This post is by, Tina Garrett, guest contributing author for FineArtViews. Tina is an ARC Associate Living Master, she teaches workshops across the US and in Europe. Tina published her first instructional oil painting video in January 2019 and held her first Solo Show, “Pieces of Me” at Bountiful Davis Art Center in Salt Lake City, Utah in March of 2019. Tina is a proud Missouri State Ambassador for the Portrait Society of America helping Missouri artists fully benefit from their PSoA membership. She is also proud to be a 2018 & 2019 Cecilia Beaux Forum Mentoring Program Mentor.
I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve heard these questions: “Do you think my work’s ready to sell?” and “How do you think I should price my work?” The kind of work you offer, and how you price it, can make the difference between selling consistently and having a dedicated “unsold works” storage space. This three-part article will show you how to craft a pricing structure that reflects the quality of your work and your income needs, give you strategies to raise the value of your work, and help you reach an art buying audience. Please feel free to ask questions in the comment section, and I’ll try to address them in Part 3 of this article.
When are you ready to sell your work?
Only a collector can prove once and for all if your work is sellable. At the moment your work is sold, it is sellable. What you need to do is find the people who want to buy your work. If you want confirmation that your work is ready to sell, listen to the people you show your paintings to. Let’s say you’re getting tepid compliments like, “that’s nice, my aunt is an artist too.” In this case, they have just equated your work with an amateur they know. That’s not code for “I want to buy this painting.” If they’re saying, “Wow! How much is that?” then you are talking to the right people — the people who are ready to purchase artwork like yours (if the price you give them meets the expectations that your work is cultivating).
In the world today, there’s a purchasing market for almost everything, especially if you’re online. So if people are being polite but never asking if your work’s for sale or if you take commissions, either your skill level isn’t quite there yet, you aren’t talking to the right people, or the price you are setting doesn’t match the quality or appeal of your work. (More on this in Part 2.)
When I first started selling paintings, I was pricing my work based on each painting’s size (in inches squared). I started at $1 per square inch, multiplying that amount by the height and the width of my painting. So a 10” x 10” painting would be 100 square inches and priced at $100. This was right as I began learning how to paint in 2012, and I had several people buying works for between $100 and $500.
I did that for maybe two years, and it seemed to be an okay system. And every year, I would give myself a small raise: about 30 to 50 cents (per square inch) at a time. Soon I started winning some prizes and I felt like it was time I gave myself a pretty good raise, over $3 per square inch. Almost immediately afterwards, one of my collectors — who had been buying my smaller pieces in the $250 to $500 range — asked about a larger painting.
I gave him the price, and he said, “Wow, how did you come up with that?” Being the astute listener that I am, I realized that the price of my paintings had just overshot their perceived value – by a lot. With the raise and the size of the painting, the price was far from what he was used to paying for my work. Luckily, we were close enough that he felt comfortable asking me to explain how I got to that price. After I explained my strategy, he kind of giggled and I felt both a sense of embarrassment and a sense of curiosity. This collector is a successful businessman who owns multiple major businesses, and I could tell that he was wanting to give me advice.
The BEST Business Advice:
So he asked me, “How much do you need to make in a year?”
All I could do was shrug my shoulders and he responded, “Come on, Tina. You know what it takes for you to live, to survive. You are doing this art to make a living, right? So, what do you need to make?” I felt so unqualified and embarrassed. Of course, I knew exactly how much money I needed in a year to support my family, but I couldn’t imagine that my art work would ever be that valuable. I threw out $50,000, just to have a number to work with, but I immediately began to think, There’s no ****ing way I’m ever gonna make $50,000 a year as a painter! Who do I think I am? It felt selfish to think I could really make a living doing what I love. This kind of thinking is very common for artists.
My collector could see right through it, and he did what every good businessman does when confronted with doubtful inner thoughts: he ignored them and pressed on with the business at hand. He told me I’d need to add 30% on top of that $50k for taxes, meaning my hypothetical income now needed to be around $65,000 a year. Yeah, riiiiggght.
