5 Art Pricing Lessons I Learned the Hard Way

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Long time readers of TAA know today’s guest poster, Melissa Dinwiddie. She’s one smart cookie, and happens to be my partner in ArtEmpowers. Melissa has written here at TAA about how her art career almost destroyed her happiness, and has been mentioned as one of my 7 favorite art bloggers.

Recently an artist emailed me and told me that there was essentially no way that a person can draw pictures and sell them on the Internet for a significant sum of money. In response, I’d encourage you to read this post, and then check out Melissa’s website. I completely love this post, and every artist should pay attention. 

Do you struggle with pricing your work? I sure do, and most artists I know have the same problem.

In my many years of selling my artwork (and selling my teaching, consulting, music performances, and a whole lot more, as well), I’ve had to learn how to set my prices the hard way. I wish I knew then what I know now!

In the hopes that you don’t have to go through what I did, I’d like to share with you five of the most important lessons I’ve learned about pricing. This is in no way a definitive guide, and I don’t have a simple one-size-fits-all formula to offer you (sorry!), but hopefully these tips will be helpful.

Important Pricing Lesson #1: If you’re feeling resentment toward your clients or customers, it’s a good bet you need to raise your prices.

When I first started out, like many artists, I woefully undercharged for my work.

Being woefully underpaid leads to feeling woefully undervalued, and, sooner or later, resentful. In the middle of executing my third ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) commission (which took 106 hours to create, and for I ended up earning not much more than minimum wage), I felt so resentful of the lovely and delightful young couple I was creating the piece for that I came a hair’s breath away from never accepting another ketubah commission.

Resentment will do that.

Thankfully, I realized that what I needed was not to quit; what I needed was to raise my prices! Which I immediately did.

From that moment on, I used resentment as a reliable gauge to tell me when I was charging too little.

My advice: at a minimum, you should set your prices so that if someone buys from you, you feel well paid, and there isn’t even a glimmer of resentment.

Important Pricing Lesson #2: Nothing good comes from getting defensive about your pricing.

Sometime after learning the lesson above, I met with a couple in my living room for a consultation about a possible ketubah commission.

They flipped through my portfolio and raved about my work, pointing out specific elements of previous pieces that they liked and telling me the images and colors they wanted incorporated into their own ketubah. I drew a few rough concept sketches, I gave them a price estimate, and after some discussion about timing, they wrote me a deposit check for 1/3 of the estimate.

A few days later the bride-to-be called. “We really love your work,” she said, “but my friends are telling me it’s too expensive. I can get a ketubah from another artist a lot cheaper.”

SMACK. SUCKER-PUNCH MOMENT.

Can you say “flustered?” Can you say “buttons pushed?” That would be me right then.

What I wish I’d said is, “If you like what I do, this is what I charge. If you don’t want to pay that, you don’t have to buy it.”

Instead, I blathered defensively about how much time a ketubah takes me to create, trying to explain and defend my pricing, feeling worse with every word that fell out of my mouth. (Although to my credit, I did not offer to lower the price!)

Oh, it was ugly. And painful. One of those moments in which you wish you could hit rewind, delete, and start all over. Like that.

If you like what I do, this is what I charge. If you don’t want to pay it, you don’t have to buy it. Period.

When someone challenges your pricing, your impulse may be to want to justify why you charge what you do. (If so, you’re not alone! I still struggle with this!)

But you know what? None of your justifications are relevant. All that’s relevant is this:

If you like what I do, this is what I charge. If you don’t want to pay it, you don’t have to buy it. Period.

Practice this one, and have it at the ready the next someone tells you you’re charging too much.

Important Pricing Lesson #3: Some money is too expensive.

When I was trying to justify and explain the price estimate for that couple’s ketubah, I felt icky in a weak, whiny, victimy sort of way. And if my intention had been to salvage the sale, it totally backfired.

Now that I felt all disrespected and wimpy, there was no way I could work for this client.

Of course, it’s unlikely I would have wanted to work for them anyway — it’s very unpleasant to work for a client who doesn’t value what you do. Plus they usually make the biggest PITA (Pain In The Ass) clients.

Clients are PITA clients when they don’t value your work, when they treat you like a servant or are just generally rude, when they don’t get back to you in a timely fashion (and so force you to finish their project in a rush!), when they’re overly demanding…

I’ve learned from hard experience that working for PITA clients is never worth it. Or as an ex-boyfriend of mine liked to say, “Some money is too expensive.” Learn to say no and look for “less expensive” money (ie, customers and clients who are a pleasure to work with and sell to).

