036. How Do You Price Your Artwork?

Today I'm going to dive into my method and thoughts on pricing artwork. I'm going to be brutally honest in this post. Please remember these are MY views based on my own experiences (7 years as a professional photographer, 2 years as a painter).

There isn't a magic formula that will work for everyone. But I'll explain what I went through to get to where I am now.

Fact: People want everything for nothing.

That's just the way it is. It's built into humans, probably going back to some survival mechanism. Now in a time of abundance, it still holds true. Can you blame us? It's awesome to get everything for nothing.

How many artists out there have had potential buyers ask why something was priced "so high," or request a discount or question your method of pricing a custom commission?

When it comes to your art, you can try to educate buyers, explaining that they aren't just paying for raw materials or time, but also your unique artistic vision.
Some might get it. Most of them will move on.

And that's OK, because the world is a big place. There are lots of other people. The last thing you want to do is undervalue yourself. That is a crash course for 1. being broke, 2. believing you are worth less.

Once in a while you run into people who truly understand the value of what you're doing, and are willing to pay what it's worth without question. When you do, you realize your true value as well. It's like their passion and understanding and desire to own a piece of your art is the equivalent of them holding up a mirror, and you see what they see. 

First, a little background (brief dive into my photography career, where I started). As I said, I learned the hard way.

Getting my clients to trust me and be comfortable in front of my camera was not always easy. As a photographer I was interested in capturing the genuine moments. I made sure that I was completely genuine around them, which helped. When they saw me geeking out about beautiful light, or fun angles, they'd loosen up and be natural. Eventually I built a portfolio of images that showed clients in their best, most natural light, and that drew more clients who wanted this experience. Their experience is worth just as much, if not more than the images. 

Photography is an INCREDIBLY competitive field. When I started out shooting weddings, it was right around the time that every photographer was starting to offer "unlimited hours" packages. This meant, the photographer would show up whatever time the client wanted on the wedding day, and leave whenever they wanted (usually after the send-off at the end of the night). Sometimes more than 15 hours (like showing up at 7am for "getting ready shots" and leaving at 2am after the party). This was accompanied by a fixed fee for the entire day.

As a new photographer trying to break into the industry, I went along with the trend and offered this option. I wanted to shoot at least one wedding to have something in my portfolio, so I advertised on Craigslist, Unlimited hours and photos for $200 (with the obvious caveat that it was my first wedding).

Guess how long it took to book a client?

1 day.

Yep, I was an idiot. I completely undervalued myself, because I honestly didn't know any better.
It was a wake up call the size of Mt. Everest. I shot for 9 hours, took over 2000 photos which took me 4 days to edit, plus the months and months of correspondence leading up to the wedding to go over itinerary and ideas. Other photographers offering a package like this charged minimum $1500.

I honestly didn't start charging what I was "worth" for another two years. I was hungry for experience and wanted to guarantee a busy shoot schedule so I could learn and grow. Plus I had a full time job so I wasn't desperate for money. Photography was my mistress on the side.

I experience countless clients who wanted as much possible from me for as little money as possible. Eventually, I had to put my foot down and stick to my guns when it came to pricing. 

Sure, I lost out on a LOT of business when I started charging more, but the business I gained was made of much better clients who truly appreciated my artistic vision. Less jobs didn't mean less money. It was less jobs, at a higher price, with healthier relationships and deeper bonds. This benefits everyone involved.

One of my weddings that was published in The Knot magazine and several other publications. This couple didn't question my pricing. They saw the value in what I provided, and as a result we both came out with an amazing experience and beautiful images.

You have to remember, there is ALWAYS going to be someone out there who undercuts you, no matter what business you're in, and especially in a creative field.
There is always someone more desperate, more cunning, more skilled, more naive, or any other number of things that lead them to charging less for the same product.

If you don't believe in your own value, how can you expect anyone else to? If you charge less, they will pay less.

If you charge more, they might pay more. And here's where it get's tricky.

Brutally honest moment #1: You have to take an honest look at your work and understand where it fits among your industry peers.

Sure, I wanted to charge $2000 right away for a wedding just like other photographers I looked up to, but until I had a few years of experience, my work was not worth $2000. That's a hard pill to swallow for some.


One of the first paintings I ever sold. To my aunt. 

When I started selling paintings, I still had my full-time job, so again, I wasn't desperate for money.

Brutally honest moment #2: If you are desperate for money, art is the wrong field.

Some artists make a TON of money. Those few, the 1% (or much less), are idols to a lot of us. They are living the dream!
And of course, we can all aspire for that level of success.

But most of us will make a humble living, perhaps barely break even, while pursuing the dream.
If that scares you, that's OK. It scares the crap out of me.

But if you read that, and still feel like you HAVE to create no matter what, that making money is secondary, then you may just find the type of success that truly matters.
True fulfillment.

And THAT is priceless.

While selling paintings involves a lot less client interaction than photography, I've realize that there's a ton of crossover between the two disciplines.
Also, my experience as a painter is unique to much of the established (traditional) art world, because it began online, while streaming on Twitch.tv

By painting while streaming on Twitch, my clientele was watching me create the work, yet surprisingly it didn't lead to them putting less value on it (like, I was afraid people would think, "oh that doesn't look that hard, why does it cost so much?"). In fact it was the opposite. Viewers saw me creating something from start to finish, and so they were part of the experience. Much like photography, that experience becomes part of us, and they want to take away a tangible item that expresses it = a piece of art.

