How to tell if it's "Art"

With so much “art” out there, how do you know if a piece is art collection worthy?

Whether you’re looking to fill those blank walls in your home, or you’re looking to begin your art collection, you need to start at the start: is what I’m looking at art, or… not art? What is ‘art’? This is of course a philosophical, social and cultural question for the ages, however in a practical sense for buying art for your collection, we offer a basic guide to follow that may help you make a savvy purchase, including Vernissage Art’s checklist based on our own curating decisions. So here’s what we take into mind when selecting works for our stockroom collection.

Mass Produced Pieces

Art comes in many forms and can look so attractive as either an in-vogue item or simply eye-catching, so perhaps it’s easiest to determine first what is not really considered quality, collectable art: mass produced pieces. This refers to decorative pieces that may or may not be machine made, but are not signed or numbered. These might be found at a market, in a furniture/decor shop and websites selling ‘prints’. When not signed or numbered, these are considered open prints in the same way posters are.

There are many very aesthetic pieces that fall into this category, and vintage posters are very on-trend right now, however these pieces are in some ways similar to a fabulous cushion - it will add to the styling of your home, but shouldn’t be classified as part of an ‘art collection’. 

Zoe Ellenberg, A Sunset Display Of Birds In Flight. Mixed media and monotype on watercolour paper. 155cm(h) x 300cm(w).

Original Art

So what we are talking about is artworks directly created by an artist which is personally signed (this includes signed, limited edition lithograph/silk screen type prints. We cover this in a later article). But, is that all you need to look for? Sadly, no. In fact when gallerists look at taking on new pieces we first look at the artist - this is by far the most important part. It is the artist that gives the artwork the integrity through their experience, training and understanding of art history, art styles and materials, as well as the emotion, concept and dialogue that is poured into the artwork. Without this background and connection to the piece, the artwork has no context. That is why it feels so hard to know whether a piece is truly art, worthy of being added to your collection when you stand in front of a piece of art as it has no reference to support it. So first step: research the artist. Here is our checklist of things we look for.

The Artist

  • Been practising 5+ years (the longer the better but 5 years is a minimum)
  • Shows good control of their medium
  • Shows good variation in their work
  • Uses high quality materials
  • Has a good sales record
  • Shows upward trend in pricing


We want to see that an artist has been working at their craft for at least five years as it usually affects the next two checklist points - control over medium and variation. An experienced artist will explore a topic and aim to work through their emotions on the subject and perfect their technique but will continue to evolve with new themes and styles. On the other hand, if their work looks erratic with unrecognisable style between the artworks, then usually the artist has not yet been practising long enough, and has not found their own style. Consider these two Zory McGrath artworks - they are clearly different and yet the bold colour and outlined forms show a strong connection of style. The referencing of Kandinsky’s geometric patterns and religious iconography show the artist’s understanding of art history and deeper meaning to their work. The works use oil and linen, signalling the artist understands the very finest in art materials and can use them effectively.

The Artwork

  • High quality materials
  • Expertly stretched/framed/mounted/cast etc
  • Confident, skilful control of medium
  • All aspects of piece appear in character and keeping with style
  • In perfect condition

            All of these aspects are usually guaranteed once you feel you can trust the artist, however it often happens that you see the work first, then research the artist afterwards, so it’s good to have a checklist from the start of the process.

            There are so many mediums an artist may use (paints, papers, stretchers, canvases, bronze etc) and with each one there is a choice on quality. An artist who works with acrylic paint rather than oil is not making a choice on quality - it is simply the medium they are comfortable with - but if you talk with the artist about the brand of acrylic paint they use you can work out if they are choosing the highest quality for their work. The higher quality the materials, the longer your artwork will remain in tact without sagging, discolouring or warping.

            It is worth looking at the piece closely, front and back, to see quality of the stretcher bars/ framing/ mounting. Make sure it is in perfect condition and also see if there are any aspects of the piece you feel shouldn’t be there - a large blob of paint, a cluster of brush hairs, a finger print etc. Look to see if there is anything out of place - a jarring discordant colour, a figure, object or line etc - these things reflect back to the quality of the artist but also mean the artwork is flawed aesthetically too. 

            So now go find those pieces that catch your attention, look up the artist and find out as much as you can about their art career and practices. If you’re unsure of how to start, stay tuned for next week’s blog on where to find collection-worthy art pieces.