How to make buying art not so scary

October 25th, 2019

Buying art for the first time can be scary! But it doesn’t have to be. Here are some things that scare new art buyers and what to do about them.

Where do you start? What if you don’t know anything about art, just that you want your space to be more attractive and represent what you want to be? What if you’re just tired of having blank walls or generic furniture, or handed-down artwork you don’t care about?

You know beautiful art is out there. On the walls of someone’s apartment on TV, in restaurants, or on someone’s Instagram profile. You say, “How can I get me some of that?” You walk into a gallery, or pull up an artist’s online shop, and you’re overwhelmed.

Just like all nice things in life, getting into art can be a little intimidating.

Photo by Andres Urena on Unsplash

Many “unnecessary” things in life are considered luxuries. Especially “gourmet” foods. Luxury doesn’t always have to equal outrageously expensive, either. Gourmet coffee or gourmet donuts cost more than their “everyday” counterparts, but the average person can still enjoy them.

Since art isn’t necessary for daily survival like food or water, it’s considered a luxury, but I would argue that it’s important to our humanity. Art says something about who we are and where we are going. Humans are about much more than survival. We take the time to enjoy things we don’t necessarily “need.”

My own “luxury” experience

Brad Blackman examining works-in-progress while drinking coffee

Speaking of coffee, I’ve become a little bit of a coffee snob. It has been a bit of an educational journey! At first, it was a bit overwhelming. There are so many types of coffees and ways to brew it.

Likewise, getting initiated in buying art can be a little intimidating. I’ve put together a list of some of the things that scare people about buying art, and what to do about them.

“I know nothing about art!”

A lot of people are intimidated by the art world because they don’t know how to talk about art. They lack the vocabulary or language. They’re afraid they will look dumb. Or they think modern or postmodern art is too complicated and exclusive and they aren’t “in the know.”

If you want to talk about art, you just need to know a handful of terms about art to talk about it, such as form, color, and contrast. And it helps to understand the context in which it was made.

But if you want to buy art, you just have to know what you’re looking for. It can be as simple as having a blank wall of a certain size and you want to put something there. Or you want more of this color in your house.

Or you just had a transformative experience and you want a piece of art that reminds you how you came through it. Just having that information on hand can help you find what you want.

“Am I over-paying for it?”

Only if you don’t really want it. If you’re buying art just to impress someone else, you probably won’t enjoy owning it.

If money is a concern and you find a piece of art you have to have, you might be able to negotiate with an artist or a gallerist. Many artists accept payment in installments.

Or you can commission a smaller, less expensive version of a work you love. I have done commissions where I painted something similar to a previous painting in a different size or a slightly different color scheme.

“What will _____ think?”

A lot of people worry about what other people will think about their art purchase. “Will my spouse like it?” or “What will my friends say?” If you’re sharing your space with someone else like a spouse, it is worth getting their input since they will be seeing it, too.

That said, I feel like it’s ultimately a personal choice what art you purchase. It’s part of your self-expression.

“How do I take care of it?”

Paintings on canvas need to breathe, so storing them vertically by hanging them on a wall is ideal. You can periodically dust them lightly. I don’t make sculptures, but I imagine they need to be dusted frequently. Don’t be afraid to ask the artist or gallery you buy your art from. They’ll appreciate that you want to take care of it.

“Where am I going to put it?”

Sometimes you fall in love with a piece of artwork without having a place in mind for it. But isn’t that part of the adventure of buying art? If it moves you and you can pay for it, get it. You’ll figure out where to put it later. ūüėČ Alternatively, you can commission something similar in a different size, like I mentioned above.

“Rumble,” acrylic on canvas. 8 x 8 inches

“Is it a good investment?”

Some people buy art as an investment. Those people have lots of money to spend and advisors helping them decide what to buy based on a variety of factors, with the intention of reselling at a higher price later to make a profit.

But for most people, buying art is an investment in themselves. They want to say something about themselves to other people, or to remind themselves of something important. They buy it so they can tell their friends, “I bought this painting the year I had five different surgeries and it reminds me of the divine strength that sustained me.”


