The Mill at Barrowden. Watercolor, ©David Cuin, 2009.

Involved in the practice or social scene of art, one is inclined to forget that it is just one of the overlapping Venn diagrams that form the mosaic of our Evergreen community. Yet it has a large following that, through the energy of its directorate and membership, has grown its own permanent place to be, as Center for the Arts Evergreen (CAE), from a small, voluntary arts council to now occupying a sturdy, permanent building in Bergen Park. It is gradually absorbing all the arts activities in the town under its able umbrella. It has always been a particular interest of mine since I moved to Evergreen over 30 years ago. I am quite proud to say that I taught the very first class for what is now CAE in the old building it rented near Buchanan Rec. Center. It was a 6-week watercolor course under the aegis of the first energetic director, Lorene Joos.

No form of art figured in the first 40 years of my life. My education and career was science-based, technical and busy. Art just found no place. I say this because people embedded in busy careers do not have much disposable time, especially when they begin family life, but I have learned the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive and have much to offer in combination. But this isn’t about me; it’s about why people buy art. It has always interested me, in particular, why people buy paintings. The point at which an artist sells a painting to a buyer is a nexus where more threads than are immediately apparent are involved. To make a painting involves the artist in duels accepted and fought with their medium, and many decisions made, rightly or wrongly. Almost always, the finished work does not accord with the first bright vision that spurred the artist to the work—she always knows what parts went well and those that did not. But it is the critical eye of the buyer I am concerned with and the artist does need to make a buck.

If art does not figure in your life, I recommend you go and look at a good exhibition, like the Rocky Mountain National at CAE in the fall, or a good gallery. Take a moment or two to wander around and see what takes your eye; which paintings can you pass by with barely a glance and which ones arrest your progress? Painting is not a mechanical—or nowadays electronic—record like a photograph, even if it is super-realistic. Interpretation and the results of all those challenges and decisions are embedded within it. If you like a painting, ask yourself why; it’s a series of daubs on a two-dimensional, not-very-interesting surface. The conventional cliché has it that the painting “speaks” to you, which is artspeak, of course, but it has to be that it strikes some silent chord deep within you. People are not generally knowledgeable about the arcane fundamentals of design in a painting, such as composition, space division, subject placement, color adjacency, the influence of edges, and the like, that concern the artist. They do not need to be—they are usually reacting, not analyzing. Why might someone wish to invest some not inconsiderable disposable income in a static display on the wall? There is a multiplicity of reasons, the most infamous being what kind of painting matches the couch or décor. If you buy a painting for that reason, it will rapidly become wallpaper, and nothing more. Whether it be realistic or abstract, good or bad, you have little of yourself invested in it. Financial investment potential is another cold reason that probably does require some knowledge of what actually makes a good painting, but it doesn’t intimately involve the buyer’s psyche. It is that chord struck within the soul that is surely key to the reason. For most people, the formal design principles are only of implicit significance. That essential chord must stir a feeling or memory deep down, often subliminal. For instance, many people buy landscapes or agricultural sub- jects, harking back to simpler times in their childhood, perhaps.

“I have seen paintings that I really liked and didn’t buy, and have often regretted the decisions.”

This was brought home to me one snowy evening, many years ago now, when I received a batch of old emails from my ISP. One of them was from a woman in Buffalo, New York, inquiring about one of my watercolors. The watercolor itself was a small, simple, rural landscape painted from a photograph I took when I was working as a junior architect on a project early in my career. It was taken in a small village in the middle of England. It depicted an old mill, with its sails still intact, standing against a summer sky on the crest of a ridge outside the village. When I’d finished it, I liked the lighting, the gentle sky, and the cloud of crows drifting by. The lady wanted to buy the painting. I have always suffered from reluctance to let my “babies” go, a terrible trait for an artist, but the painting was important to her as a gift for her husband on a significant anniversary. I rather grudgingly consented. The scene actually showed the view from the village street where her husband grew up. An enormous coincidence, but emblematic of the power of the internet and the kind of reason that some people buy a piece of art.

I’d wager that the memory factor, recognized or not, together with the ambiance of the painting, are key parts of the value to a buyer. It may be the color combinations or the subject itself; it may be an intriguing portrait or a calming landscape, but it’s something that supplies a need deep down. I have seen paintings that I really liked and didn’t buy, and have often regretted the decisions. A depiction that evokes the kind of reactions I’ve described is of great value, for wherever you find a place for it in your home, be it pride of place above a mantleshelf or even in a bathroom, it will always be a joy to browse its detail and feeling. The artist lavished love and considerable effort on whatever the subject is and a value far beyond that of a photograph is embedded in it. The artist would remember the location, its scents and the sounds around, and everything about it. You will not know those things, but you will sense that they are there. Mechanical or electronic reproduction can never provide the same impact. So, the next time you pass by the paintings in an exhibition, art gallery or perhaps even CAE, look and see what you may find. Perhaps there is a painting just waiting for you, but the treasure is not really in the painting—it lies within you!

© David Cuin 2024