Monday, February 16, 2009

What is it worth?

Before I begin let me say that I agree with whatever method you
use. The whole discussion of fees for art is charged I know. But
let me reassure you that I know as many people who never exhibit,
or sell their work, as I do people who charge a wide variety of
prices for their artwork. Still every time I have to price a painting
I am at a loss. I try to go by a cost per size basis, but some things
that are small --12 x 12 inches say, take as much time as some larger works.
In the paper this week there was a story about a guy who's
decided to charge by the hour. I can see the look of shocked
outrage on the faces of some of my artists friends at that one.
I know lots of artists who think you sell your soul when you
paint for money, but I disagree. When Vermeer painted all
his master works, that many artists are trying desperately to
replicate today, being an artist was considered a trade, not some
other worldly craft that didn't require financial recognition.

Jan Vermeer
The Girl with the Red Hat
c. 1665-67
oil on panel
22.8 x 18 cm.
The National Gallery of Art, Washington

An interview with Maurice Sevigny that Edgar on Arty Fice published
on his blog this week, made me think about all the people who raise their
eyebrows when an artist charges a decent price for a painting.
People will readily pay thousands of dollars for a sink they'll replace
in five years, so why should the art that will grace their homes
and perhaps generations of homes for years be free? I've heard
artists in this town say that artists who paint to make a living
are somehow baser than artists who toil without thought of
earning something for their beautiful ideas.

Yet some of the best artists I know earn excellent money producing
their work. I have friends who are just too shy to either exhibit,
or sell their work, but some of the people I know
who don't worry about making money from their paintings --
don't have to because they have a great job, or they've got
family money, or a spouse who foots the bill.

The blog world is filled with people who paint at least five days
a week, and sell five days a week. I raise a glass to those artists.
The good thing about the need to produce is obvious -- you
produce. But I also realize that some larger, or more complicated
work can't just pop out like a piece of bread out of the toaster
on demand. But in answer to Edgar's question, I don't think
there's anything wrong with demand. As a portrait painter,
I get my work from people who see what I do and want it.
I don't take direction from my clients, but I do try to please
them. I try to learn as much as possible about them, and create
a painting that will reflect their character and inner spirit as
well as their appearance -- but I do it in my own artistic language.
I can't do otherwise. How do we keep our integrity as artists and
sell our work? How do we keep our integrity and do any of the
jobs we do? -- we have a passion for our subject matter, we develop
our ever changing personal mark, and we continue to learn.

My huge thanks go out to Edgar for making me think. His interviews
with Sevigny have been great -- incisive, wide ranging in ideas
and really, really good.

While we're on the topic of money a painting of Vermeer's sold
for 40 million dollars Canadian in 2004. Too bad he didn't see
that money in his lifetime. He died poor at 43 and left the world
the richness of his vision.

Have a loving-what-you're-worth day.


David Lobenberg said...

That there Vermeer dude sure could paint! Was he from New Jersey?

Barbara Muir said...

Hi David,

Yep I think so!!

Take care,


Anonymous said...

I'm right there with you, and so glad to be having a conversation about it.

Pricing is a mystery, and too often, our considerations are fear-driven, or influenced by people that don't have the artist's best interests at heart (I'm referring to gallery owners, and I'm not being snide). I just read Caroll Michel's chapter titled "Pricing work: What is it worth?" in her indispensable book, How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist

She makes a number of good points, but they are founded on two principles: 1) don't price your work below what it takes to produce it, and 2) get a feel for "market prices" by looking at what comparable work is selling for.

The first, unfortunately, is a straightforward calculation: materials + time + overhead = cost. Time includes development, pre-work and research, and its value is set by you (Say you need $50000 a year to live off of. Then your hourly rate is at least $25, full time). Overhead is an estimate of what your studio costs (rent, etc.) and other work-related expenses (utilities, storage, shipping, etc.) are per year, divided by your average number or pieces per year (or the hours you use it per year). So, this number becomes your cost, BELOW WHICH YOU WILL LOSE MONEY WORKING ON ART.

Anything you gain from sales over that number per piece is profit-- not a dirty word if you are selling your work, and not your soul.

Then take a look at the market (and not just the local market) to see what others like you are charging for work. Quality counts, in lieu of experience or notoriety. Hopefully, the market is paying more than your costs per piece (on average). But in any case, you must have enough built into the price that you will be able to pay out commissions and consignment fees, and still cover your costs.

So, you see, she does suggest considering hourly rates in pricing, but only as a way of assigning a cost to your time. Overhead can be considered as an hourly expense, too, but it can get complicated.

However, this approach skirts the central issue I think we artists can be hung up on: work that is "near and dear" to us. Some work is of such high personal importance, that this formula fails. In that case, either the 'premium' added to the cost is high enough that we feel fairly compensated for the portion of our soul that goes with the sale, or the work is simply NOT FOR SALE.

One thing I ask artists in this quandary is, "You did this once, could(n't) you do it again? If you sold this piece, could you make another for your own keeping, that you'd feel good about?"

What do you think?

Anonymous said...

Side comments:
Your point about taking commissions that allow you to paint on your own terms, without preconditions from the client, is central to retaining your artistic integrity. Good for you! But what about work that isn't commissioned specifically, when we make work that "no one asked for" -- is it actually for a market, rather than what really gives us joy? This is the dividing line of 'authenticity', and is also where artists can go afoul and "sell out."

Poor Vermeer. If only he had copyrighted his image in perpetuity, and sold, not the work itself, but a license to look at the work temporarily, and had a contract to collect royalties for his estate from each time the license is resold... Oh, wait, then he'd be a record company, not an artist.

Barbara Muir said...

Hi Edgar,

Whew! I paint to sell. That doesn't mean that while I'm painting I'm thinking about selling at all. It means that what I make is for sale. Of course I keep work that I want to keep, but most of my work is for sale.
That is how I think. I don't feel robbed, or bereft when work leaves my house. I do want to make sure it will be well cared for, and I do want a visual record of the work, but I am painting all the time -- and if someone likes what I do, and wants to pay the price I decide on, I am also delighted when the work goes from my brain, and hand and heart, to their home, or office, or
building. I know that each artist sees this differently. That's how I see it. I'm not a commercial artist, but I am an artist engaged in commerce.

So far I've been very happy with
the equation.

Love your thoughtful blog, and comments. You do get me thinking and writing.

Take care,


Liza Hirst said...

Very interesting discussion! I agree to just about everything that's been said. Meanwhile ( after having emancipated from the art school snobism) I have grown into looking upon my work as my JOB and only since then I actually paint regularly and manage to earn money with it, which at last gives me the possibility to paint as much as I like because I don't have to spend my time at another job! And the more I paint the better I get, the less difficulty I have with asking an appropriate price for it.

Portrait Artist

My photo
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
I paint and draw on commission and for shows. To commission a portrait, or purchase one of my paintings please contact me at:
A major highlight in my career? Drawing Oprah Winfrey live via Skype for her show "Where in the Skype are you? Galleries: Studio Vogue Gallery, Toronto, Canada. The Amsterdam Whitney Gallery, New York City. Gallery at the Porch Door, Kingston, Canada. Your positive comments on this blog mean the world to me. I'd love to hear from you!