The compensation question

Artists get asked for free work constantly. Only do it if you want to support the organization, because there’s no business advantage for you.
Glade, by Carol L. Douglas, watercolor on Yupo.

Where are you in this story?

When I first started working as a photographer, I was doing so many jobs for free. Nobody would pay me, but they’d offer dinner. Or drinks. Or publicity. Or experience. Or connections. Or insight. Even though I felt like my work was worth more, I never thought I was in a position to negotiate. I’d become so small when discussing compensation. I’d shrink. I needed everyone to like me. I assumed that if people liked me, they’d respect me. They’d treat me with dignity. They’d value my work. And they’d eventually pay me for it. But instead—they kept asking me back without pay. I think it’s so hard for creators to get out of that cycle, but my mom gave me the best line to use: ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t afford to do that for free.’ I still do free gigs, but only on my terms. Only if they provide value beyond a person’s gratitude. I’m never aggressive or mean. But I’m clear. I’m not sure what I’m worth to them. But I know what I’m worth to myself. And I want it put in writing. I’m still nice about it. I’m still polite. But I’m more dominant. Well, maybe not dominant. Actually, I will say dominant. You can still be dominant and nice.” (Humans of New York)
Every creator has found themselves running through this arc. Photographers and musicians get asked to perform for free, and painters get asked to donate work for fundraisers. It’s a great way to help the world, but it delivers absolutely no business advantage to you.
Glen Cove, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvas
If I like the organization, I’ll still send a painting, but I’ve also noticed that unless the organization is arts-based, my work often sells for a fraction of its real value. The non-art audience thinks they’re buying the equivalent of décor, and bids accordingly.
For several years, I sent a customized piece to a fisheries-conservation group I really like. My donations consistently sold for about a tenth of their open-market value. Finally, I realized I could help more efficiently by just sending a check.
The Dugs, Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard
That’s especially true because of an anomaly in our tax code. My cash donation is completely deductible; my painting donation is not. If I were to donate a painting by another artist, I could take a deduction (with certain limitations), but not for my own work. So, never donate work thinking you’re getting a tax deduction, because you’re not.
At the beginning of our careers, we usually don’t know how much our work is worth. The donation-auction can help create some kind of selling history. But setting your prices based on charity auction prices will keep them artificially low. You’re better off to set them using a repeatable formula.
Adirondack Spring, Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard. This is going to be auctioned to support the Gerhardt Neighborhood Outreach Center in Rochester, NY, on October 17.
Having said all that, I have a piece going up for auction to support the Gerhardt Neighborhood Outreach Center in Rochester, NY on October 17. This group provides a medical clinic, help with new babies, holiday baskets and backpacks for kids, transitional housing for women, counseling, vocational training, and a food pantry in one of the city’s bleaker neighborhoods. I’m happy to send them a painting, because I care about their work. If you want to know more about this event, contact Annie Canon here or at 585-288-0030.

Monday Morning Art School: Pricing your work

For some artists, the hardest thing in painting isn’t drawing or color-mixing but how to price their work. Charge by the square inch, of course.
Keuka Lake Vineyard, 30X40 by Carol L. Douglas, is available through Kelpie Gallery

A proper price is the meeting point between how much you can produce of the product and how much demand there is for it. If you can’t keep your paintings stocked, you’re charging too little. If your studio is full of unsold work, you’re either charging too much or not putting enough effort into marketing. Your job is to find that sweet spot.

