How do you charge for your artwork?
This is a question that all artists and designers have to address at some point, and it’s a question that sends us, grimacing, to hide behind easels and under desks. We worry about charging too much, about not charging enough, about how to explain fair pay to customers and patrons, and not least of all, we worry about doing the math (artists, by-and-large, are not naturally mathy people). When we at Merion Art started this blog, this was the first topic we thought of, and we’re finally about to delve in! In this two-part post we’ll be asking several of our on-staff artists and designers, with a variety of different business models, pricing structures, and target markets, how they make money from their artwork.
Today’s artists are Jen and Justine. Justine is an illustrator who works in a variety of mediums. Her commissions come mostly through personal networking and through her job at Merion Art. Jen is an oil pastel artist who primarily sells prints and originals at small community art fairs and on Etsy, and occasionally takes art and design commissions from friends and neighbors.
“There are so many ways to price artwork that it can get a little crazy, but at the end of the day I just want to make sure I’m not getting ripped off. I want to feel comfortable when I walk away from the job that I got paid what it was worth. I very rarely sell original works of my own making, 99% of my work comes from commissions. The types of commissions I get are mostly private (self-published books, portraits, fine art), but no matter the work I’m doing, my method for pricing stays the same: (professional hourly wage x time) + materials. Simple as that.
What’s a professional wage? I have a BFA and 12 years of experience so for me it’s around 30-50 dollars per hour depending upon the complexity of the project and the client. For someone who is self-taught and just starting out it will make more sense to charge less. Alternatively, if you’re a big name in the industry with 30 years of experience it will make sense to charge more.
As for the time aspect, that comes down to you knowing yourself and how you work. If you’re trying to price a painting you’ve done in the hopes of selling it—you’ll be able to know exactly how much time you spent on it (it’s incredibly important to keep track of time while you work). However, if you’re trying to quote someone for a commission then you’ll have to know your skills enough to give them a fair estimate. If you’re not sure how long it takes you to do your work—you have to produce more work and time yourself! I’ve been in the position many times where I under-estimated the amount of time it would take to make something and came out the other side feeling like I didn’t charge enough. It’s a terrible feeling—do everything you can to avoid it.
By that same token, one thing that gets overlooked often is revisions. If you’re doing commission work it’s wise to have a contract signed by both parties with terms for the project (you can find tons of templates online). Some clients are fickle and will get to the end of the project and want to make all sorts of changes. Well, that wasn’t factored into your original cost so in writing your contract you can specify that no more than one revision is allotted before you add on to the cost of the project.
To price your materials, simply keep the receipts! If the job is huge you can negotiate for an open-ended materials fee to be summed up at the end of the project, but most people will expect one number for the whole deal. I estimate how much paint I’ll use plus the cost of the substrate and anything else that may be purchased just for that job (which is why you should understand the whole scope of the work up front). Will you need to buy a special brush make the piece? Add in that cost. Will you need more tape? Add in that cost. Drop cloth? Mixed media materials? Prints? Add it!
Keep an eye out for red flag clients—indecisive people or those who haggle. ALWAYS get a 50% deposit up front and require a signed contract so you have legal recourse if they skip out of the rest.
That’s often enough to keep potentially duplicitous clients on the level, but you never know. And if they won’t sign it…well, you probably don’t want to work with that client.”
“I start by assigning myself an hourly rate, usually starting at $20, more if it’s a complicated piece. This is pretty low, but that’s okay- most of the time, what I sell are works that I’ve planned for myself, works that I’ve already finished, and reproductions of that work. When I do a commission for someone, it’s a different story: for fine art commissions, I charge more per hour because it’s a problem someone else wants me to solve rather than something for my own satisfaction, and that comes with a specific set of restrictions and can require more effort or skill, or at least more attention. For instance, if I’m working on something for myself and I decide to change it drastically (or start over, or even stop and scrap the whole thing) I have that freedom, but if it’s a project someone has commissioned, I’ll have a set of parameters to stay within, and it will need to get done regardless.
Once I’ve got the rate, I estimate how long it will take me to complete the commission, or if it’s a pastel I’ve already completed, I estimate how long it took. I make sure to factor time for planning, research, rough sketches, etc. I always round up a little, for some financial wiggle room- this is where most artists end up undercharging, when they underestimate how long a task will take. Then I add in the cost of materials: the cost of the canvas or panel, as well as a percentage of what a box of pastels and a container of molding paste or gesso costs. (I use a percentage of those since one box/container will last me for several paintings.)
