Buy What You Love or…Try This Approach Instead

I have to admit, I’m not a fan of the old art collecting adage, “Buy what you love.”

It’s a little too capricious for me. I mean, really, how do you know what you love? Have you consider absolutely everything that the art world has to offer? Besides that, how do you know what you love is any good? Or worth the asking price? Or will hold its value?

When it comes to making an art purchase, I put three basic rules ahead of buying what I love:

  1. Get to know the artist
  2. Buy the original
  3. Walk away 

Once I figure out this stuff, buying what I love just happens naturally. Here’s how I do it.

Understanding Art & Creator Are Inextricable

As a curator, I get to call artists all the time and dive into deep, esoteric conversations that involve learning about their recent work, where it’s headed, how sales are going, what they’re struggling with, stuff like that.

Not your normal day? I get it. You can, of course, learn a lot online; that’s how I usually start. When I dive into a search, I am looking for specific things, which I’ll go over next, but I should also tell you, I rarely base curatorial decisions–for a show or my own collection–on this alone. 

Listening for Intention: Influences

Full disclosure, I don’t care if an artist graduated from art school, and you shouldn’t either. When I’m Googling artist websites and reading through their “About” page and CV, what I want to know is who they studied with, either in art school, workshops, mentorships, or private classes. (I’ve met a couple self-proclaimed autodidacts, but I’m pretty sure even they had influences.) The thing about training versus an art degree is simply this: I’m looking to understand influences on the artist, whether one seminal comment by a master triggered a turning point, or a geology professor instilled an awe of evolutionary forces at play in the land, which then led to the pursuit of an artist’s singular vision of man’s place in the cosmos. It’s all good. It’s all relevant. And it all plays into the unique aspects separating a good craftsman from a true artist.


I probably weigh artist websites, CVs and “About” page text differently than most. I’m reading between the lines, looking for direction, trajectory, a level of professionalism.  

Ultimately, I’m looking to see if the artist is in it for the long haul. And it is a long haul. Making it as an artist is tough and unforgiving and filled with rejection. Does the artist I’m looking into have what it takes to keep going–mainly because they can’t fathom any other life–or are they going to quit when things get tough? And things will get tough.


This is a tough one to uncover and, frankly, it’s not something a newcomer to the art world will intrinsically know. After 30 years, I have seen a lot of art and a lot of copy-cats. I’ve called a few out on it and firmly advise collectors to avoid the inauthentic.

I can’t stress this enough: creating original art is extremely difficult. It takes a level of training and perseverance that most people are unwilling to give. For me, to feel comfortable when adding an artist to a show–essentially saying I’ve vetted this artist for you, Collector–the artist needs to have his or her own voice. (I talk about this in my blog “On Voice.”)

There’s nothing new under the sun, this is true. But an artist who is responding to current issues, whether external or internal, and using his or her own voice to do so, is at least trying to add something important to the conversation. Consider how Jazz musicians have riffed off the work of Beethoven, who’s sonatas were based on a structure that he manipulated and ultimately transformed so radically that he changed the course of music. (Check out this wonderful article from the Harvard Gazette about Beethoven’s wide ranging influence.)

Developing Your Eye

I’ve come to believe that collecting art–or probably anything, for that matter–is a bit of an addiction. At least it is for me. 

When I first started collecting, I didn’t have two nickels to rub together, but still I knew I wanted to own original art. I was working at a gallery and met so many artists who were gracious and answered all my crazy questions. 

I hit the street fairs (the Art Students League Summer Art Market in Denver is a favorite). And I bought directly from artists when they, too, were starting out. 

Over the years, working in galleries, going to openings, lectures, and artist studios and just listening to the conversations, arguments and critiques they gave each other taught me to really “hear” an artist’s voice, literally and metaphorically.

I still do all these things to this day. In fact, I would say that buying art on a non-existent budget taught me how to find promising emerging artists. It’s become my niche in art curation.

Some of the artists I collected early in their careers include Ron Hicks, who was working days at PrimeStar and painting at night, David Grossmann and Maeve Eichelberger, two artists whose work I bought when they were fresh out of art school. I can’t afford their work these days, but, yes, that means my purchases have gone up in value…not that I would sell anything I’ve own. 

What I’m getting at is, you may think you can’t afford original art but you can. You just have to know where to look. And, do a little homework when you do spot an interesting artist. Besides art fairs, most every city has a selection of co-op galleries that feature up-and-coming artists, and even established galleries carry emerging artists they believe are promising. Works on paper–hand-pulled prints, that is (not giclees, more on this in my next blog)–are usually very affordable, too. Also, watch for pop-up shows–you’ll learn about them if you start following artists you like on social media–that feature work from relatively unknown artists. 

The Key to Buying Unknown or Emerging Artists?

Educate yourself and develop your eye. There are lots of people out in the art world who would love to help from curators to gallerists and even artists. Just know that if you work with a consultant, you will have to pay them but consider it an investment in your collecting education (think of the money you’ll save by not buying art you regret and that doesn’t hold its value). 

When Taking a Step Back Is Critical

I feel a little funny advising this because I am in the art sales business but, well, it’s truly what I do. I rarely impulse buy anything.