Important Pricing Lesson #4: State your price, then shut up!

Once I met with a couple who’d flown all the way from the east coast to meet with me about creating a ketubah for their anniversary.

I knew the extremely detailed design they wanted me to create would be incredibly time-consuming, probably more so than any ketubah I’d ever made. I had been continually raising my prices, little by little, but the amount I knew I’d have to charge in order to not feel resentful was more than I’d ever made on any single piece! I really wanted this commission, but I was afraid the clients would balk if I quoted a price that would really pay me for my time. (The fact that they flew from the other side of the country to meet with me should have given me a clue to how much they were willing to pay, but as I said, I’d never charged that much before, so I had no experience of anyone being willing to pay it.)

I stole some time by telling the couple that what they were looking for was at [what was then] the “high end” of my price range.

“So, um,” I stumbled ahead, “That would amount to, um, about, um, $5,000…”

If only I had kept my mouth closed right then…

Instead, I got all nervous and freaky that they were going to totally balk on me, and before I even gave them time to respond, I watched in horror as out of my mouth came the words, “…but if that’s too much for you, I can always simplify the design…”

Bogus! Bogus!” screamed my inner voice, “The design never gets simplified in reality! Saying you can simplify the design only means you’ll work just as hard for less money!”

Alas, my inner voice was too late, and I continued “…and I can make it for $4,000.. or $3,000…”

I could almost see the words flying out into the air above my dining room table, and I longed for nothing more than to grab them and stuff them back into my mouth.

But it was too late. The husband responded without batting an eye, “Well, $3,000, $4,000, $5,000 — it’s all the same to me. But I’m a middle-of-the-road kind of guy, so why don’t we go with the $4,000 version?”

And just like that, in a matter of seconds, I lost $1,000.

Ouch.

Whatever you do, don’t talk your customer out of a sale. State your price, then shut up! Leave space for your customer to respond before you do anything else. They may surprise you. And if they’re not comfortable with your price, then you can negotiate — or not — as you wish.

Important Pricing Lesson #5: If someone’s willing to pay it, it’s worth at least that much.

As I became more particular about whom I would work for (ie, no more PITA clients!) and how much I wanted to be paid (at least enough so that I wouldn’t feel resentful!), I got more and more confident about commanding higher and higher prices.

If a project was not something I was excited about doing, I’d just charge a lot, figuring that few would be willing pay it. And if for some strange reason they did pay it, I’d feel well paid for my efforts, so it would be worth it.

Well, blow me over with a feather — sometimes somebody did pay it!

Many times I’ve quoted prices anticipating that a project would take me, say, 40 hours, and then completed the work in half, or even a quarter of that.

The first few times that happened I felt guilty, and almost offered to lower the price. Thankfully, I realized that the clients weren’t paying me for my time. They didn’t care if it took me 15 hours, 150 hours, or 1,500 hours! They were buying the piece of art that they were dreaming of owning.

To their mind, the amount that we had agreed on to begin with was what that piece of art was worth.

Which makes it that much easier to charge that much next time. If you’ve been charging $500 for your work but one person’s happy to pay you $1,000, you can honestly say that your work is worth that much… at least to that one person. And if one person is willing to pay it, that social proof makes it easier to command that price with the next person to come along!

(This is one big reason I recommend pricing by the project or piece, rather than by the hour. It’s also why it’s so important to learn to find your Right People — the ones who are more than happy to pay your prices to buy what you offer. The ones who validate that yes, your work is worth what you charge.)

Summing up

So there you have it. My top 5 pricing lessons, all learned the hard way. I hope you find this helpful.

Do you have anything to add? If you have any hard-won pricing lessons, please share them in the comments below!

Melissa Dinwiddie is an artist, writer, performer and inspirationalist, on a mission to empower people to follow their own creative callings. She coaches and consults with individuals and groups and leads creativity workshops and retreats in inspiring locations around the world as well as online. Through her partner project with Cory Huff, ArtEmpowers.Me, Melissa helps artists to deprogram themselves of the “starving artist” mindset and learn to thrive from their art. You can find Melissa at Living A Creative Life, Playing Around Workshops, and Melissa Sings.

About 

Chief Monster Hunter at The Abundant Artist. Digital Strategist for Creative People. Husband. Actor. Storyteller.

