Whether you are just starting to sell your work or you are making big career progress, it can seem impossible to make sure that your time and talents are adequately valued.
Artists, collectors, and galleries take a number of different approaches to pricing original works of art. In this post, I outline some of the most common strategies for setting the value of art (particularly painting) and add a few unusual suggestions of my own. This is not meant to be a consistent strategy or how-to guide, but a list of trends and ideas to get you started.
1. Set your prices by looking to artists of similar skill and experience-levels
The most common pricing advice given to artists is to look online and in galleries to see what other artists of similar skill and experience-levels are charging. It is good advice but it can be tough to gauge who to compare yourself with!
Here are a few key questions you can ask yourself to help you judge whether an artist would make a good comparison point:
- Does the artist use a similar subject, style, and medium? If you paint custom family portraits in oil based on photographs, you should look for artists who do the same.
- What kind of a gallery representation does the artist have? Are they in international galleries? Local galleries? Solo exhibitions? Juried shows? Primarily online?
- What kind of online following does the artist have? Do they have a massive audience on social media?
- Does the artist teach or write books? Who do they teach? How often? Where do they publish?
- Who buys the artist’s work and why? Do they have active collectors? Do they sell locally? To friends and family?
- At what scale does the artist typically work? Make sure you’re comparing apples and apples in terms of size.
Of course, there are all kinds of less tangible criteria that are important but not captured in my list. You also need to think about where your work sits in terms of conceptual depth, originality, technical skill, and the cultural/contextual factors that can make some art especially valuable.
2. Ask Galleries (or Other Experts) For Help
If you have a good connection with a local gallery, you can take your work in and ask them for advice. If you don’t have a good connection with a local gallery, you should make one!
Commercial galleries and artist-run galleries are often looking for new artist’s that will fit within their niche. Even if you are not a good fit at a gallery, the staff might help you price your work. Gallery staff are good at helping artists to decide how much to charge because they understand the local clientele. They see a lot of art and sell a lot of art, so they often have a good eye.
If you do end up selling your work through galleries, don’t undersell them! Galleries usually charge something around a 50% commission for the valuable services they offer. Selling your work from home at a discount is considered poor form when you have gallery representation.
3. Set a Framed Price/Unframed Price
Say you have great gallery representation but you want to be able to sell your work to friends and family at a lower price. One solution is to divide your work into two different products: framed art (usually your best work) and unframed art (pieces you consider less important for whatever reason).
In this model, once you decide to frame a painting, photograph, or print, it is given a gallery price that accounts for the framing costs and the gallery commission. Then you offer no discounts on these pieces, whether you sell them yourself to friends, online without commission, or in a gallery with a 50% commission. If you choose not to frame a piece, you can make it available to people who are close to you for a special price that doesn’t mark up.
4. Square Inch Pricing
Here’s a trend that’s straight out of the middle ages (in a good way)! More and more painters are simplifying their pricing strategy by charging by the square inch. A basic formula would be something like $/square inch x square inches + material costs = price.
There are a number of limitations to this strategy but artists are coming up with clever ways to make it work. For example, some painters might think that small paintings are more work than large paintings on a square inch basis. Big or small, you spend the same amount of time working out your overall subject, composition, and colour palette. This has led some artists to develop a higher square inch cost for small paintings than for large paintings.
5. Play “Would I rather?”
Most artists know what it is like to create something really special that seems impossible to part with. If you make something great or that represents an important milestone in your artistic practice, you might not want to sell it. The difficult truth, however, is that plenty of successful artists are unable to afford their own work. Sometimes you have to sell your darlings in order to make a living.
A wise painter I know suggests asking yourself “Would I rather have this painting, or X?” (where X is a vacation, rent, a new dishwasher, whatever) if you’re setting a price for something you’d rather not sell. This is an intuitive and contextual strategy that’s not as consistent as square inch pricing, but sometimes that might be what is needed!
6. Trade your work with other artists to build a valuable collection
Trading with other artists should be a key part of your market strategy. Like square inch pricing, it is a system that has been used from the earliest periods in the history of art. Swapping work with someone you admire can allow you to own art that you otherwise could not afford. Since art can appreciate in value, all while bringing you inspiration and pleasure, it makes a great investment.
Another advantage of trading your work with other artists is that it helps to build your arts network. Giving your work to someone in your arts community increases the chances that it will be seen by others who are interested in what you do. The process of trading your work can be the beginning of a great connection that could be useful for joint exhibitions, publications, and teaching gigs.