This article explores the pricing of art. If you would like to get a clear idea of how to market and sell your art and live well on it, consider joining my mailing list here.
One of the things I’ve loved discovering is how entrepreneurial artists are.
I also thought artists would be rubbish at administration, but you’re better than I am.
Hourly rate, nah
One way to price your work is to keep track of how long you’ve spent on it and charge an hourly rate. Say £10/hr. It’s a nice round figure, keeps the maths simple, and it’s above the National Living Wage in the UK so you should be able to live on that. It makes perfect sense.
If you paint for, say, six hours a day and don’t take holidays or weekends and live relatively frugally, that’s great. It’s like the story of the fisherman and the business consultant, I’m sure you’ve seen it. The guy’s lazing around and, very short version, the business consultant asks why and suggests he could work harder, get more boats and eventually reach the point where he can laze around. Not saying you’re lazing around, but if you’re living the artist life you want, job done.
When I’ve asked artists about the other six hours a day you probably spend sorting out exhibitions and galleries, doing your accounts, practising your skills and so on, and your materials, the reaction is kinda .. well, no, obviously you’re not being paid for that. So we’re more like £5/hr.
And again in the UK, Working Tax Credit stops you falling into poverty, it tops you up. So nothing really matters so long as you can live at that level. Every now and then the authorities will want to know you’re working on it so you are slightly at risk, but otherwise no-one will bother you. You can live an artist’s life.
The test for me is .. could you afford a new car?
And actually I really admire the workday approach to creativity: “I get up and I paint/write all morning, and so long as I’ve done that, the work will get finished”. Joke writers, same. You’ve got to put in the hours and the creativity will come.
But .. there’s something seriously wrong here.
The Protestant Work Ethic
I haven’t got this nailed down as a big theory, but there is the hard-to-shift idea that we should work hard. Our value is tied to how hard we work, to our output. Opportunity doesn’t knock unless you work hard for it. And even the super rich people who swan around not worrying about clocking in, they will think they are high leverage.
I just kinda think that’s all a bit convenient. We’ve all got this “work hard” thing in our heads, and I’m sure Jeff Bezos thinks it’s great (he’s the guy who started Amazon and doesn’t give his warehouse people toilet breaks so they have to urinate in bottles as they pick your items).
So I just question why artists, who have broken free of all that work environment nonsense probably because they Hated It And Would Have Killed If They Had To Stay One Minute Longer still have this idea that the worth of a piece of art is equal to the amount of time they spent on it.
See I kinda think, if you price that way, you’re doing what the capitalists and industrialists would do to you given the chance. And given your freedom, I don’t see why we can’t do better than that.
Musicians don’t have the same thing. They’ve got it arranged so that one hit song can keep them going a lifetime. Of course, it can take a lifetime to write that song, but still. They don’t say “it took me 30 hours to write Stairway to Heaven, so just give me £300 and I’m good, thanks.”
Work because you are driven towards something, not because you’ve erected yourself a mental factory.
I do get that hard work is fulfilling and pleasurable. My partner was an occupational therapist, which is all about the healing properties of purposeful activity. But the main job of this article is to cleave apart the work and its value to you, and the value of your artwork to the buyer. That doesn’t depend on the hours you put in.
I mean, otherwise your work should get cheaper as you get better at it because you’ll be more efficient and skilled, right?
Work is good, I get that, but rest and perspective are good too. Again, a musician will go through a cycle: write, record, tour, rest.
Dedicate yourself to your art. Also go on holiday. That’s OK. That’s reasonable. Assuming you are able to sell your art, then you deserve holidays and a rainy day fund.
So that’s point number one, to separate the hours you spent on a piece from the price you charge.
A related point is to also separate how satisfied you are with a work from the price.
An artwork is worth what it’s worth to the buyer, nothing to do with your effort.