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Comments

  1. says

    I have been reading extensively online lately about the business of art. I can honestly say this is the BEST advice I’ve come across! I know that resentment….I’ve had that PITA client who took advantage of me.

    I have an Etsy shop and I often do a little search amongst my competition to see if my work is priced competitively. I get a little worried when I see someone else selling comparable goods for considerably less. I used to just lower my prices to compete, but quickly realized that I don’t get any more sales that way, just make less money.

    Thank you for sharing your insights!

      • says

        Raising prices can be a really hard thing to wrap one’s head around, but Jennifer hit the nail on the head: when you do raise your prices, you have to sell to fewer customers to make the same amount of income!

        Of course, there’s a line somewhere: at a certain price point, people will stop buying, so you’ll make less money. The challenge is finding where that line is where you’re gaining more income than you’re losing in sales.

  2. says

    Well, I agree – in theory. But in practice, it’s not just about raising your prices. I agree that finding your niche is an important thing. But what if “your niche” doesn’t pay well (or hasn’t historically paid very well?) Finding the people who will pay what you’re worth might mean finding more people who will pay a lower sum, or working directly with businesses and publishers, instead. This has been a steep mountain to climb, for me…. but thanks for the insight!

    • says

      Great point, Leah! I would be the last person to imply that “it’s just about raising your prices.”

      If your niche doesn’t pay well, or if there’s just not a market for your work, it may be that it’s not a good niche to grow a business from. You can’t grow crops in a dessert.

      Or it may be that you need to change your offer somehow. There’s no single formula here (much as we might wish for one…)

      For an art (or any!) business to work, you must find the intersection of what you do well (and ideally ADORE doing), and what people are actually willing and happy to pay for. (Which may also require some education on the creator’s part; think of the iPhone — 20 years ago nobody was walking around thinking “Ya know, what I really wish I had is a phone that I can carry around with me, take pictures with, send messages to people on, plan me day on, and listen to music with!”)

      This is not always an easy intersection to find, and it’s not something that will work for every artist or art form. But for those who *can* find that intersection, with hard work, creativity, and a helluva lot of persistence, I believe they can create a successful business.

      • theabundantartist says

        “You can’t grow crops in a dessert.”

        I don’t know. The pound cake in my fridge is definitely growing something green…

      • says

        Cory, you beat me to it. I was going to say something clever about desserts and growing things….hah!

        I think right now the original art market *is* a desert. Anyone would agree, the rain doesn’t fall often. I won’t be the first to blame “the economy” but I also think that owning original art (even reasonably priced, artist-made prints) isn’t really important in larger and larger segments of the population. The culture says it’s perfectly okay to go to Ikea and buy a cheap piece of paper or doodad to hang instead if you need more decoration to fill space. (home decor magazines often show groupings of empty frames D:) I don’t think the public perceives much value in original 2D art. As long as it’s viewed as “just decor”.

        …Until they own their first piece of real art. Then, it becomes the Most Amazingest Thing In Their House.

        Now I just have to convince everyone of this basic truth, LOL!!!!

        Heading for that intersection…

  3. Wayne Thornley says

    If you are an artist who is being represented by a gallery, you usually work with a gallery to set a price that includes the gallery commission. This is usually around 50% of the retail price. The important thing to keep in mind is that the price of your work has to remain consistent to the public, whether in a gallery, at a street fair or selling directly from your studio. If a 24×30 paintng on canvas is $400 dollars in a gallery, a painting of similar size and content that you sell directly to a patron must be sold close to that same price point. If you vary pricing for different scenarios, you undermine your reputation with the gallery, word will spread that you will sell direct for a lesser amount and slowly your reputation as a professional artist will begin to be tarnished.

    • says

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful post! I have struggled so much with this! It is hard when you are starting something to know if you are trying to sell in a desert or if the people who will pay just don’t know it exists yet.

      • says

        Maria, you’re right: it’s really hard to know when you’re starting out whether there’s a market for your work and how much you can reasonably charge. The only way to find out is to get your stuff out there and start experimenting.

        And at the same time, work on building a market by educating people about why owning a piece of your work is so awesome. :)

    • says

      Such an important point, Wayne! It’s very important to keep your pricing consistent — NEVER undercut the retail price of your work in any galleries who represent you!

      In addition, if you DO sell through galleries, remember to set your (retail) prices so that you’re making a profit AFTER the gallery takes its cut.

    • says

      You’re right, Edward. And trying to compete with Walmart and Ikea doesn’t do us any favors. Unless you have a raving fan base of millions (and who of us does?), there’s no way you can make a living on cheap pricing.

