How to Price Art Commissions: Your Art Pricing Guide

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Kevin Hayler: Professional Wildlife artist, author, and traveler.

Pricing art commissions is confusing for everyone, and it’s tempting to look for a pricing formula as if that alone holds the answer. Sadly, this is a myth. The art world plays in a different way, even so, if you need a quick pricing guide try this:

Calculate the price of art commissions by the square inch. For example, at $2 per square inch, an 8-inch x 10-inch work of art will cost $160. Some artists set an hourly rate. Other artists match the prices of their competitors. 

Art prices are influenced by your choice of medium, your targeted demographic, and your personal following. Larger works of art generally sell for more money than smaller works, regardless of the time and talent involved.

There’s no one-size-fits-all formula, however, there are guidelines that will help. I’ve been selling my art since the early 80s, yes I’m that old, and this post is my advice.

Let’s start

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How to Price Your Art: Formulas For Beginners

OK, so you’re a newbie, you haven’t got a clue, and you want a price formula anyway.

Fair enough, try this pricing strategy:

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

How many saleable works of art can you practically produce per week? If the answer is 1 then, in theory, you can sell 52 paintings per year.

But of course, it’s not really so simple, because you should be selling art prints too, plus some of your paintings will never sell, that’s reality. Not only that, unless you have a waiting list, you’ll be doing custom art commissions as they come along.

Let’s face it, you don’t want to work 52 weeks a year in any job.

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

Pricing Your Art in Square Inches

The idea is simple, you set ‘X’ dollars or pounds per square inch and price accordingly. All you do is times the width by the height and voila! It makes sense right? Well in a way. It’s certainly true that people will pay by size.

Unfortunately, you still have to figure the set dollar amount per inch, and that’s totally arbitrary. Two artists with different styles and techniques will set different rates. We are all unique.

It’s guesswork. When you are a beginner with no sales record to fall back on, all you can do is make up the price and start from there.

You can try researching similar artwork but that will only take you so far. It can only work if the artist is at the same stage in their art career, be in the same niche, uses the same media, and be about the same standard. 

Say you have a painting measuring 10″ x 12″ and you price it at $5 per square inch. It’s worth $600 by your calculations. Does that sound right for the time it took and your skill level?

Say you have a painting measuring 10″ x 12″ and price it at $5 per square inch. It’s worth $600 by your calculations. Does that sound right for the time it took and your skill level?

Sticking to your formula a 6″ x 8″ painting will cost $240 and a 20″ x 24″ painting will cost $2400. This is regardless of how much time it took to paint.

This is a handy guide: What Size Art Sells Best? Prints and Frame Sizes

And none of this takes into account how each painting will be judged on its own merits. It’s all subjective, some art will sell while others will not.

Pygmy elephants pencil drawing
Elephants are my bestselling subjects

For a pricing formula to have any value, all your paintings must conform to a consistent theme, style, and medium. Where does that leave you if you when you try something new?

It makes more sense to calculate the price of an art print by formula because it’s a fixed cost with a retail price, and time is not a factor.

Pricing Your Art Commissions by The Hour

How long does it take to make a piece of art? Good question. That’s almost like asking how long is a piece of string.

Can you see yourself painting by formula and completing every painting within a set number of hours? I’ve tried it myself, and I can tell you from experience, that it’s damned hard work.

We all have different mindsets, styles, and aptitudes. Each artist must determine their own individual capabilities.

The number of paintings you think you can paint is likely to be way off the mark.

Life gets in the way of crude formulas. Basing your art on an hourly wage takes no account of life dramas, and your best-laid plans will inevitably backfire.

That forces you to compensate for downturns and rainy days by hiking your hourly rates. Can you see how a simple formula can get complicated very quickly?

The truth is, one artist might take months to do a painting, while another, making a different type of art, will only need a few hours.

Logically, an artist who takes a long time to complete their artwork will have to charge far more for their services. Fine in theory but reality kicks in when they can’t make sales.

