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?

The Supposed “High” Cost of Artwork

Meat Market by Megan Koth © 2008

Last semester I had a particularly illuminating conversation with my then-roommate about pricing. She had mentioned how surprised she was with the pricing of the artwork she had seen while attending an artwalk. She mentioned a particular painting about 18×20″ in size that was about $200. I was surprised too, but not because I perceived the price to be too high (like she did) but because I knew it was too low (at least for someone hoping to make a living selling their artwork.)

This conversation only reminded me that too many people just don’t understand what artwork should cost, and why it costs what it costs. My roommate thought that  this person, charging $200 for a painting, must be some sort of bourgeois yuppie overcharging for work and going home to a cushy home or apartment. In reality, either this person made most of  their money elsewhere, or they lived out of their car. More people need to understand that an artist deserves fair compensation for their work.

There is a misconception that the pricing of artwork should just work like any other old job, or by “how many hours” was put into the work itself. This fails to take into account a variety of factors, one being that an artist, unlike someone working an hourly job elsewhere, has to pay a considerable amount for their own raw materials. Any artist will tell you how incredibly expensive art supplies can be, especially when we’re talking about materials of a high enough quality to produce sale-able work (crappy paints are cheap, but nobody wants to buy a painting that will fade/deteriorate over time.) This all has to be paid for by the artist, and all for a resultant work that only MIGHT be sold in the end. Another thing to keep in mind is that when you buy a piece of art, you’re not just paying for the number of hours this artist dedicated to that specific work, but also for the years and years of training and practice that they had to go through (and pay for) to get to the level of experience necessary to produce said work. Artists are skilled laborers, and you should appreciate that. No to mention, in order to produce their work, artists obviously need to pay the rent, eat, and buy toilet paper and whatnot. That stuff doesn’t magically materialize, and if someone works only as an artist, that’s going to have to be paid for through their work.

Another factor that people tend to forget about is that, once a painting is produced, it doesn’t just magically get seen by the right people, or into the right venues, and is sold. The artist then has to go on a daunting and often difficult quest to market, present, and hopefully sell said painting. Lets say an artist wants to sell their work in an art show or fair. First of all, they have to pay for a license/fee to participate in the fair, which can range anywhere from $10 to the hundreds. This is without any guarantee that they’ll even sell one piece. Oftentimes, artists have to pay for their own booth equipment, which can be very expensive. Then, they have to spend the entirety of the fair managing their booth. This is work. If this kind of thing was not factored in as work in the pricing, the artist would likely have no time to sit around a booth for an entire weekend when they could be working somewhere else earning an hourly wage. If an artist wants to instead sell through a gallery? Chances are, the artist is only seeing 50% or less of the asking price listed.

German Vegetables by Megan Koth © 2009

And finally, the overall notion is this: people need to understand that a piece of artwork is a one of a kind object created by someone with great skill and expertise. It is not a mass produced product that can be produced to the highest level of efficiency in materials, labor (or even underpaid labor), and time to ensure the cheapest price possible. It’s produced (oftentimes) by a single, imperfect human being, who’s making something new. Imagine buying a painting as similar to buying a song, like on iTunes, from a musical artist. Only, you’re the only one that can ever buy that track, and then the artist can never make any money from that song ever again. They can’t re-sell it, and you can’t make any copies of it.  That song download is it. Whatever you paid for that song is all they’re ever getting paid for all the work they put into it. Whereas producing endless copies of music data is virtually free (once it’s been produced), the same can’t be done with a painting or drawing (at least not without completely changing the format of the work.) I understand that this means comparatively higher (much higher) prices on original artworks, that, lets face it, a lot of people can’t afford. However, artists, if they want to make a living doing what they do, have to charge these prices in order to sustain themselves. It’s that simple. When things aren’t mass produced, you have to pay for that discrepancy.

So, please, fellow artists, charge fairly for your work, in a way that you can support yourself and, most importantly, the creation of future work. Seriously, when you price your work for so little, it warps buyers expectations of what artists should “deserve” for their work. And to buyers, understand all that goes into a piece of art, and understand just what a bargain you’re getting.