Saturday, May 14, 2011

How Do I Price My Art?

How do I price my art? That is the question everyone asks, and when I say “everyone” I mean Everyone – students, professionals, amateurs, freelancers, hobbyists, you-name-it. No one feels entirely comfortable pricing their work. You might think that I mean “at first” and that I ought to say “at first” but without the aid of a manager, agent or lawyer as a representative, or some other type of service that handles pricing for you, when talking about individuals determining prices for themselves I meant what I said up there at the very beginning of this paragraph, “Everyone asks, How do I price my work?”

Certainly being a beginner and looking at your first sale is going to be The Biggest Hurdle of All Time, right? Not exactly, no. Very often a first sale comes as an offer and offers are the easiest transactions of any kind other than a bartered trade. The offer is either acceptable to you or it is not. What could be easier? Someone walks up and says, “Hi, artist, I love this piece and I will give you $50 for it.” That Fifty dollars either sounds really good at the time and is just what you need or it makes your stomach crash and causes you to agonize and bite your lip. Then the tough part is answering Yes and living happily with that or saying No that is not acceptable or saying No you are not interested in selling or the really, really, hard one of saying No and negotiating.

Factors in a person’s experience and career occur all the time that change your situation or change the way you view your art, so this question of “How do I price my art?” never goes away. I am not going to make career advice or suggestions here, I am going to stick to the topic and offer up some rules that you can use all the time, no matter what circumstances afford or how they change. The following bold points ought to help you as you make your way through the market.

Decide what it is worth to you.

The art that you made means something to you. You have to put a value on it. If you say that putting a dollar value on it debases you or the art then you have established a value and the value is priceless. You cannot sell or trade something that is priceless. You can’t put a price on it and you shouldn’t because pricing it would be insulting and degrading. But, let’s assume that you have decided to sell your things and you want to put a fair value on them then the first thing you should do is decide how much it is worth to you. Think like a collector, how much would you pay for it if it was someone else’s? How much seems like too little to get for it? What would you pay if you felt that this is something you had always wanted and this was the only time that you could ever get this? Determining some sense of value to your own self is the first and most necessary part of pricing.

Let me change the example away from artwork to a collectible that is widely traded, an antique comic book. There are advantages in selling comic books that artists don’t usually have because the comic book dealers publish price guides and price lists. But, even though they have those lists it is common for a seller to have a book and say, “I wouldn’t take anything less than fifty dollars for this book.” What does that dealer mean? The seller is saying that fifty dollars is his value on that particular comic book, selling it for less would hurt him and he would be willing to pay fifty dollars to have it. That is, in effect the decision the dealer is making because as long as he holds that book he does not have the fifty dollars in his pocket and his value on that book is therefore fifty dollars, even if he puts a hundred dollar price tag on it.

When you create something and decide to sell it you hold something that replaces dollar value until you have those dollars. So, decide on what is the dollar value that you just cannot do without and that is your value. It is absolutely the first thing that you must decide about pricing. Which do you feel that you can live without, the artwork or twenty dollars? Try fifty dollars…

Determine the cost of your supplies and resources.

You are spending a determinable amount on supplies and resources (resources include fuel, energy, rent, telephone cost, etc.). Don’t think of it as budget in terms of the artwork until you are in production of many items. You have to decide on one at first until you see how that sells. How much did it cost you to make that one item? You can’t sell it for less than that. You might say, “It only cost me two dollars in materials to make it.” Okay, how much time did you spend on it? If you say, an hour then you might start with $25 per hour as a cost to you in resource (time is a resource). Does $27.00 sound too high or too low? If you can make ten of the same thing in an hour then you are maximizing your profit from it. The $27.00 cost becomes $2.70. That’s great!

Always know that a market exists.

As a teacher the most common thing I hear from students is, “Well, I just do this for myself.” That’s nice. I do a lot of things for myself, too, like journal and keep a sketchbook and doodle, but you and I need to realize that while we are doing whatever it is that we may be doing to please, humor, entertain, and enlighten ourselves there is a big busy universe that is busy doing a lot of other things. Just as culture existed before we arrived on the scene and is busy developing and evolving, so a market has existed before we got to it and it develops and evolves with or without our input. If you want to sell that thing that you made then you are going to either have to find out about the market or be willing to adapt and conform to what is already happening in the marketplace so that you can get the most out of it and enjoy it.

Once you have the mindset that a market exists – which is a bigger step for most people than you might realize – then you have the next big step to make which is finding the market in which you want to sell. If a market comes to you – someone offers to buy a piece from a show or wants to buy something that they have seen you make, then that is great, but if you are asking about pricing then you are probably thinking of being in the market for longer than one or two casual sales, you are probably thinking of being in it for a long time, perhaps permanently. That means that you have to select your market.

Markets have become very complicated – perhaps they were always complicated, but few people these days can be or do only one thing. However, everyone has to start with one thing and that is the thing that they do best. Here’s the toughest part of this, and that is really analyzing what you do best, because in any market, in order to enter it and to sustain success in it you have to be the best at it. You might look at someone and say, “I can do better than they can.” That is fine. Are they the best at what they do? Find the best. Can you do better than that person? If you can then you definitely should enter that market. But, if you can only do a bit better than the worst that you have seen then you should know that as you enter that market you are looking at a lot of future struggle.

Now, having chosen your market, the next consideration is the following rule: Look at what the market will bear.

Determine what the market will bear.