Let’s say you ask for a modest $12 per hour and you need 2 weeks to complete your original work. That’s 80 hours of work for $960 (minus material costs). That’s not outrageous, but what if your target audience can’t afford that, or heaven forbid, can afford it but doesn’t think it’s worth it? Ouch.

A different artist making original paintings of a similar size, color palette, and subject, but with a very different style might take only a day to make a piece of art.

What’s more, it might be far more attractive to a potential buyer and only $480. That’s half-price and $60 per hour.

What are we to conclude? Your time is not a factor in pricing art. I’m sorry to say this, but your potential customers are not concerned with how long it takes. Your time is irrelevant. 

There’s no fairness in the art market.

This video discussion will interest you. It gives you another perspective

Pricing Your Original Art For Beginners

When I first started out as a freelance artist, I hit on the (daft) idea of producing high-quality artwork 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 burned out.

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

The advantages of painting quickly are:

  • Higher turnover of sales
  • It’s more immediate and fun
  • It’s less important if you paint a dud

The disadvantages of painting quickly are:

  • Easy to burn out
  • You end up painting by formula
  • The quality suffers

Let’s suppose that you are not so prolific, let’s say you can produce one painting a week.

Assuming you need $40,000 per annum and sell one quality painting per week, the average selling price for each picture would need to be $769 to reach your target. That’s if you sell all 52 originals.

That’s not an easy task.

Selling 2 paintings per week will still mean you have to sell each one for $385. The price itself is not so high but you must paint and sell 2 works of art 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 gallery prices. A gallery commission is normally 50% and that will double the retail price.

This will interest you: Selling Your Art in Galleries, Is It Worth It?

So if that’s the case what about those artists who are too slow and can’t produce enough work?

These are the pros and cons of painting slowly:

The advantages of painting slowly are:

  • You can paint your best work
  • The results are more satisfying
  • You can make prints to sell

The disadvantages of painting slowly are:

  • It takes forever to build a portfolio
  • Originals earn a poor hourly rate
  • Painting a dud will cost you more

As a beginner, there is only one practical answer to your problems. New artists should paint or draw pictures only to make them into art prints, and selling any original pieces is a bonus.

This approach allows you to scale your art business and wait for potential buyers who are happy to pay a premium.

It takes the pressure off.

How to Price Your Art: The Truth as an Emerging Artist

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. Cruel but true.

Your starting prices should be low at first and gradually increase as you make new sales. When your art sales drop, you’ve reached your peak price.

Admittedly, that’s far easier to do when you’re pricing art prints, but that’s the principle.

These posts goes further:

Whatever you do, don’t do it the other way around. If you start with high prices and sell very few, not only will you be upset that the world doesn’t value your work, but you’ll also upset any existing customer who bought your work at a higher price.

No one wants to see something reduced after they paid a higher price, especially artwork. It’s more personal. On the other hand, no one minds when they see your art is worth more than they paid,

It’s simple psychology.

When you hit on the perfect price, don’t apologize! The price is what you set and there is no need to defend it.

Your art is worth what you say it’s worth, as long as the public agrees with you. You’re not selling an essential item, art is 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 a $4 profit.

Likewise, you might sell a limited edition print for £100 which costs you £5 to produce. That’s a totally obscene 2000% markup, 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 you.

You are a talented artist, willing to put in the time and effort to make a beautiful work of art. It’s special and you should be rewarded.

Here are a few selling tips: How to Sell More Art: 10 Selling Tips For Artists

If you want more selling tips, watch this video by Kelsy Rodriguez. She has over 200,000 followers

Pricing Your Custom Art Commissions

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

Let’s be honest how many potential 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

So How Do You Price Your Custom Art Commissions?

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

There are no hard and fast rules dictating the price of a custom commission, but you can try getting a ballpark figure by seeking out comparable artists doing similar work. Out of interest, this is the average hourly rate in the industry.

You can make a living just painting pets: How to Sell Pet Portraits and Start an Art Business

Bear in mind that your fellow artists might be more established than you are, have a larger fan base, and command higher prices. At least it will give you an idea of what to charge for similar work.