  4. says

    Oh wow, even though I’ve heard you talk of this before Melissa, I never cease to listen with wide open ears. I really need to print myself out a card with: “If you like what I do, this is what I charge. If you don’t want to pay it, you don’t have to buy it.”and keep it in my pocket at all times! Thanks for reminding me.

    I have just last week been in a situation of quoting a mural job, something I’ve never been paid to do, and struggled with pricing it. But in the end after tossing numbers around in my head and worrying if it were too high (or low), I got serious and thought I really need to know how much this job is going to cost me. I wrote it all down, gas, travel time, supplies and was shocked with the amount that it would cost me without even picking up a brush!

    So I started to talk myself out of the job, thinking it won’t be worth it. The job is an hour away (41 miles) one way. That there was no way I would make any money on it. And finally, I came to terms that I would just not do it.

    So, after putting off getting them the quote, I came up with what I thought was a number that they would never agree to, but one that I felt good about and wouldn’t feel taken advantage of. I even included in the quote that if she wanted to move forward to contact me, thinking that was the last I would hear from her. To my surprise, she got back to me within minutes! Not even a balk at the price. Just a yes, we want to move forward.

    I am still learning as I go, but I am pretty proud of myself for this quoting job. Now, I’m thinking dang! I could’ve charged more! hahaha…

  5. says

    Great article on the wisdom of pricing artwork. Your examples to back up each lesson helped me to understand the pitfalls and the logic behind the lesson. What resinated with me the most is your last comment about pricing by piece not by hour and finding the right people who value your work. Thank you for sharing your wisdom :)

  6. says

    Thanks for an excellent article! As an artist, I have been in all of these situations before and came out of them less than victorious. What I learned from a couple of years of selling art is that for most of my clients, it’s not about the money. They either want that piece of art or not. All of my mumbling about maybe lowering the price I do for my own sake, because I’m feeling guilty about charging someone that much or because I don’t feel confident that my art is worth it, or because I’m just trying to be a nice person.

    • says

      Thanks, Yevgenia!

      I’ve also learned that what seems “expensive” to me is not always so to my clients. I delivered a commissioned book to a client once — a piece that had taken me a fraction of the time I’d thought it would when I quoted the price.

      My momentary guilt feelings vanished when I drove up to the *mansion* — complete with 20-foot fountain and full-time nanny. I realized that the price the client paid me, though a *huge* amount to me, what probably the equivalent of me buying a CD or a couple of movie tickets to them!

      They loved the book, and were more than pleased with what they got for their money. Everyone was happy. :)

      PS – I agree with Cory! Your site is stunning! As is your artwork. :)

  7. says

    Thank you for sharing this! Very helpful. I have made some of these mistakes. Glad to know I’m not the only one. Now I will practice avoiding the othes :)

  8. says

    Perfect article! I went through the same pain, interestingly enough not as an artist, but for my hubby’s business. We went through #1 and figured out the resentment is not worth. We went through #2, we went through #3 a few times until we actually started to turn people down (not but raising the prices, just by saying ‘sorry, I am booked!’
    But his work is a service, much easier to price… I am still struggling to figure out the proper price for my work :)
    Thanks for sharing, this is truly an important lesson to learn (or 5 to be exact)

    • says

      Thanks for the comment, Alicia!

      I think pricing is the hardest part of being an artist. Learning how to stay sane and not sell yourself short is an ongoing process.

      And saying “sorry, I’m booked!” is a great way to help stay sane, AND demonstrate that you’re in demand (and therefore worth whatever you charge… or more!) :)

      • says

        Well this is one piece that’ll be printed in large letters and posted on my wall. It’s a strange thing isn’t it that we are afraid to upsell ourselves and yet we don’t find it hard to sell someone elses work – like if you worked in an art shop you’d tell the buyer that a painting is worth a heap of money -
        Thank you Melissa.

      • says

        Rosemarie, you’re right. In fact, one trick I often use (and coach others to use) is to pretend that you’re an agent or friend for someone *else* when thinking about pricing and promoting your work. Imagine what you would say if you were representing a friend, instead of yourself.

        Hopefully we’ll all learn to respect ourselves as much as we do other people, but in the meantime, I’m all for using any trick in the book to “fake it till you make it.” ;)

  9. says

    A lot of the time we give away art work at throw away prices just to please the buyer then whine away at the loss of a big apart of our spirit. Its about time it cost its worth? Period.