Here’s my big thing. People buy a piece of art because:
- they like it
- it will look great above the sofa
- it has special meaning for them “that’s where I proposed to my wife” / “I used to have a tractor/dog/cheese sandwich like that”
- it has utility (it makes them feel a certain way and maybe reminds them of their core values)
None of that has anything to do with how much time you spent on it, nor whether you are pleased with your brushstrokes or not.
I used to build & manage a website for an antiques dealer who had a decorated wooden tobacco shipping box, probably 3 feet by 18 inches that contained the original tobacco leaves, and I had this bright idea to take all his stock and slowly, automatically, drop the price online until someone bought it. He said “no, someone wants this tobacco box, and when they see it, they’ll pay whatever we ask”.
So .. huge point coming .. this isn’t about discounting your work until someone takes it “because why not, it’s affordable / cheap enough”. They won’t value your work. They are not really your fans.
It’s about having enough room in the price to find the person for whom this piece is transcendent.
In crude terms, double your prices, spend some of the difference on marketing, you’ll have better, more passionate customers and a nicer life all round.
If people are looking at buying art, they can afford it.
Burn your work
OK. Breathe for a sec. Let’s just go back to a point a few paragraphs ago. That idea of you charging more for an artwork you are satisfied with.
Bit weird, that.
So .. you’re selling work you’re not really happy with?
I’m just thinking, what happens if you burn it instead?
Paint it, don’t like it, burn it.
Paint it, like it, sell it.
I think I mentioned before the David Bailey thing where he hoped to take a great photograph someday and even though he will have taken hundreds of thousands of images in his life, he was into just showing ten on his website. And maybe only being happy with one of them.
I did a songwriting course run by Rich from Hope & Social the other day. Check them out, they are lovely http://www.hopeandsocial.co.uk/
Anyway, he said they write a load of songs and then select some for an album and then later they realise that only maybe two are any good.
It’s all about selection.
And your reputation rests on it.
I once went to Harrods and really wanted a light blue silk jacket and they wouldn’t sell it to me because the sleeves weren’t quite long enough and he said “when you go out wearing this jacket and people ask where you got it and you say Harrods, that will affect our reputation, so I’m not going to sell it to you”.
And scarcity is good. You don’t need to flood the market with your work. If you can sell five great works at £5,000 each .. that might be better than selling fifty at £500 and knowing in your heart that you are not achieving the heights you know you are capable of.
OK. Ready for some heavy (but exciting) maths?
Here’s why you should have listened in maths at school
Go here https://www.8020curve.com
In “total number of members” put how many website and exhibition visitors you got last year plus how many social media followers and how many are on your mailing list.
In “how many members responded”, put how many paintings you sold last year.
In “what was the value of the output”, put the average price of what you sold.
Press [calculate other members].
OK, now below that, open up “estimate other member’s response to a single event”, and put in double your average price and hit return.
At the bottom of the column it tells you the result.
For example I put in 5,000 ‘members’ for traffic, 10 buyers at £300. Putting in £600 it says 4 people would buy at £600 for £2,400 total.
At the point that you’ve done all the training and work and lived an artist’s life and Painted A Thing, and your .. let’s call it marketing .. has found someone and interested them enough that that person and your Thing are together in space and time and the motivations are right and the sun is shining and the wallet comes out for £300, four of those ten people would have paid £600, assuming the value looked right.
So not £600 randomly, but they’d have paid £600 for something bigger. Something worth £600.
So we can play with that. Let’s put £1,000 into that field, oh, two of them would have paid £1,000 if you had something worth that.
And going the other way, 35 would have bought a £100 print.
The power of upselling and downselling
So now we are playing with a few things. This introduces upselling and downselling which can double your income. You’re familiar with this, it’s standard practice to exhibit with items at a range of prices so people can at least buy something.
This website and its maths makes it predictable.
So, let’s not get confused. I am saying put your prices up generally and using that graph you can tinker around to find the sweet spot where you make the most money.
