As a child, when I wasn’t reading, I was painting or drawing—sketching on the back of church bulletins and scribbling in school notebooks. With art lessons and trips to the library, my parents generously fostered both pursuits. Books and art have remained favorite Christmas and birthday gifts well into adulthood. Today, credit for the small collection of original art that adorns the walls of the Charleston, South Carolina, home my husband and I share with our two children, goes almost entirely to my father, who began gifting my brother and me a piece of art every Christmas throughout our twenties. He would spend the entire year shopping for that just-right piece, something that spoke to him or reminded him of us. 

From Lowcountry landscapes to quiet still lifes to moody abstracts, each piece is special. But even with his guidance and that of the many artists I’ve had the privilege to interview courtesy of my day job as an editor and now freelance writer, I still hesitate to buy new art on my own, often intimidated by the investment. But my husband and I recently moved, and I know there’s no better way to personalize a home than art, so I promised myself I’d jumpstart our collection again. To help me (and you!) get started, we turned to two of our favorite Southern artists for help. Both avid collectors themselves, Greenville, South Carolina, painter Dorothy Shain, and Raleigh, North Carolina-based abstract artist, Eleanor-Scott Davis, share ten pro tips for building a collection that’s unique to you.   

  • Dorothy Shain is an artist and designer based in Greenville, South Carolina.
  • Eleanor Scott Davis is an abstract expressionist painter based in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Look for Emerging Artists

If your walls are blank and you’re truly starting at square one, both Davis and Shain recommend seeking out the work of emerging artists. Artist collectives are a great place to begin your hunt. Davis and Shain are big fans of the digital collective, Well + Wonder, which highlights the works of on-the-cusp Southern artists. “They do the digging for you,” Shain says, which is especially beneficial for new or young collectors. Sign up for their newsletter to get notified first about upcoming releases. Looking for more resources? We’re also fans of the Artist Collective, which has brick-and-mortar locations in Charleston, Nashville, Atlanta, D.C., and Palm Beach. 

Start Small

Most of us aren’t buying largescale 36-inch-by-48-inch canvases right out of the gates. Instead, start with small works that really speak to you. “When you’re first starting an art collection, you’re most likely younger and you’re most likely not in your forever house. Small art transitions between spaces well,” Davis says. Price points are generally more inclusive, too. Petit works are another smart way to invest in the work of an established artist without taking a big hit to your budget. “Investing in small pieces from established artists adds immediate value to your collection,” she says. 

Buy What You Love 

Shain’s own art collection is built on the advice of an old art school professor: “When you find something that for some reason speaks to you—just buy it,” he admonished when she hesitated and nearly let a favorite piece pass her by. “That particular piece was only $10,” she laughs. “Of course, any purchase is price dependent.” Shopping while you travel is an easy way to add pieces with personal appeal to your collection, often without blowing the budget. “Collect things that resonate. It doesn’t even have to be a traditional piece of art. It could be an old coin framed in a cool way. It’s up to you,” Shain says. 

Consider the Mix (Or Don’t) 

“I think that the way you group together art is very personal,” Davis says. “Personally, I love the having a really diverse room. I love something figurative, something abstract, a landscape, and something behind glass in every room. I like for things to speak to each other on color as opposed to subject matter.” But Davis and Shain agree that the collector dictates the mix. There’s no “right” way to collect. “It’s not about things that ‘go’ together,” Shain says. But don’t be surprised if unexpected connections appear as your collection grows. 

Buy Local 

Shain suggests participating in a local art walk to discover new artists in your area. Visiting brick-and-mortar galleries allows you to see an artist’s work in person, which can be especially valuable when you’re considering adding a piece to an existing collection by a new artist, says Davis. And if a local artist offers open studio hours, go! It’s an entertaining and enlightening way to spend an evening, but it’s also a clever time to shop as it’s not uncommon for artists to sell studies and other flat files during those events. 

Look for Works on Paper

For her part, Shain has spent years eyeing artist Sally King Benedict’s abstract faces. When hunting for work by an established artist like Benedict, Shain suggests watching for “works on paper” sales. Benedict herself has offered such sales in the past. These pieces are generally priced lower but remember to take into framing costs when you’re considering your budget.   

Scoop Up Limited-Edition Prints 

Sure, we love original art, but Shain and Davis advise that high-quality, limited-edition prints can be a smart way to add a large work by a favorite artist to your collection at a fraction of the cost while still contributing value to the whole. Artists like Davis and Shain also love prints because they keep their work accessible.

“Look for giclée prints,” Shain says, “which is just a fancy way for saying they’re printed on archival, acid-free paper with high-quality archival ink. Honestly, creating a print is itself a kind of art.” 

Shop Your House 

Before you buy something new, look around your house. Go through a parent’s or grandparent’s attic. You never know what treasures you might uncover. Just ask Davis. One of her favorite pieces in her family’s collection is a framed sketch that her husband won as a child during a presentation at a local museum by renowned paleontologist, Robert Bakker. “It’s just graphic and cool,” she says. “I love it.” 

Leverage the Power of the Social Media

Go ahead and give your favorite artists a follow. Sign up for their newsletters. “There’s something so valuable about Instagram and social media,” Davis says. “Collectors can see the progression of an artist’s work. And artists can develop deeper relationships with their collectors.” You’ll also be among the first to know about the release of new collections or the onset of a sale. Shain suggests going one step further on social media: “Follow writers and editors, too,” she says. “Follow people who you admire. People with good taste or an interest in art.” 

Practice Patience

At the end of the day, both artists advise taking your time—the most interesting collections don’t happen overnight. 


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