Buying art for the first time can be intimidating, but it can be a lot of fun. Remember that every piece of art has a story behind it, which adds tremendous value to your life. If you’ve got your heart set on buying some art, but you’re still nervous, don’t be. Decide what’s best for you, and make it something you’ll enjoy for years to come.

How One Painting Absolutely Devastated Me

October 8th, 2019

Kenneth Noland’s 1959 painting “Split” absolutely devastated me. When I saw it, it forever changed my life as an artist.

Nashville, Summer, 2001

In Summer, 2001, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts (now called the Frist Art Museum) was new. My Granddaddy bought me an inaugural membership. One of the first exhibits was the Modernism and Abstraction exhibit, on loan from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. I saw so many incredible artworks by Georgia O’Keefe, Franz Klein, and more.

This exhibit made such a strong impression on me that I visited the show several times over the summer. I went so many times that if I had bought tickets, I would have paid more than the annual membership.

One painting stopped me dead in my tracks.

It was “Split” by Kenneth Noland.

Kenneth Noland, "Split." 1959. Acrylic on canvas, 94 x 94 inches.

Kenneth Noland, “Split.” 1959. Acrylic on canvas, 94 x 94 inches.

It is almost eight feet square. It has a purple, black, white, and red arrangement of a series of concentric circles, one square, and the outer circle has an irregular outer edge, on raw canvas. It was painted with acrylic, which was brand new at the time. See, oil paint, if applied directly to canvas, will slowly eat away at the fibers in a slow burn and destroy it. So it has to be protected with gesso before it gets painted. Acrylic paint doesn’t destroy raw canvas the way oil paint does. So Noland painted directly onto the canvas.

There was such immediacy, yet restraint, that it just knocked me over. It changed me.

I stood and stared at it for a long time.

What did it mean?

Why did it make me so uneasy?

Why does my eye keep going around it faster and faster?

I knew if a painting made me feel all these things, it had some sort of power behind it.

I think there’s something about the tangent where the right corner of the square/diamond shape almost touches the circle that encloses it. The colors almost harmonize, but there is just enough discord that it makes me uneasy. And of course, the circle is a powerful, profound symbol that touches something deep in our primal consciousness, a symbol of life, eternity, earth, the universe, time. The outer red edge is uneven and sloppy, like the circle is falling apart. The apparent order of the composition is at risk of imploding. The universe, for all its apparent order, is disintegrating.

That’s the power of (abstract) art. Something so deceptively simple can lead you to an existential crisis.

I went back and looked at the whole exhibit about five times over that summer.

That exhibit, and this painting in particular, showed me that abstraction was something worth paying attention to.

Since then, I have wanted to paint big all the time, with huge, powerful movements, on large canvases. And of course, my work has grown increasingly abstract over the years, yet still grounded in reality. I love painting big, and actually prefer it over the tiny canvases I have painted the past few years.

What’s an artwork that has had a profound effect on you?

What was your reaction to it? Sound off in the comments or drop me a note.

3 Surprisingly Powerful Factors That Make Up Contemporary Art

October 1st, 2019

I’ve found that contemporary art is dominated by 3 factors: place, politics, and personality. This really is not new. They’ve been part of art for hundreds of years. But I’ve seen a lot more of them in the past 20 years or so as contemporary art (art since 1970) has evolved.

The art movements of the early-to-mid-20th Century still have a lot to teach us. To be sure, the wider culture’s visual language has evolved since then, and contemporary art embraces the conceptual over all else these days, even if it is highly rendered (realistic). It’s less about style and more about social consciousness.

Brad Blackman, Hope, 2018. acrylic and gold leaf on canvas. 30 x 24 inches

Brad Blackman, “Hope,” 2018. acrylic and gold leaf on canvas. 30 x 24 inches

Most of the art I see today features three P’s: Place, Politics, and Personality.

