How Do You Know If A Piece of Abstract Art is Good or Bad?

When the average person looks at a piece of abstract art, they often don’t understand it – at all. Some might even argue that all abstract artwork is completely awful and they “just don’t get it.” I mean, which side is UP on that painting? As strange as it sounds, you can develop the taste to discern what is good abstract and what is, less than good. All attempts are worthy, but if you’re collecting for investments purposes or simply an interest in art, it helps to know when you’re staring at genius vs. amateur.

I used to sell a lot of my own artwork back in the 1990s on eBay. Then I took a break from art because it just wasn’t fun anymore. My years of selling on eBay were particularly valuable at assessing a piece of artwork. (You see what collectors are buying.) Though I had the usual art history courses in college, spent a summer in Paris going from gallery to museum to gallery. Then visited galleries and museums all over Los Angeles and San Francisco. I also was a frequent visitor to Kansas City’s (I grew up in northwest Missouri) world-class Nelson-Atkins Museum and their Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. I lived Pasadena, CA, for a couple years and often walked over to the Norton Simon Museum and the Pasadena Museum of California Art. My brother worked at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art for a few years so I was in and out of the place many times. (Interesting back rooms that aren’t open to the public.) I have so many art stories I could go on for the next 50 years.

Back to eBay. The art market on eBay is pretty much the worst place to sell art. But it’s a great place to BUY art if you know what you’re looking for. 

Using various searches on eBay, it allows you to see which pieces of artwork have the highest auction rates and the most bids. If you watch the artwork that has actual buyers for higher prices, you’ll start to see what collectors are willing to spend money on. It’s not always completely accurate though (a buyer might be looking for a particular green abstract to match their living room paint color, for no other reason). But if you start scanning eBay on a regular basis you start to notice that people are paying money for certain types of art. And most of these pieces have the following qualities.

Consistent technique. The flow from one side to the next is cohesive. It doesn’t look as if it was the first time someone has done it.

The colors match. Or are deliberately and obviously mismatched. Crayola red clashes with Martha Stewart teal. If the colors don’t work well together, it’s likely less sophisticated. Superb color really is what separates the masters from everyone else. 

It’s timeless. It should “work” as well now as it did 50 years ago, as it will 100 years from now.  Timeless.

Confident. The artist creating the piece knew exactly what s/he was trying to do, and did so without hesitation. There are no uncomfortable paint strokes that seem to turn with hesitation. Even Jackson Pollock known for his expressionist type of abstracts (paint splatter paintings) had rhythm in his technique. It wasn’t just random paint splatter.

Even consistent paint texture. One thing I don’t personally care for is paint applied like plaster to a canvas. The texture and thickness of the paint on the canvas shouldn’t be a distraction to the color and composition.

Does it look “executed” and planned? Or does it look like someone bought a canvas and some paints, and just started putting paint randomly on the canvas? I can tell by looking at an abstract painting if it “sings” or if the color balance is a mess.

Does it have complexity? A person painting abstracts year after year starts to develop and grow as an artist. So you won’t see basic paint techniques. Often you will see techniques and complexities that you can’t even replicate yourself because they have been so fine tuned by the artist over many years.


I have several binders of magazine clippings I’ve saved over the years. Every time I see a photo of a room interior with a particularly interesting piece of artwork in say Architecture Digest, I remove the page and add it to a binder. What I now have is a collection of hundreds of the best art in beautiful interiors. These are great for inspiration and ideas.