Friday, September 17, 2010

The Price of Art

Ah... how much is someone willing to pay to own a piece of your art? If we had the answer to that, wouldn't our lives as artists be so much easier? It's a sure thing that women will buy jewelry and that men will buy jewelry for their women (although it's not a sure thing for some men to pick out the right thing... just ask my friend Carolyn whose husband has a tendency to buy his firecracker of a wife all manner of conservative pieces!). But at what price will they buy a truly unique and one-of-a-kind necklace, such as this one by LittleGreenRoom?

In online stores and websites, such as Etsy and Artfire, there are uncounted numbers of jewelry-makers. I'm included in there. When I opened my Etsy shop about 20 months ago, I listed mostly earrings and necklaces. I foolishly hadn't done much research on the site. The majority of my sales have been, you guessed it, jewelry, though most of my listings are now paintings. I have since discovered that when you do a search for any kind of tag, the majority of items that come up are some form of jewelry. For example, I just did a search under the Jewelry section, and here's the number of listings that came up: 1,570,053 items in Jewelry . That means 39,352 pages of jewelry listings!!
Check out this link to see what I'm talking about!

On Etsy, you can see similar work all over the place. This is due at times to what the market wants and it's due sometimes, unfortunately, to some sellers copying the work of others. You can find jewelry in all price ranges and styles, and typically the work that is priced higher is, of course, higher quality, better crafted, and with a unique style that utilizes unique materials. But of the jewelry that is fairly and reasonably priced, some of these makers have their own definite style in the way they create or in the photography of their work, so often you can see their listings, even if there may be other work in the same vein, and you know the shop before you even see the name. Such is the case of ErikaPrice whose bright and colorful work is often photographed on piano keys. And there is the work of Littlebugjewelry, pictured here. I am not a wearer of rings, but I am sorely tempted when I see a listing such as this one! These are usually the jewelers who are able to make sales. And these makers also list EVERY day. But sometimes even the work of these makers and sellers can be mixed in with that of others whose work is quite similar. It's a hard row to hoe if you're a jewelry maker on Etsy, especially if you're fairly new to the game. You better have something that stands out, that is marked as your own, and that is priced right if you want to make the sales. And once you have loyal and happy customers, you'll probably do just fine. It's getting to that point that can be so difficult.

There are lots of visual artists on Etsy as well, but when you do a search for Paintings, you get this: 164,486 items in Art which is quite a few less than Jewelry! Still, the same is true for this category. Certain artists/sellers have a definite style or theme which is recognizable and often these are the ones who show up in treasuries, which help to get your shop noticed, or seen on the Front Page, or listed in Etsy Finds or on the Storque. Many of these artists have discovered that the best way to make sales is to sell prints of their original work because prints are, of course, much more affordable. This is a step that I have not taken and am not planning to take in the near future, though I have been asked to do so. I firmly believe that art should be one of a kind and while reproductions of masterpieces sell as posters and prints so that people can display them prominently in their homes or offices, I would rather support working artists and see their originals hanging on the walls of businesses and homes.

I know that everybody sees art in a different way, and some may prefer painstakingly realistic work that appears to be a photograph over something that is abstract or even something that is somewhat realistic but bolder in color or style. As an artist, I have to make a choice: do I paint what is in my heart and soul, hoping that it speaks to a potentional buyer... or do I paint what the market says to paint, believing that a typical buyer will open the wallet for such a piece? Since my home and studio are full of my own paintings, guess which direction I have so far chosen? Of course, there is marketing, and I admit that I am just not very good with that. My skills as a painter are not top-notch, so I will never command top dollar for my work, as many successful and wonderful painters can and do. But I will also not give my work away in the sense that I will not price it so low that I may as well list it for free. Some artists do this; some are not very good artists, some are pretty decent artists. Whether or not you pour out your soul on the canvas or if you just paint something that feels good to you, you have purchased canvas, brushes and palette knives (and if you paint, you know that brushes can be an exorbitant expense), tubes of paints (again, some are much more expensive than others), painting agents, cleaning materials, varnish, framing materials, easels, drawing pads for your sketches, and perhaps other things as well. And you have spent time creating something visual for others to enjoy or reflect upon or question or cry over or any other emotional response to it. So you should value your work in that regard and keep that in mind when pricing it, believing that you should be paid for that effort as well as recovering your cost for materials.

And this is true for other arts and yes, even crafts. I have found one seller on Etsy who may as well list items for free. Taking her materials and time into account, as well as the fees on Etsy and Paypal, she cannot possibly make money with what she is selling. It's true that she uses her designs over and over again and there isn't too much in them that is unique or original; they are very traditional for the particular medium that she works in. Because I work in this medium, I know the amount of time involved and I know the expenses of the materials, and I know that she can't be making much money, no matter how many sales she makes (and she makes quite a lot). While I know an artist can never be paid a fair sum for the hours spent creating a piece of art, her pay rate must be about $5 an hour. What is the point of that? My husband's response to this is that creating art is sometimes a wealthy person's pastime.

And when she, or any seller, is listing things for such a ridiculously low price, one that makes other artists cringe, does she not realize that she makes it harder for those of us who are working in the same medium but creating one-of-a-kind pieces, more unique, more organic, more fluid, to make any sales? Someone will ask, "Why should I buy this piece at this higher cost when I can get this one which is much cheaper?" Why exactly?

A buyer has to know the difference between art with a soul and art that is merely created for a quick sale. Unfortunately, especially in today's economy, many people don't understand the difference and many people don't care. We cannot count on most buyers understanding the difference in craft, skill, quality and design, and we certainly cannot count on other sellers to be fair with their pricing. Perhaps they do not value what they do as creators; perhaps they do not make their living with their art. Perhaps they just do not think about the actual market value. Perhaps they never think about the community of artists.

