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5 Art Pricing Lessons I Learned the Hard Way

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Long time readers of TAA know today's guest poster, Melissa Dinwiddie. She's one smart cookie, and happens to be my partner in ArtEmpowers. Melissa has written here at TAA about how her art career almost destroyed her happiness, and has been mentioned as one of my 7 favorite art bloggers.

Recently an artist emailed me and told me that there was essentially no way that a person can draw pictures and sell them on the Internet for a significant sum of money. In response, I'd encourage you to read this post, and then check out Melissa's website. I completely love this post, and every artist should pay attention.

Do you struggle with pricing your work? I sure do, and most artists I know have the same problem.

In my many years of selling my artwork (and selling my teaching, consulting, music performances, and a whole lot more, as well), I've had to learn how to set my prices the hard way. I wish I knew then what I know now!

In the hopes that you don't have to go through what I did, I'd like to share with you five of the most important lessons I've learned about pricing. This is in no way a definitive guide, and I don't have a simple one-size-fits-all formula to offer you (sorry!), but hopefully these tips will be helpful.

Important Pricing Lesson #1: If you're feeling resentment toward your clients or customers, it's a good bet you need to raise your prices.

When I first started out, like many artists, I woefully undercharged for my work.

Being woefully underpaid leads to feeling woefully undervalued, and, sooner or later, resentful. In the middle of executing my third ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) commission (which took 106 hours to create, and for I ended up earning not much more than minimum wage), I felt so resentful of the lovely and delightful young couple I was creating the piece for that I came a hair's breath away from never accepting another ketubah commission.

Resentment will do that.

Thankfully, I realized that what I needed was not to quit; what I needed was to raise my prices! Which I immediately did.

From that moment on, I used resentment as a reliable gauge to tell me when I was charging too little.

My advice: at a minimum, you should set your prices so that if someone buys from you, you feel well paid, and there isn't even a glimmer of resentment.

Important Pricing Lesson #2: Nothing good comes from getting defensive about your pricing.

Sometime after learning the lesson above, I met with a couple in my living room for a consultation about a possible ketubah commission.

They flipped through my portfolio and raved about my work, pointing out specific elements of previous pieces that they liked and telling me the images and colors they wanted incorporated into their own ketubah. I drew a few rough concept sketches, I gave them a price estimate, and after some discussion about timing, they wrote me a deposit check for 1/3 of the estimate.

A few days later the bride-to-be called. "We really love your work," she said, "but my friends are telling me it's too expensive. I can get a ketubah from another artist a lot cheaper."

SMACK. SUCKER-PUNCH MOMENT.

Can you say "flustered?" Can you say "buttons pushed?" That would be me right then.

What I wish I'd said is, "If you like what I do, this is what I charge. If you don't want to pay that, you don't have to buy it."

Instead, I blathered defensively about how much time a ketubah takes me to create, trying to explain and defend my pricing, feeling worse with every word that fell out of my mouth. (Although to my credit, I did not offer to lower the price!)

Oh, it was ugly. And painful. One of those moments in which you wish you could hit rewind, delete, and start all over. Like that.

If you like what I do, this is what I charge. If you don't want to pay it, you don't have to buy it. Period.

When someone challenges your pricing, your impulse may be to want to justify why you charge what you do. (If so, you're not alone! I still struggle with this!)

But you know what? None of your justifications are relevant. All that's relevant is this:

If you like what I do, this is what I charge. If you don't want to pay it, you don't have to buy it. Period.

Practice this one, and have it at the ready the next someone tells you you're charging too much.

Important Pricing Lesson #3: Some money is too expensive.

When I was trying to justify and explain the price estimate for that couple's ketubah, I felt icky in a weak, whiny, victimy sort of way. And if my intention had been to salvage the sale, it totally backfired.

Now that I felt all disrespected and wimpy, there was no way I could work for this client.

Of course, it's unlikely I would have wanted to work for them anyway — it's very unpleasant to work for a client who doesn't value what you do. Plus they usually make the biggest PITA (Pain In The Ass) clients.

Clients are PITA clients when they don't value your work, when they treat you like a servant or are just generally rude, when they don't get back to you in a timely fashion (and so force you to finish their project in a rush!), when they're overly demanding…

I've learned from hard experience that working for PITA clients is never worth it. Or as an ex-boyfriend of mine liked to say, "Some money is too expensive." Learn to say no and look for "less expensive" money (ie, customers and clients who are a pleasure to work with and sell to).

