7 Rules For Collecting Paintings

Art collecting is easier than most people think. Here are 7 rules you should follow if you want to try your hand at it.

Jun 3, 2024By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art

collecting painting rules


Art collecting as a hobby is usually associated with wealthy dynasties and tycoons who keep their capital safely invested in expensive art. However, as the art market keeps growing, it becomes more democratic and beginner-friendly. Today, every art lover can afford to keep a collection, limited only by their finances and storage space. While some collectors see art as a safe investment, others insist on collecting out of sheer love. Read on to learn more about art collecting and its basic rules when it comes to paintings.


1. The First Rule of Collecting Paintings: Educate Yourself!

mitchell ladybug collecting painting
Ladybug, by Joan Mitchell, 1957. Source: MoMA, New York


Paintings are perhaps the most popular and obvious domain of art collecting. No matter what your final goal is, collecting is an intellectual hobby that involves knowledge and expertise. Some collectors hire art historians and curators to manage their paintings for them. Although such help can be useful when you are trying to keep track of a vast and expensive collection, it also removes part of the fun that comes with this hobby.


To become a good art collector, you have to educate yourself on the history of art, materials, and techniques. For instance, if you decide to collect 19th-century art, you should get familiar with the mindset of artists and the public of the time to get insights into the creative process and reception of the works. Learning the way of thinking of your artist, their biography, and their significant features will help you narrow your focus and avoid getting fooled by art forgers. Moreover, interacting with your collection and learning its secrets is the most exciting part: take your time to examine the brushwork, the paint layers, and the contours peeking from underneath, as they can teach you a lot.


2. Art Does Not Have to Be Expensive

renoir grenouillere painting
La Grenouillère, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1869. Source: Historia Arte


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Contrary to popular opinion, art collecting as a hobby is much more accessible than it seems. Of course, you will not be able to become a top-level collector on a student budget, but you can nonetheless arrange a great collection of art that suits your lifestyle, interests, and expectations. Moreover, a horrifying price tag does not always indicate good quality or lasting appreciation. Sometimes the prices seen on the art market rely on short-lived trends or artificially hyped-up tendencies.


Even if you have big plans for the future, it is better to start with small and inexpensive purchases to explore your tastes and learn new habits. According to the research, your average art collector starts younger and prefers more democratic prices and unexpected niches. To find exciting and inexpensive works, try visiting your local art school. They regularly hold exhibitions of their students, and you might become the first collector to buy a painting from an emerging talent. Another option might be visiting antique shops and flea markets. It is unlikely that you will find a Renoir for $7 there like the woman from West Virginia, but you will certainly have something to choose from.


3. Recognize an Investment Piece

Tree of Knowledge #5, by Hilma af Klint, 1913-15. Source: Obelisk


If you plan to profit from your collection at some point in the future, you may want to turn your attention to safer pieces of art, rather than those made by young, unknown artists. Many art collectors, especially those who can afford to spend millions on their collections, see art as a prospective financial investment. Therefore, they buy the so-called ‘blue chip’ art—safe and well-researched objects made by established artists, which would inevitably increase in value year after year. A trendy contemporary artist might fall out of favor in a year, but a Picasso or Pollock would still be desirable.


Of course, miracles happen. Sometimes forgotten artists get a posthumous rediscovery, with their work’s prices unexpectedly soaring. In 2022, archivists discovered a previously unknown series of watercolors by Hilma af Klint in Switzerland. The owner, Swiss poet Albert Steffen, did not pay much attention to them, yet after the great revival of Hilma af Klint’s oeuvre, a private museum in the US bought the collection for an undisclosed, yet generous, price. Still, a successful collector should not count on miracles. Good investments require knowledge, effort, and calculations.


Typically, a good art investment would be a work made by a well-known and well-researched artist, of stable quality and with enough data behind it to prove its authenticity. One medium-sized work is better than a dozen sketches. Larger works are harder to handle, and thus less likely to find a new owner quickly.