Art sales are regional. If you live in a community with an aging population and a prestigious art school, you’re going to have low demand and high supply. If you live in a booming new city, you will have more demand and prices will be higher.
Art is not strictly a commodity, however. A painting’s value depends on the artist’s prominence. Most artists are terrible judges of their own work, seesawing between believing they’re geniuses and thinking they’re hopeless. Such subjective judgments hinder their ability to price their work.
Art festivals are a good way to establish a price history. I don’t miss them, however.
Don’t assume that because you labored for a long time over a piece, it is more valuable. Your challenges are not the buyers’ problem.
You can simplify the problem by setting aside your emotions and basing your selling price on the size of the piece and your selling history. How do you do that if you’ve never sold anything before? Survey other artists with the same level of experience and set your first prices in line with theirs. Visit galleries, plein air events and art fairs. If you see a person whose work seems similar to yours, find his resume online and check his experience. Know enough to be able to rank events. Painting in Plein Air Easton is not the same as painting your local Paint the Town.
Charitable auctions are a good way to leverage your talent to help others. They provide a sales history to new artists. (But they aren’t tax deductible contributions.)
Striping (Heritage) 6X8, by Carol L. Douglas, is available through Camden Falls Gallery.
Let’s say you gave an 8X10 watercolor of the Old Red Mill to your local historical society, which turned around and sold it for $100. Great! You have a sales history (albeit a limited and imperfect one) from which to calculate prices. Just figure out the value per square inch and calculate from there.
Square inch is the height times the width. That means your 8X10 painting is 80 square inches. Dividing the $100 selling price by 80 gives you a value of $1.25/square inch.
To use this to calculate other sizes, you would end up with:
6X8 is 48 square inches. 48 X $1.25 = $60
9X12: $135
11X14: $240
12X16: $315
In practice, my price/sq. inch gets lower the larger I go. This reflects my working and marketing costs, some of which are fixed. If you started with my example, above, a 3X4” painting would more reasonably sell for $3 a square inch or $36, and a 48X48” painting for $.75 a square inch, or $1700. But that sweet spot between 6X8 and 16X20 are a fixed cost/inch, rounded off for convenience.
My price list is on Google Drive and I can access it wherever there’s phone service.
Charity sales are known for seriously underpricing work, but it’s better to start low and work your way higher. Periodically review your prices, and make sure you have a copy with you at all times, because people will ask you about paintings at the strangest times. I keep mine on a Google sheet I can refer to from computer or phone.
Once you have a price guide, it should be absolute. I adjust it slightly for family members (or more likely just give them the painting), but I use the same price structure in events and galleries.
You should continuously update your prices based on your average sale prices for the prior year or two. The goal of every artist ought to be to sell at constantly rising prices. When you find yourself “painting on a treadmill” to have enough work for your next show, it’s definitely time to charge more. Each time you show, your work will be better known, and over time your prices will rise.
The marketplace favors fair, consistent pricing. I charge the same amount everywhere I sell. I don’t want to undercut my galleries.
And I don’t explain my prices, for the most part. Does anyone ever tell Christian Louboutin that $995 is a bit much for a pair of platform suede pumps? No; they either understand Louboutin’s market or they don’t buy designer shoes.

This post originally appeared on December 18, 2017. How quickly a vacation rolls past! Have a happy New Year, and I’ll see you again on Wednesday.

How professional artists structure their businesses.

While hundreds read the post, only a small handful answered the questions. Their answers are still fascinating.

Last week, I asked professional artists to tell a young painter from Alabama, Cat Pope, how they organize their business.

This is the first survey I’ve ever written. It was very easy to produce, but there are things I should have asked differently. If you haven’t taken it yet, you can still go to the link here. The results mostly speak for themselves; I’ve just added a few parenthetical notes.

The respondents were heavily slanted to the northeast. Would artists from other parts of the country have answered differently? What about Canadian painters?

How hard, I wonder, is it to keep more than 3 galleries supplied with work? I should have also asked about other spaces like coffee shops, restaurants, or hotels.

This next chart represents some serious online work, even for people who aren’t direct-selling through websites.

I feel the frustration of wearing all the hats, all the time. Apparently, I’m not alone. A lot of us put a lot of soul into the ‘sole proprietorship’ idea.

The following was a badly-designed question. I should have given respondents the opportunity to answer “none.” 40% of respondents skipped it entirely, which makes “none” the second-largest category.

 Another missed opportunity. Why didn’t I ask about annual sales goals?

I included this last question because artists are always being asked to “showcase their work” in charity auctions, yet it’s not a deductible donation for us. When we see that work being sold for a fraction of its gallery price, we think it would be easier to just write a check.

Professional artists, please take this survey

A young Alabama artist wants to ask you some questions. Help a girl out, would you?
American Eagle in Drydock, by Carol L. Douglas

Cat Pope is a young artist in Mobile Alabama who is serious about building a sustainable art business. She planned a trip to visit an established artist in her community, and shared her questions with me beforehand.

