How do Artists Price their Work? (and Increase their Profits)

How do artists price their work banner. Two framed pictures and an easel

Do you price your originals by the square inch or by the hour? How do you mark up your prints? 50%, 100% or 200%? What’s the answer? How do artists price their work?

Research the prices of comparable artists. Don’t set your prices too low and never apologize for the price. Keep your prices consistent across all your selling platforms. Large work sells for much more money regardless of the time and effort involved.

So many artists get flustered by pricing. It’s as if there is some hidden formula they should know about and follow.

It’s taken me 20 years but I think I have finally figured it out…

YOU MAKE IT UP!

OK, so you want a formula anyway, try this then:

Yearly income needed + expenses ÷ ‘X’ paintings per year.

How many saleable pieces can you practically produce per week? If the answer is 1 then divide your figure by 52 and that’s your theoretical answer.

But of course, it’s not really so simple because you will be selling prints, some paintings will never sell, and you’ll be doing some commissions.

Let’s take a look at things in a little more depth.

Charge What the Market Will Bear.

You adjust your prices until you hit a sweet spot. There are no hard and fast ‘rules’. Your work has no intrinsic value, it’s worth what you can get for it, that’s all.
Start with a lower price and slowly work your way up, don’t do it the other way round. You will only upset any existing customers plus it’s psychologically defeating.

Your art is worth what you say it’s worth as long as the public agrees. You’re not selling an essential item, it’s a discretionary spend.

Don’t allow yourself to be influenced by ideas of ethical profit margins. If you can make 1000% then go ahead and make it. Look at it this way, if you buy something for £1 and sell it for £5, your profit is a staggering 500%. but so what? you’ve only made £4 profit.

Likewise, you might sell a limited edition print for £100 which cost you £5 to produce. That’s a totally obscene 2000% mark-up, but you might only sell one a week.

Your dream might well be to sell 20 limited editions per week. Is that fraud? Of course not, you created that image. It didn’t and couldn’t exist without your time, effort and talent. It’s special.

Pricing Original Art

Personally I consider selling my originals as an occasional bonus, good when they come along but not a serious side of my business. That wasn’t always the case.

When I first started to sell, I hit on the (daft) idea of producing high-quality work at a lower price point. I had to paint 5 pictures a week assuming that 3 would be saleable. That’s a lot of work and unsurprisingly I burnt out.

Note I said ‘saleable’, and that’s important because you’ll never sell everything you make, that’s just a fact of life.

Let’s suppose that you are not prolific, perhaps you can make one or two paintings a week.

Sticking to the £30,000 per annum figure and selling one painting per week, you need to sell each picture for an average of £576 to reach your target. That’s 52 saleable originals out of approximately 70 paintings made.

That’s not an easy task.

Selling 2 paintings per week will still mean you have to sell each one for £288. The price itself is not so high but you must sell 2 per week, every week.

That’s assuming, of course, that you are selling them yourself. If a gallery represents you they’ll want their cut, so you must factor in their markup.

You can see the logic in selling prints, can’t you? It’s a no-brainer.

Price Your Art by the Square Inch?

The idea is you set ‘X’ pounds or dollars per square inch and price accordingly.

That’s all very well but you still have to set the rate to begin with and it doesn’t take into account your time.

What if one painting took 20 hours to complete and the next took only 10? Do you include white space in your calculations? What if there is no background?

A price is determined by reputation, demand, and confidence and not by a formula.

That said, check out this article ‘Selling your Art – Does size Matter?’

I don’t like the concept of pricing by the square inch, you’re not laying carpet tiles.

Pricing Art Commissions

For most artists seeking out and accepting commissions is a vital part of the job but it can easily turn into a frustrating dead end.

Let’s be honest how many clients will ever give you the freedom to do as you please? They won’t, they have an idea and then want you to interpret their idea in your own way. In other words, you’re expected to imagine what they are imagining.

Right from the outset, you have to deal with false expectations and unrealistic demands and the only way to deal with that is to set out some clear guidelines upfront.

Before you undertake any work, you must discuss what you can and can’t do and the costs involved.

You must determine:

  • The quality of the reference photo
  • The expected size
  • The medium
  • The delivery time
  • The price with or without a frame
  • How many, if any, alterations you are prepared to make
  • The price per portrait, not per photo
  • The deposit
  • The final price

How much do you charge?

Well for a start only you can figure out how long the job will take. When I took commissions, I would allow one day. If I screwed up and it took two days, it was my loss.

There are no rules dictating your rates but you can get a ballpark figure by seeking out other artists doing similar work or even base it on the average hourly rate in the industry.

