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TAKE ME HOME WITH YOU! Why Are Your Prices So High?

by Luann Udell on 8/12/2017 7:46:45 AM

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. She's blogged since 2002 about the business side--and the spiritual inside--of art. She says, "I share my experiences so you won't have to make ALL the same mistakes I did...."  For ten years, Luann also wrote a column ("Craft Matters") for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explored the funnier side of her life in craft. She's a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer.



Having the RIGHT answer ready can help you close that sale.


I had an open studio last week, my first this year. There was a steady flow of visitors both days. Sales were good, too!


But the best part was how long so many of them stayed, to look, to admire, and to ask lots of questions.


Remember: If they’ve stayed a while to really look, then their questions, no matter how odd, or ordinary, tell you a lot about their interest in your work—especially if they listen deeply to your answers.


One question I often get is today’s question: “Why is your work so expensive?” It’s a tricky one, but I actually love it. Why? Because it takes a lot of courage on their part.


Most people know it’s a question that could offend. They know they might get blow-back from us. And yet they’re asking anyway!


Yeah, this could mean they’re someone who loves to be annoying and they want to provoke us. But it could also mean they are really drawn to our work, and want to know if your prices are fair.


If you work in precious metals and fine gemstones, your market already knows why the work is expensive. The people who regularly buy 24 karat gold jewelry expect high prices, and would be suspicious of absurdly low prices. They may also appreciate your unique designs even more—because it’s hard for a jewelry designer to take risks and explore new territory when you’ve already invested thousands of dollars in your raw materials alone.


But most of us work with canvas and paints, fabric, wood, clay, glass, and metal. These have a cost, of course. But how do we justify our prices, when obviously there isn’t $10,000 worth of paint on that canvas? Case in point: Today I saw a handmade coat that costs $20,000. (Yes, it was exquisite, and no, I am not buying it.)


How do we justify our prices when the materials don’t reflect that?


The answer is simple. It’s our TIME.


We have to be careful, though, and think out our responses beforehand. Remember the artist I wrote about earlier, the one whose finished works cost $5,000? And when asked how long it took her to make that, she replied, “Oh, about two hours.” That may be technically correct, but it’s obviously not the “right” answer.


On the other hand, even if your answer is “hundreds of hours”, though correct, it still may not be worth it to your potential customer. If someone offered to cut the grass in my lawn with a pair of manicure scissors, I don’t care how carefully it’s cut, it’s not going to be worth $10,000 to me.


Saying, “It took me 30 years to learn how to paint like that!” won’t work for them, either. It’s facetious. You’re not really explaining, you’re making a joke at their expense. A fellow artist actually said that to me once. I replied, “Well, just because it took you so long to learn how to paint, why should I have to pay for that??” (They admitted I had a point.) If they had framed it differently, I might not have been so resistant. No pun intended.


So we need to find the happy medium in our response, weighing materials, and time, our learning period, our credentials, our reputation, what people have proved willing to pay, and what we feel is a fair price.


This weekend, during my open studio, someone did ask me this question. And when she heard my answer, she exclaimed, “I get it! You’re right! After all, we think we only pay musicians for the time they’re on stage, but there is so much more they had to do to get there! And they deserve to be paid for that!”


I wanted to hug her.


Obviously, the way I framed my response spoke to her own experience (or her knowledge of someone else’s experience). So my answer made perfect sense. In fact, she continued to look, and admire, and I know someday she will indeed be back.


I’m fortunate. My work is labor-intensive every step of the way, at every point of the making. Just making the layered stacks of polymer I need to create the ivory affect is time consuming.


I use a metaphor most people are familiar with. I ask if they are familiar with puff pastry or Samurai sword making. (Surprisingly, almost everyone is familiar with one or the other, and some are familiar with both.)


I walk through the 32 steps to produce a brick of material, then pause dramatically to say, “And then I start shaping the horse.” (It’s so satisfying when people actually gasp.)


