Art expert reveals how to find the right pieces for you

expert buying art guide
How to find the perfect art for your homeArtist Paul Wright, represented by McKay Williamson

With the power to inspire and uplift, artwork can make a space feel truly creative. Gallery owner and art history expert Richard Williamson explains how to invest in pieces you love.

The art we display in our homes is deeply personal. Not only does it reflect who we are, but studies show it can make us happier, too. It’s what we look at every day – from the moment we wake up to the time we go to bed and, as such, it has a subtly profound impact over time. It also lasts for decades – we inherit art and we pass it on; so, in many ways, it becomes our legacy.

Yet, often, when we move into a new home or redecorate, art is an after thought, and we spend more time and energy choosing the sofa or the paint colour! Over the past 20 years, I’ve helped hundreds of people find art they love for their homes. Regardless of budget, art can transform a room.

Whether it’s a print version of your favourite painting at the National Gallery or a piece by an up-and-coming artist you’ve helped support, a cup of tea somehow tastes better when you’re looking at art you love. And who knows? That piece you bought at a local art fair could triple in price over your lifetime. So, here’s what to think about if you want to get started...

Art class

Only 5% of the art out there is any good, but we all disagree about which 5% that is. Be okay with your own opinion. You’re going to find that the pieces you love are a combination of your personal 5%and what you find meaningful. Art doesn’t have to be about swanky language. Half the terms we use in the art world are buzzwords anyway.

To help, here are three ideas that can be used to talk about any piece of art ever made. Fact.

  • Novelty: How original is the work?

  • Nuance: How difficult is it to create?

  • Narrative: What does it say?

For me, the narrative behind the art is the most important; my favourite artist right now is probably Robi Walters. You may prefer to see painterly brushwork (or nuance). That’s okay
– we’re all different. Never feel like you’re ‘supposed’ to like anything.

The real thing

There’s nothing like the magical aura of an original oil painting. And with it, you can be sure that you’ll have something in your home that’s entirely unique.

The simplest way to find original oils is at a local art gallery. There, you can enjoy the art and, when you go to an exhibition opening, will often get to meet the artist, so you can find out about the narrative. To get invited, just sign up on a gallery’s website.

Another way to discover art is at one of the many affordable art fairs held across the UK. Most showcase emerging artists, so you can browse hundreds of original pieces starting at just £50. If you’re looking for a new piece, I’d recommend going twice. On the first visit (which can be overwhelming), make a shortlist of everything that captures your heart (feel free to take photos).

Then go back, speak to the gallerists and buy pieces with the strongest novelty, nuance and narrative for you. Another option is to attend degree shows. We mustn’t forget that David Hockney, Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst were once 20 years old and desperate to get noticed.

Just google ‘degree show’, plus the closest art school or university to you – but be prepared to see art that is more experimental as these students strive to find their voices. Wherever you find art you love, feel free to make an offer on the price listed. The best you’ll get is probably 10% off, unless you offer to buy more than one piece.

expert buying art guide
Artist Mark Pearson, represented by McKay Williamson

Fine print

The most inexpensive way to buy art is with a print. If you fall in love with an original work at a fair or gallery but it’s outside your budget, ask if a print is available – you may be surprised at how many artists and galleries sell them without publicising the fact.

These may even be ‘limited edition’ prints, which means the artist has reduced the number they’ve made to increase the scarcity and value of the piece.

While stores such as Ikea and Amazon sell prints, I would recommend going to a specialist outlet. With prices starting from £25, Lumas offers a wide range of signed prints, while King & McGaw has quality poster reprints from the archives of everyone from Vincent van Gogh to Andy Warhol.

Made for you

Perhaps the best way to buy art that is deeply meaningful to you is to commission it. You get to choose the artist, the subject and the size. It might be a portrait of someone you love, a landscape of a meaningful place or the perfect piece to fit your space.

First, find an artist whose work you admire who also accepts commissions– many don’t. Let them know what you’d like. If they accept the commission, let go of any pre-conceived notions. They can only paint their interpretation of your ideas. You must not try to control the artistic process. Be supportive and never ask for a discount (despite what I said previously!). To get the best work from an artist, you want them to feel the love while they’re producing your commission!

Yes, there’s a risk you won’t like the end result, but from the hundreds I’ve helped to arrange, more than 99%were happy. The vast majority are joyful experiences, and the result is a meaningful piece of original art, full of novelty, nuance and narrative, which you’ll hand down for generations.

GH TIP: Buy a few pieces of art in similar sizes, so you can rotate them around your home. Moving your art keeps it from becoming wallpaper. In an ideal world, have 20% more art than you have space for, and then rotate pieces once a year (I do this every summer). When you re-hang art that’s been sitting for a year, it’s like seeing an old friend.

Good returns

Buy art because you love it, rather than because you think it will be a good investment. (Having said that, I love my Banksy and it has done fabulously well!) If you would like to invest, here’s what you should know...

The art world broadly classifies artists on a scale from emerging to mid-career and then established. These terms relate to the potential investment return of the artist. Most emerging artists never become mid-career, and most mid-career artists never become established. Jenny Saville, for example, was established by her early 20s!

Like all investments, you must balance risk with reward. If you want to invest safely, buy established artists (I use a 15-point system to determine where an artist is on the scale, but every adviser is different). If you know where to look, simple prints by Picasso, Hockney, Lowry, Warhol, Murakami and several other big names can be found for under £10,000. If
you can invest more, rarer prints by established artists and incredible original work can be found. For any investment, expert knowledge is key.

For all budgets, get a Certificate ofAuthenticity, and for secondary market pieces, ask for their provenance (the history of ownership). Without these documents, the work is less valuable when you come to sell it (and if a seller lacks these documents, you should use that to haggle on price).

The good part about auction houses is that they’ll assure a work’s authenticity and provenance. The bad part is their fees; buyers pay a premium, usually 25%,on top of the hammer price, and sellers pay 10%. So, for a £10k hammer price, the buyer pays £12.5k, while the seller only gets £9k. I recommend working with art advisers, as their fees tend
to be half those of auction houses, which works out better for both seller and buyer.

Finally, art is illiquid, like buying a house – even if you buy an established artist today, even someone like Tracey Emin, general wisdom says to hold it for a decade before selling.

expert buying art guide
Gallery Wall Design by McKay Williamson

In the frame

Good framing can transform a piece of art – think of it as the setting for a diamond. The job of a frame is to make the artwork complement the home. While you might usually choose a modern frame with modern art, what if your home is traditional and you find a piece of modern art you love? In this case, you might choose a pewter frame to harmonise modern with traditional.

If you’re looking for a wooden frame, insist on a hardwood one as it won’t warp over time – currently, obeche is the best-value hardwood. For responsibly sourced timber, look for the seal of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

Whether to glaze your art is a judgment call, as glass protects the art but also separates the art from the viewer. If you glaze, request UV70 glass as it’s less reflective. On gallery walls, feel free to mix up the size and type of frame – the key is even spacing between the frames (even if the individual pieces hang chaotically), so plan the spacing before you start to hang.

If the artist has painted the edge of the canvas, framing the piece becomes optional – not all art needs a frame. Finally, hang the piece so the centre is 165cm from the floor (except above fireplaces). I find so many people hang their art too high – probably because when they were young or when you go to a museum you have to look up at it!

So how will you know when you’ve chosen the right art for your walls? Think of it like this: if your house was on fire and everyone was safe, if you’d think about saving your art, then you’ve bought the right thing. I hope you enjoy it for many years to come. For more information on RichardWilliamson and his Art Advisory, visit

Where to start

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