How to Price Your Artwork

How should I price this piece of art? This may be one of the most common questions all artists wrestle with and patrons wonder about. It’s certainly been challenging for me to figure out what the “right” price is every time I create new work. There are a few common answers artists use as guidelines, but the overwhelming answer is most artists really don’t know. In some ways, we’re all making it up as we go.

You could charge by size, but that doesn’t really do the smaller works justice, does it? After all, the Mona Lisa is only about 30″ x 20″, and it is estimated to be worth over $800 million. This just goes to show you that size, cost of materials, or labor are not the only factors when determining the value of art. However, there is only one Mona Lisa, so those extremes in price aren’t relevant for most of us professional artists. Instead, we do need to consider some of those typical business costs or risk putting ourselves out of business.

For the artists who are trying to generate an income, we certainly need to understand what it costs us to make the work. First, we have a specialized skill that takes decades to master. In some cases, we spent tens of thousands of dollars in college learning to do this. The time we invest in a work is often significant, and the art materials aren’t usually very cheap. If we price them too low, then we end up joining the starving artists of the world. You only have so much time to create the work, and none of us can afford to give them away all the time for “exposure”.

The good news is that coming up with a fair price isn’t too difficult. The market determines the real price if we will listen to it. Like most things, it is simply about supply and demand. The fastest thing you can do to find your price is just to pick one, put the work into the market, and see what the market tells you. If you’re selling out quickly, then you raise the price. If you’re stacking up canvasses in your studio, then it’s time to either keep them, donate them, or lower the price and get some money back for your art supplies.

What “should” you price them at? Here is my personal formula. I believe that my skill and experience puts me in a category of people who tend to make $40 per hour in this economy. If our local minimum wage is $12 and the top medical jobs pay about $150 per hour, then based on my skills I know I’m worth about $40 per hour. I also need to account for the costs involved. A professional, medium-sized canvas can cost about $50 and then there’s the paint, paint brushes, varnish, hanging hardware, studio space, and whatever else you need. You need to factor in the non-paid aspects of the job as well as a small profit margin. Lastly, you need to realize that this is your wholesale price, and you need to double it to get to the retail price. Most galleries charge about 50%, because they have to operate the gallery and pay their own business expenses. Art is not a high volume business, so each piece has to bring the gallery a sizable profit. You could cut the galleries out of your business model and sell them yourself for less, but every hour you spend selling means less time making art. If you don’t create enough art to sell, you’ll also be out of business.

According to some research, 95% of artists cannot support themselves from the sale of their art. They end up doing something else to pay the bills. It’s all too common, but I think some of this is brought on ourselves by not understanding our own worth. We either don’t believe in ourselves or we get desperate for a sale and charge far less than we should incurring a loss. I think that’s why a lot of people wait until their retirement years before they try to do what they love. These wonderful people share with me the struggle they face. They never seem to feel like they’re getting enough money for their work. They often spend 20 hours on a medium sized canvas. If you use my math on something like this, I would price it around $2300 in a professional gallery. These nice people only charge about $500. That means they make $250 before any of their costs, but even without their costs it only makes them $12.50 per hour. With the costs? Probably $6 per hour. No one can live on that in Washington State. We can barely live on the $12!

Here’s the balance to the equation. It’s very possible that there are too many artists compared to the demand. Economics teaches us that when this is the case, some of these people are bound to fail. It’s just like having too many pizza places in the same area. There’s only so much pizza that’s going to be sold, so not everyone is going to do well and will be forced to close. Also, most of the large retailers have a business strategy based on low prices instead of high quality. WalMart is one of the best examples of this. There is simply a smaller pool of buyers for people who want to pay for expensive one-of-a-kind art pieces. That makes the competition between artists and galleries fierce.

As you can see, there are many market forces that affect art sales and determining prices. At the end of the day, I think you just need to put a price on it, get as many people to view it as you can that are interested in finding original art, and see what happens! Learn from your experiences and make adjustments. Or, you could always have a day job and do art on the side for fun. Not every artist needs to feel like money is the only goal. You definitely need to work so you can pay your bills, but does your art have to do this for you? Or could you just make art because you love it! Maybe the price for your art is $0 and you give them away to make people happy. You can certainly do that in your spare time, and it can bring you a lot of joy!

You just need to decide if this is a business for you or a hobby. If it’s a hobby, then that’s amazing! If it’s a business, you need to run it like one and understand that most businesses fail. That’s the reality of the market.

If you have any questions or want some help, send me a message using my contact form and I’ll respond as soon as possible. I wish you the best!

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