“Okay,” he said, “so how many of your best paintings — the most expensive, nicest paintings you’ve ever made — how many of those can you make in a year?” I really wasn’t sure. I hadn’t made a ton of work at all yet and I really hadn’t paid attention to how long each painting had been taking me. I guessed about one per month, or a little less if I got stuck on one; so I said 10. so about 10 in a year. “So how much,” he asked, “have your most expensive paintings sold for?” At that time, it was $3,000. We rounded up to $5000 for easy math and he explained: “If you make ten $5,000 paintings in a year, that’s $50k.” All of a sudden I realized, “I only have to create 10 paintings worthy of a $5000 price tag and put them in front of 10 people who not only love them, but have $5000 in discretionary funds and, oh my gosh, that’s my $50k!”
Nobody should expect anyone else to NOT make a living
Of course, there was also hesitation when I considered what my work was worth. The doubt was written all over my face, but my collector quickly explained: making what you need to make is the way you start your business. It’s also the way you start your pricing, IF you are making quality work.
His most insightful advice was this: nobody should expect anyone else to NOT make a living in their career. Artists often get asked to do things for free because it’ll “give them exposure” or “give them credentials” and so on. However, there’s no other business or profession in the world where people ask, “will you do this for free on a long term basis?” That’s not a career, that’s called volunteering. Stop volunteering for a living and pay yourself as you would expect to be paid in any other legitimate career.
Make an Annual Salary Grid
At the top of your sheet, put the annual salary you want to pay yourself. Be sure it includes at least an added 30% of your income that you will not spend, but will be set aside in a savings account for state and federal taxes. Create a grid that can be filled in with the products and services you can provide and their costs. Every little square on the grid should be filled with something you can do to earn money. Together, all the squares in the grid need to add up to at least your total at the top.
You may have to do many things to fill the grid; remember that the whole grid needs to be reasonably completed within a year. Perhaps create one master painting priced at $5,000 (filling one square) or create multiple smaller paintings that add up to that $5,000 instead. You could fill squares with sketches, teaching, public speaking revenue, or prize money. It doesn’t matter what services or products you choose to fill your grid with, as long as you are positive you can offer them and you list them at Market Price — the price your products and services can actually sell for. Whatever fits you as an artist, it’s important to list your potential income streams very specifically and to have a good idea of the ways you will be able to bring in income.
Related Article: Bending Under Pressure: Running an Art Business in Hard Times goes in depth on selling your work, diversifying your income, and alternatives to offering discounts.
Unfortunately, a lot of painters think that they can fill the grid with paintings and prints alone. This is dangerous: you can’t have all your eggs in one basket. As a person who has been self employed since 2000 (read this blog to learn about my life before becoming a professional fine artist), I have to insist that having multiple income streams will give your business stability, which is crucial to this line of work. You may have a situation where you injure your shoulder and you can’t paint for a few months, or a pandemic might hit and all your workshops could get cancelled, you never know (that’s sarcasm). In that case would you just stop earning money? How would you be able to make up that income?
Work to earn income in many ways, whether it be prints, teaching, lectures, a blog, writing a book, or anything else you can think of. There are so many different aspects to being an artist, and expecting to make a full income off painting sales alone is risky, at least until you’re well established as a professional artist. But even established artists rarely take this route. There is a stigma against artists who supplement their income with teaching or book and video sales — I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “those who can’t do, teach,” — but I’m giving you permission to make money in any art-related way you can until you can establish your market. I will be coming out with an article to expel this stigma in the future.
The value of your work matters
As soon as you have a very clear plan for your yearly income, you should have a reasonable idea of how to price your artwork. However, you can’t make that income until people actually buy your artwork, so you can’t ignore the Market Price when choosing your prices. I can tell the world I need to sell a painting for $10,000, but if similar work is selling for $300, that piece will never sell for $10k.
So the next thing you want to do is a little research; figure out what similar paintings are selling for. This is going to take some honesty though, and some self-reflection. If you’re an amateur painter whose never sold work before, you can’t just put your painting up next to a Jeremy Lipking and say, “yeah my work’s just as good. He’s selling for $400,000 so I should too.” You have to compare apples to apples. You need to compare your work with the work of several working artists — not just your friends and not just one hugely successful artist. Find the sale prices of paintings that are similar in quality, style, subject matter, and size to your pieces. This should give you a good idea of what you’ll be able to get for your work, if you consistently create that quality and you reach the audience that likes it and can afford it. If the prices on the market are less than what you want to sell your work for (based on your annual salary grid), Part 2 of this article will walk you through the steps you can take in order to raise the value of your work and how to adjust your prices over time.