My education and interest has always been in the visual arts. My background is in painting and as an artist, I enjoy using oils and watercolors in my own work. When I got into the antique business, I took a real interest in finding nice, old paintings done in the medium of oils or watercolors. I found that collecting the expressions of other artists gave me a great deal of joy. To me, this was a very natural and easy item to identify when out there on the hunt for antiques.
In later years, I became an antique dealer with my own shop, and I found that not many people knew the difference between an oil painting and a watercolor painting. When looking to buy a paintings, most people are only looking at the decorative quality: the pictorial image (a landscape or still life); the colors (it must match my furniture); the size (it must fit over the couch). Customers will see different paintings and prints in the shop, and after asking “how much?” they ask, “What’s the difference between them?”
Let’s look at some of the ways paintings are made by artist and why there is a difference:
Water Lilies,” oil on linen, by Claude Monet, 1916.
Oil-based artist paints come in tubes just like your toothpaste. They are composed of pigments that are bound with the medium of linseed oil, which is a drying oil. Linseed oil, being mixed with the pigments, allows the paint to dry when spread onto the painting surface. Other types of oil are used for various drying times and less yellowing. Different oils can give various gloss effects and are used for varnishes to protect the painting. Oil paints are thinned with turpentine or mineral spirits.
The most traditional technique of applying the paint is what is called “fat over lean.” Beginning with thin layers of paint and as the thinner layers dry, a heavier layer of colors can be applied. There are many techniques and applications of the medium of oil painting, but this is the most common and traditional in representative artwork.
The paints are applied to a flat surface—a wooden panel or a stretched canvas (canvas which has been stretched over a wooden frame and tacked on the edges), often linen or cotton-duck canvas. The canvas is prepared first with a protective coating to protect it and to keep the oil-based pigments from soaking into the fabric. Gesso—made of plaster of Paris or a whiting mixed with glue and water—is used for this purpose.
Claude Monet was a master of the art of painting with oils. His impressionistic paintings have been an inspiration to all artists.
Borthwick Castle,” watercolor on white wove paper, by Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1818.
Another type of painting that is very collectible is watercolor paintings. In watercolor painting, the pigments are simply thinned with water and applied to a textured paper. The technique of watercolor has a transparency of colors that reflect the light from within the painting. In an oil painting, the light feels as if it is from an outside source. Black and white is mixed to colors in varying degrees to achieve the tones and shades of colors.
In the watercolor painting, the color is thinned to lighten it and layered with another color to darken the shade but still retains a translucent quality. The technique has always been associated with landscape painting because most artists would use this method to make pictorial notes for compositions to be completed in oils in the studio environment. Watercolors are also a standard technique of the illustrator. This is one of the reasons they are often confused with lithograph prints.
For another example of a master’s work, we can turn to J. M. W. Turner, a celebrated English artist who was a master of the art of watercolor. His large oil paintings were influenced by his love of transparent color.
The masters of art presented in the examples are our inspiration as artist and collectors. Their works sell today for prices in the millions of dollars. (Source for examples master works in fine art, Wikipedia)
Get Out and Look at Paintings
There are bargains to be found everywhere. This oil painting of a mountain lake sold for $13. (Source: Proxibid, Worthopedia Price Guide)
Once your interest is captured by wanting an original oil or watercolor painting, you will find that the market has a wide selection just waiting for someone to come along and appreciate the efforts of an individual’s artistic expressions. Finding an affordable work of art just requires getting out and looking in shops, art shows or local auctions. Seeing the actual paintings in person and asking questions is the best way to start. You can find artwork selling for $5 to $20 often in local thrift shops. I have found works for $5 that later in my shop sold for $50. This can be a great deal more rewarding than purchasing a reproduction. It just takes a little experience at looking and learning how to know the difference.
What do you look for when out combing the shops? In oil paintings, you are looking for paintings that are on canvas and wood frame or canvas board. Period frames are always good to have on art you are buying. A good oil painting should have a protective frame. Watercolor paintings should be matted and in a frame behind glass.
It is best to find art that an artist has signed. Always look for artwork that the artist has signed and dated, with their first and last name or first initial and last name (for example R.Timmons ’09). This gives credit to an original painting and shows that the artist is proud of his or her work. Often, an artist will sign on the back of a painting. So always look on the back, as well as the lower part of a composition. A signed work of art could become valuable someday.
Something to be aware today is the enormous number of reproductions on the market, which can be extremely hard to tell from originals. They are done in what is called “canvas transfers” and are produced by offset lithographs—which is a purely mechanical process of usually four colors. The image is photographed, and the colors are separated into red, yellow, blue and black and converted into tiny dot patterns of varying density. The technique was invented for printing magazines, brochures and posters but has now been adapted to transferring duplicates of painting onto canvas by literally taking the image off paper and placing it on canvas. The image looks as though it was painted on the canvas due to the texture of the canvas. The edition of reproductions of one painting—in oil or watercolor—can be quite large and very profitable to the decorative-art market. So how do you know if the paintings are originals? Take with you a small magnifying glass so you can inspect the surface. If you see a dot pattern, it is a reproduction.
When we buy a reproduction of a painting or print, we can’t expect an increase in value. But when you find an original oil or watercolor paintings, the value can be rewarding on many levels. Good art is in the eye of the beholder. So when you see something you like, it’s because it speaks to you. That is truly a wonderful experience, and it follows, a good piece of art. Seeing the world through art can be more fun than a good movie. I hope you start your collection of art tomorrow.
Here are interesting examples of paintings sold recently on the Internet. It is very possible to fine nice paintings for $5 to a $150.
This oil painting of a seascape by an unknown artist sold for $ 5. (Source: Proxibid, Worthopedia Price Guide)
This watercolor by C. Wallingford (in soiled condition) sold for $90. (Source: Proxibid, Worthopedia Price Guide)
This cottage scene in oil by an unknown artist sold for $30. (Source: Proxibid, Worthopedia Price Guide)
This watercolor of a winter in the Rockies sold for $50. (Source: Proxibid, Worthopedia Price Guide)
This oil painting of a rancher and child on horseback sold for $150. (Source: Proxibid, Worthopedia Price Guide)
This unframed watercolor of a harbor scene by Z. V. Mathews sold for $71.50. (Source: Proxibid, Worthopedia Price Guide)
Robert Timmons is a Worthologist generalist.
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