Why I don’t charge by the hour

Setting prices is a struggle for most new artists. After ten years of working as a self employed illustrator and fine artist, not to mention my own bookkeeper, I have a lot of experience in this area. 

Why am I sharing this? 

Isn't it gauche to talk about money?

No! There are some industries where salary information is easy to find. If you're thinking about a certain career, you can estimate a very narrow range of what you can expect to make.

Art is NOT one of those careers! By sharing my experience, I hope to help other artists feel confident in what they charge for their work. 

If you're a collector, not an artist, I hope that you keep reading as well, to gain understanding of why art is priced as it is! 

 

1. The concept of "worth"

First, let's distinguish the worth of each of us as a human being, and the worth of our professional work. 

I believe that no one is defined by their salary, or in the case of an artist, by the economical worth of their finished products. I believe every human who has ever lived is worth just as much as any other human. Your life is just as valuable as the life of anyone else. The great art masters' lives were worth a lot, yes, but so is yours and mine.

Still, this is a struggle for me as my work is so personal that it feels like my work IS part of me! In months when I sell a lot, of course it makes me feel great! I feel valued! In months when I hardly sell anything, it's easy to feel like my ideas aren't valued. When someone likes my art, I feel like they like ME! 

When setting prices, the most important, but hard to define, aspect of pricing for me personally is: Does this feel "worth it" to me? It's easier to judge this as a consumer, because we do it every time we buy anything. But to do it as an artist, you need to have a good sense of what you invest into each piece and what amount of money makes the effort worth it. For pieces that I especially love, it's also a matter of what amount of money makes it worthwhile to part with something I love!

It's hard to do this for individual pieces, but easier to look at a week or a month of work and ask if it feels "worth it" for the total amount that you've earned in that time.

There will be projects that are so taxing that you won't feel like it was worth any amount of money. And there will be projects that are so easy you'll feel like you're cheating! But, most fall somewhere in the middle and you can set your prices based on the average. 

Elizabeth Alice Studio artist holds original paintings in art studio

2. People are buying your idea, not your time

The raw materials of painting are simple: canvas, paint, brushes. Art is worth more than the sum of its parts. Not a single other person on earth would create exactly what you will, given the same materials and amount of time. 

Therefore, you can and should charge more than the cost of materials and minimum wage. 

Another factor that some new artists don't forsee is that we all make mistakes. Sometimes, I make a huge mistake and have to start a piece all over again. Obviously, I don't charge double for that piece. This is another reason why I set my prices based on averages, not by individual works.

I once heard an artist say, "Some works pour out of me. Others have to be pulled!" which is such a great way of summarizing the huge variable of time spent on making art.  

3. More experience means more value

I tend to work pretty quickly. I've been painting for my whole life, so I have many years of practice, and I have tried to train myself to work as quickly as possible because I have a tendency to procrastinate. I also need to make a living, so reminding myself to work at a fast pace allows me to produce enough work to earn a salary. 

As I gain experience, I can work more quickly. Does that mean that I should charge less for my work? Of course not! Most artists gradually raise their prices as they gain more experience--and exposure. 

A musician can perform a song in three minutes. An Olympic athlete can race a sprint in mere seconds. But, it has taken them many years of practice to be able to reach that level. It's the same for artists.  

And, here's that concept of "worth" again. If people are paying for your idea and execution, then it doesn't matter to your client how long it took you to complete. 

This doesn't mean that new artists' work isn't valuable (of course, it can be) but an experienced artist can predict or even guarantee the high quality outcome they want.

When I was in design school, I took many abstract design courses. In one, we had to create a series of ten artworks. After weeks of revising the projects, my professor pointed to one and told its maker, "This is your best one yet!" She was flabbergasted. She said, "Are you kidding me?! That one took me five minutes, and I've spent weeks on the rest of them!!" The professor replied, "Yes, but you created it with what you learned in those weeks."

4. Painting isn't all an artist does

I say this frequently: painting is the easy part! A self-representing artist also spends time:

- Researching new products, supplies, and media, and trying new techniques

- Varnishing and framing work

- Photographing work

- Making print reproductions

- Building relationships with galleries, shops, and other artists

- Marketing on social media

- Replying to emails

- Bookkeeping

- Filing taxes

- Keeping up with a website or blog

- Maintaining a studio, equipment, cleaning, and storing artwork

For every week that I work, probably one day (20% of the work week) is actually painting. It takes me far more time to do all of my other professional tasks. So, charging just for the hours I spend painting would be far less money than I actually need to make for all of the effort that goes into my work, not to mention the costs associated with those things. 

5. When you undervalue your art, you undervalue ALL artists.

This is a concept I learned from a fellow artist. 

Some artists keep their prices low in an effort to attract buyers. The unfortunate effect of this is that someone will ALWAYS be priced lower. A client will ask, "How could your painting be worth $1,000 when that person is doing it for $50?" 

Does anyone remember the old episode of I Love Lucy where the main characters open competing burger joints? In an effort to draw clients away from each other, they lower their prices again and again until, finally, they're giving burgers away for free. In an effort to make more sales, they have completely lost sight of both the quality and the longevity of their business. 

Elizabeth Alice Studio large painting of a flower bouquet in chinoiserie vase sitting on furniture, red orange purple flowers in blue and white vase with navy background

6. Setting prices based on size

I can actually complete a large painting in about the same amount of time as a smaller one, but when people buy art, they are buying visual impact for their space. That's why I think charging by size is the most fair way of pricing. 

Also, the cost of materials and shipping is relative to the size of the art. A large blank canvas costs more than a small one, and it takes more paint. Large shipping boxes cost more, as does shipping itself. 

I use a sliding scale that's based first on square footage, but I charge a little less per square foot for larger sizes. That's because every painting, regardless of size, requires varnishing, photographing, and marketing. 

(I'm not giving away secrets here...anyone who looks at the paintings available on my website can figure out that I have priced them by size!)

7. Ok, but...how much do you REALLY make?

There are a lot of equations for how to calculate prices for your art. Most of them are something like:

Cost of materials + Your hourly rate = Price

Please don't do this!!! For all the reasons I've outlined above, you'll be cutting yourself short. This equation doesn't factor in the other tasks that take your time, or give you room to explore new projects, or allow a budget for marketing, website hosting, or email (yes, sending emails costs money!).  

Artists who sell through galleries or stores will earn even less because they are paying a commission in exchange for representation.

Here is my equation: 

50% of the price of an original is what I actually get to keep. 

I've kept track of my expenses for ten years and this is the most accurate equation I can give you! If I charge $100 for a drawing, after expenses and taxes, I actually get to keep about $50. 

Does it feel worth it? 

If you've made it this far, you are clearly a person who is passionate about art, like I am! But, even the best job in the world can be draining. In order to build a career for the long term, to avoid burnout, and to be able to pay your bills, setting appropriate prices is one of the most important decisions you'll make for your career as an artist.