If you’ve been thrifting for years like me, then you too have run into numerous pieces of art along the way.
I only recently – in the last 5 years – started my own thrifted art collection and have established a methodology for selecting pieces. Now, I have a particular decor style. Therefore, I select art pieces that will work well with that style. Sometimes I use subject matter, color, or style to decide whether or not to add a piece to my collection.
I’ve put together this post to let you in on my process for buying art at thrift stores, garage sales, estate sales, etc.
Hopefully, this will be enough guidance for those of you who would like to start collecting but don’t know where to start.
Learn How to Identify Hand-Painted Art vs. Prints
Pay Attention to Texture
When crafting your thrifted art collection, the first thing you ought to learn is how to identify the real from the fake.
Oil paintings will generally show signs of better blending between colors. This is due to the nature of oil paints and the way they dry. For this reason, they can be “flat” or have little texture. Acrylic paintings can have blended colors, they just don’t blend as smoothly as oil and so generally have more texture.
However, these are not hard rules, as each artist has their own techniques and style.
You want to examine the painting from the side at eye level. Is the surface perfectly flat? This can mean the piece is a print.
Are there areas of texture with low altitudes? Usually, painters create them with brushes. Is there a variation in textures? Some areas with low altitude texture and some with high altitude texture? This could also mean that a person hand-painted the piece.
Look for Cracking Paint
When it comes to old painted surfaces, they inevitably will crack. These cracks can be very obvious or somewhat subtle. You’ll want to look closely at the surface of the canvas to determine whether the paint is cracking or not.
If the surface of a painting appears to be in perfect condition, it may have been printed. However, if an artist recently painted the piece, then you are unlikely to see cracking on the surface.
Cracking on a painting can be very subtle. Therefore, I suggest you look at the painting at an angle in direct sunlight.
Examine the Canvas
Any canvas remotely plastic-y is indicative of a print. Painter’s canvas feels and looks more like a type of fabric. Modern prints are commonly printed on a canvas that has a vinyl quality to it.
If you look at it from an angle, you can see a very heavy glossy finish. This is a common characteristic of prints. Unless a painting was recently varnished, it will not have a tremendous amount of shine.
Also, the way the canvas is attached to the stretcher could give you some clues as to whether it was hand-painted or not.
Canvas stapled to a stretcher is indicative of a newer piece but it could still be hand-painted. Most art attached to a stretcher with canvas tacks are older, hand-painted pieces.
And one last thing to take note of is where the painting ends. Meaning, if there is a very clean line where the pigment cuts off, then it is probably a print. An artist can choose not to paint the sides of a painting, but it is not unusual for them to go over the sides and for those to be messy and imperfect with color.
Don’t Ignore Dark and Yellowed Art
In all my years thrifting, there have been countless times I’ve found artwork with a great subject, but not-so-appealing coloring. Consequently, I left many great pieces behind.
Thinking back on it, it’s unfortunate. More often than not, dark coloring on a painting is not natural. Meaning, it can come off.
When a painting’s colors have darkened, this is typically due to dirt and/or discoloring of the varnish that artists and restorers use to protect a painting. This sadly happens over long periods of time when owners neglect caring for their collection.
Another issue that has stopped me from buying art in the past is art that has yellowed. I remember how prolific yellow-brownish art was at the thrift store 10 years ago. I had pinned it down to a particular style characteristic of the 80s and 90s and left it at that.
Now that I know more about art, I realize that wasn’t the case. Art that looks like it’s got a sepia filter is most likely a piece that was heavily exposed to cigarette smoke. Just as smoking can discolor walls and teeth, nicotine smoke can discolor art as well.
Consider Restoring a Painting
As you go about collecting pieces for your thrifted art collection, you may want to consider restoration.
If your artwork is particularly old or has substantial value – or is just a favorite of yours – I’d suggest taking the piece to an art restorer.
They can clean the piece and replace old varnish with new, thus restoring your painting to its original coloring. They also have the capacity to fix holes and other signs of damage like cracking paint.
There isn’t a set price for these services, but you can get a quote with a ballpark of the cost.
I wouldn’t recommend attempting to restore art of your own if you have no experience. Unless you’re willing to practice on art with little monetary and emotional value, I’d suggest letting the pros do the work.
However, there are some things you can do for oil and acrylic paintings with little to no danger.
How to Remove Dirt from an Oil or Acrylic Painting
Before you start cleaning your painting, please take note that:
I would not recommend doing the following if your painting has large cracks and flaking paint. Otherwise, you run the risk of the pigment coming off the surface of the canvas.
Again, if your painting is of significant value, you’re better off searching for a conservator to restore your art.
Remove Surface Dust
If you’re buying your art from a thrift store, antique mall, or garage sale, it’s probably got a good layer of dust. I’d suggest taking your piece outside and using a clean feather duster to dust the surface from top to bottom.
If relevant, dust the frame as well. I wouldn’t suggest using a cloth of some kind just because some older paintings can have very dry and flaky paint. And you don’t want to accidently snag the paint on the cloth.
Clean the Surface
You can clean some dirt off of your painting with the use of dish soap.
DO NOT use soaps with bleach, vinegar, etc. You want a mild soap that has some degreasing properties.
Take a container partially filled with water. Then mix in some soap until the mixture is slightly bubbly. You DON’T want something that is very sudsy. A little will go a long way here.
Then, partially wet a cotton ball and begin to clean the painting with circular motions. Work in very small sections, ensuring that what comes off the surface of the painting is dirt and not paint. If you notice transferred pigment on the cotton ball, I do not suggest continuing.
As you work across the piece, frequently switch out your cotton ball. As I clean, I like to clean areas of color in groups. For example, if I am cleaning a landscape painting, I clean a 3” x 3” section of the sky because it is mostly blue. I will then switch out my cotton ball when I clean the foreground because it is a different color (green).
Learn to Love Imperfections in Thrifted Art Pieces
Sometimes, art restoration can be very pricey. Like, hundreds of dollars kind of pricey.
But I don’t think this should be the sole reason why you should abandon your desire to collect.
The best example I can think of is my Green Lady. I bought her at a thrift store a couple of years ago, for around $12? $13? Something very inexpensive considering she had a frame as well. The canvas had a couple of holes, and some of those holes had small flecks of paint coming off.
Additionally, there were some unpainted areas on the canvas that were exposed even when framed.
Had I been looking for perfection, I would have never bought her. But I’m very glad I did. I don’t run into portraits very often, and very rarely are they as vibrant as my Green Lady. She’s a favorite of mine now and even if my decor style changes over time I think she’ll remain. She’s just that timeless.
Someday when I have the time and the money, I may consider taking her to an art restorer, even if just to repair the holes. Whether she is worth something or not isn’t something I’m considering.
Your taste in art is going to vary from mine and that of an expert. But at the end of the day, you get to decide what art you choose to hang in your home. Life is not perfect, and often neither is thrifted art.
That’s it for now. I hope these tips have cleared up some uncertainties about how to start your own thrifted art collection. Till next time.