Artists Weigh In on Pricing

Pricing Artwork

Bringing art to the cold and heartless marketplace is a challenge for most artists. A finite amount of materials and time goes into the making of a single piece of art, but a lifetime of education, experience, trial and error led to its creation. How the heck do you put a price tag on that?

Artists usually fall into two camps: priced to move or determined to recoup the true value of their work. The debate can get a bit emotional. Since art is so personal, it’s easy to start thinking of pricing as a psychological measure of a person. If the artist prices too low, do they lack self-worth? If they price high, do they think they’re better than everybody else? On his very useful site, art consultant Alan Bamberger warns against equating your self-worth with a price tag. He says, “It's still just as good, you're still the same artist and you're still just as good, no matter how you price it. Don't use dollar values to validate yourself as an artist; use them to sell your art.”

A few pointers garnered from Bamberger’s site:

  • Do your research and find the price range similar work is going for in your region. Price your art on the low side of that range.
  • Always put a price where the buyer can easily see. Don’t make them ask, email or call.
  • Strive for consistency in your pricing. If you love one painting so much that you want to charge 10 times as much for it, don’t put it on the market. Inconsistency irks and confuses buyers.
  • If you’re in a group show, price in the same range as the other artists. If you don’t know the price range, ask the organizers.
  • Don’t show sold art on your website. People will think the best stuff is already gone. Focus on moving new and available art.
  • If your art is consistently selling well, it might be time to raise your prices by 10%. 

Now let’s hear from some working artists in Portland and beyond. All were asked about their experiences with and strategies for pricing art.

Mary Tapogna It's a combination. Mostly time spent on the piece. I factor in materials, even if recycled and/or found, (I still sort, prepare, and store them). Overhead plays a part, whether paying for a separate studio/storefront, or dedicating the majority of my home for my art and studio. When doing a custom piece....I have learned not to give an immediate quote. Give it a day or so, to weigh it out.

Vicki Sue Stone During the time I made ceramics for stores (I did custom-made dinnerware sets) I also did limited edition mugs. I took them to a gallery, and the owner liked the work but said I was pricing them too low, and that implies a sense of either desperation or naiveté about the artist. So, with the gallery owner's help, I tripled my initial prices. After all, she was a high end craft store in San Francisco. Pricing is very tricky.

April O’Connor Pricing is completely arbitrary. I've read pricing guides that recommend calculating the cost of your materials, how many hours you spend making a piece, adding some for overhead.... How in hell are you supposed to do that?! How am I supposed to figure out how much of a tube of paint I used in once piece (I rarely paint one at a time), how much that paint cost (series 1 or series 6?), how much ink used from my pens, what amount of time I spent on this one over that one; all the little things like wiring and varnishing.... GAH! It's insane! So, I go by square inch. I decided what seemed a reasonable cost (from a buyer’s perspective) for the size, and figured a price per inch that fits. And yes, it's too low. But I'd rather have someone happy to take a painting home and get some cost back than have a house full of expensive work that no one can afford.

Samyak Yamauchi There's so much information about pricing and everyone has an idea, so I try to keep it simple. I price approximately by the square inch and allow for wiggle room up and down until it feels right.

Stephanie S. Brockway People interested in buying my art always ask, "How long did that take you to make?" The answer is, “It took a lifetime of experiences, trial and error, workshops, research, observing." And even if I'm carving from "found objects" it takes hours to find them. It's never about the price of materials. Otherwise, paintings would never be more than a few hundred dollars. You're getting a piece of me, my heart and soul, time I poured into creating the piece, the experience of that time and place in my career, that I can never go back and make again. So I value myself and time, and price my pieces in line with other well-known artists whose work I admire. You only arrive by telling yourself and patrons that you have, in fact, arrived! I might add that I do sell at a category I call high craft, priced under 100 usually. Little pieces that I can make fast in multiples.

Rick Parfrey Artists always underprice their work. Clue: If you price cheaply most people will undervalue your work. If you feel uncomfortable pricing your work at its actual worth to you, go ahead and set higher prices and indicate to potential buyers a willingness to negotiate. More than likely you'll receive more than pricing the work low to begin with. I realize how hard it may be to negotiate but that may be the most effective way to receive more for your high value effort.

Amelia Opie In theory I charge $1.50 per square inch for a commission piece. (I get a handful of these every year, and usually they are pet portraits.) So, a 10"x10" would be $150. I rarely have the heart to charge somebody that much, though. I've never made a lot of money on art here in Portland, and I no longer even have it as a goal!

Shanon Playford My main series-based work goes up incrementally every year, but I also do things like the Big 500, where people can get a hold of a (very inexpensive) piece of me. I do not price by the inch or foot. …or by materials, or time really; I price by the success or failure of the series. I usually have a retail price in mind while making a series. In a perfect world, I would just get a salary and someone else could deal with pricing individual pieces. (I don't enjoy the monetary side of making art.)

I sell through galleries and online, but also through my own open studio sales. I really like meeting — or knowing — who is taking possession of my work! I also do commission and contract work, which is a whole other can of beans.

When I first started out, graduating from art school (about twenty years ago) my work was pretty affordable (and I still make "affordable" pieces). I wanted to get rid of work, and be motivated to make more, and I wanted to learn -- while painting — and I still do!

I also will discount work that is older, or never shown in galleries; there is a limited area for storage! I would much rather hang on to a newer piece, than sell it too cheaply, though. No one values it that way.

Chuck Bloom I've tried for years to up the price incrementally of my work. But there is a "plateau" of where you can sell your work in Portland. Like current shows questions I received were how long I took to do each piece which is next to impossible to answer (Does that include weeks of building stretchers and stretching and prepping canvas?). Some of my larger works have more than 100 hours in them . What should you charge for that? The going rate a stylist charges for hair is one dollar a minute. If an artist tried to charge that, you'd be laughed out of town. It's a tricky mess. Most people don't realize artists only get 50 % of the sale [in galleries]. All I know is that I am still paying a $175,000 student loan for an MA in art which really hasn't helped much.

By Teresa Bergen,