As an artist and someone working in the creative industry, I often hear the complaint that pieces of art for sale are very expensive to buy. We wonder why on earth this bit of paper costs that more than a flat screen television, or how someone can put a figure on the price of an oil painting in the first place. This is a very difficult topic, especially since art is often perceived as a decorative item as opposed to something which usually goes much deeper. However, from the perspective of art being a decorative item, we can still learn as to why artists charge so much for their product in comparison to that floor lamp you’ve had your eye on.
Essentially, to understand why art often carries a large price tag, you have to view the artist as someone who provides a service, similar to a plumber or a financial advisor. Much like helping you fit a shower unit or advising you on your mortgage, the artist has a certain set of skills which you want to use to benefit your life, and their rates depend on a multitude of factors which relate to this.
I’ve listed below some of the things which go into an artwork and contribute to its value…
Starting from the basics, to create each piece of work requires materials and tools to put it together. These need to be accounted for before the piece is priced.
An oil painting, for example, will need a canvas, paint, terps, linseed oil, brushes and other materials that the artist may use. Material costs can add up quite dramatically, and before you know if you’ve spent your weekly budget in the Range!
Time is the most precious resource that anyone has, including artists, and often they will use this as a measure to determine the price of their pieces. The more experienced an artist is, the more value they often give to their time because they understand this relationship better, but also may have a greater number of other responsibilities or commissions to juggle.
A piece of artwork is often seen as an individual item, however behind every piece of artwork there are many, many years of training and practise. This usually includes college, further education, and / or thousands of hours of personal development to refine their skills in their specific medium. (Just imagine what University costs alone!)
So when you are buying an artwork, you are not just buying the physical drawing or painting but also the expertise that the artist has developed over a long period of time which gives them the skills necessary to make your piece in the first place.
Earning a living
Most commissioning artists don’t earn a living from their work alone – but we can safely assume that the ideal situation would be for them to make a living from their creative projects if they could. In any case, the artist wants to be able to sell their work at a fair rate which is appropriate to an average wage.
If you imagine a very modest wage of £15’000 a year, that would mean that they would have to sell £1’250 worth of artwork each month. If the artist is selling their work for £125 each time, that means they have to make and sell a whopping 10 artworks in 4 weeks! Therefore, providing that the artist is not a machine, the price of the artwork needs to be much higher in order for them to earn a reasonable living wage from the pieces they do make.
Another reason why individual pieces of work are high is that – however skilled and well known the artist may be – that will never sell all of their work, or even the majority of it. A lot of what an artist makes is either to develop their skills, or is created to put in the market place but never gets bought. If you factor all the time and resources that an artist will put into all the pieces they don’t sell, the pieces that they do gain value in order to compensate for this.
Presentation and transportation
If an artist sells their work framed, or exhibits their work in gallery spaces, they will need to factor mounting and framing into their costs too. They will also need to account for the costs of delivering the pieces to its new home, which can be very expensive for large or heavy items, and for sending overseas.
When you come across an artwork in a gallery or magazine, you may see the price and naturally think that the artist is being a bit greedy. However it is worth remembering that the price that you see will not be the amount that the artist receives for their piece.
When submitting their work for an opportunity to be showcased online, enter a competition, apply for an award or have their work in an exhibition, artists are usually required to pay an entry fee. This fee varies depending on the quality of the opportunity and can range from a few pounds to £50 or £100.
On top of this, when a piece is sold, the gallery or curator will take a commission from the overall price to cover their time and effort in creating the exhibition. Usually this is between 20 and 50% depending again on the type of opportunity.
Don’t forget like all law abiding citizens, artists need to pay their taxes! So factor in that about 20% of profit from each artwork sale (excluding costs of materials) goes back to the taxman.
When considering buying an artwork, it is important to remember that you are not buying a normal decoration, like a standing lamp or a cushion, nor are you buying a throw away commodity like a phone case which deteriorates and is replaced over time. What you are taking ownership of is something completely unique. It had been made by hand and no-one else in the world will own anything like it. This makes it not only valuable to begin with, but gives it the potential to gain value with age.
The thing to take away from this article is that a lot goes into creating artwork that contributes to the cost of their piece. If an artist was to factor all of this into their prices, no one would be able to afford them! When you buy or commission artwork from an emerging or professional artist, you are always getting an extremely good deal which is much less than the real value of the work.
Although you are not buying something that will heat your shower or solve your money problems, you are investing in something unique, which you desire, which will not only benefit your living space but is also a great investment that increases in value over time. Plus, you will be feeding the starving artist – how kind of you!
Thanks for reading.