Studio notes: on pricing painting

The author's White Painting # 1 will be on exhibit at The Ferry Building Gallery in West Vancouver. Opening reception on Friday, August 3 6-7:30.

When it comes to pricing work, all artists seem to share a general sense of bewilderment.

Basically, it’s a crap shoot.
 
Every artist I ask gives me a pained and perplexed look and then proceeds with all the various methods they themselves consider, which usually end up canceling each other out.
 
Canvas generally fetches more than works on paper. Oil outweighs acrylic, which in turn, outweighs watercolour, unless the watercolourist is very famous. Even so, materials matter. 
 
Then there’s the size. Almost everyone I’ve talked to has at one point figured the price by the square inch, like real estate, whether or not that’s their final way of deciding.
 
Then there’s the frame. A cheap standard sized exhibition frame. Or a frame you have made, which may or may not suit the taste of the buyer, who oftentimes has the work reframed, depending upon -- you guessed it -- the price. 
 
If you price a painting too low, people tend to think it’s a question of self-esteem.
 
Then again, you don’t want to price a painting too high because, people might think you are arrogant or deluded. Fellow painters insist you can always raise your prices. It looks very bad indeed if you lower your prices.
 
Art -- and here we make the assumption that our humble efforts might be called that -- appreciates in value. That’s the promise or the given wisdom or the ardent hope when the stock market looks like the fever chart of someone with malaria: there is an investment one can trust.
 
It’s a bit of a catch-22, though. Appreciation (in the sense of increasing monetary value over time) depends on a name, and a name is made by the kinds of people who collect your work, who in turn want to recognize your name, even if they think they are discovering someone new they can collect over time. 
 
This coming week, I’ll have a painting in the Harmony Arts Festival show at the Ferry Building Gallery in West Vancouver, my tenth group show since coming to Vancouver. 
 
And I have sold one painting almost by mistake at the framer as I was getting work ready for last year’s Harmony Arts Festival. I’d gone to dinner with friends and stopped by my framer on the way home to show them the work, and they said, "We’'d like to buy that one. How much is it?"
 
I looked at my framer and then at my friends and said $375 and that includes the frame. Right then, said my friends. We’ll take it.
 
Earlier this summer, I was invited to exhibit in West Vancouver’s 100/100 show. 100 artists were given a 12 by 12 inch canvas to fill as they liked to celebrate the 100th birthday of West Vancouver. Most were scenes of West Vancouver. Mine was abstract.
 
We had some fun with it in the studio I share in West Van. I’d hold it up and ask, “does this say West Vancouver to you?” “No,” came the answer. “It needs some red in it.” And so it went back and forth until one studio mate came up and said it looked like everything was about to burst apart. And that, to his mind, said West Vancouver, so I stopped work on the painting.
 
I decided to price it at $75.00. It didn’t sell. In previous shows at the Ferry Building Gallery, I’d priced works on paper from $275 to $800, and nothing had sold, so I thought I’d price to sell, and it didn’t. The curator liked it a great deal. It was her birthday, so I gave it to her as a gift, and it now hangs in her office. I like that. It’s better than selling to someone who puts it in a closet.
 
The next show was a juried one called “Hungry Ghosts: Art in an Age of Consumerism.” I submitted three paintings of figures and called them 'hungry' in one of the titles and mentioned hunger in the artist’s statement, but my real tie-in to the theme was the price on each: $15,000 or best offer. A joke, of course. 
 
Alas, the judges said though they liked the work, it didn’t tie in visually to the theme.
 
Not hungry enough.
 
In the end, I reckon the price we put on a painting comes from how much or little we want to part with it, how much or little we will miss not having it around. 
 
It’s intuitive, even instinctual.
 
Alfred DePew will be giving a free workshop this Sunday from 3 to 5 pm in the ArtSpeak Tent at the Harmony Arts Festival. For more information visit: harmonyarts.ca

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