Bear in mind that other artists may well be more established with a larger fan base so they can command higher prices but at least it will give you an idea.

Another way of looking at the same question is to ask yourself what you are prepared to work for if someone offered you an unrelated day job, right now. What figure would make you say ‘Yes I’ll do it’.

Whatever you do don’t fall into the trap of underselling yourself. A fair price is one that both parties feel comfortable with. If you take on a job with a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach you will resent the commission.

I look at my work as a skill worth paying for. I want more than a minimum wage, I want to feel valued and respected. As a professional, I want a good return for a bespoke piece.

As I point out to people on almost a daily basis. I can put in the same amount of time and effort into making my own work and sell the prints for years, or I can make a single commission for less money.

Point this out to your prospect and your higher price becomes much more reasonable.

Take my advice and accept only those jobs that are low risk and can be accomplished within your chosen parameters.

Choose your…

  • Style
  • Size
  • Medium

…and stick to it.

Don’t give choices. Offer a ‘take it or leave it’ service and that way you will limit your problems.

Set one rate for all and if you get a ton of work, create a waiting list and slowly raise your prices until your orders diminish. That’s your price point.

Time is Money in the Art Business

There is no getting around the obvious limitations of your time. Everything comes down to the amount of time it takes to get your work done.

Sadly, your time has little bearing on the value of your work. A piece that took a week can retail for the same money as something else which took just a few hours. The public doesn’t care.

Sadly the public rarely appreciates the difference in skill levels between artists. If they do, then the added time it takes to reach that higher level is not understood.

There is a misconception that if you excel at something then it must be ‘Easy for you’. Someone who is able to paint fluidly and at speed may well have spent half a lifetime getting to that point.

All the public sees are the results and that is what they are buying into. They look at the image and make their judgment, whereas other artists look at the process.

That’s why some 5-minute doodle can outsell a highly accomplished piece of work. It’s the difference between ‘quirky and fun’ and right for the wall space, as opposed to ‘crafted and clever’ and out of place.

On the whole, it’s the image and not the skill that sells. There is no appreciable premium for the time it takes.

Your Choice of Medium Affects the Art Price

Believe it or not, there is a hierarchy of medium and that affects the price you can ask for your work.

You can’t command the same prices for pastels as you can for watercolors and they aren’t as popular as acrylics which in turn are below oils.

It is less rigid these days but still, the perception remains in the eye of the public (and galleries) that some mediums are worth more than others.

As a graphite artist, I’m almost at the bottom of the pile.

Don’t listen to the ‘experts’ who assure you they love black and white. It’s a niche and few galleries will want to risk it on their valuable wall space.

Why do I do it then? I’m colorblind. Hey, you play the hand you’re dealt with.

Pricing Your Art Prints

There are so many variables to take into account when deciding upon a price structure.

  • Who are your customers?
  • What kind of disposable income do they have?
  • What are your overheads?

Determine how much money you need to make and work backwards.

I am British so let’s say you could live on £25.000 per year. Add your fixed overheads, let’s say another £5000 for transport, rent, licenses, insurance, etc. Ok, you need at least £30,000

You know how much each print costs. Let’s say you pay £1 per print and think £10 is a reasonable price to charge. That leaves you with £9 in profit.

If you divide £30,000 by £9 you must sell just over 3,330 prints per year.

That works out at selling 64 prints per week, about 10 a day. Or put another way, you need to earn £82 per day. Perfectly achievable.

It’s a crude ballpoint figure for selling one standard-sized print, unmounted and unframed. It doesn’t take into account, multi-buys, upsells and selling other products. Nor does it include any commission work or originals.

All in all the figures are all within reach for anyone with a reasonable work ethic.

Selling Tip
Buyers love a bargain. If you sell £10 prints, you could offer 2 for £15. Most people will grab the offer but instead of a £9 profit, you now have £13.

I should make it clear what your daily return means if you are self-employed. Your daily income is an average taken across the year. Obviously you will have peaks and troughs.

Your income will be higher on weekends, holidays and during events. It will nose dive at other times. Trade is seasonal.
Your cash flow will be inconsistent but as long as you do the hours you’ll get there in the end.

Conclusion

If there was a proven formula for pricing art then I’d have found it by now.

Art is worth what the buyer is happy to pay and that’s a matter of trial and error. Sorry, there is no magic bullet.

So many variables exist that influence the asking price that one size can never fit all. All these factors come into play:

  • Size
  • Time
  • Reputation
  • Client list
  • Customer Demographic
  • Medium
  • Subject
  • Style

And last but not least your.. Confidence!


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