Pricing Your Art (Commissions)
It's not always easy to put a pricetag on your own artwork. This article is on how to charge for commissioned work.
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One of the stickiest hurdles to becoming a paid artist is deciding how much to charge for a commission. Pricing your own artwork is going to be a very personal decision with a host of factors to consider. This article is not intended to be a definitive resource for setting prices across the field of art, but rather, it is meant as a series of suggestions for making your own decisions about charging for your artwork.

As an example, I'm going to make up a client, Bob, who has asked me to paint him a picture of a troll character who is starring in the novel he is working on. He wants the picture to be a 12 x 18 piece in watercolor, and he wants his troll to be carrying a big axe, with a bunch of mountains in the background and a circle of mushrooms on the ground by his feet. He's mentioned that if he really likes the piece, he'd like it to be the cover of his novel.


Expenses

Start with the cost of the actual materials that you will be using. If you are spending $20 on a large stretched, primed canvas and oil paints, you should charge $20 more than you want to make on the project.

In my example, my 12 x 18 Bristol* pad cost me about $20 for 10 sheets, so I'll start with $2 for the paper. The watercolors themselves are pretty darn cheap when you realize how many paintings you can get out of those little tubes, so I'm just going to call that another $1. I almost always ink my drawings before I splash on the watercolor, and since this is a pretty complicated piece, maybe I'll use up a whole pen. Let's call that another $3, which is pretty generous and can include the pencil and eraser wear and tear and some sketchbook pages making the initial sketches. So, I'll have about $6 invested in actual art materials.

Bob wants a digital file of this piece for printing his covers, so I've also got to add $1 for the CD that I'm going to send him.

In the case of digital art, you've got the cost of your computer and your tablet to consider, but there aren't any tangible costs, unless you count the price of electricity. We'll talk about setup costs later on. Do include the price of a print here, if you will be mailing a hardcopy of the final version of a digital painting.

Bob wants the original mailed to him, so I'm going to charge him $5 to cover priority mail and insurance on the painting. Since the CD won't fit in the tube with his original, that's going to have to be sent separately. I'll send that regular mail, and it'll only cost about $2.00.

Now I'm up to $14. No matter how I decide to charge for my time and efforts and extras, I don't want to go below this number, or I'd be losing money on the project. And that's just bad business.


Time

There are no hard and fast rules about price per hour for art. The big, big names could charge $100 an hour if they wanted to, and still stay happily in business. Most of us don't have that luxury.

Before you figure out how much time your piece will take, ask yourself what kind of wage you want to be making. The total price will be adjusted later; this is just a starting point. I'm going to say I want $10 an hour**, because I've got more experience than a minimum wage job requires, and ten is a nice easy number to work with. If you are just breaking into the field or don't have a lot of skill, you may choose a lower number. If you are fabulously skilled, or working three jobs and have enough trouble finding time to paint, you may feel that your time is more valuable.

This is a pretty complicated piece, so I've broken it up into a couple of parts. First I'm going to do a couple of roughs in my sketchpad, just lumpy troll ideas with some mountains and stick-mushrooms to figure out what is going to be where on the page, and maybe a couple of headshots to get an idea of where his warts will be. I'm going to take the time to scan in these roughs and post them on my webpage for Bob to check out. It could take several of these roughs and revisions, so I'm going to guess about three hours to get a final pencil sketch on the actual working surface. This is an easy point to misjudge, because you never know how picky your client is going to be, or how quickly you will be able to capture the mood he's looking for. Guess high. There is nothing as frustrating as working on a project and realizing you've used up all of the hours you estimated in this very first stage.

I'm going to spend about an hour refining the pencil sketch before I add ink, and then the inking itself will probably take another two hours. There's three more hours, we're already up to six.