I was at an arts festival a week ago that was a real eye opener for me. There were two artists who did drawings similar to things that I draw all the time but never think of selling, yet these artists were asking $4,000.00 apiece for their drawings. The most I have sold a drawing of the same type for is about $1,600.00. My drawings are better than the ones I saw. Those artists weren’t selling many, but they did sell some. Wow! This was very encouraging! If I wanted to enter that market I know that it will bear some sales at $4,000.00. I genuinely believe that if I entered that market I would be better than the best that I saw. So, my market research leads me to believe that I could I could easily sell drawings for $2,000.00. Whoa! Wait a minute, you say, why not $4,000.00? I would be entering the market, $4,000.00 might be the limit that the market will bear, and sales at that high price were not brisk.

That’s the kind of thinking that has to go into pricing. Look around at what other artists are selling similar things for and who their client purchasers are. The arts festival had affluent visitors from a high salary population of the suburban area, and they were accustomed to hearing high prices for the things that they wanted to own. I could not expect to ask the same prices in a small town gallery or another region, not without doing a little research such as visiting other markets.

Something else to keep in mind is that markets are always progressive. Once I enter that field and price myself at those prices then I am committed. There’s no going back. That works out pretty well most of the time but not always. I did a very nice oil painting a few years ago at a little lakeside arts festival. I had not looked at that festival before deciding to go ahead and join it, more as a community volunteer than for it as a market. My paintings had been selling at $2000.00. I priced this one at $900.00 and it still didn’t sell. It had nothing against it as a painting, but that market was not my market. I shouldn’t have even shown my paintings in that market. It didn’t bother me not to sell it and there was no way I would sell it for less than what I priced it, but seventy miles from there, in the nearest urban market I would have gotten my price, and probably easily.

A couple of cautionary things I should say about selling – not “pricing”, selling… There are “Shylocks” out there and it bugs them to part with money, they feel like they didn’t win, and they will want “a pound of flesh”. “Well, I bought it, but I just really don’t think it will look right with the rest of my collection.” “I paid you and I am not going to back out now, but I didn’t see that flaw in the corner or those colors that didn’t match.” Brace yourself. Ignore that insult. You had already determined your value, they paid it, and that’s that. You probably won’t have to deal with that person again. Another way this happens is like this, “oh, I paid you $200.00, but you priced yourself too low, honey, I would have paid $500.00.” Swell, if what they want to tell you is that they are a thief and it makes them happy to walk off winning and grinning and winking, then fine, they can consider it added value. You have your value, you received your price and you stick by it. No matter what these people say to you stick to the facts that you know, you know that your value accurately resulted in a sale. The other crap that these people say is indeterminate subjective drivel and you won’t ever be able to sort that out so let them walk away and forget it.

Apart from an offer you like, do not let anyone else set terms.

It is your artwork, you made it, you established that value of it, and you determined the price. Don’t let someone else come along and arbitrate the market or negotiate the sale. Anything said by a buyer is an offer. Either you like the offer or you don’t. Buyers do not decide that you will have three-for-one sales or package deals or a commission to go along for a minor addition to price. If you anticipate commissions then have a plan and pricing for those.

You have already researched your market. You have already found out what other people are selling similar things for and you are already pricing based on what the market will bear. As your sales increase, you will price and market progressively.

The Market price? The Ballpark figure?

As I am writing this, news headlines report that an Andy Warhol portrait of Liz Taylor sold for $27,000,000.00, twenty-seven million dollars. Obviously that value is because it was Andy Warhol, it was Liz Taylor, they are both dead, and the sale took place among people who expect that the things that they buy will be priced in the millions of dollars or they would not be in that market. In formal material terms the painting was partly paint and partly silkscreen made from a projection of a photograph that Andy Warhol himself did not take but one that he appropriated so that his iconography of Elizabeth Taylor would match her public iconography as a celebrity.

In the Sixties and Seventies there were dozens of artists doing silkscreen portraits in order to catch the train of Pop Art and make a buck from being like Andy Warhol. It worked for some of them. I may call someone “an Andy Warhol wannabe” but if that artist is getting $500.00 per piece for their copycat work then they are getting $500.00 for being a copycat. I might even be jealous, especially between paychecks. Following the inferences of something like this more than a question of how to price your work, it’s deciding on exactly who you are and what you are and what your work is.

The “ballpark figure” is exactly what I mentioned above in determining “What the market will bear”. Your ballpark figure is going to be in the range of what similar artists are getting for similar things in similar markets. It may not only be a question of what you make and how to price it, it may also be a question of what circles you want to run in and who you want to sell to.

The above are all things to start with and to think about, yes, and they are things that artists have to think about again and again throughout their lives and careers.

So, if you’re still on the question of “how do I price my work?” then look at it and say “twenty-five dollars”, if it seems too low, then… see what I mean? We’re right back at the start.

Good luck, and enjoy it.

Guest author David A. Cook, MFA, is the Associate Professor of Performing and Visual Arts at School of Liberal Arts of Georgia Gwinnett College.


  1. This is a fantastic post and so helpful! Thank you so much!

  2. thank you so much for all this information!

  3. Thank you very much for your perspective, Mr. Cook! This has been extremely helpful!

  4. Fantastic article, very insightful. Thank you so much for contributing!

  5. Very interesting read! Thanks so much for adding my greedy to this post! :)

  6. So much to think about... thank you for your insight.
    Donni - Fairyfolk and DovieMoon

  7. Really helpful information. Thank you for sharing your experience and wisdom with us, Mr. Cook!

  8. Thanks so much, this is so very helpful!! Makes me wish you had been a professor in the program I attended!