Friday Tips: Establishing Prices for Your Work

How do you go about establishing fair prices for the works you create–meaning fair to you as well as to potential collectors? Easy. Get a dart board, tape a range of prices to it, toss six darts at the sucker, and see where they land. The middle figure wins.

You don’t like that? Then try this: go to a series of galleries, find works by established artists that are in some way similar to yours, then set prices that you’re comfortable with in comparison. If the established artist is in the range of, say, $15,000 per painting, this is likely not a realistic comparison. If they’re in the range of $700 to $4000 per painting, depending on size, that will likely be more suitable. Even then, if you’re an emerging artist, it would not be practical for you to charge the same prices. The artist whose work you’re viewing has probably been at it a long time, paid heavily in her dues, and is now reaping her rewards. If you’re in the beginning stages of your career, it’s doubtful that you’re at her level yet.

The same rules apply to sculptors, ceramists, etc.

Of course I can’t tell you what prices to set, but I can say that initially they should be moderate. It’s unlikely that you’ll make a killing right out, and it’s generally unwise to expect to. I advise that you concentrate on placing as many works with as many people as possible, which in the beginning is normally achieved through moderate pricing. These clients can then be listed on your resume as collectors, which will lend you greater credibility as your career expands, and as you later approach galleries. In the beginning, you want to make it easy for those collectors to buy your work. In fact it should always be easy, it’s just that later on it should also be more expensive–in fairness to you, and all you’ve sacrificed.

In relation to this, I’m often asked by novice browsers why paintings and sculptures are always so “expensive.”  In my gallery, prices currently range from $800 to $10,000 for in-house pieces. (Commissioned work is a different matter.) These are hardly expensive prices by New York standards, but they are expensive to the vast majority of the populace, regardless of where they live. Of course the question is a reasonable one, so I always try to give a reasonable answer.

I typically answer by explaining that my artists have been working in their disciplines for anywhere from twenty to forty years. They’ve established, through decades of struggle, techniques that are unique to them–meaning that their work is uncommon. They have now reached the point where they’re due proper compensation for all the privation they’ve been through, and, in most cases, that their families have been through as well. To charge any less would be a disservice to the artist. I carefully explain all this, then finish by asking the questioner that if they’d been down such a long, exhausting, risk-imperiled road, what would they charge for the work? Invariably the answer is, “More.”

I say, “Very good,” then proceed to close a deal.

18 thoughts on “Friday Tips: Establishing Prices for Your Work

  1. Hi Paul,
    Nice article on pricing. I love the final part explaining to the client about the years of subsistance that often accompany the development of an art career. I would also mention to artists to stay on track with the set prices for studio sales. If you are fortunate enough to have a gallery that represents you, the price of work stays the same in the studio or in the gallery. Never bite the hand that feeds you.
    Thanks,
    Angelita

  2. Paul, where you say to place as many works as possible with as many people as possible, so these clients can be listed on one’s resume as collectors… is that okay to do? What about privacy of these collectors? Assuming you don’t put collector’s names on the resume that sits around in the gallery for everyone to take, are there other, more discreet situations where you would list these names?

  3. Angelita: Indeed, the price should stay the same in all galleries and in the studio. However I’ve been known to look the other way when an artist in my stable is struggling, and sells out of her studio to an old client for a lesser price. I just don’t make this a common practice. Bad for biz.

    Joe: In the case of corporate, institutional or civic collectors, it’s generally considered ok to list them on a resume without asking first. In the case of private collectors, it’s best to get their permission. If they’re uncomfortable with it, just list “Private Collection,” followed by city and state.

  4. Paul, thank you for the insightful post about pricing. This area persistently remains the toughest aspect for me, especially since what I do is so out-of-the ordinary. It took a while just to elevate it from the perception of “craft” to fine art.

    A friend of mine who also does shows had an interesting approach to customers who compare time put into a piece to price of a piece:

    “How long did it take you to paint this?” asks the customer.
    “20 years,” replies my friend.
    “20 years?? How is that possible?”Exclaims the customer.
    “I have been painting and learning for 20 years,” replies my friend, without missing a beat. “It took me 20 years of practice, study, and painting to get to this point where I could paint this piece.”

    That always seems to satisfy them.

  5. What if your work is unlike others you see in galleries? My work takes me MUUUCH longer to create than the typical painting and desire to be reimbursed for some of that time. Anyone have any suggestions?

  6. thats a great article on pricing, thanks for it.