“Place” in Contemporary Art

Graffiti art has exploded the past few years, especially in Nashville (where I live.) What used to be a sign of gang activity is now a sign of commerce (and on the downside, gentrification). Bachelorettes line up to get their photo taken in front of giant wings. And it’s not just “graffiti.” Toronto has a famous “TORONTO” sculpture that tourists love to get on their instagram feeds. Incidentally, the “3D Toronto Sign” was a temporary installation, but it got so much attention on social media that it is now a semi-permanent feature of City Hall. (I believe there are plans to make a permanent version of the sculpture.)

Contemporary art and place: 3D Toronto sign

By { pranav } from Hyderabad, India – Toronto sign, CC BY 2.0

Politics in Contemporary Art

Art has long had ties to politics, either in the service of or in opposition to the prevailing ruler. It can be propaganda, or it can state a specific view that may or may not be popular or “safe.” Brian Rutenberg argues that all art is political ‚ÄĒ even his abstract landscapes of South Carolina swamps.

The Cult of Personality in Contemporary Art

KAWS is an example of personality in contemporary art

Again, this is nothing new, and perhaps less outsize than in the past, but in recent years I’ve seen artists exploit their strong personal brands on social media with the likes of Ashley Longshore, Joyce Pensato, KAWS, and more. Warhol and Dali set a precedent for this decades ago. “Personality” might better be thought of as a “personal brand” these days.


While my own art doesn’t blatantly possess these characteristics, I agree with Brian Rutenberg that all art is political by default since when a viewer looks at it, they are seeing from your eyes, even if for a moment. What I try to show is that the world, for all its brokenness, is a beautiful and hopeful place.

“I laugh when painters claim to make political painting because all painting is political. The very act of making a work of art is a political act. Whenever you see a play, or read a poem, or look at a picture in a gallery, you are submitting to and and investing in the entire political belief system of that artist. Art can only be political because the artist is subverting and undermining the way the viewer sees the world for a moment. So I think it’s kind of sad when younger painters are led to believe that painting has no real value in and of itself, that it’s only a delivery system for some other message, which sounds to me like propaganda, There’s a lot of clever, witty work being done out there, but we must never let semiotic wit replace dreaming.”

Brian Rutenberg, Studio Visit 58

Experimenting with the 500 Letters artist statement generator

October 31st, 2013

Recently, Alyson B. Stanfield of¬†Art Biz Coach¬†shared on Facebook a¬†snippet of a gallery’s promotional email¬†she received that was full of¬†artspeak, that curious language in which artist statements are written that has more in common with theoretical physics than regular English. It’s also known as International Art English, or IAE.

So I went looking for the latest artist statement generator, and found 500 Letters.

There have been artspeak generators over the years, but¬†this one is actually rather convincing. I plugged in some basic information ‚ÄĒ my name, the year I was born, where I work now, and so forth. Then I chose my primary and secondary media (painting and drawing), and selected three themes: urbanity, landscape, and utopia, which actually are the themes my work centers around.

You can see it is almost convincing, even though the tone is all wrong compared to my actual artist statement. Some parts are a bit of a stretch, but not too far off-base:

Brad Blackman (¬į1978, Bowling Green, KY, United States) makes paintings and drawings. By merging several seemingly incompatible worlds into a new universe, Blackman focuses on the idea of ‘public space’ and more specifically on spaces where anyone can do anything at any given moment: the non-private space, the non-privately owned space, space that is economically uninteresting.His paintings are often about contact with architecture and basic living elements. Energy (heat, light, water), space and landscape are examined in less obvious ways and sometimes developed in absurd ways. In a search for new methods to ‘read the city’, he uses a visual vocabulary that addresses many different social and political issues. The work incorporates time as well as space ‚ÄĒ a fictional and experiential universe that only emerges bit by bit.

His works bear strong political references. The possibility or the dream of the annulment of a (historically or socially) fixed identity is a constant focal point. By exploring the concept of landscape in a nostalgic way, he investigates the dynamics of landscape, including the manipulation of its effects and the limits of spectacle based on our assumptions of what landscape means to us. Rather than presenting a factual reality, an illusion is fabricated to conjure the realms of our imagination.