I’m also saying do some monster work that is worth a lot more, because a percentage of people, you having done all the work of getting them there with their wallet, they’ll spend twice as much. Or four times as much. So long as you have something worth that. And yes, go down the scale also. That way everyone gets to upsell/downsell themselves to find something they are comfortable with.
So let’s say you are selling 50 x 50cm works at £400. You had 5,000 people connect with you last year through your website, social media and exhibitions, and 30 people bought so you turned over £12,000.
This theory says, if you had some work 1m square at £800, of those 30 people 13 would have bought that. What if you had a monster 2m square piece, exquisitely framed at £2,000 .. you’d have sold 4 of them.
And if you had prints at £100, you’d have sold 150 of those.
Let’s add that up. You got £8,000 from the big piece, £10,400 from the 1m square ones. You still sold 30-13-4 = 13 x your £400 works, so that’s £5,200, and you got £15,000 from your prints. Grand total £38,600.
It’s not about the money. It’s that you delivered an answer to the needs of 180 people instead of ‘just’ 30. It’s not about power or influence or ego either. It’s about helping more people.
I’ve strayed a little from the idea of putting up your prices .. that total happens without raising your prices. But my central point is this.
This article exists to break your link between the hours you spend on a work, and the price people will pay.
Take that link, throw it on the ground, stamp on it. Shoot it dead. Then shoot it dead again. Set it alight. Get drunk. Dance naked around its corpse until its spirit slinks off embarrassed.
Price is not linked to your hours, OK?
You’re not a factory worker.
So, this is all very exciting.
However, I’m a little concerned it’s a bit like watching a film. Afterwards we all get back to our normal lives. Well let’s not.
Let’s not be normal anymore, let’s actually change something
Let’s take some steps. Choose one of these.
- If you are selling, and if you’re not that’s a different issue and I’ll write about that another time. But if you are selling, just plain try raising your prices. You may find your reputation rises too. And hey, you may have more money to spend on marketing and get your website sorted out maybe, which will snowball your success.
- If you like your “I like it” factor, ie. you want to charge more for works that you are pleased with .. score each work 1-10 on whether you like it or not. Start with, say, £10 for each point and add that to the price, so if you give a piece 10/10, £100 is added to the price. After a while, make it £20 for each point, and in the end whether you like it or not will be a big factor in the price.
- To break your bond with hours spent, try adding in some randomness. If your normal price is £500, randomise say 20% of that. I use https://www.random.org/ all the time. So 20% of £500 is £100, so put in -100 to 100 and press generate. I got -68. So this work will go out at £432. For no good reason. But after a while you’ll get a feel for whether people will spend more or are attracted to lower prices. And you can still tell people it’s tied to how much time you spend on a piece.
- Double your prices, burn half your output. I mean. I dunno. It’s an interesting one. It would make a great blog/press story / experiment.
- Go with that whole price curve upselling/downselling thing. What can you do that’s worth double or four times what you are charging now?
Dig in to your resistance. I bet you’ll go “that was an interesting article” and then do nothing. The ideas of value and the Protestant Work Ethic are so deeply embedded. You don’t feel worth it. You want to provide value. You don’t need a lot to get by.
My thing is, and I accept you may not go with me on this .. maybe you don’t want the responsibility, but I’m thinking artists are here to save us. And to do that, you have to save yourself.
I get that you may be scared to price yourself out of the market. So try small steps. But actually, in a way that proves me right. If you’re scared you won’t sell anything at a higher price, you’re living precariously, and that has to stop. Face the fear and do it anyway.
Get in touch with why I’m wrong, what you did, and how it went.
If you’re not already on my email list, you might like it. It’s just once a week unless I get overexcited. As I write, me and my listees are working on techniques to build a flow of people who love what you do and are happy to pay for it.
Plus, I’ll send you, for free, my website best practices .. there are seven things to do and two things to stop doing and it’ll transform your website. Most artists’ websites I see are not great, maybe yours too, well .. here’s how to fix it.
Look, no crazy popups, aren’t I the polite one?