    What do you say to artists who think this way- I know someone who thinks her small pieces 4inch tall sculptures are worth $500 each and won’t sell them for any less (and hasn’t sold ANY). When I suggest that she start some, perhaps less ornate pieces for $100 or whatever to build a clientele, she says “well, they’ll be worth much more than $500 when I’m dead! I’d rather keep them than sell them for less then they are worth”

    My response is “maybe they would be worth more when you are dead, but you need to eat/pay rent NOW so maybe selling something while you are alive is a better idea”

    Am I in the wrong for thinking that selling work when alive is a better way of living?

  7. Julie: Great story. Very similar to sculptor Jim Brothers’ stock answer when asked how long it took to create a piece: “All my life til now.”

    Susan: That’s just a tough call. I have some painters who work in infinite detail, with tiny brushes, resulting in stunning pieces. I charge twice as much for their paintings, but sell them half as often as everyone else. Sometimes less often than that. Thank god for day jobs.

    Barbe: It sounds like your friend has taken a vow of poverty. More common in the arts than not. Nothing wrong with that. Many people prefer living this way. I’d say let her. When she wearies of it, she’ll let you know.

  8. As someone who has entered the art world later in life, I’m struggling with the dilemma of having little formal training and background in art history – and yet not having the time to go back and correct that. The result is that I lack confidence to charge prices that would feel fair. I do try to remind myself that my art is an accumulation of my own experiences and who I am – and that by 61, that is worth something.

    Also, what I do doesn’t fit into any regular category and so I can’t find work to compare it to.

    I paint because I love doing it, I do shows because they give me exposure and feedback (I begin to get a sense of what people will buy, and usually at least break even), and I take every opportunity that I can to “catch up” on the learning end – sites like this, that stimulate discussion and thought are terrific. Thank you!

  9. Hi Paul,
    Thanks for posting your article. I found it via Alyson Stanfield’s biz blog. I’m always glad to hear that others find pricing difficult, or at least something that takes lots of thought and revisiting. I know my prices are low, but I have been slowly raising them each year to reflect the work I’ve put in and knowledge I’ve gained that year. I’m just so excited to be painting, learning, growing. I can’t wait to get out of bed in the mornings, so I know I’ve chosen the right path!

  10. Very nice article. I saved the last paragraph to re-read for the next time someone asks me the same thing.

    It’s so odd to me about the value placed on things in our society. When I am asked how come my paintings cost so much, I mentally flash back to what other things cost in relation to art. People stood in line and camped out overnight for the privilege of paying $400 – $1000 for the last x box release, which will only last a couple years before being replaced by something else (BTW, my prices are more or less within this range). A piece of art lasts into generations (my father was an artist also and I treasure the paintings of his that I have). I really don’t see why a painting to go over a couch should cost less than the couch.

  11. Hi Paul –

    thanks for a great post.

    I had an interesting situation recently when one collector told me that my prices were too high, yet some others were saying how incredibly cheep I was, and that I was doing my work a disservice by placing prices like these on my paintings. I was caught between a rock and a hard place because recent months were very slow for art in general. I needed to sell and lowered my prices, but now I feel that I am selling myself and my family too short.
    What do you do in a situation like that? Listen to a collector, who buys half of your work, or to people that buy 1 painting? And is $150 really that big of a difference when you’ve raised your prices?

  12. Hi Paul,

    Great write up on pricing! When reading Becky’s response I thought it was myself. Although I am about 15 years younger than she is, I too did not realize my potential until only a couple of years ago. Working full time does not allow me the priviledge to paint as often as I would like. But just enough time to have several paintings in 2 local galleries. My question is when do you know it is time increase your pricing?

  13. I am a professional artist who sells originals and canvas giclee prints both online and in art shows. People ask me all the time, “How do you price your work?” I have a very easy answer. First set a price that you think is fair (don’t concern yourself with what other artists are doing it does not matter) if it sells right away, chances are your price was too low and you can raise it a little. If the artwork is still hanging around a year or two later, your price is too high – you need to drop it. Everything will sell if you use this easy balancing act to find the right for your work.

    Please see all work (and pricing) at http://www.lindapaul.com

  14. I’ll answer all these questions in a day or two. Swamped right now with overseeing the finishing touches to the new gallery, and launching three new projects. Apologies.

  15. great info and back up info….Similar to an earlier comment mentioned, I had an older artist friend years ago who would just say “Maybe an hour and 20 years, thereabouts” whenever asked how long it took him to paint a certain painting. That usually did it….thanks for giving us such good info! love your blog.

