Pricing Tips for the Still-Alive, Starving Artist

Christie's auction house sold Monet's 'Grainstack' at a record $81.4 million in 2016. Unfortunately for the 1890 impressionistic painters, that big posthumous paycheck isn't doing them much good. It is the most cliche of artist jokes, our works become more valuable the day we die; Not all of us, but most are destined to starve as we strive for the greatness that may (unlikely) come with our demise. What I would like to expound upon is how artists appraise their work before their posthumous fame... How can one put a value on creative intellectual property when so many factors affect the value of a work: the brand of the artist, the skill, the current art market, the size of the work, the time it took, the cost of materials, how hungry the artist is, the composition, the story behind the piece, the patron behind the piece...

When we talk about art markets there are niche markets of famous impressionistic painters and priceless Andy Warhol sketches. I belong to another niche market, the still-alive, starving artist market; in my market it isn't as easy as auctioning off a painting for a few million. Choosing to be a full-time artist is often a choice to sway haphazardly between paying jobs and poverty. We are sometimes forced to choose creating our work in lieu of cushy living and the garauntee of regular meals. When you find yourself struggling to balance the urge to create and the need to pay rent, pricing your work can get dodgy. I would like to pass on some of what I learned to help any other artists out there who struggle with how to value their work.

I was lucky; when I initially priced my work a wise gallery owner appraised my paintings at a higher price point than I would've ever considered. This did two things: my work was immediately given validity (despite my novice and lack of branding), and, secondly, a higher price point hastened my fiscal ability to start painting full-time.

I am going to take you through the pricing of this piece, 'Having the Usual Pint,' a 24" x 30" acrylic painting on canvas that I completed in 2013. After I painted it, this work had a basic value: the cost of the materials. In total the canvas, paint, & brushes put me back somewhere around $80-90.

Pricing the work at $80-90 would not compensate me for the time it took to paint the piece. So I looked at how long it took for me to paint the work, approximately 25-30 hours. An hourly wage/rate might run anywhere from $8-600+ an hour. I felt I was starting out at the bottom and tried to give myself an hourly wage around $15-20.

Some artists use a size-standard; meaning that the size of the piece will dictate the value. In order to keep prices somewhat uniform, I also use this as a factor in pricing works.

'Having the Usual Pint' is a medium size work that took me about 30 hours to paint. My time spent on the piece means that I should get $550-600 in labor. Factoring in labor, plus materials, and the *size puts the final value of this work at around $700. It sold for that price in 2013. (If my work did not sell at this price I would've been forced to reevaluate my hourly wage, and likely would've reduced all of my prices.)

That was the value of this work in 2013. Since then, as my brand and the demand for my work has increased, I have reassessed my pricing. The prices on my older works have remained the same, however, as I paint new pieces, I have slightly raised my hourly wage.

Another factor that has contributed to price increases is supply and demand. When I discover that I am unable to keep up with the demand, I increase my pricing, not too much, but enough that the buying slows down and I am able to keep some inventory. If I painted 'Having the Usual Pint' today, I would likely price it closer to $850.

Another note, which I hope to expand upon in a future post, is that prints, or reproductions, of artwork actually substantiate the market value of the original piece. Selling limited edition, high quality reproductions is a tangible way to measure the desire for the image; As the demand for the image increases, and that desire is validated by the purchase of prints, the value of the original work increases. I may increase the price of an original if the demand for prints of that piece is extremely high.

Another factor that I needed to adjust for was commission works. Although I own the rights to sell prints of a portrait commission, very few people will want to buy a print of someone else's Nana. If reproduction sales are not likely I need to set a price point that will compensate me for my time. Also, commissions require time spent with a client, client's input and ultimately a restraint on the natural flow of my work. Because of all of these factors my hourly wage for a commission work is higher.

Once you've established a pricing structure and works begin to sell at a certain price point it is VERY important not to lower your costs. This upsets patrons who have already invested in your work, and it shows a lack of consistency that will deter future clients. Any unexplained large pricing changes will hurt your brand.

I feel that it is important to note that when I first showed my artwork to the world, it was a hobby, I was not in desperate need of money, and I was working a full time job. As I stated before, many artists do not have the luxury of pricing their pieces appropriately because they need to sell their work to pay the bills. This does add a level of complexity to the market. Another artist who has work similar to mine may be undervaluing their product, which hurts our overall market value (They cannot be faulted for selling at a lower price to make it work; artists do what they have to do to survive!).

At the end of the day, even if my work sells at listed price, the current value of my pieces does not fully compensate me for my intellectual property. My brand is not big enough (maybe my work is not good enough?). Perhaps there will be a posthumous auction that gets my estate the kind of returns that I dream about? Until that day, I will do my best to keep my prices steady and uniform to maintain the integrity and value of my work. I hope that this helps someone out there!

*Almost all my works of this size (24 x 30") landed around $650-750 in 2013-2014. This keeps the costs uniform across size, and gives me some flexibility when a work took markedly longer to complete. The cost of my works has increased to around $850-900 for that size today.

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