To clarify, I’m talking about this from the artist’s perspective, since we are the ones who have to come up with a value for our work, for a client or a gallery. And speaking as an artist, and knowing quite a few others, I can tell you it is a major struggle for many – prepare yourself for multiple conflicts and paradoxes, and for what will probably be a long blog.
(So a bit of a change of topic here from writing to art for a while)
Why is pricing such a struggle?
Well if I list some of the questions we ask ourselves as we stare at our work trying to figure a value out, it might be more evident, so here goes:
How long did it take me?
As an artist who loves doing largely representational detail, this is relevant to me. It just has to be. (If you’re curious about my work, you can visit my website here to get some idea). But time is probably not relevant to those who work quickly and in a different style with different ideologies. I aim to create something beautiful to look at, of pleasing design, and with a love of colour and line, and mostly all connected to nature. This happens to be something I want to take time over, getting there quickly leaves me unfulfilled. So I find myself discounting the time factor to some degree, and as any artist/craft worker of any kind knows already, if you charged for your time, you’d never get paid.
For artists who work differently to me, and a lot more quickly, time is irrelevant too – in fact you could argue it’s unprofessional even to answer the question ‘How long did it take you?’ And it does smack of primary school days. But I’ve been asked this many times by members of the public, and by students when I was teaching art, so I feel it has to be considered, at least from the angle of the quality of attention I’ve put into a painting (How to define quality? That will have to be for another day!)
Does size matter?
In the art market, it would seem it does. Large canvases demand attention, they make a statement in a room, smaller pieces, no matter how well painted just don’t cut it. I don’t agree with this personally, it comes back to quality again for me. There could be an exquisitely painted small work which should command a high value, but in general, smaller means a lower price. I suppose it’s a simple rule to follow for most purposes.
BUT, if the small work is by a designated famous artist, usually with the added bonus of being dead, then the price can shoot up, as we all know.
What about the materials?
Yes, it can be as basic as that. Large canvases, with oil paint as the medium (which the fine art market loves), have incurred some not inconsiderable expenses – all those tubes of paint. Watercolour paints are a lot cheaper than oils, and paper cheaper than canvases, but then the framing, which is essential, can be quite steep. So taking costs into consideration can be a basic starting point. If you paid a lot for that certain picture to be framed, you have to try and take that into account. If you used masses of oil paint on a large canvas, then you should take that into account.
What about the gallery commission?
You have to take into account a gallery commission of anything from 30% to 50%. This is fair enough, as gallery owners have to make a living and it just can’t be an easy business to make money in. But nonetheless, you have to add the commission on to what you want for the work – then it inevitably seems too steep from the buyer’s perspective, who may not realise the hidden financial arrangement. And it’s the buyer’s perspective that has to be paramount for making sales.
(If you can sell direct to the public at an art fair then you only have the your fair costs to worry about, however you are meant to reflect gallery prices – whether you choose to is up to you, but it may damage your relationship with a gallery.)
Am I well known? Have I got letters after my name? Who exactly am I?
If you’re well known, yes, you can price your work higher. That’s simple enough. And I know people who have bought a painting by a well known artist or two in the hope of the work’s value increasing with time (after the artist is dead of course) – art as an investment here, regional or worldwide. But I would hope the buyer enjoys the painting too, otherwise its too materialist an approach for me.
If I have a BA in art (which I haven’t), does it make my work more worthy than someone self-taught? There are many self taught brilliant artists just as there are many brilliant degree artists also, and just as many not so great artists in both categories. So I just don’t know here. It’s kind of up to you how you view your work, and how skilled you think it is.
What about being accepted by leading art societies to give you letters of kudos after your name? Many seek this approval, and it may well work in being able to price work higher. But the process doesn’t sit well with me. You have to apply, while paying a fee, then be lucky enough for your work to be considered, over time, and even luckier to get into their annual exhibition as an associate or equivalent. You don’t just become a full member straight away, you have to go through a rite of passage, waiting for approval, and you have to be willing to have your work judged by ‘experts’. But who are they really? Does their view really count in such a trend driven art world? Do you want to engage with these kind of values?
I do feel that the training and guidance provided by an art education will probably mean you won’t sell yourself short. But will you sell your work if it still isn’t what the buying public want right now?…and that brings me to…
Is it in a currently fashionable style/ or is it a popular subject? – Brown hares spring to mind, I just can’t think why ;>)
I don’t ask this myself anymore, and rarely did in the past, and I paint what I want to paint, I just don’t happen to follow fashion, unless by accident. But it nevertheless is a hugely relevant question. The art market is like any other – fashionable trends are what the galleries follow and they display what they think the current taste of the buying public is. You could argue that they decide what the current public taste is. And artists may claim they happen to be inspired (an irritatingly overused word) by what is currently being followed, but I can’t see how they can be unconscious of the fact they are following a trend or fashion as many do – just think of white cottages on isolated island moors.
Fashion is a bit of a dangerous word in the art market, and it’s not acknowledged enough for me. Of course, fashion isn’t a lofty sentiment, so it settles at the bottom of the lake like sediment, not seen, but nonetheless exerting an effect.
How much do I need the money?
Do you sell for what you think it’s worth (probably a higher value by your own estimation if you feel good about what you do) or sell for what you think current potential buyers will be willing to buy it for? (probably a lower value, as art is a luxury many people cannot afford)
At the other extreme, if the price is way too low, then people’s psychology being what it is, will presume it’s literally not worth much. Way too high, and they think its presumptive and something of a ego-driven farce ( thinking who do they think they are?)
All of this is what artists have to contemplate when pricing their paintings. It’s why I like illustration in that you set an industry guided standard fee, you do the work to the clients satisfaction, you get paid, and potentially paid again if the image is reused. Marvellous, eh?
In conclusion, I believe the best position to be in as an artist putting a price on a painting is:
Not to need the money – most artists and writers I know have a partner who’s kind and supportive enough to pay most of the bills, or there’s income coming from elsewhere. The days of artists starving in attic garrets are long gone, but not of unwanted paintings accumulating in cupboards or spare rooms!
In putting a value on your painting, you’re putting a value on yourself – don’t sell yourself short, as it affects the market for other artists too, in devaluing art and craft as a whole.
Don’t be in a position where you need the validation that is seen to come from selling. Be happy not to sell. Be happy with yourself. And remember that the bought painting just goes on another wall at the end of the day, maybe even to match a colour scheme, and you have no control over what the buyer sees in your painting, or where they place it in their home.
Go for a price you’d be happy to receive (after any commission) for letting that painting go, remembering that you retain the copyright (something not all buyers realise) to produce prints is so desired.
Don’t let all this stuff interfere with your love of painting. Stay in your own bubble for the sheer doing of it.
Now is there anything I’ve missed out?