Pricing Art

APERTURE 21, acrylic on canvas, 12×9

THERE’S NO RHYME OR REASON when it comes to pricing a painting. I’ve consulted with numerous artists over the years, and there is no one-size-fits-all method of determining a painting’s value.

Artists doing highly labor-intensive, technical work may charge an hourly rate. As one put it, “I think I should be paid as much per hour as a carpenter or plumber.” 

For someone like me, who puts as much effort into my paintings away from the easel as at it, this approach won’t do. It would emphasize quantity over quality. Some of the most complicated and absorbing paintings are the simplest.

Some painters go with gut feelings about what the market will bear, while for others, high or low, price is a reflection of their self-worth. Sometimes it is a murky amalgamation of the two. Either way, it is inscrutable.

Some cede the issue to galleries, who set prices and take a generous cut for their efforts (as much as 50 percent in some cases). Not knowing that percentage and what goes into the work, the buyer cannot gauge if the artist is receiving a living wage.

Then there is the elusive, subjective nature of quality. Who has it and who doesn’t, and who decides? It’s no wonder that people inexperienced with buying art often feel intimidated, and don’t know where or how to jump in.

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THE WRECKAGE, oil on canvas, 24×18

THE PRICING METHOD I have been using was recommended by several artist friends. It uses a simple, transparent formula: charging by the square inch. If a painter values their work at $1 per inch, say, a 16×20 painting would cost $320, a 20×30 painting $600, and so on. It takes much of the guesswork out for both artist and buyer.

In consultation with others, before the pandemic I was charging $1.50 per inch. A 16×20 painting was $480, a 20×30 $900.

Yet while the pandemic continues, art is needed more than ever to help us get through it, and we must all do our part. While it’s great to be able to showcase paintings online, nothing compares to the real thing. One way I can help others now is to get my paintings in front of them, where they can be enjoyed in their actual size, smells, colors, textures, and brushstrokes. 

It’s like the difference between strawberries trucked here from California in February versus ones fresh-picked in our gardens in June. There’s no comparison. The real thing has a lot more flavor, color, aroma, and juice.

So until the pandemic ends I am adopting an even simpler pricing method: a minimum price of $200 for any painting, regardless of size. If that’s all a buyer can afford, that’s fine. If the buyer can pay more (as several generously have), I will deeply appreciate it, but I will leave it to their discretion. 

Hopefully, this will encourage inexperienced or first-time buyers to see what it is like to buy a painting without getting in over their heads. I can at least meet expenses and see more of my paintings out into the world, where they can do more good.

If $200 is more than a buyer can comfortably pay, there are other options. They can simply make me an offer, or wait until later this fall when I introduce a series of limited-edition paintings on slate salvaged from my roof after it was replaced this summer. Most of these one-of-a-kind paintings will be in the $100 range.

Framing a painting is always an option, but I paint the sides of each canvas, and I can attach a wire to the back so that the painting can be displayed without additional expense.

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BEACH HOUSE, acrylic on canvas, 12×16

IF A LACK OF CLARITY around price doesn’t discourage some from buying art, their self-doubt often kicks in. Many people think they are unqualified to judge a painting’s merits. They may simply lack the language to describe why they like a painting but are uncomfortable saying so, as if it makes them sound stupid or wrong.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Everyone is entitled to their own reaction and does not need to justify or explain it. If you can talk about a painting’s finer points or compare it to other artists, that’s great. But it’s enough that you like it, that it stirs something inside you.

Having said that, here are a few suggestions as you consider brightening your walls with fresh artwork:

SIDEWALK 2, acrylic on canvas, 16×12
  • Location, location. Where do you see the painting in your home? Consider the painting’s size and color scheme. You may have to rearrange some things to accommodate a large painting. Have an idea of where the painting will hang before you make the purchase.
  • Relax. You have lots to gain, and little to lose. A good painting is a good investment! It’s not what attracted you to it, but most paintings gain in value over time as the artist expands their reputation. At the very least, if you ever have to cash it in, you can recoup some or all of your initial investment, and you will have enjoyed it in the interim. 
  • Be flexible. Sometimes the best things result from accidents. If it doesn’t fit where you first imagined it, don’t blame the painting. Moving it to a new location could prove to be an inspiration. 
  • Know something about the artist. Everyone has a website these days (I have two: russellpowell.net and russellpowellart.com). You can see how your painting compares to others by the same artist (Who knows? You might discover ones you like even more). Reading their artist statement and bio may deepen your appreciation of the painting and give you language that you can use with others to describe it.

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SEND questions or comments to russellstevenpowell@gmail.com.

SIDEWALK, acrylic on canvas, 16×12

4 Replies to “Pricing Art”

  1. I love these “sidewalk” images! new, and playful, pandemic antidotes. With some years in building under my belt, the square foot costing approach raises some malaise, but surely, yes, bigger paintings have more in them for time, materials and creative commitment.

    Seeing this work continue is heartening and restorative, and so, for that alone, I give thanks!

    1. Thank you. There’s plenty of angst going around these days. Fortunately I have an outlet for some of mine, where the natural world prevails and the sun still shines!

  2. Many people will drop $100 for a meal, which can certainly be a work of art, but their investment is gone in a few short hours;) And who can account for taste. If you love a painting, you have it forever.

    1. Very true! And as Jonathan pointed out, the “square inch” method is not perfect. It rewards larger paintings, for one thing, regardless of how much time and effort goes into a smaller one. Oh well. I’m sticking with it for now. Suggestions welcome!

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