Why limit this to one artist’s experience? Drawing from her list, I created a short survey, which you can access here:
If you are a professional artist and can complete this, that’s great. If you can forward it to your working-artist friends, that’s even better.
What am I going to do with this data? Why, share it with you, of course.
It can’t be all brushwork and happiness…
Here are more of Cat’s questions, which I’ve answered from my experience. If you have any advice you want to share with her, just write a comment here (not on Facebook) where she’ll see it.
How often do you replenish stock at a gallery? When I finish a new piece that is appropriate to a gallery, I approach the gallerist with it. Paintings take a long time to sell. Be patient.
How do you ship work? Small works, by USPS. Large works, through a dedicated local shipping company that makes the crate for me.
A shipping crate from back when I used to make my own.
Do you provide the gallery with your own contract, or rely on theirs? In Maine, things are pretty informal. I read their contract and ask questions and make annotations if necessary.
How often do you increase your prices, and by how much? Every few years. I survey the competition and my galleries for advice.
Do you ever offer discounts for repeat customers? Of course.
What made you choose your art market? I like the tradition of plein air painting on the Maine coast, and it’s a market with a history of making and buying landscape paintings.
Barnum Brook, by Carol L. Douglas, is located in the Adirondacks, which I still consider as part of my regional market.
What percentage of your time is spent creating work? Office duties? I shoot for a 50-50 division of time between painting and promotion.
How many off days do you take in a week for family and personal time? I try to work five days a week. In the summer, that’s impossible, but I remember that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
What advice would you tell young professionals who want to build a fine arts business, specifically in original paintings? Be serious—as you are—about a business plan up front. Frederic Edwin Church was from a very successful family. Their wealth enabled him to pursue an art career. In turn, he was expected to be business-like about it. It was his skill in business and promotion, as much as his prodigious talent, that made him the legend he is today. 

Monday Morning Art School: How to price your work

For some artists, the hardest thing in painting isn’t drawing or color-mixing but how to price their work. Charge by the square inch, of course.

Keuka Lake Vineyard, 30X40 by Carol L. Douglas, is available through Kelpie Gallery

A proper price is the meeting point between how much you can produce of the product and how much demand there is for it. If you can’t keep your paintings stocked, you’re charging too little. If your studio is full of unsold work, you’re either charging too much or not putting enough effort into marketing. Your job is to find that sweet spot.

Art sales are regional. If you live in a community with an aging population and a prestigious art school, you’re going to have low demand and high supply. If you live in a booming new city, you will have more demand and prices will be higher.
Art is not strictly a commodity, however. A painting’s value depends on the artist’s prominence. Most artists are terrible judges of their own work, seesawing between believing they’re geniuses and thinking they’re hopeless. Such subjective judgments hinder their ability to price their work.
Art festivals are a good way to establish a price history. I don’t miss them, however.
Don’t assume that because you labored for a long time over a piece, it is more valuable. Your challenges are not the buyers’ problem.
You can simplify the problem by setting aside your emotions and basing your selling price on the size of the piece and your selling history. How do you do that if you’ve never sold anything before? Survey other artists with the same level of experience and set your first prices in line with theirs. Visit galleries, plein airevents and art fairs. If you see a person whose work seems similar to yours, find his resume online and check his experience. Know enough to be able to rank events. Painting in Plein Air Easton is not the same as painting your local Paint the Town.
Charitable auctions are a good way to leverage your talent to help others. They provide a sales history to new artists. (But they aren’t tax deductible contributions.)
Striping (Heritage) 6X8, by Carol L. Douglas, is available through Camden Falls Gallery.
Let’s say you gave an 8X10 watercolor of the Old Red Mill to your local historical society, which turned around and sold it for $100. Great! You have a sales history (albeit a limited and imperfect one) from which to calculate prices. Just figure out the value per square inch and calculate from there.
Square inch is the height times the width. That means your 8X10 painting is 80 square inches. Dividing the $100 selling price by 80 gives you a value of $1.25/square inch.
To use this to calculate other sizes, you would end up with:
6X8 is 48 square inches. 48 X $1.25 = $60
9X12: $135
11X14: $240
12X16: $315
In practice, my price/sq. inch gets lower the larger I go. This reflects my working and marketing costs, some of which are fixed. If you started with my example, above, a 3X4” painting would more reasonably sell for $3 a square inch or $36, and a 48X48” painting for $.75 a square inch, or $1700. But that sweet spot between 6X8 and 16X20 are a fixed cost/inch, rounded off for convenience.
My price list is on Google Drive and I can access it wherever there’s phone service.
Charity sales are known for seriously underpricing work, but it’s better to start low and work your way higher. Periodically review your prices, and make sure you have a copy with you at all times, because people will ask you about paintings at the strangest times. I keep mine on a Google sheet I can refer to from computer or phone.
Once you have a price guide, it should be absolute. I adjust it slightly for family members (or more likely just give them the painting), but I use the same price structure in events and galleries.
You should continuously update your prices based on your average sale prices for the prior year or two. The goal of every artist ought to be to sell at constantly rising prices. When you find yourself “painting on a treadmill” to have enough work for your next show, it’s definitely time to charge more. Each time you show, your work will be better known, and over time your prices will rise.
The marketplace favors fair, consistent pricing. I charge the same amount everywhere I sell. I don’t want to undercut my galleries.
And I don’t explain my prices, for the most part. Does anyone ever tell Christian Louboutin that $995 is a bit much for a pair of platform suede pumps? No; they either understand Louboutin’s market or they don’t buy designer shoes.

