How (and why) we choose thrift store art

We’re going to come clean right out of the chute on this post:

We are art snobs.

We’ve got some pretty particular ideas about what is and isn’t OK to put on our walls. This might surprise you if you came to our house, because none of our art is the kind of thing you’re likely to find in a gallery.

red button bird

Our kids generally think our art is “horrible.”

“That’s ugly.”

“Why is that up there?”

“It doesn’t match or go together and it’s just…weird!”

cowboy in frame

They may be right. But we’ve found that getting clear about what we value in a piece of art is helping us find works we love to have surrounding us–and we’ve been able to do it without spending a fortune.

Where do we find our art?

Some of it is our own stuff. Earlier in his life, Cane was a painter, and some of my favorite works are his.

cane's tree painting

A Christmas gift from a few years back. My favorite of all our art.

Obviously, the question of art is much easier to answer if you have a resident artist. I love Cane’s work, and it does adorn many of our walls.

detail of bridge painting

This is a detail from a painting featuring one of Portland’s many bridges.

But, Cane isn’t really painting these days, and we also like to have variety in our artwork. So, we have one other main source of art:  thrift stores.

paint by number

We do want to say upfront that finding pieces we love doesn’t happen every trip. In fact, it doesn’t happen often at all. Every time we go to Goodwill or the Salvation Army, we swing by the art section, and we usually leave with nothing.

As I said, we’re snobs–and we see lots of stuff that doesn’t move us (like these paintings we saw last weekend).

Through lots of looking and talking and occasional buying, though, we’ve figured out what it is that makes a piece something we love enough to put on our walls.

1. Craftsmanship

We know our button bird is an unusual piece that not everyone would love. In fact, we stood in front of it for awhile and tried to decide if we thought it was really great or kinda horrible.

button bird closeup

The more we looked, the more we liked it. What won us over was the clear care that had been taken in its creation. You can see that the artist used the red buttons like paint; they weren’t just randomly sewn onto the fabric. The stitching is nicely done. The bird and the water were placed onto the canvas of the fabric deliberately and purposefully.

There are a few other reasons we really appreciate this piece, but we’ll get to those below.

2. Patina

For us, patina is anything that gives a piece age. Sometimes it’s wear on the paint, sometimes it’s the frame around it, and sometimes it is that a piece is clearly from an earlier era. That’s one of the things we like best about this paint-by-number:

paint by number no frame

For us, paint-by-number evokes our childhoods–a time when this kind of craft was big. We both remember at least starting a paint-by-number when we were kids (though we’re not sure we ever finished one!). For us, they are artifacts of a different era.

However, that doesn’t mean we love every paint-by-number we see. One reason this one made the cut is the craftsmanship we mention above. Whoever painted this took care with it, as you can see in this detail:

paint by number detail

And, it’s got another quality we like:  originality.

3. Originality

We see lots of paint-by-number landscapes, but this one was a bit different. Lack of originality is a primary reason we’ll pass on a piece of art. We like a painting to surprise us in some way. We don’t want it to look like lots of other things we’ve seen.

Lack of originality is the main problem with this one:


We’ve seen lots of seascapes in our thrift store scouting trips.

And, we’ve seen a fair number of cowboy/western works, but this one is an original:

cowboy detail

This cowboy isn’t a cliche. In fact, we wouldn’t be surprised if this is a portrait of a real person. He’s clearly a horseman, but he’s dressed for something other than wrangling cows. We like the way this painting makes us wonder about the story it suggests.

4. Skill

Skill is a little different from craftsmanship. Craftsmanship is about taking care with the work; skill is about executing it well. We don’t expect (or even want) the paintings we collect to be completely skillful, but we like evidence of talent.


In this farm landscape, we see lots of skill. The artist has made rich use of color; it has depth and layers of color, which is often lacking in thrift-store art. You can see it clearly in this detail of the trees:

tree detail

You can see a different, more subtle use of color in the background of the painting:

farm background detail

We really like the depth of color in the sky.

Another strong technical feature of this painting is the composition. The artist has done a really nice job of framing the scene.

