Painting or print, decorator’s piece or an authentic artwork? Kya deLongchamps gives you some tips on how to spot the real thing. 

REAL Pollocks and Picassos are unlikely to dress up the grass at Munster boot-sales, but heaps of jumbled paintings turn up at auctions and sales everywhere. 

It’s worth researching the basics of spotting that genuine work of art from a cheerful reproduction or deliberate red herring.

Treat any painting or drawing as a whole. The back of a painting can sometimes tell you more about it than the front, but be wary. Fakers are fantastically inventive in small and large numbers. 

Resin frames, with a good dusting can read as wood on an overcast day. An even layer of murky wash and a couple of phoney gallery labels are not enough. The timbers of a frame and the stretcher for a canvas will have oxidised over time, the joints may have moved or loosened.

If it seems too good to be true and it’s more affordable than you would expect, it’s probably a rogue piece or an honest reproduction misrepresented as real (the latest print techniques can fool even many general antiques dealers). 

Look for genuine signs of age in the canvas and stretcher, flaking and minor damage, signatures and dating.

Get to know your oils from your pastels, your watercolours from your acrylics and gouache. It’s not complicated. Oil paint carries lots of sticky moisture and dries slowly. As it does, the peaks of even thick impasto paint tend to soften off. 

These slow drying times allowed artists to clear off whole areas of the canvas, whereas the more modern acrylic favoured today by amateur artists can be relatively dry after just a quarter of an hour. 

Where there are areas of raised paint in an acrylic (they are generally flatter unless the artist uses an additive), these peaks of paint will be sharper. Oil paint is rich in pigment, retaining glossy, deep reaches of colour. 

Layered paintings with a shiny finish and lots of raised random texture are generally oil paintings and you may be able to find a wash of ground colour under the paint where there’s a chip or over the edges on the canvas stretcher.

Acrylic is a more modern medium and it can deliver a lovely flat, jewel-like surface retaining some marks and brush strokes. Watercolour, though flat and more transparent than oil--based paint, does have some subtle texture to it when it dries. 

There may be areas where the paper was made a little too wet and has swollen or dimpled down just very slightly.

Already rough paper may be raised where something was over worked into the paper pulp, and you can find sketch marks under the paint, and brush strokes with a very close eye-ball or loupe examination. Ensure these strokes in any painting follow the line of features in the image, just as in oil or acrylic works. 

Behind glass, it is very hard to see these subtle traces of authenticity, but you’ll probably find signs of a print in the meantime. Looks like a watercolour, but seems too opaque? It may be gouache, which is made up with water but carries denser pigments.

Just to take a step back — a print can be divided into mass produced prints and fine art prints created by hand by the artist in limited runs and pressed onto high quality paper. There are a vast range of photo-mechanical and engraving or other techniques in art prints.

What we need to identify are both the old style ‘Ben-Day’ dot surface of a bog standard reproduction and the newer ‘giclee’ prints. If you see a printed © sign, you are obviously looking at a print, however limited the run. This may be lost under the edge of the frame, so look carefully.

Unless large runs of factory made prints have some vintage interest or rarity (posters, signed advertising sheets, vital political and historical propaganda), they will be worth a scant fraction of an original in an artist’s medium, including signed, fine art prints.

If you cannot get the artwork out of the frame (impossible if you don’t own it or the frame’s not falling to piece), hold it up to the light and let the light rake the surface of the painting. Textured printing on real canvas has been around since the 1950s, so even a vintage painting can be a dud.

If the texture of an oil, acrylic or pastel seems too unvarying, even where there appears to be brush or knife marks, or its dead flat (you may be able to peek under the edge between the glass and the surface, chances are it’s a factory-made piece of a scanned artwork. Giclee printing (to spatter out), is very finely done, eliminating any dots. 

It uses a high resolution ink jet printer. With an even tone and lack of dots, these pieces look highly convincing. Crackle glazes are not a sign of authenticity by themselves, and in Asia glicee prints are carefully enhanced with real paint strokes by highly talented artisans on a factory line.

Giclee, though not properly a ‘painting’, is becoming regarded as a craft in itself and made in the individual artist’s studio, but it’s important to recognise that what you are buying is a lovely decorator’s piece or a one-off. Signatures can be added to no account vintage paintings and drawings to confuse us about their creator.

If you’re not sure of the provenance of something, walk away and go to a reputable gallery. They will stand over the artwork with a written certificate, authenticating what they know of the picture with their years of experience having examined thousands of paintings, drawings, ceramic and sculpture with a wry eye.


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