Price Tips for Emerging Artists

by Joelle Steele

Every emerging (beginning) artist must establish prices for their works. There are basically six factors involved in pricing anything, including art. The first three are:

1. The cost to produce the work (paint, canvas, paper, matting, framing, etc.)

2. The cost of your time in creating the work (the number of hours it takes from preliminary sketches through to the finished piece)

3. Other costs to be borne by the artist (such as gallery commissions, art fair fees, advertising/marketing, etc.)

These are actually relatively easy to determine by merely keeping track of all your expenses for materials, your time (at an hourly rate), and any other art-related costs. Just remember that every painting or work of art is not exactly like the one you did previously. Some take longer, some require more materials. One 16x20 painting can take an hour longer than another of the same size. For the sake of efficiency and consistency, you will need to arrive at an average cost, probably based on size, either the dimensions or the square inches for flat art.

When it comes to the cost of your time, you will need to determine an hourly rate. How much is your time worth? An artist once told me that when she first started selling her work, she was so pitifully underpriced that she was making less than minimum wage. Don't let that happen to you. A skilled artist's time should be worth at least $25 per hour — more as your skill develops and your reputation increases.

As for the "other" costs, if you're going to sell your work, you have to get used to the idea that you will likely have to pay when someone else is giving you an opportunity to show your work. This can be anything from a $150 entry fee at an art/craft fair to a 40% gallery commission to a $125 fee to upload your images to an online gallery. All of these costs need to be incorporated into your pricing structure as well.

Another three items to consider in pricing your art are:

4. The amount of profit you wish to make for the work (varies)

5. Consistency in pricing (sticking to established prices for your work)

6. Raising prices as demand for your work increases

Some artists do not use a profit margin in their pricing. They simply adhere to a higher hourly rate that they assign to their work. This is a perfectly acceptable way to price for profit. But many artists want or need to see an actual percentage attached to their work that represents a profit.

There was a time when emerging artists characteristically created their profit margins based on their local economies. An artist who lived in a small rural area had a lower starting point for their profit margin than did an artist who lived in a large metropolitan area. But nowadays, we all live in a global economy, and pricing based on geography just doesn't work any more.

Today, as an emerging artist, you must decide on a profit percentage that will place you in a market comparable with other artists in your genre, working at your same skill level. It is necessary to research what art is selling for everywhere to get a feeling for how this works. You have to learn to evaluate the other artists in your genre, the quality of their work, and how long they have been selling their work to arrive at a percentage that's right for you.

You don't want to undersell yourself if your work is, in fact, equivalent to what you are seeing by other artists in your genre. And you don't want to oversell your work, regardless of how good it is, because demand has not yet been established for you and your work. You need to find a comfortable place somewhere in the middle — definitely not the highest-priced, and certainly not the cheapest.

One common problem that many emerging artists have is that of underpricing. This can be due to a lack of understanding of the costs involved and profit margins. If that sounds like you, it might be a good idea to consult with a bookkeeper or an accountant before you set a price. It is also important to remember that people won't decide to buy a work of art because it is cheaper than that of another artist's. They are only going to buy art because they like the piece. Period.

Once you figure out a good pricing structure, you need to use it consistently whenever and wherever you sell your work, whether it is at an art/craft fair, an online gallery, or through a bricks-and-mortar gallery. This means that you don't advertise the same pieces in different places for different prices. It also means that you don't price similar pieces (or pieces in a series) at different amounts based on your emotional attachment to one of them or based on your belief that one is better than the others. And, it means that you need to think in advance about how your work will be sold. Is it possible that someone will want to purchase an entire series or two or three pieces from a series? If so, will they ask for a discount, and if they do, what will you be willing to offer them?

As time goes by, and as your reputation is established, the demand for your work will increase. You will also improve in skill and technique. In the end, you will need to raise your prices accordingly. This will probably happen gradually, with your prices going up a bit each year. In many cases, gallery representation will impact greatly on your pricing, as these venues offer visibility to known collectors and will provide an expanded marketing presence for you. Many gallery owners advise their artists on pricing based on what their experience tells them about how and what their clients are buying at any given time.

Learning to price your art can be a challenge, and there is an art to pricing. But by keeping good records of all your costs and your time, keeping your pricing consistent, and raising your prices over time, you should ultimately find yourself earning a better living from your artistic pursuits.

This article last updated: 11/14/2013.