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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Carlos

The Money Trap

Updated: Jan 10, 2019

It’s so easy to accept painting commissions even if it is not your style when you need to earn. Tragically, being an artist is synonymous to being poor. But you need not be a beggar nor be a peddler of your artworks on the street. You also cannot be an absolute idealist and live off your principles as an artist. If you want to make money from your art, no matter how daunting, perhaps it's time to rethink your goals as an artist as well as a business-minded person.

An illustration of a toy cash register with flowers sprouting from the top

No Charity Work

Many times I have been asked to make artworks for the price of peanuts even for nothing. Because I was starting, I agreed to it hoping that it could help me get exposure or it would buy me that set of professional paints I’ve been wanting to have. Obviously it didn’t. Because who commissioned me? Family, relatives and friends, who clearly just wanted a nice picture on their wall and lucky them they have an artist for a friend!

Well, unless they will seriously market your artwork for a hug or a handshake, too, then forget exposure! It will not pay the bills nor the materials you used for making that piece. Also, how much time did you spend researching, conceptualizing and painting again?

What newbie artists fail to practice is that we should never work for free. But we are generally nice people and we love our work so much that we find satisfaction in the most simple compliment we receive. Who will take you and your work seriously then?

I’m sure you love your friends, and you are glad that they adore your work of art or at least boost your confidence, but making art also consumes time, expensive materials and a lot of brain work paired with that deep passion. It’s exhausting! Ask them to buy you lunch, or pay for the materials at least or better, let them ask how much you would be willing to take. Sure you can negotiate—after all you’ve known each other for a long time. It’s only fair.

No Magic Formula

Believe me, I am figuring out my pricing as well. Since I have announced to the world that I’ve decided to be a full time artist, I’ve been receiving many queries about painting commissions. My advice: figure out your rates first before showing off your latest obra maestra.

My husband, who is quite knowledgeable in the purchasing and logistics department, made me an excel sheet to set a pricing for my artworks. The basic formula is materials plus total labor hours (hourly rate x hours of labor) plus a mark-up rate equals to the price of the painting. You decide how much you want to charge per hour and how long you think it will take you to finish the painting excluding coffee breaks and procrastination. At the beginning I thought that the resulting prices were so expensive and that no one will pay for that amount especially to an unknown artist. So I reviewed it again, made some adjustments and played around with the entries, and I realized, the price for the materials is irrelevant compared to the amount of time spent working on a piece.

The basic formula is materials plus total labor hours (hourly rate x hours of labor) plus a mark-up rate equals to the price of the painting.

How much hours you will labor on an artwork depends entirely on you. Perhaps it may help if you look at your other similar works and assess the amount of time spent on that. The truth is there is no winning formula. The point however is never sell yourself short. I once asked an artist why the price of her hyperrealistic miniature painting, about 15 square cm, was three times or so more expensive than the ones on canvas. She said it was because she spent more time working on the smaller paintings to get the right details than those of the bigger ones. Time and effort is key, people!

If you’d rather sniff on a calculator, another solution is to give a price that is comfortable for you. Make a mental note of a base price and work from there while keeping in mind never to go below that amount. Others factor in their monthly expenses and make it a point never to go below that.

When I decided to go freelance as a colorist, a veteran colorist who has been working in the business for decades also advised to price a project depending on how much you want to make it. Just be reasonable.

Remember Andy

There is dignity in saying no, if you feel you cannot reach to an agreement with your client. It only means that this job is not for you. It also means that they are also not that serious about purchasing from you.

Until you find your niche or a loyal following, you will be rejected many times. Sadly popularity on social media has become a guage of marketability by many prospect clients and likewise art curators. Surely you knew this prior to leaping into this profession—that is if you want to make a business out of your art.

Andy Warhol said, “Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make more art.”

Send your work out in the world and let it fly or even burn. Just remember that while you were making it, you had fun and it was worth something.

Colorful handwritten quote from Andy Warhol
Wisdom from Warhol


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