How to Set and Raise
Selling Prices for Your Art
Q: My goal is to work full-time as an artist selling my paintings. Currently, I work at an unrelated job during the day and paint at night and on weekends. Please give me some strategies for increasing my income, particularly ways I can raise my selling prices.
A: The most important point to keep in mind when figuring out how to price and sell your art, no matter what it is-- paintings, photographs, giclees, digital compositions, watercolors, sculpture, whatever-- is that you are one of countless artists out there. No matter what kind of art you make, other artists make it too. Even though in theory you have complete control over how much you charge for your art and when to give yourself a raise, you must always consider the competition.
As for the argument that your art is unique, you can say the same for every artist. Simply being unique is not a pricing strategy. You can never ignore the big picture, all the other artists out there who are selling their art right alongside you. Do that and you risk either pricing yourself out of the market to begin with, or raising your prices so often or so high or so fast without adequate justification that you lose credibility with galleries and people who buy art.
Best procedure is to let the marketplace determine your selling prices and the intervals at which they increase. For starters, figure out how much artists with similar credentials, followings, and exhibition experience to yours charge for their work. For example, if you've been painting for three years and have had four shows, see what artists with experience, resumes, online profiles, or who live and work in your region sell their paintings for. Other variables to consider are the length of time you take to paint a painting, costs of materials, and incidental expenses like framing and transportation. Using those values as a base point, experiment with offering your work at price levels in that vicinity and see what happens.
Basic marketing strategies may also help you sell more art. If you underprice the competition, for instance, your art becomes more attractive to buyers. How much you decide to underprice depends on factors like overhead, the rate at which you make art, the amount of art you make, and the rate at which you sell. In general, the less your work costs, the faster it sells; the more it costs, the slower it sells. Somewhere along that continuum are price levels that allow you to maximize your income and minimize turnover time (the time interval between completing and selling a piece of work). You decide through experimentation what those levels are.
Setting your prices lower or more affordably is recommended especially if you're just starting out. If sales are good, demand increases, and your art starts selling relatively fast or faster than you can make it, you can think about raising your prices somewhat, perhaps in the 10% - 25% range. Having to raise prices because sales are good is always better than having to lower them because you set them too high and sales are either slow or nonexistent.
As an aside, if your art takes a long time to create, or you find that it's costly to produce, you might explore ways to reduce these liabilities. I occasionally speak with artists who report taking weeks or even months to complete works of art that they can only realistically sell for hundreds or maybe low thousands of dollars each. For these artists, making livings from their art is difficult if not impossible. Add to this the additional problems they have producing large enough bodies of work to interest galleries in representing them or giving them shows. One option here is to reduce the time spent on time-consuming expensive art and figure out ways to create smaller, less complex, more affordable work. Hopefully, sales of smaller works will allow you the time and freedom to keep making the time-consuming ones, but less of them.
Once you settle on a comfortable price structure, a good point at which to raise prices is when at least half of what you produce sells within a relatively short period of time after completion, say six months or less. Another good time to think about charging more is after you have a show where at least half of your work sells. A ten to fifteen percent increase would be reasonable under such circumstances while twenty-five percent would probably pushing things a little. Sensible price increases keep your biggest fans in the game-- those who've been buying you art the longest. An important long-term objective is to steadily increase the numbers of people who buy your art.
If you raise prices too much too fast, you risk scaring off your most serious dedicated supporters, those who've been collecting your work the longest, and pricing them out of your market. Instead of continuing to support you, they'll stick with what they've got, get all giddy about how much it's gone up in value, kiss you goodbye, and search out new more affordable artists in hopes of duplicating the good fortune they had with you.
Always remember that those buyers responsible for your early sales played a big part in supporting you early on and contributed to whatever level of success you enjoy today. They stood by you when you needed support the most, so don't forget to return the favor and to keep them coming back for more. You might even think about offering your longest standing supporters special price breaks or buying opportunities from time to time. This doesn't mean you can't raise your prices, but only that you have to consider affordable options for those who love your work the most.
Some artists raise their prices a fixed amount per year, say ten to twenty percent. Arguments in favor of this practice center around offsetting increased costs of living or receiving annual raises like other working people. These are not necessarily good reasons. For one thing, employees whose job performance does not improve over time tend not to get regular raises. In fact, they may even lose their jobs. If you don't visibly improve your work, your exhibition record, and your sales volume to the point where the art community takes notice, raising your prices anyway becomes arbitrary and unjustifiable, and could jeopardize your chances for success. When you up your prices, you'd better have a good solid reason. Experienced dealers and collectors expect tangible proof that your art is actually worth more when they see prices going up.
Through all this, remember to provide different but consistent price structures for wholesale and retail buyers. In order for dealers or galleries to represent you, you have to allow them commissions they can work with. When galleries represent or show your art, you're often obligated to sell exclusively through them. If this is the case, never sell privately behind their backs. That's a sure way to damage your career. No gallery will show your art again if you get a reputation for selling privately at prices below what they're charging. In cases where galleries do allow you to sell direct, you should still charge gallery prices (or whatever prices they tell you to charge), and pay them whatever commissions the two of you agree on.
As for quitting your day job, that's a luxury few artists can afford. Hopefully you understood the level of difficulty involved in becoming a successful artist before you got involved, and haven't spent too much time over-focusing on that small percentage of artists who are fortunate enough to make art full-time. The most important thing for you now is to hang in there and just keep painting. Sooner or later, perseverance, commitment, dedication, sensible pricing, public exposure, and consistent sales will translate into recognition (and profits) as an artist-- and hopefully even more.
(art and installation by Sofie Ramos)
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