For comparison, here’s another farm scene that just doesn’t work as well:

red barn painting

There are some things I really like about this painting, but it’s missing some of the qualities of the one above it. For example, compare the sky in this one to the other farm sky:  This one is one flat shade of blue. The tree is nicely painted, but the fence is not as skillfully rendered. And, when it comes to originality, this one just doesn’t have it. This is a generic barn; to us, it doesn’t ring as true as the other painting.

But maybe that’s because of what’s on the back of that other farm painting–and the story it tells.

5. Story

When I saw the first barn painting in our local Salvation Army, I was initially drawn to it because it’s a skillful work. There is depth of color, the composition was interesting to me, and it didn’t look like anything I’d seen before.

I wasn’t totally sold on it, though, until I looked at the back, and I found this:

farm painting note

This just killed me.

I have no idea who CG is, but I imagine she was, perhaps, Walter’s wife. She was someone who knew the artist, Richard Goss, and valued the painting enough to write a note indicating that this work should stay in the family. I imagine that David is someone who the painting went to; that’s often what a piece of masking tape with a name on it means when an estate is being disbursed.

It killed me that this piece had ended up in the Salvation Army, with a bric-a-brac price tag of $21.99.

price tag

I flipped it back over and really looked at the painting, and I imagined a whole story around it. I imagined a rancher or farmer in a rural part of Oregon who, perhaps, longed to be a painter. It was clear to me that this is not the work of a casual painter. It’s the work of someone who knows some things–a lot of things–about painting.

I wondered about this artist, what his life was like. I imagined it might be hard to be a painter in a small, rural Oregon community –especially in the time this painting was likely made. I can see, though, also from the painting, that this place matters to him. It seems to us a very particular place. It’s not a generic landscape. Cane thinks it likely that it was painted plein air–that the artist was painting while in the scene, not from memory or a photograph.

I wondered about the woman who wrote the note. Clearly she saw the value in this work. I wondered again about the artist, what his life was, what his relationship to her was. Did he never marry? Why?

And why was this piece–once clearly valued–now stacked with a bunch of other junk in the back of a Salvation Army store? That’s what killed me, and it was why I had to buy it.

More artists than galleries

So often, when I’m in a museum or gallery with Cane, I find myself asking:

Why is this considered to be a great work? What makes it stand out from others that are like it?

Cane’s answer often is:  Because of the signature in the corner.

Or: Because of the artist’s whole body of work.

cowboy no frame

Would we have found this in Goodwill if it had a signature at the bottom? Cane thinks not.

As a poet, I’ve read work by unknown writers that is as stunning, powerful, and well-crafted as those that win awards and publication in prestigious journals. I’ve come to believe that there are far more talented artists than there are venues for them.

And, there are very few–for all kinds of reasons–who are able to live in the conditions they need to develop their talent and create their work. Many of them are women, or they are working class, or they or geographically isolated, or they don’t know those who have the power to connect them to the resources they need.

So, they fit their creative work in as they can around the margins of their “real” lives. Just like Cane and I do–and like many of you reading do.

The biggest reason we collect thrift store art

The biggest reason we buy art at thrift stores is not that it’s inexpensive. It’s not that we love the thrill of the hunt. (Although, those are two reasons we buy thrift store art.)

It’s that we have a huge soft spot for work that was clearly important and meaningful to the artist who created it, particularly a talented, unknown artist.

yellow flower

We want to honor and value art made by unknown artists because we want to honor and value the creative drive we think all of us have within us. When we see a work that is the result of study, practice, time, and thought, we know that is the work of someone who was able to realize that creative impulse–at least in the one work we can hold in our hands.

We think that’s pretty cool, and it means way more to us than a generic poster or print ever could.

cowboy head

How about you?

What kind of art do you bring into your home? Why? What is your criteria for selecting those things that you surround yourself with? We’d love to know how you make your choices…please drop us a comment to share your take on art.

Linking to the Thrifty Treasures party at Southern Hospitality–lots of great thrifty finds there!