Art Terms & Techniques (1991) a copy of which I still keep near my desk, despite the ease of googling.  For my purposes here, I have extracted only a few – terms that I have heard used by artists working in the SF/F genre or have encountered frequently enough in galleries to think we all need to know what they are.   At some point you (like me) might be in conversation with an erudite artist like Rick Berry . . . as I was, several years ago . . . when he casually tossed out the phrase alla prima to describe his method –  with the expectation that his audience (me) would know what he was talking about. I didn’t. But it taught me something important. If I was going to deal in art, as well as collect it, I was going to need to broaden my vocabulary.   Hence the motive for this Guide.

But, even the best of art dictionaries are bound to exclude words and phrases that have special meanings to those who use them.   I’m talking here about those words and phrases that carry what linguists call pragmatic vs. semantic meaning, as well as meaning that can be implied by words, meaning that is not “literal”  De-codijng “art speak” is something akin to understanding that when a person inquires “can you tell me the time?” or “can you pass the salt?” the answer is not “yes” or “no.”   But it’s trickier to figure out.  Mainly because it’s not in babblers’ best interests to explain – and there’s precious little in the way of reference materials available. Sure, you could spend a few decades in sales rooms, in the clutches of gallerists, hobnobbing with auction consultants, or fraternizing with artists and fellow collectors. But why spend the time? A short non-conventional (and somewhat tongue-in-cheek) glossary of words and phrases frequently used by those who buy and sell art is really all you need to separate lexical wheat from chaff  🙂

For fun, I’ve decided to build my “glossary” upon the framework of a little, invented 3-part story.   So, Let’s follow “Paul” in his quest to acquire art….. How many of the words and phrases in bold print do you immediately recognize, are familiar with? In some cases, I’m willing to bet, you won’t be able to consult a standard dictionary to make sure I’ve gotten it right.   🙂  Sorry . . . You’ll just have to trust me!

How Paul Buys Art

It was the third Thursday of the month, and Paul was busy gallery-hopping. At the first stop, he is attracted to a small etching of a dragon, matted and framed, and bearing a label which states “original print, and the price$195.00. He leans forward to get a closer look at the signature, and is immediately approached by an appealing young person, who comments, apropos of nothing,  “Yes, that is a remarkably good example of his work, isn’t it? And note the remarque!”

Almost automatically, Paul responds with “Oh, I’m just browsing,” and continues to inspect the work with a serious expression on his face, afraid he’ll be kicked out for lack of appreciation. “Yes, it is a nice example,” he says, and – feeling obliged to make further conversation – adds “can you give me a price on it?” [note: he is asking this despite the fact that the tag says $195.]

Without missing a beat, she replies “are you a collector of original prints? If so, before you decide on your purchase, I really must show you a signed and numbered lithograph by an important artist.   And by the way, my name is Kathy. What’s Yours?”

Without changing expression, Paul shrugs and allows himself to be led docilely to the piece. “I have to confess,” he says, “that I’m really more interested in unique, one-offs than any kind of prints or reproductions,” and (to make his point) turns his attention to a small gouache of a vampire in a period frame that is in a small alcove to his left.

Glossary for Part 1

appealing young person (AYP): amiable, non-threatening, well-spoken and neatly presented but never dressed better than the clientele, and invariably female . . . that is the person who will most likley be greeting you when entering a traditional fine or commercial art gallery – and then spend a few minutes with you, to “qualify” you as a potential customer. Whence the questions: to gather information about your tastes, and what you can afford. Not quite a receptionist, and not (strictly speaking) there to close sales, tjhis person may be a graduate student in art history or a daughter of a friend of the gallery owner, who is there to learn about the “art world.”  You will know when you are being taken seriously as a customer when your AYP disappears, and is replaced by someone else. . . with authority to close sales.  I am spending time on this definition because many of us (including me) have wasted valuable hours chatting up AYPs only to learn that they are congenial but powerless.  An AYP’s job is to make you feel comfortable, get things out of the closet and answer superficial questions.  If you are serious about buying, and sound sincere – don’t worry – it won’t be long before your AYP turns you over to someone else and disappears.

