Don’t Sell Your Artwork for Pennies

You don’t need to be a starving artist

Jul 29, 2019 · 4 min read
Photo by pine watt on Unsplash

In my favorite coffee shop, there’s a watercolor painting that hangs above my regular table. It’s a beautiful piece full of blended shading and intricate detail, and as someone who struggles to paint with watercolor, I can appreciate the amount of work and effort that went into it.

What I can’t appreciate is the $50 price tag.

The first time I saw the little cardboard price tag, I had to take a second look. There was no way that painting — which must’ve taken hours to complete — was being sold for $50. But, as I looked around, I spotted other pieces of the artist’s work — all which sported price tags from $50 to $75.

I wish I could say this is the first time I’ve watched an artist sell their work for practically pennies.

The truth is that I’ve found that artists who undersell their work are extremely common in the freelancing world. They think that keeping their prices low will lead to more commissions and sales, but it rarely works that way.

Trust me, I know — I used to sell my artwork for pennies too.

Selling Your Artwork Cheap Makes Earning a Profit Almost Impossible

The first pieces of art I ever sold were portraits of people’s dogs for $25 apiece. As a high school kid, making any kind of money off my art was an accomplishment — it didn’t matter that I would spend hours upon hours drawing hyper-realistic dogs for money that wouldn’t even fill up my gas tank.

Like a lot of artists, I thought I needed to advertise dirt-cheap prices to gain more clientele. Of course, the only problem with this business tactic is that it makes it incredibly hard to earn any kind of substantial profit. Even if you do end up with more commissions, you’re still not earning enough money for the amount of work you put in.

For a piece that takes around five hours to complete, but you plan on selling for $25, you’re making less than minimum wage. That doesn’t even include the added cost of supplies — like pencils, paper, or paint.

Selling a painting for $1,000 might seem outrageous, but if you’ve spent fifty or a hundred hours on a piece, you’re just getting your money’s worth.

Nowadays, when I drum up a final estimate on a commission, I shoot for a number that puts me in the range of working for about $10–15. If the piece is only going to take me two hours, $20 or $30 is reasonable. However, if it’s something that’s going to take ten hours, $100 to $150 doesn’t make me feel like I’m wasting my time.

What it ultimately comes down to is whether you view your art as a business or a hobby. If you’re taking on commissions for fun or just to try out a new style, it might not matter if you’re doing it for less than minimum wage.

However, if you’re trying to sell your art because you want to make a legitimate business out of it, you shouldn’t be underselling yourself — or working for less than you’d make at another job.

People Will Still Pay for Your Art (Even If It’s Expensive)

My art teacher, who regularly had at least one or two commissions she was working on, never took commissions for less than $500. Even in a small town — where the art scene often feels nonexistent — she still managed to find people who were willing to pay top-dollar for her work.

With the internet, finding people who will pay you what you’re worth is easier than ever. What it often comes down to is finding the right audience — whether that be dedicated Etsy customers, a large Instagram following, or a group of local Facebook friends.

There will always be clients who try and lowball you — when you tell them the final estimate is $250, they’ll try and negotiate you down to $200 or $150. While it can be tempting to take these offers (especially if commissions are few and far between), it’s usually not a good idea.

I’ve found that clients who aren’t happy with the price are rarely happy with anything else you do. Even if it takes longer, holding out for someone who will pay you what you’re asking is almost always worth the wait.

When I first began taking commissions, my art teacher gave me two pieces of advice: always ask for a 50% deposit upfront, and never sell your artwork for pennies. There’s no reason to treat your art like the unsold Halloween decorations on November 1st — you don’t need to lower the price to attract sales.

Regardless of your asking rate, there will always be people who tell you it’s too much. However, for every ten of those people you encounter, there will always be one who’s willing to pay you what you’re worth.

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When I’m not writing, you can usually find me hanging out with my cats.

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