Should you lower your prices?

Basic economic laws shape the art market. That doesn’t mean lower prices make for more sales.

Dead Wood, by Carol L. Douglas

Yesterday a reader sent me this, which says that if demand for your work is modest, you should lower your prices. I am not an art appraiser like Alan Bamberger, just an artist who makes and sells art. But my own experience tells me otherwise.

Bamberger bases his argument on something known in economics as the ‘supply relationship.’ This refers to the correlation between price and how much of a good or service is supplied to the marketplace.
The higher the price of something, the less demand there will be. As its price goes up, so does the opportunity cost. The consumer elects to do something else with his or her money.
More work than they bargained for (Isaac H. Evans) by Carol L. Douglas
At the same time, producers make more of things when they can get a higher price for them. There is a point at which it is no longer cost-effective to produce a product for market, and producers go offline.
At some point, supply and demand meet. This is called the equilibrium point. Suppliers are selling everything they produce and consumers are getting everything they demand. In truth, capitalism is a little messier than that, and the market constantly pushes prices around—upward when there’s more demand, down when there’s little demand.
All flesh is as grass, by Carol L. Douglas
A great example of this is the lowly tomato. Back in Rochester, NY, where they are plentiful, I used to buy a basket of them for $2. Yesterday a friend bought a single tomato for the same price. Tomatoes are hard to grow in Maine. The lack of supply drives up the price.
That’s classic economic theory and it’s amply borne out in goods and services marketing—in things like gasoline, Ford F-150s, child care, etc. It is not necessarily true in luxury goods. There, the matter of perceived value mucks things up. Unlike tomatoes, paintings have no easily-quantified value. The price set for them is purely subjective. The late Thomas Kinkade is an unfortunate example of this.
In some art forms, supply is inherently limited by the time and skill of the makers. This question has been resolved in some areas of art. Music and photography, for example, can be reproduced infinitely. It hasn’t been solved in painting. I will make a finite number of paintings in my lifetime. When I’m gone, that will be it.
Packing oakum (Isaac H. Evans), by Carol L. Douglas
That doesn’t make artists immune to larger economic forces. In fact, as a luxury good, painting is the first thing people cut back on in hard times.
My prices were set in collaboration with a gallerist who sells my work. She knows the market and where I fit in. I keep them consistent across venues. Most professional artists do the same.
An artist may make work that is beautifully executed and explores the art questions of its time and place. It still may not be monetarily valuable because he or she hasn’t shown it where buyers congregate.
As my friend Bobbi Heath likes to say, if you’re not selling paintings, it’s because not enough people are seeing them. Don’t lower your prices; don’t be down on yourself as a failure. Just work to be seen in more places.

Selling: Pricing (Part 3 of 3)

Keuka Lake Vineyard, 40X30, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas. Priced by the square inch, of course.
This week I’m writing about N., who is a retiree now painting full time. She wants to sell paintings but doesn’t want to be a full-time businessperson. 
The last question N. has to answer is whether she’s pricing her work competitively.
Do you remember our old friend from high school economics, the supply curve? It taught us that pricing is the result of how much supply and demand there is for a product. Where those things meet, there’s what’s called the equilibrium price.
 