Important Pricing Lesson #4: State your price, then shut up!

Once I met with a couple who'd flown all the way from the east coast to meet with me about creating a ketubah for their anniversary.

I knew the extremely detailed design they wanted me to create would be incredibly time-consuming, probably more so than any ketubah I'd ever made. I had been continually raising my prices, little by little, but the amount I knew I'd have to charge in order to not feel resentful was more than I'd ever made on any single piece! I really wanted this commission, but I was afraid the clients would balk if I quoted a price that would really pay me for my time. (The fact that they flew from the other side of the country to meet with me should have given me a clue to how much they were willing to pay, but as I said, I'd never charged that much before, so I had no experience of anyone being willing to pay it.)

I stole some time by telling the couple that what they were looking for was at [what was then] the "high end" of my price range.

"So, um," I stumbled ahead, "That would amount to, um, about, um, $5,000…"

If only I had kept my mouth closed right then…

Instead, I got all nervous and freaky that they were going to totally balk on me, and before I even gave them time to respond, I watched in horror as out of my mouth came the words, "…but if that's too much for you, I can always simplify the design…"

"Bogus! Bogus!" screamed my inner voice, "The design never gets simplified in reality! Saying you can simplify the design only means you'll work just as hard for less money!"

Alas, my inner voice was too late, and I continued "…and I can make it for $4,000.. or $3,000…"

I could almost see the words flying out into the air above my dining room table, and I longed for nothing more than to grab them and stuff them back into my mouth.

But it was too late. The husband responded without batting an eye, "Well, $3,000, $4,000, $5,000 — it's all the same to me. But I'm a middle-of-the-road kind of guy, so why don't we go with the $4,000 version?"

And just like that, in a matter of seconds, I lost $1,000.

Ouch.

Whatever you do, don't talk your customer out of a sale. State your price, then shut up! Leave space for your customer to respond before you do anything else. They may surprise you. And if they're not comfortable with your price, then you can negotiate — or not — as you wish.

Important Pricing Lesson #5: If someone's willing to pay it, it's worth at least that much.

As I became more particular about whom I would work for (ie, no more PITA clients!) and how much I wanted to be paid (at least enough so that I wouldn't feel resentful!), I got more and more confident about commanding higher and higher prices.

If a project was not something I was excited about doing, I'd just charge a lot, figuring that few would be willing pay it. And if for some strange reason they did pay it, I'd feel well paid for my efforts, so it would be worth it.

Well, blow me over with a feather — sometimes somebody did pay it!

Many times I've quoted prices anticipating that a project would take me, say, 40 hours, and then completed the work in half, or even a quarter of that.

The first few times that happened I felt guilty, and almost offered to lower the price. Thankfully, I realized that the clients weren't paying me for my time. They didn't care if it took me 15 hours, 150 hours, or 1,500 hours! They were buying the piece of art that they were dreaming of owning.

To their mind, the amount that we had agreed on to begin with was what that piece of art was worth.

Which makes it that much easier to charge that much next time. If you've been charging $500 for your work but one person's happy to pay you $1,000, you can honestly say that your work is worth that much… at least to that one person. And if one person is willing to pay it, that social proof makes it easier to command that price with the next person to come along!

(This is one big reason I recommend pricing by the project or piece, rather than by the hour. It's also why it's so important to learn to find your Right People — the ones who are more than happy to pay your prices to buy what you offer. The ones who validate that yes, your work is worth what you charge.)

Summing up

So there you have it. My top 5 pricing lessons, all learned the hard way. I hope you find this helpful.

Melissa Dinwiddie is an artist, writer, performer and inspirationalist, on a mission to empower people to follow their own creative callings. She coaches and consults with individuals and groups and leads creativity workshops and retreats in inspiring locations around the world as well as online. Through her partner project with Cory Huff, ArtEmpowers.Me, Melissa helps artists to deprogram themselves of the "starving artist" mindset and learn to thrive from their art. You can find Melissa at Living A Creative Life, Playing Around Workshops, and Melissa Sings.

Cory HuffThis article is courtesy of
Cory Huff is a digital strategist specializing in helping artists learn to sell their art online. His Big Hairy Audacious Goal: help 1000 artists create a full-time living from their art. You can view more blog posts like these and get a free gift for ArtPal artists here: http://theabundantartist.com/start-here/New window