Art: a beginner's guide

Purchasing a painting has never been easier, but most of us are coy when it comes to nailing our tastes to the wall. Art virgin Deborah Ross set out to try and find a suitable match for her sofa
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The Independent Online

Where to start, with this thing called "art"? I just don't know. I really don't. I don't own a single original work of art, unless you count the calendars my son, on occasion, has brought back from school, decorated with dried lumps of penne or farfalle, sprayed gold on the whole, and largely poor in composition, but which I always hang on the fridge out of consideration for his feelings. I might further confess that when Athena, the poster chain, finally closed down, a little something in me died.

Where to start, with this thing called "art"? I just don't know. I really don't. I don't own a single original work of art, unless you count the calendars my son, on occasion, has brought back from school, decorated with dried lumps of penne or farfalle, sprayed gold on the whole, and largely poor in composition, but which I always hang on the fridge out of consideration for his feelings. I might further confess that when Athena, the poster chain, finally closed down, a little something in me died.

But I do want to learn about art, with the aim, perhaps, of even owning a little something, and for the last few weeks, as someone who knows nothing about art, I've been on a learning curve the shape of a hockey stick. I've been to art fairs, exhibitions, museums. I've watched late-night BBC4 programmes on Philip Guston. I've Googled and Ebayed artists and works until the early hours of the morning, until my mind has gone as explosively and viscerally bonkers as a vast, mad Jackson Pollock (Lavender Mist Number 2).

I've even visited the galleries on London's Cork Street, which, for someone who is more Matalan than Prada, might have been a step too far. My, how those polished floors squeak underfoot. Is this so that you know that they know that you know that you are there? You could always slip in and out of Athena without any squeak problems at all.

So, where to start, with this thing called "art", if you do suddenly decide that you'd like, perhaps, to own a little something. Hang on, why would I like to own a little something? Why does anyone want to own original art? I'm sure there's a thesis or two out there, running to 892 pages or so, trying to answer just such a question, but I'm not sure that there can be one answer.

Is it because I've got the house and the car and the big telly and the Matalan card, and it's just the next thing to shop for? Could I be so shallow? Yes. Certainly. In fact, my middle name is "shallow". Is it for the kudos? Again, perhaps. Kudos does come into it, whatever anyone might say. Otherwise, why buy an original when you could buy a print? It's the same thing you're looking at, after all. Does someone who buys a Picasso, say, and then finds it to be fake, like it quite so much from then on? I don't think so. Plus, of course, it's not worth tuppence after that. Art as an investment, I'm told, is like buying shares: catch a new artist on the way up, or a rated one on the way out, and you can make a good pile.

But I'm genuinely not interested in that. I want a work of art mostly, I think, because many of my friends are art-lovers, always off to the Tate, White Cube, the Saatchi Gallery. Some even belong to Art Clubs, pooling resources and rotating the works around their houses. (I was asked to join one, and declined, although I did think of rushing to Athena, or its equivalent, and pocketing the difference). I envy the enjoyment they get from it, the passion they have for it, the hours they hotly discuss who is doing what, and why they love it or hate it, the sheer pleasure they get from choosing something, having it, looking at it, living with it. I like books. I like music. I like theatre. Can a work of art ever do for me what a great read or symphony or play can? And if it hasn't yet, does that mean I'm visually illiterate in some way? That there is no hope? Now, let's go...

First stop, the London Contemporary Art Fair, held annually at Islington's Business Design Centre. There is some sniffiness about art fairs - too mass-market, too down- market, too many hip-young-things looking for something to match their sofa. But I say, why not? Who wants something that doesn't match their sofa? I think fairs are brilliant, especially for the novice, the art virgin; a hundred galleries under one roof, no doorbells, no squeaky floors, no Prada'd assistants looking you up and down, assessing whether you are good enough to own what they are selling (Um, no. But what the hell. It does match my sofa. And my handbag. Clashes with the kids, though. Could you arrange to put them up for auction?).

I go with two art-loving girlfriends, one to hold each hand as I'm something of a special-needs case. I've made them promise to stop me from exiting with rubbish, with the visual equivalent, say, of Danielle Steele or Radio 2 or The Mousetrap - easy reading, easy listening, total crap - when I could have bought Kafka or Beethoven's Fifth or Stoppard. We are, in turn, accompanied by Cat Newton-Groves, of suite77, an art consultancy that helps people and businesses to buy or commission art, and who is working at the fair as a "personal shopper". Cat is lovely and not scary. Cat is all for making art more accessible, less élitist, less squeaky-floored. The only trouble is that, before we set off, Cat wants to know what I like. And, you know what? I don't even know if I know that.

Here's another thing about buying art. Everyone says, "Just buy what you like", as if it's as simple as that. It's what my girlfriends say, repeatedly. But it's easy for them to say, because they know what they like; and it's easy for Cat to say, because she knows what she likes. It's not so easy for me, because I don't.

Hey, I tell you what, girls, you tell me what you like and then I can like it, too! I'm not even sure I know, frankly, how to look at art. Yes, I know what serious art-collectors are now thinking, that I'm a right old lowbrow dimwit. And I don't doubt it. ("Dimwit" as a middle name might even suit me better than "shallow"...) But I'm heartened by the thought that, surely, there are more people out there nervous about starting to buy art than those who've been doing so for years. So, let's press on. Cat presses brightly on.