Adding color is going to be my big time sink. The fastest I've ever completed a watercolor piece in was about five hours, but that was for myself, and I am well aware of the fact that I tend to get cold feet and slow down on adding color on work I have been commissioned to do. This is also going to be a pretty complicated piece. I'm going to guess that the color itself is going to take 10 hours; I don't think I could quite finish in one regular working day.

There will be another hour of finishing. I've got to scan the piece, stitch it together and save a high resolution file of it. Then I have to burn the CD. I have to package both the original, and the CD, and then make a trip to the post office to mail it.

It's very common not to have a good idea of how long these tasks are going to take you. A lot of artists get creative blur, where they simply sit down and do art, with little or no idea of how much time has passed. Make the effort to time yourself a few times as you are starting out on this whole 'charging for art' ordeal. Every time that you sit down to work on a specific piece of artwork, jot down the time that you start and the time that you stop. This can be an eye-opening exercise.

Potentially, I've got about seventeen hours invested in this project. So, for my time, I'm going to write down $170.


Rights

Our friend Bob wants to use this design as the cover to his book if he likes the final piece, and I'll be sure to discuss this issue thoroughly with him before I start any drawing.

First, I'm going to consider what I could get if I kept all of the rights myself. Troll pictures are not in terribly high demand, but I think that this painting could be good enough that I could sell a couple of prints, if I tried, and maybe even some mousepads or cards. At most, I figure I could get maybe $20 in profits selling troll merchandise on my own.

If the client is cool with letting me keep printing rights and only using this painting for his book, I'm going to quote him a lower price for the limited publishing rights. If he wants to keep that design exclusive for the cover of his book, I'm going to charge him every penny that I think I might have been able to get from printing on my own, plus whatever I think having my picture on the cover of his book is worth. I would specify that he only gets to use the image on his book. If he wants to sell prints and mousepads of this piece himself, to promote his book, I'm going to charge even more, because he'll be making all of that money back. If he is really open-minded about letting me use the image myself, and I think that the publicity of having my work on his book is going to do me a lot of good, I may not even charge him for those rights at all. This pricing is highly variable, and depends greatly on the way that the correspondence with the client plays out.

Let's pretend that Bob decides he only wants to use the piece as his book cover, and he's thrilled by the idea that the art might be on someone else's mousepad. Bob seems like a nice guy, and I like the idea of having my art on the cover of his book, so I'll tell him that I'd charge him $20 to use the image if he's satisfied with it. And if I sell a lot of products with his design, I'll even send him one of the mousepads.

Bob likes this idea, so I'll write down $20 for rights.


Overhead

This is a downright tricky issue. There are a lot of tools that I will be using on this project that couldn't be considered under materials. My paintbrushes, my easel, my computer and my scanner are all integral to being able to produce the work I am being asked to do, and all of these things cost me money at some point. I've already used them for a lot of projects, and I'll be using them for a lot of projects to come. I need to be able to cover the cost of these items throughout their use, so I've got to consider what percentage I'm going to be using them for this project out of their whole use.

Pick a number that feels comfortable to you. If you bought your computer or a tablet specifically to be able to do commissions, or if you pay rent on a studio just for your art, maybe you need to set this price a little higher to cover those costs. In the end, I'm just going to say $5 for my overhead.


Intangibles

Now we come to the adjustment stage. These are the less hard and fast rules, and far harder to quantify. Things like publicity, hassle, rush-jobs, your comfort level with the subject and how much fun you're going to have play an important role, too!

Publicity: If Bob is a well-known author, and I'm pretty sure his book is going to be a best-seller, I'm going to get a lot of exposure from having my art on his cover. That's worth a lot, and if I'm looking at the sum of all those prices above and gulping, I might lower my price to take this into account. In my case, Bob hasn't ever published anything, and I read a couple of chapters from his novel without being terribly impressed. I'm not the slightest bit sure that his novel will ever even make it into print, so I'm not going to lower my price for this.