I tell them I use no molds or templates, no power tools. Each animal, every artifact, down to the tiniest bead, is one-of-a-kind, shaped, marked, stippled, baked, “mudded” (my term for the scrimshaw process I use to bring up the detail), sanded, buffed, and shined.


Getting those details just right takes a lot of time. A recent Instagram pic showing a bit of my process was one of the most popular I've posted so far. 


As we talk, I refer to the piece they are looking at, the one that caught their attention, showing them the layers, the marks, the details that makes it so special.


They are amazed I do all my own sewing and quilting. (Yes, hand-sewing and machine-stitching, but I’m doing the manipulation, not a computerized program.) I use recycled and vintage fabrics, so there’s more time involved with that. I find antique boxes to repair, restore, refinish and polish. I augment my designs with antique trade beads and semi-precious stones, another added value.


This is my time “off-stage”, something they begin to realize is time-consuming. It takes dedication, training, and integrity to put that kind of work and effort into each little figure. Depending on their interest (and attention span!) it soon becomes clear how much work is involved.


How will you do this with your chosen medium? How do you lay down your designs? How long do you take to explore a beautiful spot to paint, or to set up a pleasing still life? Do you stretch your own canvas, or prime it? Make your own frames? What are the things you take extra time, extra effort, extra care of? And why? Tell us!


Most people think photography is easy—just point your phone and shoot! But how many hours did it take to get that perfect image of that cardinal shaking the snow off his head, or that whale in full breach? Maybe you forego the usual mountain view of red swamp maples in autumn, and instead search out the more intimate shot of a rake set against a tree trunk, with a bushel basket full of red leaves instead. How did you find that shot? How many angles did you try? Let us know.


I remember a friend sharing how she made her pit-fired pots, formed one at a time by hand. The outdoor pit dug, filled with carefully sorted wood, burning for hours, with each little feature—nails, newspaper, dirt, etc.—contributing its own effect on the finished piece. Cooled, then burnished by hand with a smooth stone.  Putting one in my hand, so I could feel where her hands had shaped each curve and delicate lip. Each one was a work of art, and I happily paid her price to have some of my own.


It felt like I held a part of her creative life, her energy, her quiet presence, in my hand.


Now for the kicker. This was the same artist who told me it took her 30 years to make that pot.


What a difference it made to me!


Take your customers’ queries as seriously as you take your work. Meet them where they are, and tell the story of why you use this material, this technique, even though they take more time to master and use.


Explain, with joy, and pride--and patience--what it cost you to put this work in front of them. Then, if they’re sad they can’t afford it, let them know about that great layaway plan we talked about last week!


Tell them your story, so when they buy your work, it will become part of their own story, too.



P.S. If you are wedded to the "It took me 30 years..." thing, then frame it as "I've practiced my art for over 30 years, and along the way, I've grown an audience who appreciate how good I've gotten at making it."




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Related Posts:

HATERS GONNA HATE: How Long Did It Take You To Make That?

Take Me Home With You! “It Costs Too Much”

HATERS GONNA HATE: “It’s Just Chalk!”

I Don't Care About Your Materials

The Story You Tell and the Power of Your Tribe

Topics: advice for artists | Art Business | art collectors | FineArtViews | inspiration | Luann Udell | sell art 

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Mark Brockman
James Whistler decided to sue John Ruskin for libel, for giving Whistler a bad review, basically. In court, when Whistler was asked if the painting Ruskin had nothing good to say about was worth 200 guineas (a lot of money back then), Whistler said 'No, I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime.' That pretty much says it all.

Funny, not many people think about the excessive amounts of money athletes and actors get for playing in a game or just playing make believe, yet they complain about the price of something made by hand, something, just like an athlete or actor has done, the artist worked at their craft for years, perhaps decades. They buy TVs that cost more them most of my paintings, a TV that is designed to eventually no longer work, yet they scoff at buying a painting, any work of art that can be passed down to generations. Joan Mitchell the abstract artist said, 'A painting never ends.' Nor does any art.

