The dirty little "S" word...
As artists, most of us dream of one day doing this for a living. Sure, there's that whole fantasy of "famous artist" that comes early on, but the reality sets in during early adulthood, that, fame aside, it would be pretty freaking cool to just make a living at it. Seems simple right? I mean, people always tell me I should be doing this for a living. I often answer the statement with a question: "can you tell me how I can do that?" It usually draws a blank stare, and the 'intended compliment' is rarely made again.
Fact is, I should know how to make a living at this. It's certainly not impossible, there's a lot of people doing it, and they range anywhere from, amazing artist to pretty good artist. I'm the one who went to "school" for 4 years. Alberta College of Art and Design, from 1995 to 1999. I have a Bachelor's degree in Fine Art with a major in Drawing (yeah, that's a thing). So why am I not making a living at this? Well for starters, there are a lot of reasons why. A lot of them are my own fault, like early on I had a very real fear of rejection, and an even more paralyzing fear of taking a compliment. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of not being good enough. Fear of making things I don't like. A lot of fear...and a lot of ridiculous hang ups, but for many artists, I think those hang ups and insecurities are very real things. I have had to build my confidence about my work over time. That comes more with being comfortable with myself overall though.
What I really want to talk about though is the idea of the Sell out. There is an idea that the artist inevitably tumbles down the rabbit hole of being a sell out if you succeed or sell your work. Maybe this is just a safe thing we tell ourselves as artists. Hey if I don't succeed, I can just call all successful artists sell outs. "He's only selling his work because he paints (insert popular subject matter here)" (never mind the fact that they are damn good paintings).
I think finances in general can be a very tricky subject for many people (myself included in this group). I don't seem to recall ever learning in public school, or at home: how to budget, how to plan and save, avoiding consumer debt and high interest fees, etc.
Well art school...that will teach me about finances right? Are those crickets I hear? In fact, no, art school did little or nothing to teach us about the business side of things, how to price your work, how to make a quote for a client, how to build a proposal. If anything it created a bubble safe from all of these notions, and even reinforced the idea that the business side of art was part of the "sell out notion". I don't believe the institution itself was responsible for this, but it was often a looming idea reinforced by peers.
The reality is that art school actually only taught the studio aspect of art. At least my art school did, and I can only speak to my own experience, but given that I see this theme reoccur all over the internet, I feel it is not the only school that suffered this short coming. I'm also not the first (or last) artist to ask the question "what is the value of my work?"
This is very close to my heart at the moment as I was given a great opportunity recently. I was both very anxious and excited about it. The weird thing is, while my anxiety should be coming from completing the actual project, instead, the majority of my anxiety came from "how do I quote a price". Am I quoting too much, too little. I don't want to devalue myself, but I also don't want to create an illusion of over valuing. It's an anxiety that wouldn't even be there if we just talked about money.
The first quote I came back with was definitely too low. I didn't know it yet...in fact I thought the usual "this is too high, what if they pass on me". Fortunately I was given the opportunity to make 3 pieces for the client so they could determine which of my styles they wanted to see for the project. I was fortunate to have this opportunity because I came to the realization that I had totally underestimated the project. When the client asked me to resubmit a quote, I increased the price substantially so that I would be properly compensated, as doing some sample work opened my eyes to just how involved the project would be.
What I learned about pricing myself
Be honest with yourself!
We all have selective memory when it comes to our artistic process.
"Oh yeah, that painting only took me 2 or 3 hours to do. So if I charge $50 an hour, that's about...$150"
The actual painting aspect may have only taken a few hours, but with client work, you will need to source out references and do research, often on subjects you are unfamiliar with. You will need to build the drawing up (sometimes from scratch, sometimes from multiple or a single good reference). In some cases your references might not be the quality of what you are used to working with. You may have to learn a new type of anatomy, or source some how to books. Sometimes sourcing references can take an hour for one drawing, and that's being conservative.
After research, then you need to do preliminary drawings and sketches. That can be another hour or so depending on the difficulty of the subject. You're not just done there either, now you need to submit your sketches to your client for approval. Sometimes they come back a couple hours later, sometimes it takes a few days to a week. You need to build in buffer time to your schedule to make sure you can physically do the job in time. Then you need to go back to the sketch and resubmit it again before you can go forward.
Now you may want to go back, clean the drawing up, add detail and do the final work (whatever that is for you). In my case, this meant inking the work and then painting with watercolours. After this process there was also the possibility of more changes. (if you work traditionally, like me, really handy at that point to have a digital platform to do touch ups on, I used my first invoice payment to buy an Ipad pro so I could easily make alterations).
The point is, the reality versus the selective memory is very different, so honestly ask yourself how long it will take you to do the work, and add buffer time in for the times that the process doesn't go as streamlined as possible (as it rarely does). in my experience, I always downplay the amount of time I put into something to somehow come off as a wizard of art. Telling people how much time you spent working on something is A LOT like calorie counting; you only remember to log that salad, or that apple you had, and you selectively skip the creamy salad dressing and change the fried chicken to a grilled chicken breast.
Do you retain the rights to your work in the end? If you don't, you need to take that into consideration when making a piece. Sometimes, I make more off prints of my work than I do off the original. If this is the case for you, you need to compensate yourself if you won't be able to reprint the work, or if you cannot receive a royalty on printed work. In my recent contract, I did see if it was possible to negotiate this, but due to the nature of the contract and the use of the artwork, it was not. Since I knew this, I was able to go back and reevaluate the cost I would charge.
Remember, they picked you!
Whether the client came to you after seeing your work, or you competed for a contract, remember that the client picked you! There is something about your work that they love. Don't be afraid to ask for the value you are worth. Skilled work costs money. It is NOT a minimum wage job. Many artists have invested their lives studying and learning art! Even if you are 20, that's a lot of hours if you were passionate enough to invest time into it! Skilled work demands higher hourly wages, and I do think charging an hourly wage is a great place to start. Look at what other skilled trades charge for an hourly wage. You are being paid for your experience and how that training and experience has enabled you to solve the problems that you will encounter along the way. Do some research, ask others, ask for help.
To sum up
1. build a schedule, give yourself enough time to complete the work, and PAY YOURSELF for the hours you work.
2. find out how the rights will be handled for the work.
3. be confident
I actually started writing this blog last year when I was first approached by the Royal Tyrrell museum to do a huge contract for a renovation to the museum. I had never completed a contract of this scale before, and had no idea how to cost my work out to them. I took a lot of things into considerations, and how it would impact my life, and I basically put a price tag on what this undertaking would be worth to me. If I didn't charge enough, I would be frustrated constantly with the project. I really wanted to do the project...so badly, but I also knew that I would regret taking it on for less than its impact is worth, because after the initial excitement wears off, you are left with a ton of work!
I remember hearing on a good podcast that I listen to, called the Savvy Painter:
A story was recounted about someone who was run off her feat with too many commissions. A great way to resolve this is to up your prices to the point where you're still making the same amount of money, but you're making less commissions. Basically, you need to find that sweet spot. if you're too busy, you're probably selling your work for too little, and if you aren't busy at all, your prices are too high. Maybe it's easier said than done, but this is a great place to start for pricing your work.
The bottom line is, I don't know the right answer here, I am no more an expert than any supposed institution on the matter, but I am just wading through it as I go, and hopefully my experiences can help guide some people that aren't as far down the stream as I am. I will say this though, if you are honest with how much time you are investing into this, and after factoring in all your costs like postage, supplies, etc and you are still making less than minimum wage...well something is wrong with that picture!