My husband, who is a custom knifemaker and makes everything himself, including Damascus steel, had a booth at a knife show last year and one of the sellers was a foreign couple who was selling Damascus knives. John asked him about his work and learned that he and his son make the damascus steel themselves. They were not making many sales because they were foreigners of the type that many folks are currently afraid of, and for that John felt rather sad. But John was aghast at the low price on those knives. Sure, he said, they were not the best made knives, but the damascus steel was nicely done. He said he could've bought the lot of them and taken them to the Blade Show in Atlanta and sold them for twice as much as he paid, making a nice and easy profit. That's how inexpensive they were. To be fair, John said this couple probably just didn't understand the market value; perhaps they were from a country where one is used to working long and hard and just barely making a living. But it's another case of selling way below market value and making it hard for anyone else who is trying to get a fair price on a custom product.

So we are left with some decisions. Do we continue to create art that is a part of our being? Do we continue to make art that is unique, somehow different, art that we think others may be drawn to in some way? Do we continue to try to sell that art? Do we price it so that it sells quickly, even if it means making a very small margin of profit? These are things that I have been pondering for a while, and granted, my creativity goes in many directions. I could give up one or two paths on that journey quite easily (and actually I have, for the most part, given up my beaded jewelry. I will still try to sell my inventory, but I'll not be spending money to create any new pieces; in fact, it sounds like time for a giveaway... so stay tuned!). But I'm interested in what others have to say on this topic. So please share your thoughts!


  1. A great write up Rebecca, and thank you for including me in it. I don't know the answer, I've been making more 'artistic' pieces lately, and pricing according to the work . . .so we will see :-)
    And I love your paintings!

  2. Nice article. It's a fine line we walk to create and then sell our creations. It's so nice that Artfire and Etsy now exist, but it also opened the door for so many negative aspects. People who copy, just make for fun, use inferior materials...the list is long. I think that is where it is our job as artists to educate the public as much as we can. are they to know (at least very few of them) how much effort and time it takes to make one item? We can do this on our blog or in our listings since we can speak to the visitor as if we are at an art show. It may take a little more time and effort, but it is certainly worth the effort. I think that this article that you wrote is certainly a good spokespiece.

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  4. Thank you so much for this article. You have really covered most of the points we as artists address every day. Your husband's knives are definitely art! I have tried both ways....doing pieces of art I thought would be "popular" and sell well at shows and pieces from the heart. I never have the same feeling for the trendy pieces when they sell. In fact, I'm glad to see them go! The heartfelt pieces are like my children and I reluctantly give them up. I want them priced well so people will respect and value them as much as I do. Art is a hard journey with many paths. Each of us must pick our road to travel and, hopefully, "follow our bliss" with peace of mind! Thanks again for such a wonderful post.

  5. What a great article, Rebecca, and thank you so much for the mention! Its mind-boggling to think that a quick search on Etsy brings up 1,570,053 jewelry items, and you're so right that it is difficult to get established with so much competition, particularly when there are so many copycats and people producing inferior pieces at knock-down prices.

    But if we just give in and reduce our already narrow margins, aren't we just selling our souls and making the situation worse? They may be few and far between, but I know there really are people out there like me, who are their own person and who set their own trends and do not follow the crowd - they value high quality, original pieces in favour of the myriad indistinguishable 'Etsy trendy' bandwagon items or the ridiculously over-priced, mass produced 'designer label' rubbish made in Chinese sweatshops that the masses clamour for.

    So, for the time being, I intend to continue to create and sell my jewelry. Like you say, real art is a very part of your being, as unique and different as we are. As Waterrose says, we must try and educate the public as much as we can, although we may go hungry in the process!

    And I hope you continue to produce your amazing, original paintings Rebecca - one day you'll be famous, you'll see, and because of your approach your work will be valued, valuable and sought after :)

  6. Thank you so much for including me in this article. Rebecca, I too think that your work is beautiful. You have touched on so many points in your article.

    I personally think that is so important to stay unique and true to yourself as an artist. After all, we (most artists) create art because we love it and because of how we feel when we have accomplished something that has maybe exceeded our own expectations, not because someone might like to buy it..not myself anyway. I think that our uniqueness sets us apart from the rest of the world.

    I have had experience with copy cats. I have a saying..."They can copy what I have already created but they cant copy whats in my mind and the designs that are yet to come."

    Its my opinion that the end result of a copied design is usually and inferior, cheap, knockoff that is very obvious and the buyer will get what they pay for. I would rather have customers who truly love and appreciate my designs, purchase it is true..each piece is a part of you.

    Thanks again :)

  7. A very thoughtful post, Rebecca. Thank you for writing these thoughts out. I think about these things so often and reading your words is very comforting. Questions I can't really answer, but questions that need to be asked! So thank you for asking aloud and thank you for challenging others to price their work appropriately. It really does us all so much damage when people underprice/undervalue their work. For whatever reasons they do it, ultimately it is a selfish act. Remembering that we are all part of a greater community is essential.

    Awhile ago you had commented on my blog re: my new stationery set and commended me for pricing it well. I really appreciated that! I am constantly asked to price my work lower by customers and I think this is because I am being compared to commercial papermakers. Handmade paper takes more time and effort to make! I am not yet a factory and cannot produce the quantity necessary to sell as low as some expect. So, I second the motion to help educate the public! Education is so important. Your thoughtful posts are helping to do just that, Rebecca! Great work.