On display: A guide on finding great art

Donna Benton
Even though these paintings have different styles and themes, they work together because they all share the same blue-green colors. (Donna Benton photos)

Early man took shelter in a cave, rubbed some sticks together and discovered fire. As he warmed by the embers, the flame cast a flickering glow on the wall of the cave, and he noticed that the empty expanse of limestone would be a great place for a display of personal expression that would make his new cave a home. He grabbed a sharp rock and began to etch into the stony slab little stick men on a prehistoric rabbit hunt. It was man’s first art. I’m not a historian, but I imagine that it went something like that.

For as long as humans have had walls, we have been adorning them with collections of art that reflect who we are or aspire to be. Crayon drawings tacked to nursery walls evolve into dorm room posters of a favorite band, then to affordable mass-produced framed prints from a home store. At some point, we all settle into our first real home, and we renew the lifelong quest for art that expresses our individuality and makes us feel at home.   

The first lesson that most new art seekers learn is that great art is usually really expensive, and even bad art is expensive because frames are expensive. Finding unique art on a budget is one of the most challenging parts of decorating your home. 

Art budgets are relative. You can certainly spend all the money that you want to on a great art collection, but if you have the patience and enjoy the thrill of the hunt, you can acquire a great collection of once-loved and vintage art. 

Flea markets and estate sales are the places to start. I paid $12 for my most favorite floral oil painting that I will treasure for all time. There is a lot of bad art out there, but if you are willing to take on the challenge, you can find a treasure. And you might literally find a treasure. 

Be sure to Google those vintage finds when you get home because there’s always the chance that you will stumble upon a highly collectable piece. But don’t get caught up in value or my idea of what makes a good art collection. If you love it, then it is the perfect piece for your home, and this rule supersedes any thought that I might share. 

Think about all your art working together and collect pieces that work with each other. They can work together by theme, like florals or landscapes; by style, like abstract or watercolors; or by colors. One of my favorite art displays in my home is a wall of paintings that includes an Asian-inspired landscape watercolor, an abstract work and a portrait. The styles of the paintings are a total train wreck, but they all share the same blue green tones, and they look great together.

Display your art in unexpected ways. My guest bathroom walls are currently full of old oil portraits, my favorite of which is an oversized 1950s librarian. I’m sure she is a librarian because her stern eyes are shushing me. 

Group your art in a gallery wall. It’s a great way to use smaller, inexpensive paintings to make a big bold statement. I’m terrible at hanging groups of pictures straight, so I like to arrange them in a way where they are offset from one another, “jaggered” if you will. They need to be balanced, but they don’t have to all line up in a straight line. This works great with art of different sizes and orientations. Measure the space on your wall, then lay them out on the floor to get the right arrangement. Group them by theme, style or color, or if your mix is eclectic enough, don’t be scared of a total mashup of themes, style and colors. 

A collection of paintings in a gallery wall needs to be balanced, but not necessarily all lined up and square.

I’m certainly no art expert, and I often wonder if I have ever passed by a masterpiece as I flipped through stacks of forgotten frames in some dimly lit antique store back room. But I know what I like, and that’s what I buy. My taste is rather eclectic, and my choices don’t always meet the approval of the other members of my household, so many of my impulse buys never actually make it to the wall. 

Not long ago, I brought home a new acquisition. It was an abstract piece of geometric shapes and squiggles that had all the colors of my new sofa pillows! I brought it in with excitement to show my family, who in one accord tilted their heads to the left and burst into laughter. It turns out, when viewed in the intended orientation, the subject of this abstract work was clearly a naked fellow. But hey! I only paid $20 for it. Now that I think about it, I better go Google that artist!