“How Long Did That Take You?”

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I love you / Painting / ramblings / Writing

I’ve mentioned here before that I’ve been drawn to making art for the majority of my life. In the three years I’ve been selling my work out of my rented studio and through my website, I’ve managed to sell around forty pieces. Unsurprisingly, the topic of pricing comes up quite often and a blatant, “Why is your work so expensive?” is not unheard of. While I am happy to answer those questions as they are asked, I have been meaning to write about this topic for sometime, if only to shed some light on my physical process and breakdown my method of pricing my work. I have been putting this off because I’ve never found the act of pricing my work all that fun, but I do wish to make the whole process a bit clearer.

Doctors and lawyers go to school for years and years and their respective salaries reflect that. I didn’t find what I was looking for in art-school and thus wasn’t there for very long, so my education in art isn’t formal (though it certainly wasn’t cheap, financially or emotionally-speaking, but thats a post for another time). I do not think this fact makes me ‘uneducated’, or my work any less valuable. Perhaps the work of an artist is more aptly compared to that of a carpenter; you pay for their time, their materials, & their craft.

“How long did that take you?” is the question I’m pretty sure every artist gets the most. It’s probably the question every artist dislikes the most, because it’s so hard to answer. Sometimes it’s asked innocently, but its also asked as a way to measure its [monetary] worth– and I disagree with that tactic. 

When the question comes, I have two answers. One answer is, “Oh, about ten minutes.” The other is, “My whole life.” Both are honest, but which one actually tells the whole story?” –Tyler Tervooren

I can say with certainty I do not think about the money I’m spending while I’m painting, but I know that the cost is more significant than I think. I am just as curious about my own ‘profit’, though at this point I’ve shovelled so much of my money into maintaining my studio and inventory of supplies that any sale would simply be chipping away at the debt I’ve incurred to do it (not that I’m complaining). This Winter for example, I spent three months making nine paintings (some of them taller than me) for a show where I ultimately didn’t sell a single thing. The largest painting is six feet tall and was at the time priced at $2300. This price was agreed upon by both the gallery and myself. Had I sold that one painting (I would have been thrilled), my payout would’ve been $1,380– 60% of the asking price (which is actually a really great ratio: most galleries take an even 50%, and while many galleries deserve that cut, many do not). For the sake of argument, I’d say the rough cost of materials on that painting is as follows (for clarity’s sake, my partner made the stretchers):

  • Portion of loose/unprimed canvas, bought in bulk = $10

  • Wooden stretcher materials = $5

  • Estimated total cost of primer, paint, varnish = $70

  • Public transit to collect materials = ~$20

  • Estimated $ cost of all painting materials = $105

(Studio-costs would also factor into this, and while that is certainly my most consistent, significant expense [$350/month] for the sake of this post I’ve decided to leave it out of the equation to focus primarily on the specific costs related to the physical painting).

“How long did that take you?” is a hard question to answer when you take into consideration:

  • The trip to the hardware & art stores

  • Coaxing my partner into spending his weekend making me stretchers

  • His measuring, sawing, assembling/gluing/securing of the eight cuts of wood

  • Countless transit rides to and from the studio (spanning 45 minutes from home)

  • Walking canvas materials & gallon buckets of primer back to the studio (about twenty minutes)

  • Sizing & stretching the loose canvas to the wall with staples, then priming it (about an hour or two of sweating, if you’re me)

If you ask me how long all of the above takes, my answer is I honestly have no fucking clue. After all that, the actual act of painting happens, which I have no idea how to possibly measure, not even remotely. In those months leading up to the show for example, I was painting almost every night. I work full-time during the day, so I’d start around 6 pm and go until midnight or 1 am. I took a few days off my day-job a month to work on it during the day, so on those days it was nearly double that. I almost always start several paintings at once, and I certainly don’t consider how long I’m spending on each one while I’m making them. Does the time I spend looking at colours and bookmarking combinations count? Or does it start when I buy the canvas (and all that stuff in between)? Some may argue the clock starts when you first touch paint to canvas. But that’s confusing because after the painting-part is done, it’s still not totally finished. I still have to:

  • Prepare an area on the floor to mount the canvas onto the stretcher

  • Remove the staples from the painting and take it off the wall

  • Line up the painting to the stretcher and hold my breath until it is for certain I both measured correctly and relayed the proper information to the frame-maker (lover)

  • Staple the canvas to the stretcher (which requires lots of bending and kneeling and stretching and stapling and jumping from side to side, when you’re dealing with a six foot painting. If it weren’t the most exciting step it would be my absolute least favourite, but I suppose the exercise doesn’t hurt)

  • Varnish, seal, title & sign the finished product

At this point, we are almost done… but not quite. I still have to drill hooks into the back of the frame and wire it for hanging. Often, I’ll then have to wrap it in plastic to transport it from the studio to the gallery. In this case, to move the work to the gallery, I had to rent a moving van to transport all nine pieces, as they were too big for the borrowed SUV or a van-taxi. Add on $60 including gas. Then there is the leftover administrative stuff: pricing & printing info-cards.

  • Total ~$ Cost = $165

  • Total time spent = Still no fucking clue

I hope this doesn’t come off as angst-y, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t get a little perturbed when I’m faced to defend the price of my work. The reasons for that are all the ones I’ve listed above, but it’s an emotional battle, too. It’s a sticky situation, because I have never been in the position to be able to really afford original art, and so choosing a number for a piece has always been extremely challenging for me. It’s so hard for me to tell someone “no” when they ask me to lower a price, because I am so flattered that they’d even like to buy it in the first place. They really want that piece. Enough to pay me money for it. Maybe I’m asking too much? If anything– if I’m being honest with myself– it’s really too little. While selling my artwork is truly the greatest feeling, at the end of the day, once that painting is gone, it’s gone. There isn’t another one like it. I’m not saying it’s not awesome to be able to create something that is one of a kind, something that exists only within that space and for the eyes that see it, on the contrary, that’s one of the main reasons I love doing this so much. I guess I just mean that without all the monetary costs that are involved in creating a piece of work, all the time I spent working with it creates a connection, and I really just miss it when it’s gone. In the past I’ve likened it to saying goodbye to an old lover– I just don’t know how to put a price on that.

Perhaps the only useful bit of advice my former art-dealer gave me was to come up with a base-price calculated from the area of the piece. Lots of artists seem to adopt this method, and I see why: it offers a relatively objective starting point, and it’s something that can quickly be explained to potential buyers when they ask. For example, I may start with a dollar per square inch and then I will adjust from there. Once I calculate the base-price, I then increase or decrease (almost always decrease) that number based on all the other factors I listed above, the most important one being Can I live with this? If the answer is close to “yes”, I’ll go with it. When galleries are in the equation, both parties have to come to an agreement. Galleries have their own expenses, so prices of the work you show with them will generally reflect that.

At the end of the day, I paint for myself. I have to; its the only thing that’s ever worked for me. If everyone decided they didn’t like my work anymore, I’d be really sad, but I’m sure I’d still be painting, even if it depressed me. In many ways, I don’t feel like I have a choice. I know that I am lucky to have found something I can do that makes me happy– something that will always make me happy– and the fact that others seem to like it is something I never bargained for. Selling my work was a lovely by-product of creating, and I know how fortunate I am for those opportunities. To everyone who’s expressed a moderate interest in my work: I really, truly can’t thank you enough. I may always stay committed to painting, but your support makes it that much more worth it.

07.18.13 Edit: When I initially published this article I had mistakenly credited the original quote source. The correct author is Tyler Tervooren, who runs the always-awesome Advanced Riskology. Apologies for the confusion!



  1. Nancy Bennett says

    Thank you. I have just begun selling my work to the public and I struggle with pricing too. You’ve given me much to think about and lots of reason not to feel bad about sticking to my prices when someone asks for a lower price. I respond with confidence I don’t always really have, “No, that’s a reasonable price for my work.”And I love your work.


    • nervrom says

      Thanks so much for your comment, Nancy. It’s definitely tricky, but I think the most important thing is to stay true to yourself. Being an artist is more than anything, a labour of love, and I for one find it extremely difficult to represent myself and say no when I have to. Congrats on beginning to sell your work, it’s a hell of a ride! 🙂


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