His works establish a link between the landscape’s reality and that imagined by its conceiver. These works focus on concrete questions that determine our existence. Brad Blackman currently lives and works in Nashville, TN. In all seriousness, one could actually use something like this as a jumping-off point for your own artist’s statement, and then adapt it into your own language and tone. Or it could inspire you to make something new. Reading this, I start imagining how to make fictional cities fueled by my love of¬†mystery¬†and science fiction.

For further reading, check out¬†A user’s guide to artspeak¬†from The Guardian.

The Art Pyramid

October 15th, 2013

Lezley Davidson’s¬†Art World Pyramid¬†reminds me of the food pyramid. At the top, you have what there’s a little bit of, and the bottom, you have a very broad base. The food pyramid is more about ideal proportions you should eat, but Lezley’s art pyramid is more about the makeup of the overall art market/industry.

This art world pyramid groups artists into three main groups: the academics, the pretty pictures, and the merch artists.

The Academics

This is the smallest and most elite group ‚ÄĒ mostly MFA-educated artists with a clear understanding of how their art functions in regard to the context of art history, consciously participating in a generations-old dialogue. Success is measured by a retrospective at a major museums like MoMA or The Met. Millions of dollars may be at stake on a single transaction. Artists at this level tend to make their living through grants, if not selling their work to millionaires. It’s “blue chip” art that is often challenging to viewers, found at the mega art fairs like the Venice Bienniale or Art Basel Miami.¬†Damien Hirst¬†is the first that comes to my mind when I think of this category.¬†image:ai weiwei, bang, installation view, 2013 image ¬© designboom

The Pretty Pictures

This larger group might also be called “gallery artists” as most of them make a living selling their art through gallery representation and dealerships. The art produced here is more “market” driven, largely dependent on the gallery system and art fairs. More and more of the “pretty picture” artists are becoming independent from galleries due to the growth of the Internet and social media and the like, selling their art directly to collectors. This is probably what most people think of when they think of artists. Thomas Kinkade is probably the most notorious in this category. One I really admire is¬†Michael Shane Neal. He does fantastic portraits and landscapes, working in a traditional manner.

The Merch Artists

The final category is the broadest in terms of subject matter and size, and up until recently used to be pretty looked-down up on in the art world, just a step above commercial art or graphic design. In fact, a lot of these artists probably have other jobs as graphic designers. The art in this category is¬†very¬†market- and trend-driven. These artists aren’t afraid to riff on something in popular culture, playing off a meme like LOLcats or Doctor Who or Star Wars. I think of my friend¬†jimiyo¬†who has been rather successful as a t-shirt designer and curator. This segment doesn’t shy away from “low-brow” subjects or aesthetics. It’s usually more fun and doesn’t take itself as seriously as the academics. But there is a lot of room for growth.

Lezley goes into a lot more detail on her blog and especially her podcast so you should go check it out.

So as Lezley says:

The point of the separation into categories is to illustrate that each distinct artist group needs a VERY different marketing plan to see success in their little art universe.
The question now is,¬†what part of the art market do you fall into?¬†Personally, I think I fall somewhere in the “Pretty Pictures” (gallery) section. What about you? Please share in the comments.

How to behave at an art show

May 9th, 2013

Have you seen “Cars 2”? There’s a scene toward the beginning of the movie where Mater and Lightning are at a fancy pre-race party in Tokyo. The bumpkin tow truck thinks wasabi is pistachio ice cream, so takes a huge bite of it. Once it burns, he charges through a waterfall to cool his mouth. Of course, he embarrasses his race car friend and makes a fool of himself in front of a large crowd.

You might be afraid of making yourself look that silly at an art opening. So you don’t, here are three quick things to remember about how to act at an art show without looking dumb or embarrassing anyone you are with.

1. It’s a party.¬†The first thing to remember about how to behave at an art show is that it’s a semi-polite party. It’s essentially a cocktail party with art as the reason for getting together.

There will be a mix of yuppies, socialites, hipsters, and hippies. Nearly everyone will have an intellectual viewpoint about something. That’s fine, just don’t be a jerk about it.

There will probably be something of an irreverent spirt since artists have a tendency to see themselves as iconoclasts and prophets holding a mirror to society with their art. The more “alternative” the space (the more grungy it is, like an old warehouse with broken windows) the more irreverent it will be.

