How to price your creative output
Making a living as a ‘freelance’ creative person is tricky. One great question is: How much to charge?
Conventional wisdom says not to charge too much at the beginning. This is a problem. You should also not charge too little!
Should you create for less than what kitchen help and grass cutters make, for near completely unskilled work? Should you work for less than the minimum wage, or below the poverty line? NO.
The answer is NO. But the caveat to charging professional rates is that your creative output is minimally professional. No longer amateur or student, hobbiest or dilettante.
So, your skill and output are now at professional levels. You may have a diverse income. Freelance work; a job. That’s fine.
But when you work at your craft it is with complete dedication. And you work steadily. You are making art to sell.
This means you are no longer at student level, although you will continue to learn and develop your entire creative life. You are a Creative with something to say, a need to express, and this is your chosen profession.
This is how to price your work:
There are two approaches, both valid.
1. Use the Poverty Line in your area as the absolute bottom-line for the income your creative output MUST bring in. From this calculate prices or rates.
2. Add all your expenses to get a complete bottom line personal ‘cost of living’, cost of creating and cost of the business. Use these numbers to calculate prices and output.
Part 1. A. The Poverty Line method.
This is the most basic. It uses the official poverty line for your area.
You can expand this method with other values.
Here’s the math:
A. find your poverty line income amount from the Internet (or library)
Example: where I live just outside the country’s biggest city, “the line” is $18000 a year. It is more if you actually live in the country’s larger cities.
B. Add 25% — to fund your creative business.
NOTE: The poverty line amount is only for basic food and shelter. No extras.
Thus, 18000 + 25% = $22500 a year.
C. Calculate your output. I paint oil on canvas. How many do I need to produce?
Standard Size canvas: A standard, mid size canvas is 22 x 30 inches or 660 sq. inches. This is a full sheet of watercolour paper as well.
i. 24 pieces a year, or about 2 a month, is a lot but not unachievable. Full time pros will likely turn out double that, around 50 or one a week.
ii. 660 x 24 is 15,840 square inches a year of professional level production
iii. Calculate price per square inch: 22,500 / 15,840 = $1.42.
iv. Calculate standard canvas price. Thus, 660 x 1.42 = $937 per piece.
D. Smaller Canvas
i. 48 pieces at half the size, use 16 x 20.5 (328 sq in), which gives 15744 sq in a year, or $1.43 a sq. in. Charge then 1.43 x 328 = $469.00 a piece.
E. Larger canvases
Now we’re getting into difficult territory. Yes, you certainly need to still charge enough per square inch to pay for your time and materials. But with scale comes other considerations.
- Market. Is anyone buying other artists’ work at this scale?
- Is your work so good it will create its own market?
- Is the scale you’ve chosen necessary for the message your sending?
If all the answers are ‘yes’, then proceed. Price accordingly to the current market. If these larger canvases do not sell, then it is time to change course.
AND WITH MINIMUM WAGE PRICING YOU MUST SELL EVERY ONE
At $1.43 a square inch for oil painting you are only reaching the ‘poverty line’, below which you will actually be starving.
DO NOT SELL YOUR FULLY PROFESSIONAL WORK OR SKILLS FOR LESS THAN POVERTY LINE AMOUNTS.
If your culture / society has chosen to support those who don’t even work at least at the poverty line then you, the Creative who is adding value to Society, should not have to live below that line either.
No one should own or benefit from your creative output while you are starving.
Part 1 B. The Minimum Wage method.
a. Find the minimum wage for your area. If there isn’t one, find out what the average wage is in fast food ‘restaurants’ or, beginning wages for cleaners or lawn cutters.
a. Where I live, the minimum wage is $14 /hour.
b. Calculate a year of work: 50 weeks x 40 hours a week = 2000 hrs / year.
c. $14 x 2000 = $28,000 / yr.
d. Add the $4,500 needed to run your Creative Business (we used 18000 x 25% = $4,500 a year). 28000 + 4500 = $32,500 a year.
e. To earn minimum wage, producing 24 mid size canvases a year:
i. 32500 / 15840 = $2.05 / sq in. x 660 = $1,354 a canvas
To earn minimum wage at 48 smaller canvases a year:
ii. 32500 / 15744 = $2.06 x 328 = $677 a canvas
THE MINIMUM WAGE IS WHAT A WORKING PERSON MUST BE PAID FOR SIMPLE WORK.
Your work is not simple.
FURTHER, if Society sets the rate of work for this minimum return at 40 hours a week, or 2000 hours a year, the Creative should not be asked to work more hours for the same return.
Part 1 C. The Stephan Baumann method. (2014)
The near legendary en plain air oil painter and workshop instructor Stephan Bauman calculated the beginning rate a new professional oil painter should charge (a person just completing their education, no experience selling, newly committed to a professional painting career). This rate, over 5 years ago, was $2.00 a square inch in US dollars. Where I live, that is $2.50 / sq. in.
Thus, 660 x 2.50 = $1650 a mid size painting. (This is big for outdoor work.)
Or, 328 x 2.50 = $820 for a 16 x 20.5 sq in.
