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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