It's hard to figure what goes through people's minds, just look at the mess we are in today here in the US, but I stopped trying to figure out what they think what they do. I do what I do, I charge what I charge. If you buy it wonderful, if not, that's OK, I'll still paint more paintings regardless. When asked why my prices are what they are, I tell them, 'I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime.'

Pat Flaherty
Really felt your article was relevant to me because that question is so commonly asked. I need to consider as you have done the courage of that person, where they are coming from, and I need to explain my process in detail. If I can explain all of the many stages of getting a credible plein air painting, I will be proud that I gave a more deeply considered answer to their query.
Thanks for the article.

Carol Wontkowski
Luanne, thank you, thank you for the comment on photography. Most people do not realize that no matter how good you are you don't just point and shoot. And most of the time, only a handful, if that many, of images are worth using.
Also, thank you for the insights you continue to share. They are/have been very helpful.

sal barracca
The it took me 30 years of painting comment is really a very valid one. When you think of people working for companies would you expect them to get paid what they did 30 years prior, of course not. Our problem today as artists is really the new artist starting out with lower prices because they want to get their foot in the door so to speak. When a buyer sees their lower price do they think why should I pay more for this other artist when this guy is so much cheaper? Us more seasoned artists have to compete with all levels of art and that is where the problem is.

Rosemarie Adcock
Such a great bit of advice, Luann. Some of my work is extremely large and highly detailed. Sometimes I'll point out colored highlights on an animal whisker. People look at the overall painting, but when I point out brushstrokes, they see moments of time, then lots of those moments. I love your work, by the way. Thanks for posting.

Patricia Stafford
Many excellent points to ponder here and keep in mind as wise ways to answer a challenging question, Luann.

As for my photography, which I've done for years, I've more often heard the comment that it's reasonably priced rather than too expensive. And while I can explain the lengths to which I've gone to get a one-of-a-kind shot ... like driving through blizzard conditions which were so bad I was the only one on the highway and serendipitously finding myself in Narnia alongside the famous lamp post, or hiking through the Smoky Mountains on a broken foot and literally getting heat exhaustion while taking one of my very best summer landscape photos at high noon, or running from a pitbull while photographing a hot pink 1954 Ford on a hilltop in Appalachia ... people mostly seem to emotionally connect to my images on their own. It seems like they attach their own story and meaning to the images, which is really cool.

As for selling paintings, though I'm newer to it, my asking price is apparently in the ballpark with what others charge, or otherwise just happens to be a number that people feel comfortable spending. And the paintings that sell are the ones that "feel like art" the most to me as well.

As for the paintings that don't "feel like art" the way I want them to yet, I suppose I could always paint over them and when people ask why the price is so high, I could reply that there's more paint on them. :)

Mark Brockman
Ha! Patricia, brings up a good point, for those of us who work on site, there can be hazards. So maybe hazard pay is applicable. I have been surrounded by wild horses, braved storms of many kinds, painting while the tide goes from ankles to knees, had an empty beer can thrown at me, climbed steep slopes, chased by a bull, kept a watchful eye on a coyote as it watched me, nearly stepped on copperhead snakes (twice) and been asked dumb questions by onlookers (now that's scary).

Luann Udell
Mark, as always, thank you for sharing your experience, your thoughts, and a story.

As I think about Whistler's response, I believe the key word is "ask". Not demand. Ask. For some reason, it removes the antagonism, and connects more kindly with the audience.

As you mentioned, people are more willing to pay for a designer pillow than what I ask for my work. It feels 'not right'. In reality, that is THEIR choice, THEIR reality.

Our work is for the people who choose differently, and given the opportunity, might indeed choose our work instead.

Mark Brockman
Oh, got lime disease, but caught it in time thankfully.