Hassle: If Bob were a jerk, or if every email that he wrote was one run-on sentence without any capitals that made my eyes bleed, he'd get a hassle-charge. I would even deliberately raise my hassle-fees in some cases to what I would consider ridiculous sums, simply to discourage acceptance of the commission, because I know that I'm not going to have any fun at all on the project, and that's worth a lot to me. I still have a price for which I would do the work, but it's a lot higher than if the client interaction was a pleasure. I'm going to say I was lucky in this case; Bob was a nice guy who could spell correctly, and dealing with him over email wasn't a hardship at all. No hassle fees for Bob.

Rush-jobs: If the client is in a hurry, it is perfectly reasonable to charge a rush-fee. The more unreasonable the deadline, the more I'll have to change my schedule to meet the client's wishes, and the more I'm going to charge. Bob wants something to put on his webpage advertising the book right away, so he's asked for this painting within two weeks. That might mean taking a day off of work in my case, so I'm going to add $50 to my price and tell Bob he can save that $50 if he gives me six weeks to finish up instead of two.

Profits: If my client hasn't bought the rights to my work, I stand a chance of selling prints and other products from the design. I could even make more publishing the design than the original commissions was for! If I think I could make a lot of money from a design, I'm going to take some of the charge off of my final price. In Bob's case, trolls don't sell very well, but it also isn't completely unappealing. I may adjust as much as $20 off my price for Bob, because I think I could sell a few products. We'll see what the final price comes to before I decide whether or not to implement this discount.

The 'I'm not good enough' adjustment: Most of this should be considered in your wages decision. If you are good at a job and have a lot of experience, you would expect to get higher wages. If you are a beginner, expect low, entry-level job wages. Take a good, hard look at your final charge and consider adjusting it for your personal market value. In Bob's case, I've got several years of experience doing commissions, and he liked my work enough to approach me. My initial wage was what I consider reasonable, much less than I make at my daily grind job, and I'm not going to budge on my price.

Fun: If you enjoy the work that you do, should you charge less for it? Only if you want to. I tend to give people better deals if the project sounds like an awful lot of fun. In this case, a troll is outside of my comfort zone. If he wanted a pretty elf girl, I'd probably give him a 'fun discount,' but since Bob wants a troll, he doesn't get a price cut.


So...

So we've got $14 for expenses, $170 for wages, $5 for overhead, $20 for rights, $50 rush-fee, and up to $20 for a profit discount. The before-discount total: $259. But remember that $20 of that depends on the final product (for cover rights), and Bob can save $50 by giving me a reasonable time to do the work in. So we're looking at a base price of $189 before taking any discounts.

Now that I've gone through all of that, I know what to tell Bob. My email to him will look something like this:

Dear Bob,

I was very sorry to hear about the demise of your hamster. (Other niceties here)

For the work you are requesting, in a two-week timeframe, I would usually charge $239. We'll call it $230 to make book-keeping a little simpler. For the rights to publish the design only as your book cover, I will charge an additional $20, due upon satisfactory completion of the piece, for a total of $250. If you have the ability to extend the deadline by another four weeks, I can take $50 off of that price, for a total of $180. With the publishing rights, we would be looking at an even $200.

I require payment up front, and my policy is to allow a complete refund if I can't get the sketches to look the way you want them to. Once I start putting down ink, I only allow a 50% refund. I am ready to begin working on this project as soon as I receive your payment; please let me know how it is easiest for you to pay. I accept credit card, PayPal transfer, US check or money order and will send you further details about your preferred method.*

Be well,

Ellen Million

*Even if you've already gone over your policies in a previous email, it's very convenient to have all of the details of your final transaction in one email that you can reference later.

Also note that wording your email with the big prices first, and then the discounts is a sneaky way of making you seem more reasonable and willing to work with your client. Having a low price and then adding a lot of stuff to it may make a client feel like you're being difficult and picky.


