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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Kirkland

It costs HOW MUCH?!

This artist’s insights may help take the shock out of art "sticker shock".

If you have ever visited an art gallery or art fair featuring contemporary, original paintings, and have been shocked by some of the price tags, this article may be of interest. As a working artist who has grappled with how to price my own work, I hope to provide insights about what goes into calculating a price.

You may think, “Well, it’s just some paint on a canvas. Why the high price?” or hear others say, “Heck, I could do something like that myself for practically nothing.” To complicate things further, you may have found a lack of consistency in pricing, with numbers varying substantially from artist to artist for what seems to be similar works.

While we have all seen videos of people throwing paint at a canvas, or of elephants creating “masterpieces” remember, that while there are trends and fads in art, most art you find in galleries, art fairs or First Friday events was created by artists who strive to create unique and well-crafted artwork.

Also, remember that a high or low price does not always equate to quality. You can find skillful art for a small price if the artist is motivated to sell. On the other hand, you may find works in art exhibits where the price is set at a stratospheric number that no one would ever pay. In that case, the price may have been set high because the artist really does not want to sell the work, but the venue required the piece to be for sale in order to be included in the show. There is also the possibility that the artist is delusional about their talent. It happens.

All joking aside, pricing a work of art is more art than science, but there are some constants.

• Creating quality artwork is more than applying paint to canvas.

Before ever picking up the brush and palette, a professional artist follows a multi-step process to create quality work. There’s research, visualization, planning, preparation of the surface, gathering materials, painting, drying or curing, and then varnishing and framing. That all takes time, and as they say, time is money.

• Artist expertise and talent.

A frequent question artists are asked is, “How long did that take you to paint?” The glib response is, “Twenty years and thousands of hours!” which reflects the artist’s lifetime investment in learning and practicing their craft.

In addition to years of schooling or training, professional artists have undoubtedly put in hundreds or thousands of hours of both successful and failed creative attempts. It takes the artist’s time, talent and persistence to develop expertise in a medium and develop their personal style. When you purchase their art, you are paying for a small portion of all of the above.

• Quality and price of materials make a difference.

Paints, brushes, easels, canvases, frames and other art tools all come in a range of quality and prices. For instance, professional quality oil paints are considerably more expensive than craft or student-grade acrylic paints. And expensive sable brushes yield far better results than crafting brushes you buy at a hobby store. Artists who use high-end professional-grade surfaces, paints and tools have a pretty sizable investment in them. Just as in any business, they need to cover their expenditures.

• An artist is in business.

Speaking of business. In centuries past, artists might have had wealthy patrons who paid what amounts to a retainer, to execute artworks to order. Today, artists are mostly likely in business for themselves, and, as in any small business, they need to cover their material costs and overhead. If their artwork is their sole source of income, the price of their art has to cover not only time and materials, it also must cover commissions to the gallerist or show sponsor (up to 50%) as well. Typical overhead may include: studio rental, bookkeeping and marketing, and most importantly, a paycheck for the artist to cover the costs of living, such as food, housing, utilities and health insurance, just like any other independent businessperson.

Prices will vary from artist to artist.

When setting a price for a piece of original art, the artist may start by adding up time spent and money spent on materials. How long did it take to produce? What is their time worth in dollars? What materials did they have to purchase? Demand is another factor. Little demand, little price. High demand, high price. So, a popular, well-known artist can price their works higher than a less well-known artist can. Yep, basic supply and demand at work here.

• Size may factor into the price.

Creating a 16" X 20" piece may take considerably less time, with less materials cost, than creating a 36" X 72" piece. A large piece may have taken the artist weeks or months to produce, depending on its complexity. And, while all that time may not have been spent actively at the easel, other factors can add to the production timeline: drying time between painting sessions, curing, varnishing and framing.

• Remember, there is only one original.

Most artists don’t churn out paintings like a factory, creating dozens or hundreds that are identical. That piece you’re looking at is the only one of that painting that exists. That’s why the artist charges more for that one, unique artwork. So, if you like it, buy it. Now. It may not be there when you come back for a second look.

• Now that you are better informed about art pricing, go out and support your local artists by buying some original artwork!

Art collecting is not as intimidating as it may seem. Of course, this article just skims the surface, but I hope these tips will help you understand art pricing a bit more and guide your art purchase decisions.

If you would like additional information or have questions about this article, please feel free to contact me. If you are interested in hearing more about my art and exhibits, please subscribe to my email newsletter (if you haven't already) or visit my web site and check out my latest paintings on the What's New? page.

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