Pricing Perplexities

What is a painting worth? Is this a trick question?  No, it’s a question that befuddles both artists and public alike.  I’ll try to explain here what some of the realities are, from an artist’s point of view.

Some artists establish prices for their work based on the time it takes to create it. But how does one calculate those hours? Is that the minutes spent with a tool in the hand, or does it also include time spent in creating preliminary studies, evaluation time, piecemeal adjustments, preparing framing or other presentation, and taking care of all the miscellaneous tasks necessary to procure materials and market the finished work?

Others price their work by their emotional attachment to it, higher if it’s difficult to part with, lower if it doesn’t feel quite up to par. Well-known works or those by respected or popular artists may command extremely high prices at auction. In that case, the buyer sets the price. For most of us, however, it’s important to remember that a commodity is worth only as much as someone is willing to pay for it, and it’s unlikely that potential buyers will feel the same emotional connection to a piece that would justify their shelling out too much for an artist’s overpriced favorite.

Still other artists choose a simpler route, charging by the square inch of the image. That works for two-dimensional work, but not so well for three-dimensional pieces. It’s the method I choose to begin pricing my paintings. It seems to make the most sense for keeping pricing consistent and explainable. But even that method has some peculiarities. The square-inch pricing makes small paintings seem inexpensive, but the cost of framing materials is disproportionately high when compared with the cost of the painting itself. So it is often not so cost effective for artists to sell small framed paintings. Conversely, prices escalate quickly in larger sizes. So a graduated pricing system is often used, in which the square-inch price is somewhat larger in small pieces and somewhat smaller in larger pieces.

When working with a commission-based gallery, which most commercial galleries are, the artist needs to include the gallery’s commission (often as much as 50%) in the price. Commissions are paid on the total price the customer pays for the artwork, including the frame. Therefore, all the framing materials must also be factored into the price. So, with the base price of the artwork itself, the cost of frame, any matting and backing materials needed, and any glass or other protective covering, it’s easy to see how quickly the price rises even before it must be doubled to allow for the gallery’s commission.

Shipping costs, of course, can be another add-on to the price.  If you’re planning to acquire artwork by mail, consider buying it without a frame and arranging to have it framed after you receive it.  Not only will you defer the framing costs and have more choice regarding the materials used, it will also reduce both the bulk and the weight of the shipment, and therefore the complexity of packaging and the cost of shipping.

So what’s a painting worth?  Don’t be fooled.  It’s worth only as much as someone is willing to pay for it … and all it’s affiliated costs.  But that someone may be the originating artist, who, by establishing a price, is effectively declaring a willingness to “pay” for it by foregoing that much income to keep the painting around if no one else is willing to meet the set price.  It may have less to do with the intrinsic value of any individual painting than with the artist’s desire to maintain a perceived value in the marketplace of his or her overall body of work.  And that is certainly a valid approach, considering the time, effort, and ongoing study that is behind any good artist’s body of work.  It indicates self-confidence and a healthy respect for one’s own product.  And that alone can indicate much about the professionalism that backs the work, which, in turn, underscores the likelihood of its ongoing value.

So, whether you are the artist or a potential collector, a more pertinent question is, “What is the painting worth to you, and what would you be willing to pay for it?”


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