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The Question All Artists Struggle With: What is Your Art Worth?

Art & Money
Image courtesy of Bert23

“An artist is not paid for his labor but for his vision.”

~ James Whistler

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At some point in our careers as artists, we will inevitably be faced with the challenge of putting a price on our artwork.

This is not an easy task, and it causes a lot of anxiety for some people, sometimes even to the point of avoiding selling their art because they don’t know how to put a value on it.

So how do we decide how much our art is worth?

This is a particularly pertinent question for me at the moment, as I have recently decided to focus all my efforts on my art career. I am accepting commissions again after a long period of not taking any on, and I have been faced with the decision of how to price my artwork.

Value vs. Cost

There are two main ways to come up with a price for any product or service. The first is based on your costs, and the second is based on the value you provide to the customer.

What Did it Cost to Create?

To set a price based on your costs, you would work out exactly what it cost you to create a particular piece of art. This includes all of your materials used, and any delivery costs etc. Then you would need to decide on an hourly rate for your work so you can figure out the cost for the time it took you to create.

To work out your hourly rate, you need to take into account how much money you need to earn to survive and pay all your bills etc. and also how much profit you want to make. Freelance Switch has a handy hourly rate calculator you can use for this.

So let’s say for example you made a painting and you worked out that the materials used (canvas, paints, varnish etc.) cost around £30, and the painting took you 10 hours to complete and you worked out an hourly rate of £20 per hour, then based on your costs, you could charge £230 for this painting.

How Much Value Does the Customer Get From It?

The other way to come up with a price is by considering what your product or service is worth to your customer.

Your product or service may cost you very little, but if it solves a serious problem for the customer, or saves them money, then you can justify charging more for it.

You may have heard the story (or a variation of it) about the ship engine that broke down, and the owners tried one expert engineer after another, but nobody could fix it. Eventually they brought in an old man who had been fixing engines his whole life to have a look at it. He inspected the engine carefully from top to bottom and then took out a hammer and gently tapped it in a particular spot, at which point the engine roared into life.

The old man then sent a bill for $10,000 to the ship’s owners, who were outraged. They demanded an itemised bill, as they insisted the old man had only tapped the engine with a hammer, and how could that possibly cost so much.

The next day they received the itemised bill which read:

Tapping with a hammer: $2.00
Knowing where to tap: $9,998.00

Obviously the old man’s costs were very low, but his knowledge was very valuable to the ship’s owners as he was able to do what nobody else could.

The problem when it comes to pricing art is that its value is subjective as everyone’s taste is different. What appears to one person to be a valuable work of art may look to someone else like just a regular pickled cow.

But that’s fine, the people who don’t like your art won’t be your customers, so you don’t need to worry about them. As long as there is someone who sees your work as valuable then there is a market for your art.

The most important thing is not to undervalue your own work.

Find a Happy Medium

A good way to begin might be to work out your cost-based price and use that as a minimum, then think about the perceived value of your art to your customer (someone who actually likes the work you create), and come up with a figure that feels right to you, based on your level of experience. You can always increase your prices as you become more established and well-respected.

Things to Avoid

There are some common pricing pitfalls that artists often encounter, and which you should bear in mind as you figure out your own prices:

  • Don’t sell yourself short! You have a valuable skill and you deserve to be paid for it.
  • Don’t worry too much about what others are charging for their art. It’s worth researching the market, but there’s no rule that says you have to charge more or less than your contemporaries.
  • Avoid discounting your services. If you offer discounts to try and make a sale, people will come to expect it.
  • Don’t wait until you’re an expert. There is always room for improvement, and you should always be striving to grow as an artist, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t make money at your current level. If you wait until you feel like you’re a master before you start charging for your art, you will never make a penny.
  • Don’t worry that people won’t be able to afford your art. Sure, some people won’t be able to afford it, but that’s fine, those people aren’t your customers. You can always sell prints of your work to cater for people with a smaller budget.
  • Don’t set your prices based on what you can afford. Chances are, if you’re just starting out in your art career, you won’t have £1000 spare to spend on a painting. Don’t let that affect your own pricing. Other people can and will spend more on art than you could personally afford.

For more advice on pricing your artwork, including pricing based on size, check out this great video by Cedar Lee posted on Artonomy.

Have you struggled with putting a price on your art? Do you have any tips for creating a pricing system? Please share them in the comments below.

13 Comments on The Question All Artists Struggle With: What is Your Art Worth?

  1. Rachael Levine says:

    This resonates with me right now as I recently did a bespoke painting for a friend of a friend which made me negative money! I’m still in a mind set of doing art and design work for friends as a favour – never really thinking that my art is worth enough to bother charging for it. However, for a friend of a friend I thought I should ask for something. I did something very stupid when he asked how much I charged and said “whatever you think it’s worth” – oh dear – not a good idea. He decided that an A4 watercolour painting of owls – which incorporated the face of his daughter – was worth £12. With the cost of the materials and the time I spent on it (and the postage) I have ended up out of pocket (and, actually he hasn’t paid me yet – so could get worse!) I have learned my lesson and it has made me stop and think – what IS my artwork actually worth? Thanks for the pointers – hopefully next time I might actually make something.