  16. Becky: As I gather you already know, age has nothing to do with it. George Bernard Shaw didn’t achieve his first significant success as a playwright until nearly 50. But because you’re a late starter, I do advise you get honest feedback from knowledgeable critics. This means they cannot be lovers, family, or people who owe you money.

    Peggi: Nothing I need to say about that state of mind, except it’s one of the wonders of living. Even so, my suspicion is that you’re charging roughly half of what you’re worth.

    Laura: It should cost more than the couch. Why? When well done, it will only appreciate with time. This is not the case with the couch, the cars, the clothes, or the freaking china.

    Anya: $150 in the art world is chump change. Is this client knowledgeable? Does he/she know the art business? Do they have your best interests at heart, or only their own? Of course I can’t say. But I very well remember a situation when I discovered a brilliant sculptor 14 years ago, began to promote him nationally, and he began to succeed–much to the objection of a regional millionaire who had been taking advantage of him, and picking up his work for pathetically low prices. I have to admit I enjoyed watching that chump fall out of line as real collectors fell in. A collector of genuine compassion will understand the sacrifices you’ve made, and pay accordingly for something they truly value. They get the integrity of the exchange, and take pride in it. A collector of little integrity will do the opposite. But that type has always been around. So has my type, whose job it is to either educate them, or chuck em out the door.

    Tonya: I gauge this by demand. Yet even if demand is slight, but I feel the skill level is high, I might still increase prices, which is always done in consultation with the artist. Either way, my general standard for a rising talent is 10% per year. For some, it’s more. This continues until we reach the market ceiling, then it may slow for a bit, picking up again later.

    Linda: Good technique and approach. But I advise that you be careful about decreasing prices. Sometimes this can have an adverse effect if the word gets out.

    Mary: Ditto.

  17. Thank-you Paul, this is one of the more important topics for artists and one of the most avoided in the art world!

    I find when a client asks about my prices, I must realize what answering honestly means. Businesses do not charge what it costs to make a product! They charge what it costs to make it, plus market it, plus distribute it to the customer.

    So art prices can be based on how many hours and how much money it took to make the piece, plus how many hours and how much money it took to market the piece, plus how many hours and how much money it took bring it to the client.

    Don’t cut youself short, a truely honest answer includes more than just how long I was physically putting brush to this particular canvas!

    It seems fair to calculate a MODEST living and if you get to a point where you have more buyers than what you can create, raise your prices.

    And as Paul pointed out, always check your calculations against the real art world – through gallery pricing.

    allison

  18. Paul, I have enjoyed your article and all the many wonderful responses. As with Becky, I began my art career late in life. I had a large 12 chair hair salon for over 25 years, I still work out of a small shop in my home four days a week…working on my art in my free time.

    I, to struggled with price, especially when I decided to really step in and do juried art fairs and galleries shows. As you said Paul, I checked out other artists websites with like work and quality…I then through out the lowest prices and highest prices and used what was left as a guide for setting mine…along with considering time and money invested.

    A philosophy that I have shared with many over the years as I counseled young hairdressers who were opening their first salon was… that when you set your prices you choose your market. I believe there are three types of consumers, Those who enjoy “Fine Dining,” Those who enjoy eating out at a “Good Restaurant,” and those who eat at “McDonalds.”

    To equate this to my art experience…There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these people, they simply “value” things differently.

    *The people who enjoy and value “Fine Dining” have friends who enjoy the same, they drive high end cars, belong to the country club, shop at the most expensive stores and collect “Fine Art Originals.”
    For them Reputation and a Higher Price=value

    *The people who enjoy eating at a Good Restaurant…may purchase an original but will more than likely buy a “Limited Edition Print”, and have friends that feel the same…they don’t value an Original enough to pay the price…and that is fine. For them, I offer LE prints and AP’s.
    They are more into decorating that collecting Fine Art.

    * The people who eat at McDonalds…will at times take their family to a Good Restaurant, and will enjoy the evening and the food, but more than likely will not do this on a regular basis. When they come to the art fairs, they my purchase a LE Print but will probably purchase the lower end items such as note cards and small open edition prints.
    They will purchase, and many times purchase multiple items!

    For my area of the Midwest, the price structure for my originals and commissioned works is on the high side…but I offer a range of prices for the lower end market. My hope is that as I raise my prices and move deeper into the “Fine Dining” group of Art Collectors, that I will still retain the middle group that I am in now with my LE Prints and AP’s.

    Time will tell how well my plan and business annalogy will play out.

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