browsing: def: to skim over casually, especially in search of something of interest. Hence the response “No thanks, I’m just browsing” will be interpreted to be a possible precursor to buying, . . .  as savvy gallerists know!  Not to be confused with the phrase “just looking,” meaning “I can’t afford it”  🙂  or “I’m just waiting for my girlfriend (bus, etc), which is a clear signal of non-intent to buy.  Thus, be careful when saying “Just browsing.”  You won’t be left alone!

etching: one of several multiple-replica processes by which original prints are created; it’s an intaglio method, which prints what is below the surface of the plate (vs. above: see lithograph). The artist draws his/her design on a ground (metal plate coated by a material which resists acid) with a sharp needle which removes the ground where it touches it and, when the plate is put in an acid bath, these exposed parts will be etched (or eaten away). Other similar methods: aquatint, engraving, drypoint, mezzotint.

gallery hopping: visiting two or more local (usually geographically close) art galleries in relatively rapid succession, to get a general sense of who and what is being exhibited at that point in time.  And did you know . . . that across America the traditional day of the month for gallery hops is the third Thursday (day or evening) of the month? Often galleries group together and advertise – so check your local papers for hops!

gouache: paint sold in tubes, containing the same ingredients as transparent watercolors, but chalk is added to the pigments to make them more opaque. Other opaque, water-miscible paints (such as casein) may be used as well as the special gouache colors in what is called a “gouache painting” so that gouache, watercolor, pastel and India ink are frequently combined in the same painting.  In descriptions of works you may see the term “body paint”or “body color” used to refer to those sections of the paintings containing opaque color effects.  Illustrators, until acrylics came along, were very fond of painting in gouache because of their bright, clear, color effects.  Like transparent watercolors however, gouache can be affected by water, light and heat.

important artist: one who may have changed the course of Western Art, but whose decent paintings have long been snatched up by museums or multi-millionaire collectors. Thus, the work being offered is either a fake, or was painted while the artist was handicapped by a severe hangover, advanced senility, chronic arthritis or myopia. In the latter part of his life, Renoir was afflicted by every one of these symptoms (and see also Jackson Pollack, Dali,, hence the many temptingly affordable but aesthetically impoverished examples of art by “famous names you know” that regularly come to market.   Ask yourself: Am I on a museum’s acquisition committee? Am I wealthy enough to acquire works of that quality? and of course “important to whom?” Be wary when purchasing art by an “important” artist.  If you love art, spend your money on the best you can afford, and not the signature,

lithograph: A term loosely used today to refer to print-making using modern commercial off-set printing processes that rely on photographic means of transferring an impression to another surface from which the actual proofs are pulled. In such a process – and unlike traditional lithographic methods – all proofs are identical, and the term ‘artist proof’ has little or no meaning.  Traditional lithographs are prints made from images directly drawn on the surface of a specially prapared metal plate or stone, and the prints are liable to degrade with each pressing in the edition. After the entire edition has been printed, and the artist has numbered and signed the impressions, the plates are destroyed. In photographic, offset lithography there is nothing comparable to this: there is no value in earlier numbers in the edition, no “proofs” to be tested, and no original to be destroyed.

matted and framed: a general phrase to refer to a piece that is ready to hang, with the piece covered by glass or plexi.  Mattes are stiff cardboard with a white or whitish or black base (so as to make a pleasing beveled edge) and have a thin facing of paper (flat or textured) on one side.  Any time a matte is cut to make a ‘frame’ for a picture, especially those done on paper – it is assumed that the work needs to be “glazed”, i.e., covered by piece of glass or plexi, and the matte does the work of keeping the artwork’s surface from being in direct contact with the glazing.  So it’s a good idea to ask about that: what kind of glazing? If you just want a separation between the art and the frame for aesthetic reasons, and no protection is needed (or wanted) you can buy a ‘liner’ (usually linen covered wood).  Mattes made of paper can’t be used without glazing because they will buckle and not lay flat – it’s a waste of time and looks weird. A pure rag matte (‘acid free’ board) is best for matting permanent works of art, since paper may become discolored from prolonged contact with a wood-pulp board. When an artwork is described as “matted and framed do not assume that such type framing is required (some oils are framed that way when it’s not necessary) nor that it will be to your taste.   Mattes, glazing and frames are a matter of taste and replaceable – and will NOT add to the value of the art when you sell it.

