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    Making Fine Line Price Distinctions

    Related article: The Basics of Art Pricing >>

    Being clear and consistent when pricing your art gives you credibility as an artist. Just as consumers expect clear consistent pricing when shopping for milk at the grocery story or for a new refrigerator at Fred's Appliance Palace, they also expect that when shopping for art. Price structures that are difficult to understand or explain or are problematic in other ways do not instill confidence in potential buyers and do not encourage sales.

    A clear consistent price structure means that every work of art you create is assigned a dollar value that relates to the dollar values of all other art that you create. In other words, all art is priced according to the same basic principles, determined by you and/or those who know your art best, so that the price of any individual work of art makes sense within the context of the rest. Pricing rules and guidelines are based on unique characteristics of your art in combination with outside art market forces. If you have little or no experience selling and/or pricing your art, please read Price Your Art Realistically before continuing.

    A main goal of sensible art pricing is for similar works of art to have similar selling prices. You the artist decide what those similarities are based on criteria you choose. Those criteria become the measures by which you assess and ultimately price all of your art. Remember at each stage in your process that those criteria should be explainable and understandable to anyone with questions about your art, especially potential buyers.

    A good first step in determining your criteria is to select one or more works of art that you consider typical of your current output and that display a typical range of your skills. These would be pieces that you consider neither outstanding nor inferior in any way. If you work in more than one medium or style, select at least several pieces that are representative of each.

    Describe and itemize these works in reasonable detail in terms of their basic physical characteristics as well as in terms of variables unique to your art. Basic physical characteristics include size, subject matter, color, complexity, weight, detail, cost of materials, time necessary to create and so on. Variables unique to your art might include the number of figures in the composition, theme, texture, use of a particular palette, direction of the brush strokes, date produced, or degree of abstraction, for example.

    Avoid using subjective criteria to describe your art such as what it means to you, what its message is, how it makes you feel, how attached you are to it and so on. Subjective perspectives may be important from psychological, intellectual or emotional standpoints, but not necessarily in terms of pricing as they can vary widely from one artist or viewer to the next. No one, however, can dispute a work of art's size or subject matter. If over time you find that some of your art imparts similar feelings or messages to wide audiences, you may eventually be able to quantify those feelings or messages as price points, but at least for the time being, leave intangible considerations out of the process.

    Once you've completed your itemized descriptions, your next task is to set a base price for your chosen typical work or works of art. A good analogy to a base price in the art world is a base price in the car world, or the price of a car with no extras (this may sound a mite crude or crass, but it's how the overwhelming majority of art gets priced). A basic car model with no extras costs a certain dollar amount; models with "extras" cost more. How much more depends on the amount and quality of their extras.

    Artists with gallery experience and consistent sales histories should already know the range of base prices that typical works of their art regularly sell for. If you don't have a regular track record of sales, your base price range should approximate those dollar amounts that artists in your locale with comparable experience, resumes and sales records charge for similar works of art. Keep in mind that even though your art is unique, experienced art people like dealers, advanced collectors, consultants and agents make price comparisons from artist to artist all the time. Being able to evaluate your art from a detached standpoint by comparing it to that of other artists in your area is necessary in order for your price structure to make sense in the marketplace.

    Once you've set your base price, use it as the norm to price the rest of your art in relation to that base, in terms of "extras" or lack thereof. Extras, according to your descriptive criteria, are those characteristics that make certain works of your art more significant than others. If, for example, your typical work of art measures 20 by 30 inches and you base-price it at $1000, and you consider one measuring 40 by 50 inches to be more significant, you might price it at $2500 to $3500. Similarly, you might price one measuring 8 by 12 inches at $200 to $400 because you consider it to be less significant, all else being equal. Extras that generally indicate price increases beyond base dollar amounts are characteristics like more complex compositions, larger sizes, more intricate details, higher levels of technical difficulty, greater production times and more expensive materials.

    If certain works of art hold special meaning for you or represent critical moments in your life or career, but are not drastically different from your other art in terms of physical criteria, best procedure is to keep them off the market because the tendency is to overprice them. Isolated extreme prices may make perfect sense to you but not make sense to viewers, and at worst, can skew your entire price structure in an unrealistic direction. If you can make a good understandable case to the art world as to why isolated works of art should be priced well beyond similar looking pieces, and the art world agrees with you, then fine. If not, save emotion-based or attachment-based pricing for when you become famous and have greater latitude in how you present your art to the public and position it with respect to your overall output.

    As previously mentioned, your price structure should make sense to people who don't necessarily know that much about art, but who like art or own art and have basic questions about it such as why one piece costs more or less than another. Be able to explain how and why you set your base price range and overall price structure, and how and why you set other prices higher or lower in relation to that base. Having a price structure that people who know art can understand is essential in order to move art from your studio to for-sale settings like galleries, and ultimately to individual or institutional buyers.