Luann Udell
Pat, I truly appreciate how you read deeply, and recognized that courage on the part of the asker. Good on you!

I know that the question sometimes comes from arrogance, but as I mentioned, it's simple to recognize, and they would probably not be our customer anyway. And sometimes, if met with integrity and courage instead of sarcasm and resentment, they DO become a customer!

Luann Udell
I'm glad to support your work, Carol. I deeply appreciate the skill of my own photographer, Jeff Baird, who sadly died (untimely!) years ago. He photographed my work for a decade, and no one else came close to capturing the heart and soul of it.

I also talked often with photographers in my former state craft guild. I always enjoyed these conversations, as they shared what made their work so special. And I always sympathized with how many comments they received from visitors who thought what they did was easy.

Luann Udell
Sal, if that comment works for you, then of course, keep using it.

As I said in my article, I personally found it off-putting when it was said to me. And that's why I wrote about framing the same sentiment in a way that has built better connection for me over the years.

Luann Udell
Sal, OH, I should add, I understand the "new artist, low prices" thing. And if the newer, less experienced artists are creating work of the same quality as yours at a lower price, then yes, I agree, it can feel unfair.

If newer artists are NOT creating work as good as yours, one strategy is to share that with the person who asks. Being careful not to bad-mouth or denigrate the newer artist, of course (because that reflects badly on YOU) but showcasing the facets of YOUR work that reflect YOUR expertise.

What's helped me when I get this push-back is, knowing how to frame MY work, what makes it unique and hard to imitate, and how my STORY drives everything I do.

Luann Udell
Rosemarie, YES, I love this:
"...when I point out brushstrokes, they see moments of time, then lots of those moments."

A highlight on a whisker--now THAT is attention to detail!

You've found an excellent way to frame what people are seeing. I would only ask you, "WHY is that important to you? And why should the customer care?" These are 'harsh' questions that force us to go deeper, but elicit powerful insights about our work.

Luann Udell
Patricia, from your comments it sounds like you've already mastered a great approach to selling your work. Keep it up! :^)

Re: older work, more paint, that's cute! And got me thinking about some of my older works that haven't sold....

Maybe another article here!

Sal barracca
I would never voice my comment to a potential buyer but it's a thought that is always at the back of my mind. I used to be an illustrators agent for many years. I had this client that paid $2000 per cover. Whenever I tried to get more money for my artists he would always say " do you know how many artists there are just graduating art school who I can hire to do this job?" I know it's a different field of art but it seems to me that it's a similar mindset as the fine art buyer. Everyone is our competition so hopefully we can rise above it and get that sale to keep us in supplies.

Luann Udell
Sal, you are right, of course. And the market, especially in print publishing, is only getting worse. A magazine I used to write for regularly now features articles written mostly by....editors!

You are also right that in this sense, EVERYONE is our competition. My lizard brain throws this up to me often!

In spite of that, this outlook certainly doesn't get us to a peaceful, centered place to make our work.

In my case, I know my work is not for everyone. (Apparently, even my writing!) :^D

But I continue to find, and cultivate my audience. And those people DO value what I do, many DO (eventually!) collect my work.

For that, I am eternally grateful!

Love the "off stage" analogy. Those hours we toil in our studios. Experimenting, practicing, failing, screaming, laughing, growing. All of that is unseen to the buyer. Some artists have photos of their studio and action shots of them creating their work, so buyers can see "behind the scenes." Thanks for a great post!

joanna bayles
Well, thank you very much for the article. How many times has someone asked me this, and I hate having to justify myself all the time. It is insulting, even though as you explained, the client in question just wants to
Now a few choice words will clear things up.
This is my first contact with you and this is exactly what I had wanted.

Luann Udell
John, thank you! And you've brought up another thought....

So many times, when we set up for open studios, we remove every hint of how our workspace really functions. We clean up the mess, clear surfaces, stow away our supplies, our 'seconds', our works in progress....