my name is Kathy, what’s yours? Anytime you are asked this sort of question, one that carries the expectation of reciprocity (a set-up makes it almost impossible for you not to respond in kind) be careful. Her name is irrelevant  and may not even be her name.  Your name is what’s important, because she needs it to meet her quota for garnering prospects  and also for introducing you to the art consultant when the time comes – and using your name makes you seem instantly friend-worthy and important: you deserve to be in this gallery, admiring art – you “belong.”

nice example: Paul was trying to sound like he knew what he was talking about, but his AYP would have heard that to mean “not very good”.  Just as when referring to the condition of paintings or books as “good” – meaning it has flaws or damage –  you never refer to pieces as “nice examples” . . . only ‘fine’ ones – else the inference made will be that the piece is weak.

original print: any print made by a recognized graphic-arts process in which the artist has created the master image on the plate, block, stone, screen, or transfer paper and has printed it himself or herself. In the case of a technically involved process such as lithography, a professional printer may assist the artist in pulling the proofs. The term ‘original print’, which has been adopted by the Print Council of America, distinguishes such proofs from mechanical or photographic reproductions that are executed neither by the artist, nor under the artist’s supervision.  The introduction of digitally created art, with the original image stored in a computer, has led to controversy.  Are they “original” or “fine art” prints — as defined by the Print Council, an image drawn or etched or engraved on some surface by the artist, who prints a limited number them by hand (vs mechanical printer), numbers the individual prints and defaces the printing plate — or reproductions (as in a photograph of a unique painted image that is used to create copies)?  Are digital prints “handicrafted” works, or “reproductions”?  Whether they are produced from scanned in original works, and “tweaked” to produce an “original” (unique) image, or created solely by artists on the computer, using digital technologies – these new methods and combinations of them (“mixed media) are testing the limits of traditional definitions.

one off: referring to a one-of-a-kind, unique original artwork, in contrast to artworks which are produced in multiples (limited or open editions) In writing sometimes referred to as OOAK’s (one of a kinds)

period frame: not the original frame, but in the style of the period in which the artist has worked, and with the right patina of age. The problem is that what is viewed through the frame may/may not represent the actual dimensions of the image. Over the years oil paintings change in size with restretching, and damages to corners and edges become more problematic. Usually frames will appear to fit properly, but only by comparing the dimensions of what is visible at the front and the canvas size at back can you discover that considerably more than the minimum ‘quarter inch all around’ is being covered. If you suspect deception, or simply want to avoid nasty surprises, you should always ask to peek under the matte to see what’s going on.

price: not to be confused with the $ figure quoted in an ‘offering’ or (as in this story) the $ amount that is marked, quite clearly, on the tag/label.  All too commonly, a customer will say “I’ll take it” only to discover that the price is for the print only . . .  and Framing is a separate expense.  Other reasons for asking, of course, include the possibility that the final price could actually be HIGHER or LOWER than what is marked.  IIn addition to the obvious – bargaining – to get the price lower, there are other factors affecting price.  Sometimes, a higher or lower number in the edition will affect price, as will A/P, remarques, etc and the salesperson will respond to you with fluctuating prices, as appropriate, although always attempting to “up-sell” whenever possible. Because PRICE is a slippery term, often subject to change depending on circumstance, collectors often ask “what did it sell for? (or ‘go’ for?), not “what was the price?”

remarkably good example: translation – “you should see some of his other works! – by comparison, this is a masterpiece!” [note how the inferior descriptor “good” as in “good example” is masked here by the addition of hyperbole, in the form of adverbial modifier.  See also: “incredibly good” . . . “amazingly good” . . . “wonderfully good”.

remarque: in etching, a small sketch in the margin of the proof, originally ‘remarques’ to aid the printer in making corrections or changes or to test the plate before immersing it in the acid bath. During the 19th century, remarques of small details related to the subject of the large etching were often intentionally etched and left on the plate, especially in prints of seascapes and landscapes (such as an elegant little beached boat in a lower corner). Today, artists may add small drawings to any type of print as an embellishment to elevate regular proofs in an edition to special status, and thereby enhance their worth.


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