“Art is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it.”
So they say.
“I’ll give you $50 for it.”
Says every friend or family member at some point.
“Can you do it for free?”
We’ve all been there!
We artists put a lot of time, money, thought, effort, skill, energy, marketing, talking, into producing a painting and trying to sell it… then a year or two later, finally, someone shows an interest. They see the price, and say something like, “Wow, that much… for that? How about I give you $50 for it.”
Does this mean the artwork is only worth $50? Right about now the internal screaming begins, while your face forms some resemblance of a smile, as your brain simultaneously decides how to reply and explain that their offer is offensive without being rude. All you can think is “$50? Are you kidding me? That doesn’t even cover the cost of the blank canvas! Nevermind the cost of paint, my time and effort. How do you expect me to live off that? What do you think this is, a hobby? Don’t you have any idea what goes into making art?”
Come on, don’t lie, if you’re an artist, you’ve had these thoughts before, especially if you’re just starting out.
Well, in all honesty, the answer is no, they really don’t know.
And if you’re someone who has offered an artist a fraction of the asking price of a piece of art before, don’t worry, not all artists are secretly angry and screaming at you internally. Ha!
What we, as artists, have to remember is that non-artist types legitimately don’t know what goes into the creation and selling of art. I mean, creative process aside, the financial and business aspect of it is just a dark mysterious void they have never stepped into before, so how would they know? This could also be said about new artists who are unsure how to price their artwork, or feel they are overcharging their work when in reality, they might be undercutting themselves a lot! I know I was.
When I first moved back to Muskoka, and started getting some recognition up here, the first thing many art industry folk said to me was my prices were way too low. To me, I thought they were pretty high.
Pricing artwork is hard. We’ve all struggled with it. And buyers struggle with understanding the prices we do settle on. To them, they’re just numbers we pull out of a hat. Why is this painting $200 while this one is $1400? Who came up with those numbers? Why?
I’m no expert, but let me break it down using one of my own paintings here as an example. And after, I’ll go over how I price mine.
I did this cost analysis a few years ago when I was living in Toronto.
Artwork: Lying awake at 3am
30” x 30”, acrylic on canvas.
Sale Price: $880
“Holy shit! $880??!!”
Yeah, I know. Right?
Let’s break it down first by cost of materials, then time spent, then all the additional costs that most people, even artists, may not think about when considering prices.
Extra Heavy Gel - 8oz: $20
Gloss Varnish 4oz: $14
Paint: Mid-Grade Acrylic, 8oz bottle, $8-$10. 4 colours total, so about $36
Canvas: This particular one was about $30 or more, if I remember correctly.
Total expenses so far: $100
So already, before even creating anything, that $50 offer is less than half the cost of materials alone. Moving on.
So now $880 minus $100 = Remaining Potential Profit: $780
And that would be if you slapped the paint on the canvas in two seconds and sold it the next day.
Now, to actually MAKE the art, here are the things I calculated:
Looking for the right reference photo.
Designing the actual artwork, how it will look on the canvas.
Deciding/practicing a few techniques to use.
Drawing the design on the canvas.
Doing the actual painting itself. This was pretty experimental and the whole thing hit me at about 3am one night. I got up immediately and just started to paint. Hence the title of the piece.
Applying two layers of varnish.
Attaching the hanging wire.
Total: 7 hours (This is an estimate. I didn’t actually time myself) We’ll get back to this number later. So you have the artwork. Now, to sell it.
First, it goes up on my website, which I pay about $300/year to host, and I design and edit it all myself. But let’s just exclude that time and expense from this example altogether because that’s more of a business overhead cost, not something I rely on paying for with this one single sale.
So aside from my website, I need to put this into an art show to get it seen. It may cost me a $30 hanging fee. I put it into another show, it cost another $35 hanging fee. Let’s say I put it into another 3 shows, for “exposure”. They all cost somewhere between $25 - $40. A piece might be displayed dozens of times before attracting a potential buyer. For this example, let’s just say I put it in a mere 5 shows and sold it in the 5th show. At an average of $30/show, that would be $150 spent just to get this painting SEEN by people.
Remaining Potential Profit: $630
Now, getting to and from the gallery to drop it off ahead of the show, attending the show, and then picking it up after the show, that’s 3 round trips (6 payments to public transit), costing $3.25 each (rates at the time), totals $19.50, so let’s just round up to an even $20/show.