    • Dan Johnson says:

      It’s definitely hard to come up with prices for friends and family. I tend to think if it’s a one-off and won’t cost you too much then you can do the occasional freebie, but if they end up asking for more and more then you need to start getting some payment, even if it’s discounted. And for friends of friends I never give discounts any more, otherwise it’s hard to know where to draw the line. If you are regulary doing work for very little or even negative amounts of money, it will seriously affect your motivation, and you’ll end up being resentful of the hard work you’re doing, so you won’t be able to do your best work.

      My advice is to come up with a pricing structure, and stick to it. Then if you want to give discounts, you’ll know exactly how much you can afford to discount and still make it worth your while.

  2. Evelyn says:

    Thanks Dan for this timely article. I am starting back up again after raising a family. Its nice to be an artist again, but hopefully, I’ll be a profitable one as well. I had come to the same conclusions re. your two methods and that is how I have been proceeding, but its a good feeling to know my ideas are in sync with your article. Gives a bit of a boost to the effort.

    Keep up the good work and best wishes to your success!

  3. Many painters seem to use a per-square-inch pricing system. Bronze sculptors also have a formula. I don’t see that as crass, but rather as a good system.

    It’s a little trickier for sculptor Kevin Caron, who works in fabricated steel. In the beginning, we kept track of time and expenses just as a benchmark, but he now uses three ranges: large, medium and small, and that gives him a relative idea within which each sculpture should be priced.

    • Dan Johnson says:

      Thanks Mary, pricing by size can work for certain media, but as you pointed out it can be problematic. Kevin’s price ranges sound like a good solution.

  4. Harrison says:

    Thank you so much for this article, I am an artist and have always struggled with my pricing, my work is beautiful and have numerous compliments when at an art show. I make the mistake of trying to sell to as much people as I can and hence feel a lower price point will encourage such sale. I end up with people complimenting my works and walking to the next booth to make a purchase on a much more expensive similar artwork. I also have fallen victim of under-valuing my artwork, I say it doen’t cost me much to produce and I can always make another but always end up not doing so well with sales when others are doing great. I have had thoughts of increasing my price point but I must say this article has helped me to understand that I am doing more harm to my sales by under prising my works. I shall make a general review of my price point and come up with a different strategy.
    Thank you so much.
    Harrison.

    • Dan Johnson says:

      You’re welcome, Harrison. The fact that you acknowledge the quality and beauty of your art is a great start. Many people underprice their work because deep down they don’t feel it is worth a higher price.

  5. Anne says:

    Nice article. Yes, I’m “coming into my own” in recent months and have gradually raised my prices and my work still sells without hesitation. One thing I am learning is that if you are working too hard and you can’t get enough product to sell for your upcoming shows or you can’t keep stock in your shop, those are strong indicators that you are NOT charging enough for your work. Raise your prices and sell on the quality vs. quantity mode. Starting January 1, my prices are going up even higher. I’m confident from an overall assessment of my customer base, my best selling items, my items that don’t sell, the quantities of certain price points that always sell, etc…. and I’ve looked at those in an overall picture and can now clearly see that I can raise my prices and my customers will continue to pay that price. It’s a confidence thing I’ve come to realize. And yes, don’t price it based on your budget. Like most artists I’m on a raman noodle a day budget, so my perception is waaaayyy off! LOL That’s my story! LOL

  6. Annie Andre says:

    Really great post about pricing.
    Pricing was always the hardest thing to do. The biggest mistake many artists do is as you said, is discounting their services. I used to do the same thing. It’s just not sustainable.

    You have to ask yourself, if you worked 8 hours a day on your craft and promoting your business and produced x amount of products, could that be enough to support you? If not, then you’re not charging enough or need a less labour intensive product. If it takes you 40 hours to paint something and you only charge 200 dollars, that’s not enough to support you annually is it? I use that example as a real life example fom one of my friends who practically gave away her art. She literally is a starving artist, needlessly. SIGH!!

  7. Burt Miller says:

    Back in the day when signpainting and gold leaf work was worth something I priced my work by the hour, $52.00 which was fair at the time and no one complained. I worked the biggest boat yard in the area Atlantic Yacht Basin here in Chesapeake and had a good reputation…did not have to advertise for work came by word of mouth. That was for signpainting and applyed to my artwork too which worked back B.C.(before computers) Now I have a problem…anyone who wants a sign can type one up on the keyboard and pull it off a roll somewhere. Artwork is the same for no one around here wants to pay what I think my work is worth. I also build model sailboats from lines taken from Woodenboat and my own designs. I have a few on display in the local hobby shop and just have to wait for that phone call to pick up my check minus the fee for the shop.

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