One of the most commonly asked questions staff receive at the FCA is “How do I set prices for my artwork?” In this article, we asked six SFCA member artists working in different media, questions relating to their experience with setting prices, making sales and the inevitable mistakes and road bumps that comes with finding your way when pricing your own artwork.
A big thank you to all of the artists who shared their experiences and insights here.
Featured panellists are:
Harold Allanson, SFCA, (the voice of watercolourists for this panel)
Donna Baspaly, SFCA (mixed media),
Roberta Combs, SFCA (pastel)
Dene Croft, SFCA (oils),
Perry Haddock, SFCA (Acrylic)
Elisabeth Sommerville, SFCA (hand-pulled prints, including stone lithography).
What was the first artwork you sold, how much was it?
Allanson: Probably the best way to answer this question is to leave out the first fifty-five years of my life and start with my joining the FCA as a Supporting member, and taking some FCA watercolour workshops. A few years later in 1999 while attending a weeklong Federation workshop on Saltspring Island I sold a painting I painted there of the old “Smith Barn” for, I think $125. This was the start of me becoming a serious artist.
Baspaly: This may sound funny but the first few paintings I sold were on a barter system. My Mother traded me a painting for her vacuum cleaner and my Dentist did some dental work for paintings. Around that time, I became involved in group art shows. My price for the paintings then was about $200 per image.
Combs: Seeing your first sale decades later floods you with guilt that you took money for it. Keep in mind that the goal is to gradually raise (and never lower) your prices as your artistic skill improves and your artistic knowledge grows. Start low to begin with. The best painting you’ve done so far won’t be your best for very long. Initially you want to generate interest in your work. As you improve and get recognition through awards and exposure, reasonable price increases are expected and justified.
Croft: Rarely does one forget their first sale – Marigold Perret at Harrison galleries sold my first painting in 1995, which was a 20×24 landscape at $3,000.00
Haddock: I think it was about $150 for a small watercolour.
Sommerville: My first print, which was an etching, sold in 2000 for $175 (less 40% commission). I still have a photocopy of the cheque, I was pretty pleased!
What is the biggest mistake you have made when pricing an artwork?
Allanson: Inconsistent pricing, and underpricing, a lesson I learned the hard way.
Baspaly: I put the wrong price on the painting and felt I had to honor the lower price to the purchaser. After that experience, I paid more attention to that detail!
Combs: Getting attached emotionally to your work can make you lose sight of the professional image you must present. The more you paint, the more you establish your style and improve on it. Don’t overvalue a painting because it’s your beloved pet, or a first place award winner. Consider an artist who has two paintings for sale. Both are 16 x 20, framed similarly, even similar subject matter. One is $650 and one is $1000. The only statement you are making is “I feel this one is a far better painting than the other, but I still want to get money from someone for the one that is not as good. I am inconsistent as a painter and everyone isn’t getting my best effort.” That award was a subjective bonus and just keep your pet if you so hate to part with it.
Croft: 1) losing objectivity, and pricing either too high, or too low based on my personal attachment (or lack thereof) to the painting, and 2) Assessing the value of the work based on the amount of hours that I put into it. You learn very quickly that the buyer does not care how many hours you have labored over your latest masterpiece.
Haddock: Not taking into account the price of the frame when the gallery takes a 50% commission.
Sommerville: Perhaps pricing my work too low, which some people have suggested. I decided though, that I would rather have it that way and sell the work rather than overpricing it.
How would you describe your current pricing structure?
Allanson: I price my paintings by the square inch. Not very creative but works well for the business end of being an artist.
Baspaly: I have been painting for 40 years now and the prices have increased every couple of years. The Gallery that represents me and I agreed on this arrangement as they understand what the market can bear for my work. In addition, the current economic factor influences as to whether it is the right time to raise prices.
Combs: Pricing your work per square inch (psi) will make an artist appear consistent, fair and objective about the quality of the work being presented. Some painters can offer canvases without frames but pastel artists must incur the additional cost of careful framing for all works. While pricing artwork I must consider the actual cost of the framing so my psi pricing includes this.
Croft: I have always based my pricing structure on the united inch formula. My united inch price is around $80 per inch. A 24×30 canvas is 54 (24+30) united inches, X $80 puts the retail price at $4,320.00. This is considered an industry standard in terms of pricing, but only works reliably for “mid-sized” paintings. Proportionally the larger they get the cheaper the paintings become and conversely the smaller the paintings are, the more expensive they become. This is clearly a rough guide only, so you need to ‘price-tweak’ both the larger and the smaller paintings.
Haddock: I price by the “square inch”, with a graduated scale. Smaller paintings are more per sq. inch than larger ones, but every painting of a given size is the same price.