Times all 5 shows = $100
Total Expenses thus far (materials, hanging fees, transportation): $350
Remaining Potential Profit: $530
Next up, commission fees. This varies, but galleries can take anywhere from 10% - 30%, or more of your sale. So let’s just say 20% average. That’s a pretty common figure.
So 20% of my sale price ($880) is a commission fee of $175.
Total Expenses on this painting now (materials, hanging fees, transportation fees, gallery commission fee): $525
The painting cost me, the artist, $525 to make and sell.
Since it sold (hypothetically), that makes the total profit: $355 (out of the $880 sale price).
So what? You sold a painting! $355 is not bad at all, some would argue. You should be happy. Sure, if this was a hobby. But it’s not. For many artists, it’s the start of a business, and their time costs money too.
Remember when I told you how many hours it took to make this painting? Let’s go back to that number now. 7 Hours. Not a long time, really.
Well let’s add some more time to that, because the time to make the art is separate from the time spent selling the art. I had to take time traveling to and from the galleries, and there’s the 3-4 hours at the exhibit talking and networking, trying to make the sale. For the sake of this example, let’s say it takes 30 mins to get to the gallery, plus 3 hours at each show.
For those 5 shows, that’s another 3 hours each in travel time, a total of 15 hours, plus the 15 hours of networking and sales pitches about you and your art. And I’m not even going to factor in the countless hours spent on social media promoting your work. Total hours spent:
7 hours making the art.
15 hours traveling to and from galleries.
15 hours networking/selling the piece at the shows.
Total: 37 hours
Divide the remaining profit of the sale ($355) by the total time spent making and selling it (37 hrs) and you get my hourly wage on that one painting = $9.59/hour
From a business point of view, that's very low pay. Imagine the artwork took 25 hrs to make. 37 hrs becomes 55 hrs. Now I'm only worth $6.45/hr. Or say I did another 10 shows just to get it sold. 10 more shows, using the above averages, would cost an additional $200 in travel expenses and 60 hours of time, leaving me with $155 profit, clocking in at a whopping $1.59/hour wages for my time.
At a certain point, The artist would end up spending MORE on trying to sell the painting than they'd make on the sale itself, and at that point, all the time spent would have been for FREE, because they didn't make enough on the sale to cover any of their time, not even a single hour.
But still, with a profit of $355 would have only been about ¼ of my monthly expenses (at the time). That whole process could have taken place over the span of two years, but that one sale would have only covered ¼ of a single month out of the 24 months it took to sell it.
So as a business, you can see how in order to actually live and make a living as a working artist, the prices are actually still very low and making the artist very little profit in the long run, unless they consistently make multiple sales every month.
This is one of a kind, original, locally created artwork - a piece of the artist's heart and soul - not a mass produced canvas print you can pick up at IKEA for $25 that is hanging on tens of thousands of livingroom walls all across the world.
So if you've ever offered an artist a fraction of the listed price for a piece of art, and their eye starts to twitch and their breathing quickens and they take a few moments to kindly decline the offer, this is why.
This is also why many artists have a full time job, and have to do all that work in their “spare time”. That’s why people consider art a hobby. But given all I’ve outlined above, that is one expensive “hobby”. That is why artwork is priced the way it is. If you’re lucky enough to sell a piece right away, then you make more money on that sale because your overall expenses are far lower. This is also why a piece might increase in cost the longer it hangs around, or why artists might inflate the costs when showing it somewhere, because that inflation accounts for the commission fees and hanging fees of that show, so those fees don’t cut into their overall profits.
Now, this is just one theoretical scenario using a pretty quick painting, budget friendly materials, and a few attempts to sell it at a handful of group exhibits, meant to show the larger financial picture that many, if not most, people are completely unaware of when it comes to art and art pricing. And it's different for everyone and every kind of art.
For me, the past year (2022) was the most successful year I’ve ever had in the 20 or so years I’ve been working at building an art business. I finished the year at about -$100. I know that sounds crazy. Like, how could I consider that the most successful year when I’m actually in the hole almost $100? Because I actually made about $3200 on selling artwork, a few commissions, and my various gift shop items and merch I had for sale at a few retail stores and markets. That’s the most sales I’ve ever made in a single year.