  10. Cecilia Power says

    Yes, Melissa, this helped me to feel better about asking more for my work, but I am still pretty much clueless about what to charge for my work. You and I do have one thing in common, the un-commonality of our product. More research needed for me no doubt!
    Thank you so much for writing this, it was an eye opener, and I will keep the concepts in mind.

    • says

      Cecilia, I probably had it a little easier than you when I was first starting out, because the ketubah market is hugely competitive — so there are lots of other people out there selling, and I could use the range of pricing I found online as a starting place.

      For someone with a really unusual product, I think it’s a matter of trying and experimenting until you find what works for you. Be open to changing your pricing as you go along (but be advised that it’s easier to go up than down!)

  11. Katarina says

    A good clue that you’re charging too little is when people offer you more – ouchie! I had to have someone come up to me and say – you MUST charge this much, after I had openly whinged about others who I thought charged too much. So now I make more money AND have less of my time and talents wasted, score! What Melissa says is true – if people do not value your work or have faith in your abilities, pouring your soul out for them will ultimately be a waste. You need to make sure people honour your talents and their own need to experience it. Payment is one of the lovely ways in which people can honour our services. Artists don’t just create because they can, healers don’t just heal for the hell of it; people need to have us create for them.

    • says

      RIGHT ON, Katarina! Do we expect doctors and dentists to treat us for free?

      Thank goodness for that person who told you you MUST charge more — we all need people like that sometimes, but they’re not always there when we need them. :)

  12. suzanne says

    Ouch! I just put my novel The Bride Price up for O dollars on Amazon Kindle for a short time, after listening to a marketing ex pert. I wish I had read your advice first. Suzanne Popp.

    • says

      Hey Suzanne, don’t beat yourself up! There are lots of situations in which it makes TONS of sense to give your stuff away, or for very cheap, and it’s quite possible that offering your novel for free was a GOOD move. A free introduction to your work might just gain you loyal (paying) readers down the road…

      All that is to say, every case is unique, and the price you charge (or not) will depend on your particular goals. And you won’t really know what works until you try it, too!

  13. says

    This is a terrific post on pricing, Melissa. Thanks! In keeping with your point about the need to set your price and stick to it, I’ve found that printing out a price list helps me a lot personally. That way, I don’t have to squeak out the words for how much a portrait commission will cost a client, which tends to make me feel defensive. I just hand them a price list. That seems to establish the concept that “this IS what it costs,” just as seeing a price tag on an item in a store does. If they don’t like my price list, they can go elsewhere, and that’s that! Self-respect is so important, and artists need to be paid appropriately.

    • says

      Hi Anne! Nice to see you here. :)

      I’m with you on printing out a price list. That includes having pricing on your website, for potential customers who are not in the same room with you. ;)

      I’ve also found it helpful to have a list of prices nearby for ME to reference, if I’m talking to a potential customer on the phone — less squeaking results that way. (Though more often it’s a case of custom quoting, in which case I’ll tell them I’ll get back to them with a price quote, so I don’t quote something I regret in my haste!)

      Yes to self-respect and being paid appropriately!

  14. says

    Dear Melissa,
    Thank you for your enlightening tips on pricing artwork. I recall making ALL the mistakes you list and am glad you have given me the confidence at least to try avoiding them in the future!
    Kind regards,
    Brendan Murphy

  15. Colleen says

    Thank you so much for this valuable post!

    You have put into words what so many artists are unable to say about feeling undervalued and as a result, resentful.

    Your advise is excellent.

    Thank you for sharing!

  16. Morgan V. Hayes says

    Thank you very much for sharing that. I really needed to read it. I’m a bit uneasy about a situation I was in a few weeks ago and was wondering if you could share a bit of insight. A piece I had done was accepted in an exhibition at a gallery in Nashville. That was the very first time my work has hung on a gallery wall(Woo-Hoo!!). To say the least I was very excited and proud of my “Cinderella Moment”. The piece was a 24×36 in stretched canvas. It’s beautiful and only took a few hours all together. In consideration of 30% commission from the gallery I set my price for $135.00. That would be the most I’ve ever been paid for artwork if someone buys it. I’m completely content with the price. BUT, my mom and a friend of mine was there and were in agreement in the fact that I was undercharging. Then I was told that most people buy things that are a bit more expensive because they associate price with value. I understand where they are coming from and I know they love me, but that kind of makes me second guess myself. What are your thoughts on this particular situation?? Thank you for your time;)

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