Art has regional markets. If you live in a community with an aging population and a prestigious art school, you’re going to have low demand and high supply. That will keep prices low. If you live in a booming new city, you will have more demand and prices will be higher.
Art is not strictly a commodity, however. It has a strong subjective element to its pricing. How valuable a piece of work is depends on how prominent its painter is. One hopes that correlates in some way to quality, but the life and times of Thomas Kinkade teach us that isn’t always so.
Letchworth Lower Falls at High Water, 18X24, by Carol L. Douglas.
I’ve addressed the mechanics of pricing in detail, here. I originally wrote that post for a student who was in a similar position to N.. She ignored my advice entirely, to great success. At a recent solo show, she priced her paintings absurdly low. She sold four paintings. She didn’t make a fortune, but she did earn enough to resupply her paint box for a year, and she doesn’t have a hangover of old work lying around the house.
Letchworth Middle and Upper Falls, 18X24, by Carol L. Douglas
Not that I advise that. Often people think there’s something suspicious about your work being too cheap. They’re right to think that, just as they’re right to suspect the Christian Louboutin clutch they saw on Canal Street might not be the real deal.

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How much should I charge for that painting, anyway?

Ah, art fairs… I do miss you at times.

Charge by the inch, of course.  (I’m not kidding.)

This is the most emotionally-fraught question I hear from beginning painters. You can simplify the issue greatly by setting aside your emotional involvement with your art and basing your selling price on the size of the piece and your selling history.
If you’ve never sold anything before, there is no way to deduce a selling history: only the market can do that. But most beginners price their work too cheaply. That can actually hinder sales. Nobody else is going to value what you don’t value yourself.
Survey other artists with the same level of experience and set your first prices in line with theirs. Experience and competence are not synonymous. Most artists are terrible judges of their own work, seesawing between believing they’re geniuses and believing they’re hopeless. Such a subjective judgment should never guide pricing.
It’s not just brushwork that sets market price. Check out the regional market in which your competitors are selling, their affiliations, and their history of shows and sales. Be honest with yourself. Thomas Kinkead may have been a lousy painter, but his canvases are worth many times what mine are. He was an extremely talented marketer who created a nationwide niche for his work.
I believe in giving paintings to non-profits for their charitable auctions. It’s a good way to leverage your talent to help others. It gives exposure and a sales history, and if you err in the pricing, it’s not a fatal mistake. (But don’t do it for a tax deduction; these donations are generally not deductible.)
Whether selling in a gallery or at a festival, the principles of pricing remain the same.
Once you’ve sold something—to a friend or family member, or at a charitable auction—you have a sales history, albeit an imperfect one.  From this, you can extrapolate a pricing structure.
Let’s say you gave an 8X10 watercolor of the Old Red Mill to your local historical society, which turned around and sold it for $100. Great! You have a sales history (albeit an imperfect one) from which to calculate prices. Just figure out the value per square inch and calculate from there.
Knowing that many artists are arithmetic impaired, I’m going to spell this out for you. Square inches=height times width, so your 8X10 painting is 80 square inches. Dividing the $100 selling price by 80 gives you a value of $1.25/square inch.
So to use this to calculate other sizes, you’d end up with:
6X8: $60
9X12: $135
11X14: $240
12X16: $315
Now, on the edges, I might adjust a little, since charging $15 for a 3X4 painting would be absurd, and charging $1500 for a 30X40 would surpass what anyone would pay for an untried painter.  But it’s a formula I’ve used successfully for years. Framing costs scale up and down in the same way, and the bigger the painting, the more work it generally represents (unless you’re playing games and your large canvas is merely a schmear).
I would not set my prices in stone on the basis of one sale, of course. In fact, I never set my prices in stone. You should continuously update your prices based on your average sale prices for the prior year or two. The goal of every artist ought to be to sell at constantly rising prices. The last five years have played havoc with this, but when you find yourself “painting on a treadmill” to have enough work for your next show, it’s definitely time to charge more. Each time you show, your work will be better known, and over time your prices will rise.
When I first started painting, I used to factor in two things I’ve since learned are totally irrelevant: how much time I’d spent, and how good I thought it was. Frequently I’ll struggle with a canvas for months, working out a problem I don’t even know I have, and the next painting will be faster, fresher, and more successful. You’ll also eventually realize you’re not the best judge of your own work. The work you think is brilliant may ring nobody else’s bells, while the painting you considered tossing may actually sell very quickly.

August and September are sold out for my workshop at Lakewatch Manor in Rockland, ME.  Join us in June, July and October, but please hurry! Check here for more information.