Sommerville: I base it on size, the number of colours, and the complexity of the drawing involved. Also the size of the edition, the smaller the edition generally the higher the price. A certain amount is how I like it myself, some lithographs I really like. It is also interesting in my printmaking why some pieces sell out, I have had that happen in three instances, and some are pretty close to selling out.
What considerations do you make when setting your pricing?
Allanson: Galleries, art shows, studio sales, and or possibly US galleries. Some adjustments have to be made in order to be consistent with pricing. Galleries wanting a high percentage of the sales price must be prepared to sell the artist work at a higher price in order that artists receive their fair share.
Baspaly: The most important factor is; don not charge high prices too early in your career. You can always go up in price but it is very difficult to go lower once you have set your prices. The former purchasers of your art will be very dissatisfied. Size is one factor for setting the price. Smaller paintings can fetch higher prices per square inch than larger ones. If my representing Gallery has my work at a set price, then I am obliged to sell work at that price.
Combs: Your improved skill over the years reflects your experience, your relationship with other artists and the art world, and your technical knowledge. These things usually influence your understanding of a reasonable pricing structure as well. Certainly, the regularity of your sales will tell you whether or not to consider moving your prices upward. In addition to framing costs, the Gallery fee, which can be as high as 50%, must also be considered. You should remember that the prices you set for the gallery are the prices you will sell your work for in all other places. Inconsistent pricing is unprofessional. It is also a mistake to lower your prices. If any of your buyers find that they paid more than others are paying now, your reputation will suffer and you will lose clients.
Croft: I do not wholesale paintings, as this can compromise the value of my work and the relationships I have with my galleries. “Studio” pricing understandably creates an issue with galleries who cannot possibly compete, and consequently will likely adversely effect your relationship with the gallery. It also undermines the integrity of the work and sets an unhealthy precedent for the buyer and as a result, any future sales to that client will be met with the expectation of a discounted rate. Additionally, I imagine that past collectors who have purchased at retail, would not be pleased. Work out a ‘united inch’ price that you can live with, and stick to it, keeps everyone happy. Working in this industry, one discovers very quickly that we do not get paid by the hour. A student of mine called to tell me that her latest masterpiece had consumed 200 hours of her life. She felt that her time was worth $30 per hour, which meant she quoted $6,000 to her buyer. With no record of sales, this potential first sale clearly did not go well.
Haddock: Originally, I researched other artists whose work I consider about equal to mine, and priced in that ballpark. It took me a year or two of tweaking to come up with my current price schedule.
How often / when do you change it?
Allanson: A few years ago when the market crashed, artists had to reduce their prices. The market has been slow to recover, and now there is more artists selling even more paintings than before. Only recently have prices started to recover, but still sales are more difficult due to the increase of paintings out there, not to mention aggressive on line marketing. It is said an artist should increase prices 10% a year, which is easier said than done these days.
Baspaly: My representing Gallery and I discuss raising the price by 10% over time. Usually this is every two years.
Croft: Some artists raise their prices by 10% per year to encourage investment confidence among their collectors. This always seemed like the ‘smart’ thing to do, until those that stuck to that policy stopped selling. I review my prices every three years or so. As with many things, price is set by demand. Sometimes a client requires a price that reflects their ‘demands’. There will often be mitigating factors when it comes to negotiating fees and determining the price of a particular painting.
Haddock: At the moment, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is my pricing motto. My prices have remained static for about three years now, since the market has been slow, but I try to slowly increase by about 5-10% every couple of years. I usually discuss it with a gallery owner to get their input, as well.
Sommerville: I have increased the price when I have only one or two prints in the edition left. An unwritten rule for printmakers is never to lower prices after one of the prints in the edition has sold. Which is reasonable, since people who paid the original price would not be happy to hear that someone else got another in the edition for less. I also price my prints the same when they are sold through FCA, or North Vancouver Community Arts Council gallery, which take their commission from that price. Consistency is fair when it comes to multiples in printmaking editions.
How do you share your pricing with your clients?
Allanson: Only when I am asked do I say what a paintings price is and if questioned further I say that I use a per square inch method to determine what to charge. Often the prices are seen alongside the title when my works are hanging in a gallery. When galleries have my paintings I leave it to their discretion once it has been determined what they will pay me if a sale is made. Students and people coming to my studio directly allows me to soften the sale price a bit.
Baspaly: I have a price sheet of various sizes and it will be in relationship to the Gallery prices.
Croft: I have a 2800 square foot studio that has become a very public space and as such, it tends to function as a studio/atelier/gallery. I have all of my work priced clearly, just as a commercial gallery would. This removes any ambiguity and relieves any potential embarrassment on the part of the client. I always enter a commissioned project with a contract and a non-refundable 50% deposit. Those of you that have been on the sour end of a commission will understand the importance of the deposit. I have been around long enough that, my interested purchasers know it is unlikely that I will produce a poor painting, but sometimes your purchasers will not feel that ‘every box has been ticked. The 50% deposit serves as a strong deterrent to the buyer exercising the “whim and fancy” clause, and walking away leaving you with a painting of their mother-in-law in her Christmas morning jammies (yes, this actually happened to me). I explain terms very clearly and rarely will I make changes after their approval of the conceptual ‘rough in’. By virtue of commissioning a work, very occasionally a buyer will treat you like their subordinate and will have the mindset that as they are paying your wages, you are working for them and will meet their every demand. To this, I say…Ummm…no!