In the art biz, our secret opening night formula is:

crowds + booze + artists + red dots = killer sale

Crowds create the atmosphere and buzz. Booze, well, you know all about booze and impulse decisions. Artists, oh, yes, artists are just so much fun, even the grumpy ones! And those red dots… As soon as they start popping up on wall tags, it’s like firing the starting gun, may the best man win! 

Why I Walk Away

I’m around art all the time, in and out of studios, talking to artists and seeing the latest painting, hot off the easel.  I can always step back and think on things for a few days before deciding. 

For those who don’t have that kind of access, here’s what I’m suggesting you do. Go to previews. Take your time. Walk through the gallery in a clockwise fashion then go back through counter-clockwise. If you go with a friend or significant other, separate and walk in opposite directions, snap pics on your phone of the things you like so you can compare notes later. Find the curator, director or go with an artist whose opinion you trust, and ask lots of questions. 

Then walk away. Sleep on it. If you wake in the morning thinking of a work of art–in my case, I will be obsessing about it–then you should get it. If you do this, you can avoid some of the pressure-cooker psychology of opening night and bid or buy with certainty.

I would love to know your process for collecting. Artists who read my blog, please chime in on how you’ve help collectors purchase art, too–I know many of you have!

NOTE: As I wrote in the last blog, Art Buying Etiquette 101, do NOT ask to buy directly from the artist, if you saw the work at a show or gallery. You are putting the artist in a terrible spot and jeopardizing their career. If you call the artist directly, don’t lie about where you saw their art; this is very unprofessional and makes artists uneasy and untrusting of you. In most cases, you’re not going to save money going to them directly anyway. Work with the gallery or show. If you want a discount, discuss with the dealer. Leave the artist out of it.

Art Buying Etiquette 101

Miss Manners: What to tell artist friends, besides ‘That’s pretty!’

The Washington Post, January 10, 2021

“It’s not hard to please artists–or any other creative people–with compliments. Any enthusiastic generality will do. And while you are not there as an art critic, Miss Manners has a kind remark even if you really hate the work: “You must be so proud.”

Um, wait…what?! 

OK, Miss Manners, step aside. Here’s some actual etiquette for talking to and working with artists.

You’re welcome. 

GALLERIES: Respect the relationship. 

RULE: If you found something you like at a gallery or show or through an independent art dealer, that is where you need to conduct your business. 

WHY: When collectors circumvent the gallery–usually because they think they can get a deal by cutting out the middleman–what they are really doing is putting the artist’s business at risk. 

Yes, this actually damages the artists career–the art community is small.”

-Billyo O’Donnell (“Morning Light Over Leadville,” oil, 9×12 inches )

Faithless artists are usually dropped from the gallery as soon as this behavior is discovered. Losing this relationship can ultimately ruin an artist’s career because they lose the stability and benefits of having someone represent them and explain their work and pricing system.

“Over the last few years,” Billyo added, “there have been many artists leaving galleries and going out on their own to sell their artwork. I have learned that there is a direct relationship to having a long-standing association with a respected gallery and being able to maintain solid prices for your work.” 

ETIQUETTE: Work with the dealer, be transparent, and ask lots of questions; it’s their job to educate you and help guide you through the process. And, if meeting the aritst is important to you and, in my opinion, should be part of your final decision, have the dealer facilitate.  

Think of it this way, when you try to cut the gallery out of their rightful commission it’s like asking your doctor if you can avoid paying the hospital by going to his house and having him perform surgery there, at a discount.”

-Carm Fogt (“Altered Enso,” Chinese ink and mixed media, 24×24 inches)

EXHIBITIONS: If you saw the work of art at a show but the show’s over and the work didn’t sell, who gets the commission if you buy it?

RULE: People can argue this point, but in my mind, if you saw something you were interested in but didn’t buy at the show venue, it’s still considered–for a reasonable amount of time after the close of the show–proper to either run the sale through the exhibition or have the artist forward on the commission to the show. 

WHY: Artists need shows and shows need reliable artists. It’s a great relationship when it’s working in harmony. Collectors help keep the harmony by understanding and supporting this important business relationship.

ETIQUETTE: Juried and invitational shows do have an actual end date, so, realistically, if it has been a month or so or if the work of art has since been sent to a gallery, the gallery would then take the commission, not the show. Often national exhibitions are established to support a cause; consider supporting the cause no matter when you finally decide to make the purchase of a work you found at the show. 

Collectors need to be reminded of the expenses incurred when putting together an exhibition, whether by a non-profit for a cause or a private gallery.”

-Billyo O’Donnell (“Below Mount Lemon, Tucson, AZ,” 12×16 inches)

DISCOUNTS: when is it OK to ask for or expect a discount?

RULE: Discounts are for devoted clients who work with a dealer fairly exclusively and buy considerable amounts of art from that dealer or buy numerous works at one time. 

WHY: In the days before discounting art became ubiquitous, dealers used this as a perk for their best collectors. Commonly, 10% was, and still is, the amount which would be split between the gallery and the artist, with each side absorbing 5%. 

