studioNOTES: support for artists/ideas and information

Number 16

June - August 1997

Pieter Bruegel the Elder
The painter and the buyer
c. 1565
Pen and ink
9 7/8 x 8 1/2 in.

The painter and the buyer
What is the right price? If you charge too much for your artwork nobody will buy it, but if you charge too little, you've wasted some of your time, energy, and talent. Even for artists with years of experience, pricing work is problematic. San Francisco painter/printmaker Abigail Linfert joked, "Sometimes I think I should do what professors reportedly do with term papers-throw them down some stairs. The ones at the top would be most expensive and the ones at the bottom would be cheapest."

One reason for the difficulty is that the rules that govern the market value of most commodities are usually not appropriate for art. Many artists, after all, keep making their "products" even if no one is buying. And, as writer Rebecca Solnit suggested, "in making unique objects of great value, artists are tied into a preindustrial, almost procapitalist economy of patronage." Still, artists have worked out various approaches, many of which are listed below. As with everything else in the art world, there is no general agreement about what is best but one of the ideas or a mix of them - may prove useful for you.

See what the "competition" charges. Sculptor John Mosher (Dayton OH) wrote "I worked part time in college as a comparison shopper for a department store. It was my job to see what certain items sold for in other stores so we could set our prices competitively, and I still use those general principles in figuring out what I should charge for my work." Rob Badger (Marie City CA) takes a similar approach: "I compare the quality of my work to the quality of what is out there and price it accordingly. I factor 'name recognition' into the equation." Logan Franklin (Lucas Valley CA) adds, "It isn't much different than pricing real estate. Comparables in the marketplace determine what a buyer will pay. Some artists may not like hearing that, but it is so."

Time plus materials plus experience. For small made-for-the- market works Emily Duffy (El Cerrito CA) bases the price "on the cost of materials plus the percentage of my labor that it takes to make each piece." Larry Sieler (Eau Claire WI) does this for all of his paintings, large or small. Several other artists, however, use it to arrive at a rough price and then add in other factors. Gary Leigh Coles (Pittsburgh PA) uses a formula: he sets his hourly rate at the number of years he's been doing art and then adds the costs of materials multiplied by four. One problem with the time plus materials approach, however, is that much of the work of producing "successful" art is not done while one is physically working on that particular piece. In fact, much of it is done producing the "failures" that make it possible to do the successes.

Love and angst. In addition to doing the things above, Catherine Campaigne (Berkeley CA) also factors in "how I feel about the work, would I like to get rid of it, or am I having difficulty parting with it." Emily Duffy does something similar. For her larger works, she sets the price to "reflect the angst experienced during their production, how much I love the piece, or how much I want to be rid of it." Interestingly, while Campaigne's favorites - and thus the most expensive - tend to sell the best, it's Duffy's cheaper, least- liked works, that tend to get bought.

Get expert guidance. Some, such as photographer Ron Badger, report that they have sought advice from successful and friendly practitioners in their fields.

Start cheap, build a following. When in grad school about 12 years ago, Mike D'Aimio (Denver CO) decided to sell his work very cheap and cultivate the buyers, gradually raising his prices. He kept "his" people informed of his activities and sent out regular postcards and notes. While he lost some collectors when his style changed, others have been quite supportive and have even recommended him to galleries.

Whatever the market will bear. "It's really all a game," says Donald Stone (Sacramento CA). "You have to try to get as much [money] from them as you can, just like they try to get as much from you as they can. I like bargaining and I'm good at it." Herb Kaplan (SF CA) advises: "Try to sell your art work for 10 times what you think that you should get for it and then just keep lowering your price until you find a buyer," but does not say if this actually has worked for him over a period of time.

Let the dealer do it. Sculptor Margaret Keelan (San Pablo CA) says "I let the dealer decide. They know what the market is. (Unfortunately right now the market is really slow.)" This approach works best if you are already established; many dealers expect artists who contact them for possible representation to have price lists.

By the foot. Many galleries and some more experienced artists set price based on the size of a piece. Not that bigger is better, or that all pieces of the same size are of equal quality, but this approach allows those things to average out, and takes the agony out of pricing decisions. Maryln Mori (Saratoga CA) uses a formula proposed by Michael Bell (Visual Art Access): figure out the square-inch price of a typical piece that sold. This rate is then used to determine the wholesale price of new paintings (square inches times rate). Bell also advised raising the rates each year. If you use a similar formula, round off to, say, the nearest $25 or $100, depending on size.

Aggregation. Several artists used a combination of some of these, such as starting with the size and then adjusting for quality. Andy Licht (Mountain View CA) said "I don't have a clue how to price my paintings with an equation that incorporates the currency of the spirit expended. For the present, the pricing is based off more tangible things like size and the robustness of the image."

Lagniappe. A few respondents offered additional pricing and selling suggestions. For instance, Franklin argued against bargaining: "If you seem desperate, buyers can smell it." Dermis Dykema, professor of art at Buena Vista University (Storm Lake IA), said that while buyers are used to negotiating 10 to 15% off at galleries, "you'll make things very puzzling to them if you start pricing like a retail store."

Some artists, such as Linfert and David Alvey (Dallas TX), use a two-tier system of pricing, the higher level for larger "original" works and the lower for multiples or small works made with the market in mind. Alvey points out that it is important to know who is attracted to your work: if it is college students, for instance, then you have to keep your prices low and might want to figure out how to make your work affordable to them.

Keelan, who teaches in an art school, thought that students tend to price their works too high. "Better to get it sold than to have to store it." Another correspondent, who wished to remain anonymous, felt that "most of us overprice our work." She said that where she lives there are many homes "impoverished of art," and that might be changed if prices were lower.

A few artists set prices way "too high" on all or a few of their things. They use those pieces either to show what good values the rest of the work is or because they hope their reputations will some day catch up with their prices. Of course some artists are simply unrealistic about what the market will bear and set their prices according to entirely subjective standards. Their chances of selling are low but their chances of disappointment are high.

Dykema and Keelan both warn that once your prices have been made public, however, you can't lower them; it's unfair to your collectors and may harm your reputation. Dykema says an alternative to lowering prices is to make things that are smaller, or made from different materials.

Finally, a couple of people said that they don't mix money and art. Terry Low (Kapaa HI) wrote that he would rather give his work away than sell it; he doesn't "think pricing artwork to sell is wrong. It would be wrong for me, however."

Well, there you have it. If there's nothing here that helps you figure out a suitable pricing scheme, there's always the throw-em-down-the-stairs method. Keep in touch and let us know what works for you.


Thanks to all who responded to the question "How do you decide on the price of your work?" Last year's questionnaire showed that the subject is on the minds of many readers. Another question, "How did you find your current gallery?" was scheduled to be discussed this issue also, but we ran out of space. (If you haven't yet sent in your response, there's still time.) The article will be published next issue, but if you absolutely have to have it now, send a SASE, and we'll send you a rough draft.

Copyright © 1997 by studioNOTES

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