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Why Pricing Art by Formulas Doesn't Work


There is no easer way for artists to sabotage their chances of selling art than to price in ways that make no sense. I've seen this happen time and time again, where the art looks great but the prices don't. They're either too high, completely inconsistent, or are otherwise hopelessly confusing to people who are potentially interested in buying. But unfortunately, nobody buys anything they can't understand. As logical as it may seem on the surface, artists who price their art by formulas often contribute to the confusion rather than decrease it.

In spite of the fact that every original artwork is unique, a number of individuals and websites continue to support and promote art-pricing formulas. Just plug in the numbers and out pops your price, they say. But since every original work of art is unique, doesn't that mean every asking price for every original work must be determined based on that art's unique merits and characteristics rather than by using one-size-fits-all formulas? Hint: the answer is yes.

To begin with, there are way too many variables to consider when pricing one-of-a-kind original art (not limited editions) to simply take a few measurements and plug them into a formula. Art is not like math, science or physics where universal laws apply regardless of the circumstances. For example, how can a formula possibly account for characteristics like medium, complexity of a composition, style, technique, color palette, technical mastery, craftsmanship or artistry, subject matter, the story behind the art, where it was created, quality of detail, how the work compares to other similar examples by the artist, and so on? Criteria like these are often subjective, not quantifiable, and do not abide by physical laws of the universe like other forms of matter. And then there are more concrete factors like cost of materials, length of the artist's resume, past sales history, frequency of sales, recent sales history, online following, who owns their art, career trajectory, age of the work, and more. Formulas might make a good starting point, but complete reliance on them is out of the question, or at least it should be.

Consider one of the most basic pricing formulas out there-- pricing art by how many hours it takes to make, multiplied by what you think would be a reasonable hourly wage, and then adding on cost of materials (or maybe the cost of materials plus a markup). This method usually makes sense for artists who are just starting out, have little or no sales or exhibition history, and who produce relatively consistent bodies of work. But once you begin to advance in your career or change or diversify your styles, this simplistic approach no longer applies. Additional factors must now be taken into consideration, like what distinguishes one style from the next, how much similar works by other artists with similar track records sell for in the area where you live or show, how successful your shows have been, how your prices compare to similar works by similar artists online, frequency and regularity of sales, whether your art has been featured or reviewed, the size of your social media following, and more.

Another issue with the number of hours times the hourly wage formula is that some artists can paint quality works in short periods of time, say an hour or two. Here again, the formula makes no sense and you have to price by more subjective criteria like some of those mentioned above. You can see how quickly and complicated pricing art by simple formulas gets.

Perhaps the widest circulating formula out there is pricing by size, by the square inch (or centimeter). The idea is to multiply the length by the width of a two-dimensional artwork, and then multiply that total by a per-square-inch price that you think would be fair or appropriate for your art. Unfortunately, there is no formula for determining that per-square-inch price. The value you choose is entirely subjective, which in turn makes the formula subjective as well. So why not just forget the formula and price your art the old-fashioned way-- by pricing each individual artwork on its own merits and physical characteristics? Then you don't have to do any of those silly calculations.

But wait; there's more. At best, the square inch method only makes sense if all of your art is about the same size (not to mention subject matter, complexity, etc etc). If you produce work in a range of sizes, the calculated price results will either make your smallest works too cheap or your largest ones too expensive. For example, let's say you decide to charge $2 per square-inch. Using the formula, a 9 by 12 inch artwork would cost $108, while a 30 by 50 inch piece would cost $3000. Now if I can buy a piece of your art for only $108 when you're selling others for as much as $3000, which do you think I'll choose? So you either have to raise the prices on your smallest works or lower them on your largest works. How much or how little you decide to raise or lower them is a subjective decision rather than an objective or formula-based one. So again, why bother with the formula in the first place?

Lastly, there's the method of determining price by some combination of length and width (in other words, the art's perimeter), usually adding the two together, and then multiplying the total by a per-linear-inch price that you (subjectively) decide your art is worth. This is unquestionably the dumbest way ever invented to price art. To illustrate this, let's take two works of art, one that measures 10 by 20 inches, and the other, 40 by 50 inches. By area (length times width), the large one is ten times the size of the small one (200 vs 2000 square inches). But if you price based on some combination of length plus width (perimeter), the sum of the two dimensions for the large one is only three times the total of the sum for the small one (30 vs 90 linear inches). So let's say you charge $10 per linear inch. Doing the math, that makes the 10 by 20 piece $300, and the 40 by 50 piece $900. So if I can buy a larger painting that's ten times the size by area of a smaller painting for only three times the price, which do you think I'll take? Pretty easy answer-- the large one. Other than this ridiculous formula, what possible justification can there be for pricing a painting that's ten times the size by area of smaller one only three times as much? Your guess is as good as mine.

The moral of the story? Determining art prices is ultimately subjective even though objective characteristics such as size may be involved. Too many unquantifiable variables, many of which have been mentioned above, must be taken into consideration when setting final asking prices. So forget the formulas and price the old-fashioned way-- by evaluating and pricing each work of art individually, and based on its own qualities, characteristics, and merits. In case you're interested, you can learn plenty about how to price your art the right way by visiting Everything Any Artist Needs to Know About How to Price Their Art.

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Do you wonder whether your art pricing makes sense? Well wonder no more because I do price consults with artists all the time (most cost only $75). Not only do I give you reasonable prices your art, but even more importantly, I tell you how to explain those prices to potential buyers in language they can understand and appreciate. People who see the value in your work and believe it's worth what they're paying for it buy more art than people who don't. And that's a fact. All you have to do to make an appointment is call me at 415.931.7875 or email alanbamberger@me.com.

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(art by Mariam Böhm)

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