When this may actually be what (some) of our visitors need to see!

A few years ago, I didn't have time to clear thoroughly. (Well. I cleared enough space so people could actually get in!) On my postcards, I said, "Come see artistic mess!" My customers LOVED it.

Now I try not to clean up too much. (Ha! As if that's even possible anyway...) I show people what I'm working on, I show them samples they can touch and hold, I show them my supplies--old wooden boxes I've refinished, with descriptions of how I do that, piles of antique glass trade beads, etc.

People LOVE it. New folks say they never seen anything like it. (Of course, they may be thinking, "...and may I never see anything like it AGAIN!") They love the intimate look into what this work looks like.

And it helps them appreciate even more what goes into it.

I would love to hear if other people do this with their fine art/fine craft, and HOW you do it.

Luann Udell
Why, Joanna, thank you for letting me know! And I'm delighted you found something useful here.

YES, you are spot on, all it takes is an attitude change--on OUR part--to turn things around.

And as I always say, if you can't turn it around, then that person isn't your customer anyway. So don't worry about it, get back to your happy place, and make the effort for your NEXT visitor.

joanna bayles
Hi, thanks for your reply, concerning the reply to John, I think that if you are showing within sight of your workplace,absolutely leave things around. People are seeing the process and have more interest and look at the work in another light, afterwards. They are really happy with their purchases,(hopefully)!
By for now.

Sandra Haynes
Terrific article, Luann....especially the line "what it cost you to put this in front of them".

This makes it a lot clearer of how to go about justifying my price increases....I worry about it, but knew in my heart I had to. Now I have a way of letting people in on the "secret" to what goes on to create the art. I was formerly one of the "30 years" people, and just knew that was such a tired, old answer, and yet, not quite catching on to what would make it interesting to others. I knew....yet wasn't ready to verbalize it. Thanks for "permission". Weird how sometimes a mind just doesn't seem to function.

Paul Harman
I have been asked this question many times, I think people are curious and the answer we give should be one to educate them on the time required to produce a good painting, or piece of sculpture, pottery, or quilt. There are always many steps and explaining a little of the process from the notan, to initial sketch, undercoat (If you use one) etc. as you build the color layers on your composition will satisfy most people and prompt another question that will help you further educate your audience. An excellently written article.

Luann Udell
Paul, YES, you got it! Good on you!

My only comment would be, watch for eyes glazing over! (I can be long-winded on the first day of an open studio event....)

Oh, and THANK YOU! :^)

Luann Udell
Sandra, so glad this will help you move forward with your prices. And you comment, on knowing "It's taken me 30 years..." wasn't working but not know how to do better....

I was fortunate to cross the paths of people who DID find better ways to talk to potential customers. I also pay exquisite attention to how people talk to ME when I'm in THEIR booth/space/studio.

The beauty of insight is, once we realize what WORKS, it's easier to frame ALL our response in the same general way.

My lizard brain is as snarky as the next person's. But I want to BE better, and I strive to CHOOSE to be better. This has guided my quest for connecting better with an audience, helped me set aside the frustration and resentment, slide away from the folks who will NEVER get it, and engage with those who WANT to get it.

Sally W. Abbott
Thank you for the excellent answer you've given regarding the price of your work. I guess I'll have to use the reply: "It took me 59 years to make this." No formal lessons, just self taught.

PS Do you think this will go over? I did start painting on canvas at the age of 15 with oils, but have expanded my work to many mediums since 2006.

joanna bayles
Hi Sally,
I work in multi mediums and it doesn't make any difference, art making is art making, why oils should take precedence over other options is beyond me and totally out dated.
If, at any time, you may have taken a course or workshop of any kind, then write it down, everything counts.
Good luck and thank you for reading.

Luann Udell
Sally, not sure whose comments you're referring to, but the 59 years comment is exactly what I'm suggesting artists NOT use. :^)


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