However, my expenses were about $3300. So while I made a lot of sales, I still didn’t even cover the cost of just the materials and production of my merchandise by year end. This doesn’t cover ANY of the time I spent on every single business related task for the year... like artwork creation, merch design, website updates and design, social media, writing blog posts, travel, planning, or days of work I missed to attend events or markets, or gas used driving around to these things, or vendor fees to enter things, website hosting fees, etc, etc. I did all of that for free this year.
Silver lining: I'm not in the hole $3300, like other years where I've sold nothing at all. My business at least paid for itself this year, and that is quite amazing to me.
All I’m saying here is, art is very expensive to make, promote, and sell. So when someone offers “50 bucks” for a painting that has cost the artists 5, 10, 20 times that, it’s understandable that they would feel a bit offended or struggle to suppress their internal screaming remain calm while politely refusing the offer.
I hope this was useful information for both artists and non-artists alike.
So, with all that in mind, how do you price your artwork?
It's a lot more difficult than just guessing at a number and slapping a high price on it.
You’ll find all kinds of people out there telling you how to do this in a variety of ways, and they will all have their own input as to what things to factor in. Material costs, your desired hourly wage, time spent, experience or skill level, etc, but so much of that is subjective and I find it would be hard to get a rational price in the end because those costs will change for just about every painting you do, and everyone will want to say their time is worth $50/hour. Haha. You have to compare yourself to the market. My tattoo artist charges $125/hr, but I think that's completely reasonable considering what I'm asking them to do to me. It's forever. It's an investment. Like art... but permanently inked into my skin.
The most common way to price artwork seems to be by square inch.
Simply multiply the length of the painting by the width, in inches. Then, multiply that by a set dollar amount.
For me, I charge $1.00/sq in for anything 30” x 30” or smaller. And $1.25/sq in for anything larger and commissions of any size.
I charge more for larger paintings because they are “oversized”, take longer, require more effort to store and transport around, use more paint, and are generally just more of a “hassle” than a smaller canvas. And commissions, because the added time of communicating with the client, the higher expectations of the artwork, the added pressure of making something for someone else, and just the fact that once I sell that piece to them, it no longer belongs to me. I can’t reproduce the image in other forms to make any additional money off the design, say on a mug, in a calendar, on a pillow case, or canvas print. It’s a private piece that belongs to the buyer.
This way of pricing artwork keeps all artwork pricing consistent since each piece is consistent in style, time, materials, etc. So it’s just a matter of scaling up the price with the size of canvas. If I did 10 canvases of the same size, they’d all work out to about the same cost and time to produce.
To find my dollar amount, I will look at other artist who also paint on canvas with acrylic, whether in a similar style or not and apply my price to the size of their work. If they are similar in price, then I know I’m in the right range to not seem out of place in my pricing.
For example, a 30” x 30” piece would come to $900.
30"x30" = 900 square inches
900 x $1.00 = $900
When I look at someone else's artwork, let's say a 12" x 24" piece at $250, I can just do the math backwards (find the total square inches, then divide the price by the total square inches), or just price it as if it were my own piece.
So in the first method, doing the math backwards:
12x24 = 288
250 (price) / 288 sq in = $0.86
So this artwork is priced at $0.86/sq in. That’s $0.14 less than my pricing.
The second method, price it as if it were mine:
12x24 = 288
288 x 1.00 = $288
So if I did this piece, my price would come to $288. That's $38 more than their price.
So my work is priced slightly higher than theirs. If they were to do one 30” x 30” keeping consistent in price ($0.86/sq in) it would cost $774, so about $126 less than me.
If I was doing this to a few dozen other pieces and found that my work was always coming up less than everyone else’s, I’d consider increasing my pricing to stay within the current market. If my pricing always came up higher, and I wasn’t making any sales, then I’d consider lowering it until I establish more of a name for myself.
The important thing to remember is, once you have set your prices and believe them to be fair and reasonably balanced in the market, be confident in your work and your price. That will go a long way in securing a sale. If you come across as though you believe your artwork is expensive or overpriced, you could be the reason a buyer isn't confident in paying that price for your art.
When people question or seem skeptical about the pricing, avoid saying things like:
“I know it’s a bit pricey, but…”
“I had to increase my pricing because…” “It seems high, but if you compare it to…” Just say, “Yes, that’s my pricing.” Anyway, that’s all for today.
Leave a comment below if you’re a new artist who found this helpful! Or a seasoned artist with additional stories to add! Or even if you’re not an artist at all and found this insightful… I’d like to hear from you too!
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