The Perils of Pricing Artwork

For an artist, pricing artwork can be particularly challenging. Putting a value on one’s own labor, investment in supplies, time, etc can be confusing and daunting- especially when the end product can be deeply personal. There are no real “rules” to what one must charge for their own work (you could hand them out for free if you really wanted to.) However, I’ve learned from teachers and mentors some really helpful guidelines (especially for students just starting out) for tackling this daunting task.

One thing that’s important to keep in mind (and that is always emphasized by professionals and those in the industry), is never to lower the prices of your work. Obviously, this means that the best thing to do is to start at a modest price point that you also feel comfortable with. The reason for this is that it looks pretty unprofessional to buyers if they perceive that your work is depreciating in value, as it would appear to be if you lower your prices over time. For instance, one buyer might see your work in a gallery decrease by 50 dollars, and conclude that they can just wait a few weeks for it to decrease another $50 rather than buying it now. This would also cause dissatisfaction to your previous buyers, as they’d conclude that they were overcharged or made a bad investment. Conversely, it’s a positive thing to see when an artist’s work is appreciating in value, meaning that their prices are gradually increasing over time, as their careers grow. So, starting out modestly gives you lots of room to grow, and makes your work more accessible. That doesn’t  mean that it’s impossible to find success starting at an exorbitant price point, but you’d better hope that that demand never dwindles, or else you’ll be in trouble (recession, anyone?)

More specifically, most people I’ve asked have emphasized the importance of consistency in pricing. For 2-d artworks like drawings and paintings, this means setting up some sort of system- usually charging a certain amount per square inch. In order to do this, once you get serious about producing sellable work, you should buy canvas and paints of a consistent quality (always at least acid-free/archival quality.) This would also make pricing easier because every canvas/paper of a certain size would have cost you the same amount.

It’s also important to remember that the money you make from a work doesn’t need to just cover your time/labor and materials, but your ability to maintain your studio (like rent, utilities), as well as your time for marketing the work in order to sell it (unless you already have a gallery contract). It’s also good to take into account that you’re a skilled laborer. For instance, I’m majoring in painting, and I’ve also taken studio classes at Scottsdale Artists School, not to mention the countless hours I’ve spent on my own time cultivating my skills. So, I’ve invested a significant amount of time and money to become skilled enough to produce the work that I do. That means that my labor has some more value, and that needs to be reflected in the pricing. This isn’t about charging a million dollars for a painting because you’re such a special snowflake for going to art school, but for me, its a good thing to keep in mind because it helps me to see that my work is valuable (and that I deserve to make a good profit on it.) Too many people (and artists) think that just because art can be a “hobby” that artists should be happy to get little compensation for their work.

This might seem contradictory to the above, but I think it’s also important to keep in mind that when you’re just starting out, you may have to sacrifice a bit of your desired profits towards getting exposure and selling more work. That probably means you won’t be able to fully support yourself selling art. For instance, I recently signed on with a gallery that specializes in student work (more detailed update on this to come!) One of the draws of this gallery is that they provide affordable original art. Since my commission to the gallery is 50%, meaning they get 50% of the asking price, this means that I make less money on these paintings than I would selling them on my own. However, being an aspiring artist, right now the valuable exposure and networking that being in this gallery provides is more than worth that discrepancy to me. I likely would have to work considerably hard to try to sell my work on my own, since I don’t have a clientele or following that a gallery has. So, artists shouldn’t feel resentment towards galleries for getting a cut of their profits- they do a lot of work marketing and exposing your work to people who otherwise never would have seen it.

So, these are just some of the challenges that I’ve run into in pricing my work. Art is such a weird business that navigating through it as both a businessperson and creator presents a unique challenge. What problems with art pricing have you run into and how did you overcome them?