    One more important point to keep in mind is that once you've established your selling prices, don't change them without a reason. Any deviation in price, particularly in the upward direction, has to be justified. In other words, don't raise or lower your prices just because you feel like it, because you saw someone else raise theirs, or for any other reason not specifically relate to your accomplishments as an artist or to the frequency of your sales. People generally shy away from art that costs a certain amount one week and a different amount the next; they prefer constancy in art prices.

    And now for a few hypotheticals:

    Suppose your price structure turns out to be too high-- people who like your art enough to ask how much it costs aren't buying? This means that you have to lower your prices, but by how much? Re-pricing somewhat below what comparable art by artists in your area sells for is a good starting point, but rather than arbitrarily cut prices either across the board or on a piece-by-piece basis, conduct an informal survey first.

    When possible, ask those most interested in your art how much they would be willing to pay for it or how much they think it should sell for. Whenever you get the chance, also ask dealers, experienced collectors, consultants, fellow artists and other knowledgeable art people what they think. Put together as much of a consensus opinion as possible and then reduce prices accordingly. Your goal is to generate sales with the new lower structure, so make sure reductions are in line with or even slightly greater than consensus opinion. You want to avoid having to reduce prices again.

    Suppose your art becomes popular with the public and sales are brisk? When demand reaches a point where a good percentage of your art, at least a third, sells within several months of its appearance on the market, think about raising your prices. A price increase is also in order when demand for your art regularly outstrips demand for art by your contemporaries. In these cases, a price increase in the range of 10% to 15% would be reasonable for starters. If the art continues to sell well, perhaps another increase in that same range would be warranted. But be careful here-- not too much too fast.

    As you become better and better known, a brand name so to speak, your art begins to merit premium pricing, or pricing beyond that of your contemporaries. Exactly how much that premium is depends on the significance of your accomplishments (shows, awards, news coverage, etc.) and the constant or better yet, expanding interest in your art. Depending on how well-known you get, continue to price according to what "the competition" charges, but who that competition is will likely evolve from local artists to regional artists, and possibly even to national or international artists. As you advance in your career, always be aware of what category of artists you are perceived as belonging to and how much they charge for their art.

    Suppose that as your career progresses or as tastes in art change, that one type of your art finds favor with collectors or receives critical acclaim while focus or demand for your other art remains modest. Raise the prices of this in-demand art above that of your other art, and price earlier examples that are still in your possession higher as well, possibly even higher than those you're currently making. For example, if collectors come to prize your abstracts much more than your landscapes, raise prices on all past, present and future abstracts, with prices for your earlier most formative or significant works (those in the styles that are receiving the most attention) being raised the most.

    Raising prices for earlier examples of your most desirable art is somewhat similar to pricing antiques and collectibles-- the first edition of a famous book costs more than later editions, early Barbie dolls cost more those produced today and so on. The significance of your "first" or "earliest" art only becomes apparent as you advance in your career. You have no idea how the public will ultimately respond to different styles of art when you first create or show them or what their legacy might one day be, but as that legacy becomes increasingly clear with the passage of time, price raises for certain types of your art will likely be in order.

    Continuing with this line of reasoning, suppose from a historical standpoint that a particular type of your art becomes significant beyond you as an artist-- in other words, as part of a recognized movement or school of art. For example, consider an artist who painted large abstracts in the 1950s. Prices for these abstracts will have to be priced not only according to how well that artist's career played out, but also according to how abstract paintings in general from the 1950s have been embraced by collectors. Prices for these abstracts may far outstrip prices for all other art that the artist created, regardless of the personal significance that the artist places on them, but rather because of their overall historical importance, that they were painted in a particular style at a particular point in time.

    No matter how old you are or how long you've been making art, know that art prices fluctuate over time as a result of a variety of factors. Set your initial price structure according to characteristics of your art and of your local or regional art market, but be ready to revise those prices at any time (assuming adequate justification). The more you're aware of overall market conditions, of the careers and accomplishments of your fellow artists, and of how people respond to your art in particular, the better prepared you are to maintain sensible selling prices and maximize your sales.


    Need help pricing your art? I regularly consult with artists about how to price their art, determine reasonable price structures for all of their art, explain their prices to potential buyers in language they can understand, and more. Call me at 415.931.7875 or email

    Is a gallery offering you a show? Does someone want to rep your art? Entering into a business relationship? Signing a contract? If you answered yes to any of those questions, read Common Artist Legal Problems and How to Avoid Them.


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