4. Find Your Niche

rembrandt storm collecting painting
Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1633. Source: Wikipedia


No matter how compelling it is to buy every pretty object you see, you should find a specific niche for your collection for the sake of your financial and mental stability. You do not have to limit yourself to a particular name or art movement. Rather, approach your prospective collection as an art curator: think of the topics and subjects you want to explore, or find a specific detail that concerns you. Some art lovers collect Dutch still-life paintings, others focus on Japanese erotica or horse paintings. The choices are limitless, you can even choose a particular color or pigment to work with.


Despite this rule, sometimes eclectic collections make much more sense than the well-thought-out ones. The world-famous collection of Isabella Stewart Gardner, now on display in her museum in Boston, is a seemingly nonsensical mix of paintings, sculptures, ceramics, and other objects from various epochs. Despite their differences, they work together, showing the multifaceted and bold personality of their owner. In other words, match your collection to your inner self, your way of thinking, and your aesthetic preferences. Do you prefer abstraction to figuration? Do you like a particular combination of tones, forms, or shapes? Do you have a specific theory in mind that can bring together antique and contemporary art? Use your personal interests and preferences to curate a pleasing and meaningful collection of art.


5. Pay Attention to the Backs

nicholson 1945 back
The Backside of 1945 (Still Life), by Ben Nicholson, 1945. Source: Christie’s


Although the painted surface is normally the most compelling part of the painting, its backside is often more important for a collector. The back of the canvas is the painting’s life story, with all turbulence and sharp turns usually recorded. Look for gallery stamps and marks from previous owners, patched tears on canvas, and restoration marks that can tell you more about the painting’s condition. Always pay attention to the way the canvas is fixed to the frame, how tight it is, and what the nails look like. Many amateur art forgers and fraudulent art dealers reveal themselves by using shiny new nails, untouched by time and corrosion.


6. Make Sure the Conditions Are Right

rembrandt restoration photo
The Night Watch, by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1642, during restoration in Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. Source: Analytics India


Treat your art well. In order to survive, paintings need special conditions depending on the material. Excessive heat and moisture can cause irreparable damage to thick paints and watercolors. Oil paint can crumble, canvas can tear, and wooden panels crack and fall into pieces.


The general rule of handling artwork at home would be to avoid direct heat and light sources and temperature fluctuations. So don’t place oil paintings next to your front door. For a larger collection, consider investing in a climate control system. Store your oil paintings vertically and watercolors on paper horizontally, and never stack the works on top of each other. If you possess something old or valuable, arrange regular checkups at an art conservator’s workshop. A qualified professional can notice early signs of disintegration and damage. And please, do not try to restore anything at home unless you want to update the long and horrific list of restoration fails.


7. The Main Rule of Collecting Paintings: Collect Out of Love

valadon blue room painting
The Blue Room, by Suzanne Valadon. 1923. Source: Centre Pompidou


The art world may seem intimidating and unfriendly at first, but a young and enthusiastic collector would easily find support if their interest is genuine. Investments are great, but do not let financial expectations cloud your feelings. The most treasured and remarkable collections are always built on love and excitement.


A small painting collection with heart and soul is infinitely more important than a storage of multi-million dollar pieces gathered only for profit. Of course, emotions may change over time—you may get tired of a certain work. Don’t be afraid to sell stuff you don’t like anymore. Art deserves love and respect and needs a home where it is fully appreciated.


Do not be afraid to talk to people and ask for help or advice. Good relationships with artists and gallery curators can lead not only to unique offers, but also to new experiences, ideas, and long-lasting friendships. Art collecting should bring you joy above all, and that joy may bring discoveries and positive side effects to other aspects of your life.

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By Anastasiia S. KirpalovMA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art Anastasiia holds a MA degree in Art history from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Previously she worked as a museum assistant, caring for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. She specializes in topics of early abstract art, nineteenth-century gender, spiritualism and occultism. Outside of her work, she is interested in cult studies, criminology, and fashion history.