A painting is more than it's materials. It's a piece of the artist. Something that was at one point trapped in imagination, came to life, and can now hang on a wall. How magical is that!?
All of the artwork I've purchased has come from a NEED to own it. It reached into me, grabbed my emotions, and shook me until I gave in. 

Pricing drawings and paintings seemed really arbitrary to me when I started out. I didn't go to school for business and I didn't talk to that many artists before selling my own work. At first, I under-priced everything. Again, since I had a full time job, I wasn't desperate for money. Painting and streaming was my new mistress on the side.

I started out by barely charging more than what the materials cost. However, after a while, I began to realize I wanted this to be a career, and I had to take it more seriously.

To my surprise, when I started increasing prices to reflect what I thought they were worth, my sales didn't drop. I was actually stunned the first time I sold anything for over $100.

I came up with a "formula" for pricing, that I still use to this day (except for special circumstances).
$Cost of materials + $Time ($50/hour) + $Shipping & handling
The cost per hour (time) is the variable. It includes prep, painting, and finishing.
You also may need to add sales tax. Consult your local laws.

I paint very fast. Like a fully rendered painting takes me a couple hours (or less). So charging a higher rate per hour is necessary to make it worth my time. 

But the number $50 per hour seems sort of arbitrary right? Not really. 
Look into any creative field at what the professionals charge (architects, graphic designers, etc) and $50 starts to look cheap.

DO NOT CHARGE LESS THAN MINIMUM WAGE! As an artist, what you offer is worth far more than a latte. Ok that doesn't exactly translate well, but what I'm saying is, the skill and vision it takes to create a beautiful painting is more valuable than the skill it takes to make a latte at a local coffee shop where you get paid minimum wage (I served coffee before so I can say this without hesitation).

Another strategy that I've seen artists use is charging per square foot of a painting. Just break it down! I personally don't use this formula because size doesn't effect the difficulty of the contents and therefore how long it takes me to paint. 

As your work develops, so should your storefront. 

Think about it. Compare the two paintings below and tell me which level of quality you'd pay more for (regardless of size).

If you continue to offer your older art on your storefront (like Etsy) at the same prices, it better stack up in terms of quality to your new stuff. Otherwise you're sending mixed signals to your clients.

This requires a constant purge and being REALLY honest with yourself (ouch). 

Can you confidently say that every piece of art on your Etsy shop (or whatever you use) is up to your current standards? Is everything you're offering representing your vision?
I found that by painting so often, the pure volume of my work was leading to fast improvement, and I was running into the scenario that what I posted on Etsy a month ago fell far below the quality of what I posted today. Now, that's all fine and dandy if I lowered prices on the older stuff, OR if that older stuff is still really good. But that was rarely the case.

Brutally honest moment #3: Stop letting sentimental attachment cloud your vision of what something is worth.

I can't tell you how many times I painted something, had a proud little "breakthrough" (like finally painted a good cloud), so I listed it for top dollar. 9 times out of 10 it didn't sell until I lowered the price to what it was ACTUALLY worth. Be realistic. Sure, maybe it's the best you can do, but don't forget to compare to industry peers. Yea, ouch. 

Brutally honest moment #4: If you truly LOVE something, don't sell it.

There was a point that whenever I created a new "favorite" piece, I would tack on an extra $100-200 because the thought of selling it hurt my heart. I've sold several pieces that I wish I still owned, because of how meaningful they were to me. I regret selling them. I regret feeling like I NEEDED to sell them.
So if it meant so much to me, why did I even allow the chance for it to be "taken" away by listing it at an absurd price on my storefront?

I was driven by the unfounded idea that, if it sold for the higher price, I would be able to pay rent, and all is well. 

For fucks sake. There are other ways to pay the rent. Feeling the desperate need to sell everything you make is just going to lead to misery. I am learning slowly that there are some pieces that an artist creates that are meant to stay close. When you create one of those, you feel it in your heart of hearts. Trust your instinct and keep it. 

Sell prints of it instead. Sell postcards and bags and tshirts. But keep the original. Your future self will thank you!

Final brutal advice: If your work isn't selling, hit the "books."

By this I mean, get off your high horse, and back into the studio. I do this myself constantly. The ego is a powerful thing. Sadly it comes built-in for humans. 

Advertise differently. (this is going to be a whole other blog post)
Study more.

They don't call it a hustle for nothing.

Just because you made something doesn't mean it's going to sell. I used to list every single thing I made on my Etsy shop, even studies. A lot of times it was because while I was painting it, people who were watching on my Twitch channel were raving about how much they loved it. Or I posted it on Instagram and people asked "where can I buy this?"
But once I listed it, it didn't sell.

One of the first Seascape paintings I made (7 months ago), people begged for me to add it to Etsy. It never sold.

Most recently sold piece.

So, either everyone was lying, or it wasn't worth what I was selling it for. So I had to be honest with myself.
It was a study, Sure it was cool to look at and kind of fun and expressive. But was it worth selling and shipping? Probably not. But in creating it, my skill improved, and you better believe the next time I paint a fully rendered landscape that involves elements from that study, it will be good. And THAT painting will sell.

Ok so, I hope at least some of this was helpful. It's all just been me rambling about my own experiences. We mainly just have to be honest with ourselves. Work hard. Enjoy what we do. I'm sure in another year I'll have a new outlook. I'm learning as I go!

What are your methods? Do you have a success or horror story to share or a solid formula that works for you? I'd really love to hear them. Please feel free to send me a message or post in the comments below!