Wednesday, October 24, 2012

On Pricing

I visited a juried exhibition yesterday.  Most of the art was beginner level.  What caught my attention though was the pricing.  I don't know where these people got their pricing ideas, but they were consistently very high.

My art background does not include art school.  However, I was very fortunate in being introduced to art by a person who knew what he was talking about as it turned out.  His mentor was an artist trained in Montreal at L'ecole des Beaux Arts.  He was a demanding teacher who gave bits of advice that came together after quite a period of training and development.  Harold was his name.  I never met him but I was quickly introduced to his wisdom.  Harold gave some interesting advice including these two;

  • Don't be in a hurry to show.  Wait till you are ready.
  • Price by the square inch.  Start low.

He claimed most beginners start to show when their work is basic beginner.  Viewers remember this intro as the kind of capability of that artist (another danger lurks, in another post).  A reputable artist who tells you the truth can tell you if you are ready (not a face book comment).  Malcolm Gladwell would tell you that it takes a minimum of 10,000 hours on the easel with a good mentor.  That would take a long time painting once a week. 

Pricing should be by the square inch because area is proportional to value.  A buyer does not care how long the painting took, or whether you think it is wonderful.  She looks for value.  At the beginner stage the price should be low.  If every piece is selling, the price is right.  As the painter emerges the prices can go up.  At this stage the painter is able to acquire gallery representation.  Then comes mid career and finally the mature period.  These stages can not be achieved by short cuts.  You cannot paint today what you will be capable of in 5 years.  Painting every day.

My experience with mid career painters, mature artists, and gallery owners supports this pricing approach.  Robert Genn subscribes to the methodology.  By these standards much of the art at the juried show was between 3 and 10 times overpriced.

Harold's advice, second hand as it has been, has turned out to be true in every case.  It took me some years to resolve these nuggets.


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  2. Hey George, I have always disliked the square inch formula, it works ok as far as to comparing ones own work. Such as that on my last landscape I got such and such per square inch and on this I should one I should price at that PSI or above.

    And it is still probably a good method getting starting point or average cost for pricing commercial work and illustration. But with twenty years experience as a commercial artist if I had used the “Price by the square inch Start low” only it would have been bankruptcy. You have got to be paid for your time and material or you are working for free.

    I want to be paid for my time and experience not as a “housepainter”. The best way to know the price on your work is to look at comparable work. Besides who wants a client that "looks for value" I want to sell to people who look for art.

    1. Hi Jim,
      Avoiding bankruptcy is a good thing. Even my cohorts in commercial art recognize that customers will not pay for a cost plus model. Unfortunately there is competition. So, suppose two pieces are thought to be similar. Who will pay twice because one person takes twice as long as the other. The customer doesn't care. Your reputation for quality will allow you to raise prices over time. Having an approach to keep prices relative keeps you out of trouble. See Robert Genn on the subject.

  3. I'm showing and have won juried competition. I don't want to give my stuff away, either. You have to add more because the Gallery or show usually gets 30-40% off the top and any other expenses like credit card charges, etc. By the time you add your personal expenses, i.e. frame, canvas, paints, you get very little for your time.

    It's a puzzle!

    1. Agreed you don't want to give it away if you are somewhat accomplished. Once you have established a consistent price list that satisfies you, keeps dealers happy, and is appealing to buyers, you are on your way. As you gain reputation you can raise prices across your price list. The by the inch method allows you to stay consistent. You cannot charge one price at one gallery and another price at the next one because they take a different cut.