Setting Prices for Artwork

Recently there was a post in a forum asking for advice on setting a price for artwork:

“I need some pricing help! How do you guys price your art to sell? … I don’t want to become another artist who charges a fortune and no one buys anything. HELP! How do you guys charge for your art?!?!”

Of course I have an opinion… which goes something like this:

First and foremost, you need to be fair to yourself. You need to be setting a price that pays you a living wage… no one should ask you to work for less. Some artists price emotionally instead of using a good business model which is unfortunate because it causes other artists a lot of grief (and explaining) and really confuses art buyers, especially new or casual buyers. Artists who price emotionally also run the highest risk of either drastically underpricing their work, or becoming one of the ones you mention who cannot sell their work because they’ve way overpriced it — and both of these experiences can defeat an artist who is just getting started in the market.

So how do you determine the right prices, how do you hit that sweet-spot between undervaluing your work and pricing yourself out of the market? And what exactly is your market?

First I want to address the idea of “market”…In the past your market was pretty much defined by your geographic region, the area you were willing to drive or ship your work to. These days your market can be wherever and whoever you conceive it to be. With the various online tools available to us now, location is no longer the limiting factor to determining your market. That said, it is even more important than ever to carefully consider your portfolio. Don’t put every single piece you’ve ever done on a website, Facebook, or Linked-In. Put only your very best work out there. If you cannot decide which pieces best represent you, poll your friends and family (try really hard not to be put off by their comments and suggestions). And if you feel like you absolutely must put that piece you did ten years ago (when you were first learning your trade), be aware that it probably doesn’t represent your current abilities and strengths, and it will affect how buyers evaluate the worth of your work.

The formula for determining price is really quite simple (however it is really hard to get comfortable with). You need to take into account your time, materials and supplies (and their associated costs), and overhead (a portion of your household expenses if you work in your home or all of your studio costs if you maintain a separate studio). Materials, and to some extent, overhead are relatively easy to determine. Time can be a real bugaboo… especially if you haven’t been paying attention to how long it takes you to do a piece. You will need to initially make your best guess, and then become obsessive about keeping track. You’ll need to decide if you’re comfortable including planning and deliberating within your billable hours, along with the time it takes to learn a new skill or process… In general I usually weigh that decision based on the exclusivity clause: am I going to be able to apply this planning/deliberation/learning to future projects or is it only applicable to this one project or this one commission? Once I have that figured out I can decide how much of it — if any — should be built into the price of an art work…

The other conundrum you need to think about is the wholesale / retail price issue. If you EVER intend to sell in galleries or shops, you must be selling to individuals at a price that would be comparable to what a retailer would price your work at for a significant period of time before you begin to move your work through a retail establishment. No gallery will pay you the same amount you have been selling at — they cannot, they also need to make a living wage. They are going to expect to purchase your work at 40 to 60% of what you are currently selling it for, so be sure to add that markup into your calculations when selling to individuals. If you get into a gallery or shop, and they learn that you are underselling them, you will loose the gallery and probably not find another soon.

There is often quite a bit of guilt and a whole lot of uncertainty for most artists when they are pricing for individual sales. What you need to remember is that you deserve that extra compensation BECAUSE you are acting as your own retail agent… which is taking up your valuable creative time. You are out on the streets looking for customers; you are enduring arts fairs and festivals; you are searching for commissions. That is ALL work that you need to pay yourself for doing.

So, easy as pie, right? You can do this with your eyes closed and both hands tied behind your back, right? Excellent… but there is something else you need to also be thinking about… Worth.

Perhaps the most difficult area regarding pricing work that an artist needs to consider is determining worth. Worth trumps the pricing formula every single time — it’s the monster under the bed that makes us all doubt and second-guess our art and our art practices.

Worth is different than price — worth is determined by the quality of your work and its future value. Quality is a moving target that is most clearly demonstrated by your attention to detail, your technical skill, and your devotion to artistic growth. It requires a reflexive, often ruthless, self-evaluation that is honest and informed.

Luckily, if you pay the utmost attention to quality, future value will likely take care of itself.

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