It’s Only Paint and Canvas : What is the true” market value” of a painting? How does a potential collector know that a fair price is being offered? After all, the price can be negotiated… It’s not like a car, a stereo system, or a suit jacket that contains technical components and can be shopped between stores. It’s only paint and canvas, right?
Lines, colors, shapes, usually on a flat rectangular surface: that’s how we most often define “a painting.” As an objet d’art it has perceived value, both inside and out of the marketplace. Often paintings contain little or no moving parts. Precious metals may be employed, but not usually-it’s simply canvas by-the-yard and pigment. The materials of which a painting is made today are not much different than they were thousands of years ago, when early man painted and engraved shapes of animals on cave walls, with crushed plants and vegetable matter for paint, and animal-fat crayons and fingertips for brushes. The technology of paint-making and the variety of painting surfaces have significantly improved since then, but paint is still made of pigments and the surface of a painting is still usually flat. Doesn’t’ sound that impressive, does it?
Let’s consider the work of those early artists, at places like Lascaux and Altamira: they were the agents of man’s first recorded history. Their wall paintings speak to us through the millennia, even though their materials were elemental. Those artworks still communicate human ideas, perceptions, the very milieu in which early men and women lived. Those paintings today give us an insight into a culture, basal psychology, and the soul of early man. Those artworks were–as all artworks have been since those first paintings were created-visions, thoughts, dreams, and an exploration of what it means to be human. Those paintings in sedimentary sanctuaries were not-and are not now-simply colored dirt on stone: they are the reality of a time gone by.
It’s the vision encapsulated in those ancient artworks that give them their true value, not the materials with which they are made. Then as now, it is the material that gives the immaterial form and meaning, and which gives any painting its value. How well a contemporary artwork does that for each viewer or potential collector in today’s marketplace, how deeply the painting establishes a personal connection, is what gives the work its significance and worth. Paintings enable us to see more than the obvious, to break free of our prejudices, to elevate our thoughts. The author Charlotte Bronte expressed this ability of the artist to help us “see” on a higher plane: “I try to avoid looking forward or backward, and try to keep looking upward.”
The artist is the catalyst in this process of Imagineering and revelation. It is through the artist’s eye that new possibilities can be discovered, and comprehended. In fact, former President John F. Kennedy underlined that creative significance: “I see little of more importance to the future of our country and of civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist. If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.” The painter does what the director does for a film, or the composer for a symphony. He or she draws unrelated concepts together, instills pattern, variety and unity, and discloses the essence of an idea. If we look through the painter’s lens, we are treated to a new perspective on reality. The visionary artist is a conductor on the journey to an exotic destination. We begin to understand that there is something higher in that artwork, than just paint and canvas.
“An artist is not paid for his labor, but for his vision.” James Abbot McNeill Whistler
For a painting, it is the experience of the artist expressed therein that is of utmost value. The material nature of the work is quite secondary. A painting that conveys the power of emotion to the viewer is more than “just paint and canvas.” It is the description of a heartfelt concept that has been forged into tangible excellence through a creative process of envisioning and technical facility. It even has the power to change lives. “(Art) has the capacity to penetrate even the most callous skin and to ignite a revolution from within,” as musician Benjamin Moore so eloquently reminds us. Pursuing art with our whole hearts and minds is probably the most civilizing undertaking we can do as artists. “What a privilege it is to be able to take brush in hand and put paint on paper in this troubled world,” is our encouragement from artist Veronica Stensby.
A painting’s value is not in its material nature, as “just paint and canvas.” Rather, it is the vision an artist expresses with those materials that is of value: that slice of heaven, the best of the Best, that idea of the Ideal, that is the central core of both the material and spiritual worth of an artwork.
What is the significance of painting and the role of the painter in modern society? Is art just a luxury, or can it help inspire or change those who view and collect it? Should we think of art as an investment, or as a way to connect to our world? I believe the answer is more profound that it might appear.