Or, 160 x 2.50 = $400 for a 10 x 16
Or, 72 x 2.50 = $180 for a 6 x 12
In perspective, if you can put out 15840 sq in / year, that gives us this:
($2.50 x 15840) / 2000 = $19.80 an hour.
KEEP IN MIND THIS REQUIRES YOU TO WORK 40 HOURS A WEEK AT YOUR CRAFT!
Part 1 D. Compare your income to the starting pay in the simple ‘Trades’.
- these are jobs where you need little advanced training other than a high school education.
- advancement comes from learning by doing. (Sound familiar?)
Where I live these are the starting wages for simple trades (2019):
Commercial / House Painter with no experience: $20 / hour. 40 x 20 x 50 = $40,000 / yr.)
A brick layer’s assistant: $22 / hour. 40 x 22 x 50 = $44,000 / yr.
A carpenter’s assistant: $20 an hour.
A junior carpet installer: $24 an hour. About $48,000 a year.
Other flooring installer: $21 an hour.
Sound familiar? $20 an hour to paint walls, $19.80 an hour to create original artwork. You get the picture. A professional visual arts Creative should earn, or charge at the same rate at least as an untrained, inexperienced ‘trades person’.
Part 2: Add up all your expenses and costs method.
Add up your cost of living, plus cost of running your creative business, plus the cost of making your creative output.
This is basic business.
Separate your costs into the following:
1. Living expenses
2. Business expenses
3. Creative output expenses
Ask your accountant what you can claim against your taxes and record those costs accurately.
And include all other costs, even if not deductible, so you can get an accurate cost per square inch of what it takes to make and market your work. Add that ‘production’ cost to the Living Expenses cost. This gives you a total cost for the year of life and work.
Use this number to calculate a price per square inch, or price per word, or even time acting. Or any other creative work, like illustration or graphic design.
What are these three categories exactly?
Living expenses are what you spend that is not specifically to run your creative business or produce your work.
The Business expenses are what you spend to support and market your work.
Creative output expenses are what you spend to make your work.
What is Overhead? Overhead is support money spent on the business and studio.
Again, ask your accountant. Generally…
The cost of the floor space used in your dwelling by your office
The cost of the floor space used for your studio.
The heat or A/C used in your office area and studio space.
And the electricity cost for those areas.
1. calculate what percentage your office area is (in your dwelling).
2. Calculate what percentage your studio area is.
3. Use these percentages to calculate the shared part of utilities costs.
a. (unless separately metered)
Example: You rent a two bedroom 840 sq ft. apartment for $12,000 a year. (Hypathetically…)
Heat A/C and hydro are included.
Office area is only 6 x 8 ft = 48 sq. ft. (48 / 840 x 100 = 5.71%) x 12000= $685.20 a year.
*If you paint 48 canvases a year, 685.20 / 48 = $14.26 of each painting pays for your office.
One bedroom is the studio. 10 ft x 12 ft = 120 sq ft. (120 / 840 x 100 = 14.29%) x 12000=$1714.80
*Studio 1714.80 / 48 = $35.73 from each painting. Together, $49.99 per work is for overhead.
The idea is that if you didn’t need a studio or office space you will rent smaller and cheaper.
If you own a dwelling, do the same. Add up mortgage / borrowing costs, taxes etc., and the shared utilities costs, then use the same formula.
Example: It costs you $1,486 a month average for your shelter costs. (17832 / year). Your 3 + 1 bedroom house is 1600 sq. ft. Your studio is a 11 x 10 ft. room. Your office area is 8 x 9 ft.
(110 / 1600 x 100 = 7.86%) x 17832 = $1402 / 48 canvases sold = $29 a canvas studio area cost.
(72 / 1600 x 100 = 4.5%) x 17832 = $802.44 / 48 canvases sold = $16.72 a canvas office area cost.
Together, $45.72 a canvas is your ‘space overhead’ per canvas cost.
Examples of costs:
1. Personal Living Expenses
b. Shelter (rent, mortgage, taxes, utilities minus % for your business)
c. Clothing (not work related)
e. Communication not business (phone, cable / satellite)
g. Transportation (personal)
h. Gifts / charity (personal)
i. Anything else not business and not creative.
2. Business Expenses
a. Office space
b. Computer for office work
c. Software for the business
d. Printer / fax for office work
f. Cell phone
g. Travel (to get supplies, to deliver work, to get to research, to show at art fairs)
h. Display / space rental costs (not fees) — art shows etc.
i. Office supplies (printer paper and ink, mailing, pens, etc)
j. Tax preparation and filing
k. Framing costs
m. Mailing / shipping costs
n. Membership fees
o. Competition fees
p. Art fair fees
q. And so on
3. Creative expenses
a. Studio space
b. Materials (paints, mediums, supports, anything used up in make the art)
c. Tools (brushes, knives, computer, camera, software)
d. Research, instruction books
e. Education — courses, workshops…anything paid like that
f. Purchased designs, photos, templates, outlines
g. Clean up (cleaning materials)
h. Clothing (creative use only)
i. Safety gear (masks, gloves etc.)
j. Disposal costs, if any.
k. And so on.