The biggest problem with discounts, if done frequently, is that they devalue the artist’s work across the board, meaning everyone who purchased work without a discount has, in essence, overpaid.

I remember a collector who commissioned me to do a painting,” recalled Dan Young, long time Coors Show artist. “It was back when I was starting out and really needed the money. I did the painting but then the guy asked for a discount. I wouldn’t do it. I walked away. Twice. Finally, he agreed to the price and bought it, but the whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth.”

-Dan Young (“The Snow Moon Rises,” oil, 12×12 inches)

ETIQUETTEBefore asking for a discount, collectors should understand how prices are determined.

Often, painting prices are calculated by the square inch, e.g. a 16×20 is 320 sq in, at $10 per, the painting will be priced at $3,200. Pricing editioned work can be determined by edition size, how complicated the work is–how many plates for a hand-pulled print or how large for a bronze–and importance or relevance, especially with photography. THEN, pricing structure is predicated on artist’s longevity, the stability of their prices, and what the market will bear

  • How long has the artist been working professionally? 
  • How do they price their work? 
  • What national exhibitions have they been invited to and participated in? 
  • What kinds of publicity have they garnered–magazine editorials, awards, honors, inclusion in major collections? 

I don’t raise my prices every year,” Dan said. “I may bump them 10%, if I do. Sometimes I only raise them 5%, depending on the market. Artist have to know their market and raise prices in a smart way; collectors want the value of their paintings to go up.”

-Dan Young (“Last Hurrah,” oil, 12×10 inches)


“People who truly connect and value my work,” Carm added, “rarely ask for a discount.” 

COMMISSIONS: no art directing allowed. 

RULE: The aritst is not an extension of you.

WHY: Commissioning an artist doesn’t give you free rein to dictate anything beyond the size, medium, and subject matter you are interested in acquiring. When starting the commission process, always keep in mind that the artist doesn’t live in your head and you do not do the work that he or she does for a living. 

I’ve realized over the years,” said California landscape aritst Kim Lordier, “that trying to get inside someone’s head to understand what they are feeling is very difficult.

Now my process for a commission is to create that balance of sharing ideas then allowing for first right of refusal. If I’m presenting the collector with a piece that I am proud of, it will be worthy of one of my galleries. That has only happened once, that a collector didn’t want the commission. But, then they came back six months later wanting to buy the painting and it had already sold.”

-Kim Lordier (“Intricately Interwove,” pastel, 36×24 inches)


  • Let go of any preconceived concepts and allow the artist to create. 
  • Once you agree on a concept, price, and timeline for completion, sign a contract.
  • You can ask for updates throughout the process but that’s it–no surprise studio visits, no emailing color suggestions or photos of your dog that you’d like the aritst to slip in. 
  • Many artists won’t take commissions, so don’t expect everyone to jump at the chance. (Nearly every artist I know has a horror story about a client who decided, mid-process, to dictate changes and treat the artist like a servant. The end result: either the client was fired or the finished work was rushed just to get rid of the client.) 
  • Consider using a dealer or consultant to manage the process; they can work through issues that arise and can keep the project on target.
  • Expect to pay 50% down before the artist gets started. Enter this relationship knowing you won’t get this money back if you don’t like the finished work. 
  • Do NOT ask an artist to replicate a work of art that already exists, especially a work of art by a different artist! Original art, whether commissioned or not, is just that: original and unique.

My two-cents: If you’re really wanting a specific vision, consider taking art lessons. Who knows, maybe there’s an artist in you struggling to get out!

STUDIO VISITS: a time honored tradition.

RULE: Never show up unannounced. Always confirm your appointment. Do not assume you can buy anything out of the studio and that you can get the work you see at “wholesale.”

WHY: Studios are sacred spaces. They are personal and creative, but also professional places of business. So, plan for an amazing behind-the-scenes opportunity by researching the artist before you go. You’ll have a base of knowledge so you can jump right in.

I rarely invite collectors to my studio,” said Lordier. “Sometimes it feels like people are rummaging through my lingerie drawer. I feel judged, feel compelled to make excuses for why this or that is at a certain stage, even though that is not the visitor’s intent.”

-Kim Lordier (“Goodnight Sea, Goodnight Tree,” pastel, 12.5×18 inches)

ETIQUETTE: Keep judgements to yourself. Art in a studio will be in various stages of completion. The artist has a vision, whether he or she is struggling through a work, trying something new, or trying to make something work that, so far, has been fighting them all the way. Generally, artists will not have this work out for you to see, so don’t rummage around the studio. 

Ask questions. Seriously, if you don’t know something, ask. If the artist uses a term or refers to some aspect of the work that you’ve never heard about, have them explain. 

Tell the artist what you like and what interests you about the work. This is a great way to find out more about technique and what inspired it. Alternately, if there is a work you don’t care for, you could ask about it–without judgement–so you can learn why the artist believes it is successful.

Visiting artist studios is one of the best parts of my job as a curator; I always look at it as a privilege. If you’re invited to an artist’s studio, plan for at least an hour, do your homework, and don’t be afraid to ask questions–just keep it professional.

Still have questions? Send them my way. Chances are other collectors are wondering the same thing.