Listing Prices

Pricing your art doesn't have to be done on a case-by-case basis. Some artists prefer to have specific formulas to follow so that they don't have to spend so much time putting numbers to wishy-washy criteria like 'hassle-factors.'

These formulas can look something like this:

One figure (b&w/color): $25/$55
Second figure (b&w/color): $15/$35
background (b&w/color): $20-$35/$30-$65
Extra details: $10-$100

Or, you can simply have a selection of pieces that illustrate the options you offer with a price tag attached to each. For example, you might show a single black and white figure with no background, and list a $15 charge, the same image in color with a $35-$45 charge, etc.

If you go with a formula, or set pricing, I highly suggest disclaimers that these prices are estimates, listing a range of prices, or having some kind of fudge factor that you can apply to work that is going to be particularly difficult or time consuming (like 'extra details' to cover the sentient, three-bladed, retractable, jewel-encrusted sword that glows). Your prices should cover all of those costs and efforts that we discussed earlier. Formulas and set prices are most useful if you have limited choices for a client to pick through in terms of media, size and complexity.

However you decide to price your work, it is good to give an idea of your pricing when advertising your services. Even just a note explaining that your prices start at $50 for simple black and white work will keep clients with unrealistic expectations about $5 color portraits from wasting your time.


Market Notes

Art is a huge market, and clients range from the very poor to the very rich. There is a demand for $5 portraits, and there is a demand for $5000 portraits. If you're looking at those numbers up there and thinking, 'sweet leaping lizards, $250 is more than I could ever possibly charge!' don't panic. Charge what you feel comfortable charging, and as you develop some comfort with the work, you may choose to raise your prices.

To keep it in perspective, there are many successful artists out there who won't even think about a project for less than $1000, and would consider the prices I've listed in this article as laughable and unprofessionally low.

It is conceivable that you price your work according to all of the above criteria, and discover that you are swamped with commissions and have to turn aside work. Likewise, you may find that when people are informed about your prices, they decline your services as too expensive. Either direction, your prices may be inappropriate to the market and/or your skill, and you should consider adjusting them accordingly. This is up to you; you may prefer to keep your prices low so that you have a wide range of projects to choose from and can turn away work that doesn't appeal to you. You may prefer to increase your prices to the point that you aren't bothered by a lot of work you have to decline. You may wish to keep your prices high and accept fewer sales because art is only a hobby for you, and if you're going to do something for anyone else, you're going to insist on getting paid what you consider a decent wage for your time. These are very personal decisions.


Existing Work and Illustrations

You may be approached to sell a piece of work that you've already done, and naturally, the pricing will not be the same as if you had made it particularly for your client. Go through the same steps, however, and be sure to charge appropriately for your materials and discuss rights with your client. Your overhead still needs to be covered, but rethink the time category above. Hopefully, that time you spent was time for you, so you wouldn't charge for it the same way that you would charge for time you spent working for someone else. Still base your price on the complexity and time of the piece, but reconsider the wages you would consider acceptable for the work.

Work for established publications is not generally something that you will be asked to come up with a price for. If you don't want to work for the prices they offer, they'll find someone who will. Publications, like any other kind of client, will range from very low pay ($5 or $10 for a black and white interior page) all the way up to many hundreds of dollars for color covers.


Doing Something You Love For Money

It might feel like cheating at first, actually asking for payment for something you enjoy doing, but there's no shame in having a viable skill that might actually pay the bills and doesn't suck. While it's important to do some research and find out what other people are charging, remember that only you know what kind of pricetag that will leave you feeling happy about a transaction. Don't be shy about charging what you feel you are worth, and feel good about being worth what you charge!



*I no longer do watercolors on Bristols. If you have not yet learned the joy that is Arches 140 Hotpress watercolor, you should take yourself at once to the nearest art supply store and treat yourself!

**Think about your hourly wage often. I use $20/hour or more as my base wage now, doubling my rate in the 10+ years since I wrote this article.


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