You should get the picture.
Check with your Accountant!
- Check with your accountant on how to claim travel expenses against taxes.
- KEEP ALL RECEIPTS !!
- Almost certainly you’ll have to keep a Trip Log (for each vehicle).
- For each trip record the trip date, odometer readings / trip length and purpose.
You should be able to claim gas, car maintenance/insurance/license and Uber, taxi and bus fares.
- Cell phone. Check with your accountant on how to claim cell phone costs.
AFTER A COMPLETE ACCOUNTING OF YOUR COSTS YOU WILL HAVE A ‘BOTTOM LINE’ , BREAK EVEN DOLLAR FIGURE TO USE IN CALCULATING THE MINIMUM PRICE PER SQUARE INCH FOR YOUR WORK.
Use the same formulas to calculate prices per square inch of output.
Other Creative work.
What if you write?
I do not try to sell my writing. But here is an example of following the same logic.
If you are a writer, publishing a 300 page novel a year is a considerable achievement.
Three hundred pages is a good benchmark for words published a year. Basically a finished, publishable page every day of 300 words, six days a week, all year. That’s 90,000 words published. Now, take your 22,500 / 90,000 = 0.25 cents per word. That’s your poverty line base. A researched 5,000 word article, for example, needs to pay you a minimum of $1,250. Again, this is poverty wages.
Most freelance writers charge at least double that to start, .50 c. a word. Your yearly income then would be $45,000 a year. Or about $22.50 an hour.
Aim for that.
What if you act?
Actors where I live earn a minimum wage of $16.76 / hour.
$18,000 / $16.75 = 1,254 hours a year, or about 21.5 hours paid acting work a week, to reach the poverty line.
Most acting work requires that the actor either live in the bigger cities or pay for transportation. This raises the poverty line for all Creatives who have to work in a big city, including actors and entertainers to $21,000 / yr.
$21,000 / $16.75 = 1,075 hours a year, or about 25 hours a week.
Drop below an average of 25 hours of work a week, and you need a second income.
In the world of visual art, oil painting has always charged top dollar. The medium is more expensive to use, takes longer to master, and takes much longer to make.
After oil painting, in terms of price per square inch, we get: mixed media, acrylics, water colors, and then all drawing media.
Each charges less per square inch because the medium is easier and much quicker to use, costs less, dries much faster, is less toxic, needs less space.
For work of the same square inches, price mixed media at 10% less, acrylics at 15% less, water colours at about 20–25% less, and drawings much less.
This means you have to put out more art in these other mediums. But you will have much more time (over oil painting) to do so.
The Simple Multiplier method.
For Pour paintings. For large abstract paintings.
I would not price by the square inch. I would use the simple multiplier method.
For abstracts and pour paintings carefully measure all the media and paint used and cost it. Cost in the support. Cost in all the supplies used, add in studio and business overhead.
For small single pours and quick, tiny abstracts, at least double your total production cost for the selling price. You should spend no more than two hours or so on any pour or abstract under 10 x 16 inches. You will need to do at least three a day.
For larger abstracts and larger pours, multiple pours, manipulations, large surface areas, triple the base cost.
To pay for shipping cost, add the packaging cost, the mailing cost, an hour of office overhead, and a return trip to the post office (your vehicle trip cost). This at least covers your cost here but does not pay for your time. I would add at 20% to your shipping cost total for your labor.
Example: Your total cost to make a 20 x 30 inch poured painting might be $75. Triple is $225. Hopefully your packaging and shipping might take an hour and cost $60. Add $10 for your shipping time. Total price for customer is $295. Your profit is $150 -$160 for a day’s work.
Or $20 an hour.
Work that exists electronically is tricky to price. There is no original.
Conventionally it has to exist as a print, which may or may not reproduce as well as it looks on the ‘small screen’.
Unless you guarantee a very limited run (10 to 20) of signed, good sized high end prints (and then close the run forever), you will have to use the simple multiplier method.
To do this:
Add your reproduction cost, plus shipping cost and a couple of hours of studio overhead cost and then double that total.
Again, doubling the total of the full production and distribution costs is standard business.
Example: Your cost to have a print made and mailed to you: $35. Cost of a thank you letter and receipt you print on fancy paper:$1.00. Overhead office for two hours (includes placing the order, checking emails, printing label, packaging, but NOT your time): $2.00. Cost to mail to customer: $10. Mileage cost to post office and back: $2.00 . Total: $50. Double = $100.
You basically put in two hours of work at $25 an hour. But with prints, hopefully you can do this over and over.
There it is. The hard reality.
If you are unable to sell enough work to survive, even after changing media, painting faster, at smaller sizes, looking for suitable markets and so on, you will clearly need another form of income.
I personally know artists who are very successful today who took five years after they graduated from art college to make enough money to support their family just from their sales and teaching / workshops. But at no time did they sell at less than professional rates!
Once you have decided to ‘turn pro’, behave like a professional. Work with dedication and discipline and price your work at a professional level!