• Karen Thomas

Why Do People Buy Art?

It’s a funny game sometimes, being an artist.

Whether you exhibit your paintings on social media, through galleries, or stand alongside your art at shows and get involved in discussing it with the viewing public, you get plenty of surprises.  I do all three, and hear some fascinating stories … names changed to protect the innocent.

I was sharing my experience at an exhibition with a couple of friends earlier in the week, attempting, in my usual geekdom, a humorous illustration on the randomness of life, and the response was ‘you must blog it!’

Firstly, no commentary on a show can be complete without a cast of characters.  Without exception, there will be a lovely, interested female visitor who goes to pick up one of my hare paintings, only to have her husband bark ‘no!’ and drag her away.  Also a regular occurrence is the lady who finds her partner gazing at a framed piece: “We’re not having another bird of prey in the house Gerald!”  

Then there are the gentlemen of a certain age who love to spend ten minutes telling me how I’ve painted a particular piece.  I will clap my hands together, Mary Poppins-style, exclaim how clever they are and we’re all happy.  There is the determined-looking lady who pushes her glasses up her nose and views my work from an inch away, muttering to her friend Mabel that she painted something similar at the club last week.  “Can I help you ladies?  Feel free to ask anything won’t you?” "No, come along Mabel!”  

People float past. A mother turns to her daughter and says "I bet you could knock that up in a day”, confident that they’re out of earshot.  Two lovely elderly ladies I’ve seen before approach.  “We’re buying this robin card because we always copy your robins”.  A smart couple approach, the lady calls to her husband in a very BBC accent “here’s a proper artist darling, she does landscapes too, I’m so bored of wildlife”.  

“Can I photograph it?”  “Your work is very cheap”.  “Your work is very expensive”. "I really love your style, do you teach?". "Is that a goat or a sheep?" Uh-oh. "Look Anne, this is the lady who paints on all the John Lewis cushions!" Whaat?

A couple of mature ladies ask me about my route into art, whether I'd always been an artist. I tell them a bit of my story, and the fact that I started to take art seriously again and study it later in life. One appears to be a little hard of hearing, so her friend repeats the story to her while I smile and nod. "Later in life? She looks about twelve". I nearly spit my coffee out with surprise. She clearly needs to go to Specsavers too. This pair can come and talk to me again. All a regular part of the rich tapestry of exhibiting experience.

Really lovely things happen too.  A tap on the shoulder and a broad Devon accent says “I recognise that boat, it’s the one near Bideford isn’t it?”  I'm chuffed!  Somebody recognised it and fell in love.  

Boat moored between Bideford and Instow
Seen Better Days

People want to tell me about their favourite cows.  A Facebook follower comes to introduce herself, hugs and a long natter ensue, I feel like I know her already.  Previous customers come and tell me how much the stag painting they bought last year has meant to them.  A retired farmer tells me that I’ve captured the spirit of Holstein-Friesian cows just right, and that he misses them.  A holiday-maker with a Scottish accent lifts one of my Highland Cows up to her friend and exclaims in delight.

Then there are the sales.  I never cease to be surprised by people’s reasons for buying art.  Most of us artists are obsessed with producing painterly, highly skilled work, but the thing that stands out time and time again when I listen to people is that what they really buy is emotion, or a stronger link to a memory.  

A hen painting goes to a lovely home on the first day to a lady who used to keep them and got particularly attached to one that my painting resembles.  A large peregrine painting gets snapped up by a falconer who obviously loves his birds like children.  A hare goes because the lady in question loves hares and the colours go with the sofa.  All fairly predictable so far and I’m enjoying myself.  

A lady approaches.  “I know this is an odd question, but you don’t happen to have a zebra do you?”  Well, actually yes!  I’ve left it under the table having put it in the box to bring by mistake.  Nobody will want this zebra.  It was a self-indulgent painting that I felt compelled to do.  It makes me smile.  The zebra in question is reaching up to snaffle a sandwich out of a Landrover window and the expression on his face is priceless.  She takes the zebra.  I’m astonished.  

A mother and son approach me.  They spent a long time browsing my work earlier in the day.  They want to buy a print I have of my painting “Duck!”  The mother bends toward the little boy: “Take this, now you give the nice lady the money and she gives you the painting”.  I smile at the little fellow as he approaches, and as I lean down to take the money he solomnly says “My Daddy shoots them”.  I’m having second thoughts and try not to let me smile freeze, it’s not his fault!

The ebb and flow of a day at the show proceeds in much this fashion until the final hour ... surprise of the show!  A lady is browsing my work, making polite conversation.  She looks like she biked here, no handbag, and she’s stumbled upon the big show on the Cathedral Green.  She freezes as she’s flicking through my mounted original paintings.  I’m always curious to see what has caught people's attention so I peer over her shoulder.  She’s looking at one of my first portraits of Dragan, a tiger I lost my heart to at Dartmoor Zoo.  His painting is a longstanding friend, having been with me for a year.  Sometimes they simply wait a while for the right person to find them.  

Dragan at Dartmoor

He’s large and therefore in the higher price end, and that’s fine because I’m quite attached to him!  “Oh” she says sadly, “I thought I was going to get away with looking at nice art, but you’ve done it now.”  Have I?  “I need him in my life.”  Well that's great!  My credit card terminal has finally died for the day, the battery has taken a bit of a battering.  I’m very apologetic and offer to trust her.  “No, no, I want to do everything properly.  I’m going to the cashpoint, won’t be long.”  

I’ve probably lost her, she’ll have changed her mind, it’s a big purchase.  But wait ... she’s jogging toward me waving!  She proceeds to count out a stash of notes.  This has made my day.  Yes, the money is lovely, but it’s more that Dragan is going to a good home.  It’s silly, but it's really important to me still, especially with my original paintings.  “Do you know where you’re going to put him?”  I always ask.  Again, I care.  Get this … “He’s going to hang above my piano to motivate me to practice”.  Wow!  It turns out, she’s writing a musical, adores tigers, and needs encouragement to spend more time at her piano, writing, arranging and playing.

I feel really honoured.  You couldn’t predict this in a million years.  So, why do people buy art?  Search me!