Haddock: I sell mostly through galleries, so I leave the sharing of prices up to them.
Do you publish your artwork prices openly online? Why / why not?
Allanson: No, people truly interested on my work will ask the price. Reasons for why not explained above.
Baspaly: At this time, I am not promoting my work online. Again, if I were to do this I would promote my representing galleries by adding their link to the website.
Combs: I believe the prices of artwork should be displayed if sales are your goal. Many artist’s sites ask viewers to contact them for the prices. Can we guess the percentage of these people that will never do this? This is an intimidating feature. By not displaying your prices, an artist can seem rather embarrassed and uncertain of the value they have placed on their work and could be missing sales because online shoppers don’t want to send their personal information (name and email address) just to find out whether this artist’s is even affordable. Your confidence in the value of your work will be picked up by potential buyers.
Croft: No, generally not. This is because I like to encourage inquiry, as inquiry leads to dialogue, and dialogue leads to a studio invitation. The invitation to visit the studio is usually met with acceptance. This brings the client into a space that shows the work in an optimal viewing environment; which very often; but definitely not always, leads to a sale.
Haddock: No, I do not have prices on my website, although some of my work is priced on gallery websites. If a client sees a piece on my site, I encourage them to inquire about it, and I can then refer them to one of my galleries.
Sommerville: Yes. I have always thought that when artwork (or anything for that matter) is not priced, it must be expensive and it irritates me that I have to contact the artist to find out. I am of the opinion that you lose sales when you don’t list your price.
Did earning your AFCA / SFCA with the Federation affect your pricing? Why / why not?
Allanson: Possibly, I am not sure, but belonging to the FCA definitely made me a better artist.
Baspaly: When signing my paintings I have been asked not to put my accreditations on the front of the painting. I can put these on the back of the image. Occasionally buyers sometimes do not have the confidence in knowing what good art is and therefore, validation may come from the Artist’s Signature designation. Accreditation often demonstrates that the artist has been acknowledged by their peers.
Combs: By the time you are applying for a SFCA status, you should be considering yourself as a serious artist with goals of galleries and exhibitions that probably have already been realized to some degree. Achieving SFCA status is a confirmation of your artistic skills and support your validity as a serious artist but doesn’t make you a better artist at the moment it happens. Your method of pricing should probably not change abruptly or without notice. Any Signature status you garner will surely validate a regulated and reasonable price increase but not necessary be the cause of it.
Croft: No. Neither does being president. Why? Because the integrity of the work was there before I became SFCA, or president, and I had a long established sales record with commercial galleries. To be blunt – the buyers do not care about much beyond a) the quality, and b) the collectability of the work.
Haddock: No, not exactly, but it gave me more confidence about asking the prices I set.
Sommerville: No, it didn’t. I do not think having an appellation behind your name is a reason for pricing your work higher. My work is popular, people like it, and I do not need to have this to show people how good I am. That said, I certainly am proud of having the SFCA and use it all the time on any materials.
What is the best advice around the topic of pricing your artwork that you have received?
Allanson: Listen to the advice of other artists whose work sells consistently.
Baspaly: Build your reputation
Pay your dues by doing the best painting you can
Know your competition
Make the final price a win/win for the Gallery, Client and yourself
Do not go too high too fast
Be honest in all dealings
I would like to say a special thanks to Michael Den Hertog and Gillian Lindsay for discussing these questions with me, as they previously owned an art gallery on Granville Island.
Combs: It’s not easy to get advice regarding pricing. Robert Genn seemed to have the recipe that has the end goal we all wish for:
“Thou shalt start out cheap. Thou shalt end up expensive.”
Croft: Do not base your personal assessment of value on the hours spent painting it, or by comparing your work to “less talented” but more commercially successful artists with an established track record. Most of us lack the objectivity to accurately access value and quality of our own work. Establish a price point and stick with it until demand indicated otherwise. Most of my exhibiting students use a united inch value of around $22 per united inch, and start moving it up when they gain a foothold in the market.
Haddock: Start low. You cannot go back down. If you cannot keep up with sales (in my dreams!), it is time to bump them up.
Sommerville: My friend Enda Bardell and a marketing group she organized that I belong to, have discussed this a few times. Painters often use the square inch method, but with printmaking, it is a bit different. I find some printmakers price their work way too high, but that is just my opinion.
Again, a big thank you again to all of the artists for sharing your time and energy!