Behind the price tag of original art

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Why, oh why, does original art have to cost so much?! Let’s find out.

First, please know that this post isn’t about shaming anyone who looks at a piece of art and thinks it’s overpriced - because, yes, that can and does happen and we each have a different idea of what is or is not expensive. Before I became an artist, I lacked an appreciation/understanding of pricing and while the topic of money always feels a bit taboo to discuss, I think it’s important to shed light on what goes into pricing original art.

This is a bit of a long read, but for those who aren’t artists, I promise you’ll learn a few things if you read until the end (which is where the surprising parts enter)!

Have you ever looked at a beautiful piece of art and then cringed at the price tag, thinking it sounds totally unreasonable? Well, while there are artists who mark their work at very high prices, much of the time that’s not actually the case. Your instinct to think a price is high is totally understandable, but that’s likely because you don’t get to see the business side of an artist’s work. It’s also partially because we regularly find art and prints for sale at a low cost in big box stores. Here’s your chance to learn.

While there are several formulas many artists use to price art systematically by size (we won’t be getting into those now), I want to focus on more specific costs.

Each piece begins with supplies. Hopefully the artist you’re purchasing from has chosen to use quality supplies that will hold up over time. Let’s just say that professional quality paint (not to mention canvas, brushes, varnish, etc.) add up very quickly. Supplies are the usual thing people think of when it comes to cost, right? However, they’re just a very small part of what goes into a price tag.

Next, we have time. Yes, there are some artists who work very fast and can complete a big piece in an hour or two. Most do not. Many of us pour days and weeks (and sometimes months and years) into a piece. For example, when I add simple stitching to a painting, it typically adds on anywhere from 2-8 hours of time. Think about how much you expect an artist to make per hour. Let’s break it down for an easy 8x10 painting (easy meaning one that goes smoothly and according to plan) made by me. It can and will vary a fair amount depending on the piece, but this is on the lower end and gives a general idea:

  • Color mixing = 1 hour

  • Research/planning time = 1 hour

  • Painting = 3 hours

  • Stitching = 2 hours

  • Clean-up, varnishing, and/or framing = 1 hour

  • TOTAL = 8 hours

  • Shipping + thorough packing (if applicable) = 1 hour

  • Photographing + listing online (if applicable) = 1 hour

  • TOTAL = 10 hours

So, what do you think an artist’s time is worth? Where I live, a decent entry level position for an adult *might* bring in $15/hour. While it’s frustrating to think that a college-educated professional who has poured hours and hours of time and thought into learning and advancing their craft is only worth $15/hour, I want to start here to show how pricing using the above time commitment looks:

  • 8x10 painting at $15/hr. x 8 hours = $120

  • 8x10 painting at $15/hr. x 10 hours = $150

For many people, these prices sound high for an 8x10 inch piece. People who have expressed desire for my work regularly bypass an original 8x10 even when it’s marked at only $75 (which, if based purely on time, would make my time worth $7.50 - $9.38 per hour). Think time and supplies (not included in the above pricing) are where it ends? Think again.

Here’s what most people don’t know. If you purchase a piece using a credit card, there are fees. Often, 3% or more. If you purchase a piece using a credit card on a service like Etsy or an artist’s personal website, closer to 6% may be taken out. If you’re a local purchaser and taxes are included in the price you’re paying, up to another 8% or so comes out in the form of city/state sales taxes. Beginning in 2019, we’re also required to pay local taxes for whatever location in the US you’re purchasing from. Basically, fees account for a 3-15% reduction in what we take home. Think this is where it stops? Ohhhh, how I wish.

There is also the cost of maintaining a website, an online store, shipping supplies, business cards, studio rent, commission percentages taken by stores and galleries, and in the US... federal taxes. If you’re self-employed, you’ll already know this, but for those who aren’t, here’s the deal: we don’t have federal taxes taken out of our ‘paychecks’. This means that each year, we are required to pay in those taxes. This makes perfect sense, but most people don’t think about it when purchasing from someone who is self-employed. Even if I am making poverty level wages, I am required to pay in a percentage of my earnings. I’ll skip the exact percentages, as it will vary some depending on how much an artist makes, how much you’re able to deduct, etc., but know that that what we pay in does even further reduce what we’re earning from each piece of art. Please know that this isn’t me complaining, it’s simply an explanation of factors that sit behind the price tag of a handmade item.

The term starving artist doesn’t apply to everyone, as there are artists doing an amazing job and making a great living. Sadly, that does not apply to a huge number of us, myself included. Many of us are forced to hold more than one job simply to pay the bills and feed ourselves (again, not a complaint, just a fact - I consider myself lucky to be an artist!). So while we completely understand if you are not in a financial position to purchase original art, we hope that if you like and appreciate our work, you’ll consider supporting us in other ways. If you like what an artist is doing, please consider:

  • sharing their work on social media or with friends who might also like it

  • commenting/complimenting when you see something you enjoy

  • purchasing a print or small item (in cash, when possible - those credit card fees are tough to stomach!)

  • asking what is available within your price range - I can’t speak for others, but I’m always happy to consider making prints or tiny pieces of original art if you can’t quite afford the larger one that you wish you could purchase.

  • putting an artist on your wish list for holidays! Perhaps a family member will surprise you with a piece!

These are all wonderful alternate options and SO appreciated! Last week, I was having a rough day and as someone left my studio, I heard her emphatically tell her spouse that my work was breathtaking. This seriously made my week. Would I have loved it if she had bought something? Of course, but I also realize that not everyone has the money or the right place for my work, and so sometimes, just knowing that what I’m doing with my time is valued, is more important than you might realize. After all, most of us are creating in hopes that we can provide some type of positivity or other emotional experience to the viewer - YOU!

Did reading this lend a new perspective on what goes into the price of original art? Did I forget to include something? Please comment and share and let’s educate others!

One last thought - you might have asked yourself, ‘why should I buy original art when I can get art at all the big box stores at a fraction of the cost?’

First, you’re receiving something that’s one-of-a-kind when you purchase original art. You can look at and feel the textures, brushstrokes, color variations, markings, etc. and hopefully you can feel the love and passion that are silently embedded into a piece. And if you ask, you’ll also likely get the story behind the piece you’re purchasing. For example, I’d like to think I’m not just selling a random landscape. I’d like to believe I’m sending you home with a place for your eyes to rest when you’re weary with all of the world’s chaos and a calming reminder of all that our natural environment has to offer when we step outside to examine and explore.

So, to sum up - if you previously thought that $75 for a small original painting was out of line, I hope you feel differently now (or at least gained a bit more of an appreciation for why prices sometimes seem high. Above all, I am so grateful to be living a life where I can create and share with others, so thank you for joining me in this journey!

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