Can I think of anything that moves me in some way? Antony Gormley's figures seem very powerful, I say, rather pathetically. I add, with more conviction, that I don't want a Damien Hirst print, which, surely, is now the equivalent of a Burberry cap. You might as well wear a sandwich-board saying, "FASHION VICTIM". I might want something with a water theme, as I love the sea, beaches, lakes, swimming-pools. I don't want anything too conceptual - my limitation, I know, but I'm just not advanced enough for it, don't have the foundations in place. I've tried to understand it but, at the moment, I know I've more chance following the plot in a bowl of alphabet soup. (A friend recently took her little daughter to a gallery, where her daughter took her shoes off, the better to slide on the polished floors. When my friend returned to collect the abandoned shoes, she found a couple circling them thoughtfully. She apologised and left, hastily, with the shoes. Silly moo. She should have labelled them Startrite: red series III, and sold them for £12,000.)

I have nothing against that sort of art, and don't even think "but is it art?" - which must be the most often-asked question of the century - is particularly worth asking. I'm just not ready for it. I'm asked what my budget is. I shrug non-committally, hoping to get away with not much. Yeah, right.

So, off we go. I think I might want a painting, but my friends and Cat want me to look at other stuff first. Glass and ceramics, for example, are very on the up since Grayson Perry won the Turner. I'm shown the work of Rachel Woodward - beautiful, richly coloured glass verticals, but they don't really speak to me, and they're £4,500 (ouch), and anyway, where would I put such an object, in a Victorian terrace that also houses a ball-mad boy? One cricket ball and, kerash, £4.500 splintered all over the floor.

Ditto with Kate Malone's wonderfully sensuous pots, at about £3,000. I see installations, multimedia work, photography, light art, vivid pop art... But no, I want a proper painting. I see Ian Davenport's paintings, which would be perfect circles if it weren't for the drips. He's very in, by all accounts, but the drips simply make me want to wet a tissue and dab them away. This, I'm guessing, is why I'm not an artist. I see two massive Julian Opie screen-prints - We Lounged by the Pool, We Swam in The Sea - but they're £7,000 a pair, and I'd have to get our roof removed to fit them in. I spend seven hours at the fair, by which time £7,000 seems like quite good value. It is a rich man's game. I realise, eventually, that you can't buy art in a day, and I go home, utterly knackered.

I did learn a few things, though, about what I want. I do want a painting, and I do want it to show some kind of technical strength, artistic merit. Last year, I visited both the Picasso and Dali museums in Spain, and what struck me most was what brilliant conventional artists they were before they went their own way, before Picasso went all cubey and Dali went into melty watches. (I am pleased to say I never bought a melty-watch poster from Athena.) I did feel, almost instinctively, that they'd earnt the right to play with the form. So, I want something that shows the artist can paint. Hey, look! I'm starting to have opinions!

So the search goes on. And on and on. I learn more. I go to the National Portrait Gallery, for the first time. Sensational. I go to see Gavin Turk's brass casts of bin-liners. Interesting, but how are you meant to own them? (I'd like to put one out for our dustmen, though. They've trailed litter down our path ever since I failed to have enough money to give them a Christmas tip.) I go to the Cork Street galleries - ding-dong, squeak-squeak. Indeed, it gets to the point where, whenever my partner sees me coming at him with a catalogue, he screams and locks himself in the pantry.

And I trawl the internet endlessly, finally arriving at Britart.com, where I think I see something I like. It's oil on canvas. It's clouds, but dramatic ones - pinks and blues, with light breaking through. I arrange to see it in the gallery. It looks good on their big wall, with a light on it. I arrange to have it delivered. I put it on my small wall with no lights on it, and the bloody thing dies. Honestly, it's as if all the energy has somehow been leached from it. With a broken heart, I send it back. (I'm not naming the artist, because it's not the artist's fault. It's my stupid house with its stupid walls.)

I'm just beginning to think that buying art is like falling in love - it tends to happen when you are least looking for it - when I remember something. A painter I'd glimpsed at the art fair. Lisa Wright. Swimming-pool paintings. With children in. Amazingly, the London gallery that represents her turns out to be in north London, not far from me. I go to have a look.

I'm taken with One In One Out II, with its creamy turquoises and carmine-outlined children. I'm taken with the familiarity of the scene - how many hours have I spent by pools watching children being taught to swim? I'm taken by the movement in the water suggested by just a few strokes, the goggles on the boy suggested by just two fat blobs. She can paint alright. I'm also taken with her CV. Cat taught me to ask about CVs, so I did. Wright lives and works in Cornwall. She studied at the Royal Academy Schools, and last year won the prestigious Hunting art prize.

The painting costs more than my car is probably worth, but I do the deed. It's now on my wall, and I do get huge amounts of pleasure from looking at it, from noting how the colours change in different lights. Some will doubtless think that I haven't been adventurous enough, that I've played it safe. But you know what? I don't care. I truly don't. Goodness, what does this mean? That I know that I like it? Oh, one last thing. Treat me with respect from now on. I own art.

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