Monday, September 27, 2010

Something for Nothing

Despair - waterborne on titanium, 2.25"x4"

Think about the last time you brought your car into the shop and smiled at the mechanic and said, ‘Look, you replace my transmission for nothing and I will show everyone how good your work is and you will get a TON of business!’ How about sitting down at a fancy restaurant, eating your meal and then when the check comes say, ‘Ooohhh, that is a little more than I wanted to spend. I am sure we can work this out, the place down the street doesn’t charge as much as this. There must be a special deal for me somewhere here.’ Most people would never think of doing something like that, especially when dealing with a small business owner that clearly has everything they have invested in the company. Unfortunately as artists, especially emerging artists, it is something that we hear all the time. ‘Paint my motorcycle helmet for me. I go to all the rallies and everyone will see your work and you will get tons of people lined up!’ or ‘Give me a painting, I’ll see how it does and we will go from there.’ It is surprisingly common but what is more disheartening is that so many artists feel that this really is their best shot at getting seen. Our two most valuable assets are the work itself and our time. The manner in which we give either one of those things up needs to be treated very carefully.

Let me begin by saying that rarely (if ever) has a donated work of mine generated any more future work than a piece I was compensated for. If you want to get your work out there and be seen, there are far better ways than fulfilling someone’s empty promises. The first step is to fully understand the value of what you are producing. Look carefully at the time that you spent on the piece, the materials and overhead that was used to create it and the investment that you have made in education (time and money) to get to the point of being able to create this work. You may be surprised when it is all totaled up how valuable your art actually is. If you are having difficulty giving yourself and your art this proper credit, try treating it as if it was not created by you. Treat it as if you are being asked by another artist to estimate the value of their work.

Now that you have a clearer idea of the value of your art, you can start thinking about the way that you will be compensated for it if it leaves your possession. To give yourself the proper credit and to protect your fellow artists, you need to do everything you can to get full compensation for everything that leaves your studio. Full compensation does not always mean money either. Donating a painting to charity is a fantastic way to receive compensation. You have made a sizable donation and you receive the compensation of a great feeling that your work is helping someone. Bartering your work is another great way to make sure that you are compensated. That gives respect of time and talent to both parties. Even when you give that artwork away as a gift, don’t treat that lightly. Understand the value of what you are giving as if it was not yours to give.

It boils down to respect. You cultivate a respect for the work that you do and in turn you build respect for all other artists in your field. You help the people that interact with you to understand the true value of what all artists put into their work. The scam artists that are looking for a free ride will always be there. When you are armed with the understanding of your work’s true value though, you can then be more creative with him. ‘Hmmmmmm sounds like you come in contact with a lot of people and can really get my work shown around. That’s great. So here is what I’ll do for you. I’ll paint your helmet for full price. Then for every customer that comes in and says that they were referred to me by you, I will give you 10% of that new job.’ You will weed out the people that want to take advantage of you pretty quick.


  1. Really good article Steve.
    How much does one of your larger commisions bring in?
    I've been trying to maybe try to do portraits, but I have no idea what I should charge.

  2. Great advice! I think one of the most difficult things for artists to do is place a tangible value on their work. It's always easy to respect the works of others, but sometimes hard to do the same for ourselves.

  3. Dale, It really depends on the work. In an economy like this I try to be flexible and offer art that fits within the customer's budget. For instance, I can do a pencil drawing much faster than a painitng so that becomes something to offer a customer with a smaller budget. Over all though, for most artists, once they do the math, $55 per hour usually covers all the costs of making art.

  4. Marge, It is monumentally hard sometimes to assign an accurate value to our own art. I learned something very interesting when my kids were in preschool. I was working feverishly saving every painting, drawing and craft item that they were making and it was getting out of hand. Their teacher told me that I really did not have to. Young children care very little about the end result of a project. Their joy and interest is solely in the creation of that object. I really do think that we carry some of that into adulhood which is why we sometimes undervalue our art.