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, experienced artist, 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 as much effort into making my own work, and sell the prints for years to come, or I can make a single commission and make less money.

Point this out to your prospect and your higher rates become 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, with a price list if you can, and if you get a ton of work, create a waiting list.

How The Medium Affects The Value of Art

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

You must price your art accordingly.

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 worth less than oil paintings.

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

Graphite art is almost at the bottom of the pile, probably on par with digital art, but hopefully above AI!

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

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

This is: How to Sell Your Drawings (All You Need to Know)

How Context Affects the Price of Your Art

Context is everything. Hang a work of art in an art gallery, beautifully lit under spotlights, and sold by a smartly dressed gallery owner, and then put the same piece of work in a local art fair and it will be judged very differently. Our perception of worth is governed by where it is displayed. 

I have spent my business life mostly selling my own art prints from a street stall, that’s only one step up from a flea market. It worked for me because I was in an “arty” part of town. That was my context. Even so, there is no way I could command high prices. 

Contrast my street stall with the pretentious gallery chains across the road, and it was like comparing chalk with cheese. I sold prints for under $10 while the galleries managed to sell large spot-lit ‘fine art’ crap for thousands.

Were they any better? Not in my opinion (OK I’m biased) but they occupied the hallowed ground of a gallery. Any space with subdued lighting, spotlights, and an intimidating environment, must be posh. No wonder the artwork is so expensive, they must be good.

Many art galleries attract wealthy clients with next to no taste. 

I, on the other hand, had to contend with the reverse effect. I sold photo-realistic pencilwork from a street stall while drawing in front of passers-by. I could see the disconnect on people’s faces.

As someone memorably said about my art “If they were any good they’d be in a gallery”. That says it all. 

'Leaps and Bounds' a pencil draweing by Kevin hayler
‘Leaps and Bounds’ A pencil drawing by Kevin Hayler

Your art is worth what your demographic earns. Comparable artists selling very similar work in different environments will command very different prices. If you want to charge big money you must go to where the rich hang out.

The alternative is to go for mass-produced prints, with high turnover, and sell cheaply. In my experience, there isn’t much of a middle ground. 

Time is Money in the Art Business

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

One crafty way of helping yourself, if you are a slow worker, is to modify your compositional style. A good starting point is to leave a white background, and there are very good reasons why this is a good idea.

A single subject with a clean white background can be framed in any size. If it’s easier to frame, it’s easier to sell.

Think about it, all that white space has value. The public will pay more for larger pieces, even if half the picture is blank paper. A creative composition can put money in your pocket.

Sold as a print, the image increases in value for similar reasons. You can frame a simple background-free image in multiple ways to suit the needs of your customers, plus you can also print your art on different products. You are not confined to wall art.

The extra time it takes you to paint or draw a detailed background may not be worth the effort.

I know this will defeat the whole point of making art for some people, and I get it, but it sure makes sense on a purely commercial basis.

Sadly, as I stated earlier, 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. No one cares.

The general public rarely appreciates the differences in skill levels between artists. True art collectors will appreciate your talents more but they are few and far between.

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

All the public sees are the end results and that is what they are buying into. They look at the image and make their instant judgment. It’s mostly other artists who 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 intended space, as opposed to ‘crafted and clever’ and out of place entirely.

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

How to Price Art Commissions: Final Thoughts

If there was a proven formula for pricing art commissions 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

All you can do is make a calculated guess and go for it.

Lion Country - A pencil drawing by Kevin Hayler.
‘Lion Country’ A Pencil Drawing by Kevin Hayler

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How to price art commissions. Your art pricing guide
The artist and Author Kevin Hayler

Hi, I’m Kevin Hayler
I’ve been selling my wildlife art and traveling the world for over 20 years, and if that sounds too good to be true, I’ve done it all without social media, art school, or galleries!
I can show you how to do it. You’ll find a wealth of info on my site, about selling art, drawing tips, lifestyle, reviews, travel, my portfolio, and more. Enjoy

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