2. What to wear.¬†Artists are surprisingly conservative in the way they dress most of the time, usually opting for jeans and a black t-shirt. You can’t go wrong with black, either. Dress it up with a jacket or scarf and you’ll be fine. The idea is to let the art be the star, not your clothes. (It’s not the 80s anymore.¬†And 80s art was even more self-important than the clothes.) This is part of why artists tend to wear clothes that make themselves invisible. I could go into the psychological/philosophical reasons for this, but that’s a topic for another day.

3. Don’t get drunk.¬†Remember the story I told about the¬†artist who got drunk at the opening and hit on all the girls? Yeah.¬†Don’t be that guy.

Getting drunk on free alcohol in public is just tacky, anyway. It should go without saying, but it just makes you an obvious freeloader who can’t control himself. That’s a surefire way to embarrass the people you’re with, art show or not.

That’s pretty much it.

That’s about it for how to behave yourself at an art show. That wasn’t so bad, was it? Now, I know you might be a little concerned about the biggest thing of all at an art show: the art itself. I mean, art is just¬†weird¬†sometimes, isn’t it? In the next post, we’ll talk about the sort of things you should say about whatever is on the walls. It takes a little bit of education, but it’s really not that bad. I promise.

What about you?

If you’ve never been to an art opening, what are you nervous about before going? Or, if you’re an art show veteran, what makes the new people really stand out, and not in a good way?¬†Share it in the comments. I’d love to hear from you!

Photo Credit: moominsean via Compfight cc

Demystifying Art Shows

May 7th, 2013

When my wife Hope and I first started dating, she came to one of my openings at a group show at an alternative space. One of the other artists got ridiculously drunk on the free wine and started flirting with ALL the females, even the married ones. He made no secret about his intentions, either. So Hope hid behind me, hoping he wouldn’t see her and start asking the same questions.

Some eight years later, we laugh about it now, and every time I happen to run into the guy, I cringe at the memory of his drunken antics.

When you hear stories like this one, you might not want to go to art openings. It’s understandable. They’re not all like that. In fact, this is the only time I’ve seen such bad behavior.

All that being said, art shows may be a mystery to you. A lot of people who haven’t been may not know what to expect. Maybe you have an artist friend who wants you to come to an opening at a gallery or an alternative space. You don’t want to look like a dork and embarrass yourself or your friend. Or you don’t feel like you know enough about art to look at it, much less talk about it.

The next couple of posts will explore the world of art, at least on a beginner’s level. Let’s start with the space itself.

What you can expect at an art opening:

  • White walls or exposed brick¬†– white walls if it is a gallery space, exposed brick if it’s “alternative” or “industrial.”
  • Exposed ceilings with track lighting or¬†cheap clamp lights¬†directed at paintings and sculptures to show them off.
  • Paintings on the walls, sculptures on plain pedestals¬†– sometimes performance artists will be doing something in the middle of the room or in a corner. That’s performance art. Yeah, it’s usually a little weird, but that’s okay. They might invite you to be part of it, or you might just watch.
  • abstract art, nude art, funny art, strange art¬†– It really depends on the artist or the theme of the show if it is a group exhibition. Some art is meant to be shocking. It’s almost never meant to be “pretty.” (More on that in another post.)
  • Wine and cheese¬†– pretty standard at nearly every opening I’ve been to. Sometimes they jazz it up with fruit and nuts and chocolates. If they’re being edgy beer will be available. You can almost always find alternatives like water and soda.
  • Music¬†– usually jazzy or a light techno-pop, but not loud enough to take center stage. Until it gets late and people have had too much to drink to look at the art anymore.
  • One or two really weird-looking people¬†– There’s always at least one person with outlandish hair and a neon-colored feather boa, but usually way less than you’d find at a punk rock concert.
So, that’s a brief overview of what to expect at an opening. It’s pretty much a cocktail party where the focus is on art and art-related conversation.

Next up, I’ll cover¬†how to behave and what to wear at an art opening. Hint: it’s NOT like the guy I mentioned at the beginning of this post.