Journal Entry: Thu Mar 21, 2013, 8:28 AM
I am going to be speaking at an "Entrepreneurship In The Arts" program later today, and I've been organizing my thoughts. One subject that is certain to come up; "how do you arrive at a fair price for your original artwork?" I have some definite ideas regarding that question.
I was always told that the accepted model for artists and artisans, when it comes to pricing, was double your costs for materials, figure out an hourly price (double that for your retail price if you plan to have wholesale/retail differentials), add it up and there's your item price. I think this model is pure bullshit.
I was also told "charge what the market will bear!" Again, vague bullshit. What if you live in a depressed area? What if you live in a third world country? What if you're at some artist's ally at a little convention and there is a kid sitting next to you selling her character sketches for $5 each?
Here is what I think. There are so many variables when it comes to pricing original art. You shouldn't base your prices on materials. Some artwork, like watercolors for example, can be produced with very little overhead. Some art is entirely digital...no supplies necessary whatsoever! Some artwork is created with found objects or natural objects...what if your art costs absolutely nothing for you to create it? It's really what you DO with your materials that creates the value. Charge for your skill...not your materials.
If you pay yourself by the hour, you might as well go into some other skill trade. Be a plumber or a lawyer or a factory worker. You are ~incredibly fortunate~ to be an artist. You're in a trade where your hours DO NOT MATTER. You are not trading time for money, like almost everyone else in the world has to, or at least you shouldn't be. You're trading skill, vision, and technical artistic ability for money, and those are rare commodities. Don't you dare price your art based on how long it took you to make it. Do you really think it's okay to charge $20 for a drawing because it only took you a few minutes to do it? That's a mistake. Add all the years of your life, plus a few minutes, because that's really how long it took you to do that drawing. Add the value of your innate ability to create art, plus the few minutes (or hours, or days) that you took to create that art. Add every mistake you ever made, every sketch you messed up, every practice piece you did, all the hours of sweat and failure you endured while striving to create your own unique style. What is that worth? $10 an hour? $20? $50? And what if you get better at it, faster at it as the years go by and you perfect your skill...do you charge less because it took less time? It's an exercise in futility to come up with a formula for pricing your artwork based on the time it took you to make it, so don't even bother.
Instead (and here is where we are all incredibly fortunate to be born in the time we live in) base your price on what the GLOBAL market will bear. You have the tools handy to do this pricing research right here at your fingertips; just fire up your laptop/tablet/PC and get to searching. Look for artwork you like, look for artisan crafts similar to your own. Figure out what your genre is and go there for answers. Compare prices (there will be a range) and be critical of your own work as it pertains to the global conglomerate of all the other similar artwork out there. Is your stuff still amateurish? Are you still learning? Is it derivative/heavily influenced by a particular style that you see everywhere? Then price yourself at the lower range while you continue to develop as an artist. If your pieces are unique, you're creating them in a professional way, your quality is as good as you can possibly produce (and consistent!) and your work ethic is strong, you should be charging at the high end.
You may just be the person who is happy creating mediocre, poorly-executed character drawings/ cheaply made crafts for fun, and in that case by all means, charge a few bucks for your work and enjoy the pocket change you are making. I have known very few true artists who feel that way...most of the good ones are driven to improve and excel and won't even consider selling the work they don't feel good about. So I really don't think that someone who considers him or herself "an artist" should ever be underselling their work to get by if they are confident in their artistic vision, ability to execute, and quality of work. If you're making beautiful, unique work and you're still not happy with the amount you are getting paid for it, you're doing something wrong. If you say "but I CAN'T charge more for my work because then no one will buy it", then you have to ask yourself three questions: Is your work not as good as you think it is? Are you taking the time to showcase your work in the most professional manner possible? Are you selling your work in the wrong place? All those problems can be fixed if you just work harder and smarter...if you are truly an artist, you'll be willing to do both those things.
The biggest mistake (and I've been very guilty of this in the past, though in my defense it was because the venue simply didn't exist when I was "coming up" as an artist) is pricing yourself for a certain market. It'll almost always warp your perception of your art's value. If you live in an economically depressed area, you may be told to "be happy" with whatever you can get at the local art fair. If you sell at conventions you'll be competing for the limited funds that young people/students will be able to spend on art. If you're doing the craft show thing...good luck. Everyone wants a bargain basement deal. You might have fun hanging out at the art fair (and for that reason alone it might just be "worth it" for you, if that's your goal), but if you want to really make a LIVING as an artist you'll come away feeling undervalued, and your idea about what art is worth will suffer.
Instead, price yourself for a GLOBAL market. Do those searches...seek out other professionals on line. Forget about what's happening in your local scene. The tools are all there for you to use, so use them! There's never been a better time to be a self-representing artist. You don't need an agent, you don't need a gallery to represent you, you don't need a storefront (I have none of those things). You just need your skill and your vision and the willpower to go to work in your own best interest. Learn how to create accurate digital images of your best work (photoshop skills are a must), learn how to write decent copy, learn how to use social networking to your advantage, and get working.