That usually gets me to a pretty decent estimate for how much my finished pastel should cost. I will adjust up or down if it seems logical– for instance, if a customer’s special requests or last-minute changes added extra work for me, I’d adjust up, and if a small commission took me longer than I think it ought to have (if I was distracted, or the delay was my fault), I’ll knock some off the final price.
Regarding prints: I’ve gone over some aspects of this in my post about art fairs, and more in my post about framing for artists, but here are some more tips. I find prints to be a very effective way to maximize my art profits. I’ll often talk to people who like the look of my artwork, but don’t have the cash to spend on buying an original, or simply want some art for decor, not as an investment, and I speak to a surprising amount of people who specifically want my artwork on notecards.
What I do is, I take my pastels, import a high quality digital file into Photoshop, color correct and clean up the file and save, and then digitally paint in a different background and save again. This gives me 3 different versions of my art to sell: the original, the print of the original, and a digitally painted version. I price the original as above, the print of the original can be sold as a signed and numbered print, and the digitally painted one gets sold as greeting cards, magnets, cheap poster-type prints for kids, etc.
This way, the artwork does double duty, and my customers get exactly what they want. I print them on a high-quality inkjet printer on artist grade paper at my home. The printer was expensive, but has long since paid for itself in prints- plus no worrying about misprints, no guessing at sizes, no issues of color correction, and no having to figure out when the print shop closes.
Let me explain what I mean when I talk about a digitally-painted version: My originals usually include text and a subject (usually an animal). The animal represents something which I explore further in the text, depending on the piece. The text is time-consuming, and very important to me and the way people interpret my original artwork. However, I understand that some people just don’t “get” the text, but do like the drawing of the animal. When I alter it, I replace the textual background with just an abstract colored background, which can give the art more mass appeal.
I change the artwork when I’m pricing it lower because I want my customers to understand that they get what they pay for, and my time, and effort, and artistic vision are worth something. If they want original, inspired art that is true to my artistic style, they buy the original, or a high-quality print. (I always make sure these are archivally backed and matted.) If they want a quick picture for a kid’s bedroom, I’m delighted to give it to them, but it’s going to be a bit more commercial, more mainstream, more basic- and that’s okay, sometimes that’s exactly what they want. I change the print, and not the original, so that I can stay true to myself without limiting my customer pool. This way I don’t have to be sad about certain people not “getting” my art, and my customers don’t go home with something conceptual that they don’t understand.
This is how the math works out for me: I have an original $200 piece where no one has bought the framed original, BUT at every event I do (and occasionally online) I’ll sell one or two $35 prints and one or two $20 prints, plus a couple of $5 notecards. Over time, I will make more money selling prints than the original. Selling different digitally altered prints also allows me to change colors depending on customer preferences, or even add text, as an Etsy customer requested.
I sell my digitally altered prints on basic photo paper for $20 per 8×10, my signed original prints at $35 per matted 8×10 (outside 11×14), and 11×14 matted to 16×20 for $60. Print prices change depending on whether they are matted or unmatted- matted obviously costs more. The prices for the prints include the cost of the paper, a percent of the ink for the printer, bags, backing, matting, a small percentage of the time it took to make the original, plus the time it takes me to get the print done right- significantly cheaper than an original.
Working in standard sizes helps to save money and maximize profits too: I can swap mats from print to print, easily buy mats and frames in larger quantities, and use premade frames and mats, which are cheaper than custom sizes.
My business model tends to be based on a small-town suburban dynamic. Thematically, my work tends to appeal to suburban people. My rates are based on the costs of living of where I am: I tend to price very transparently, because my customers are also in my community. When I get commissions, it’s usually for someone I know, or someone who knows someone I know, family friends, neighbors, friends-of-friends. I don’t have a lot of people ghost on me; if they change their minds about work, they know I’ll be seeing them in person just by living nearby, so communication is pretty clear. I’ve occasionally gotten commissions from people who recognized my work from repeat showings at local art fairs. Most of my prints are sold at these fairs, selling for holiday gifts, summer craft fairs, and fall festivals: people buy from me, in person, at a booth, as opposed to online or in a professional gallery.
I also end up doing a lot of creative jobs that aren’t fine art commissions- things like quick photoshop edits, and graphic design for small businesses or charity events. This is definitely something that happens to artists when they move in non-art circles- they get a reputation for being the “Art Guy.” (Need a sign painted? Call your Art Guy! Mural in a baby’s room? Art Guy! Photoshop your holiday pics? Art Guy!) These jobs tend to come in the form of paid favors for friends and family members, or after-hours work from one of my day-jobs. For those, I usually charge by the hour (they don’t usually take very long), and if it’s for one of my jobs I just bill it based on my hourly wage.”