Monday, September 24, 2012

An epiphany about pricing

Three tulips. Oil on linen panel. 12"x9" (30.5 x 22.9 cm). 2012
This is the latest work I have uploaded to my Daily Paintworks gallery. The starting price for it, in the auction, is $80.00, way below the "one dollar per square inch rule" some experts recommend for beginners who don't know how to price their work. And, to be completely honest with you, and if my couple of weeks of experience on Daily Paintworks site is anything to judge by, it will either go for this price to a single bidder, or won't sell during the auction time even for this price. 

So, you see, my latest selling experiment challenged me to confront the issue of pricing once again, bringing into focus my own, fairly diverse, experience with selling paintings and every bit of advice (both general and directed at myself personally) I've read or heard about it. The reason I've decided to share my preliminary conclusions in such a direct manner is that I had an epiphany today. As all genuine epiphanies, it seems painfully obvious in hindsight; but my view was clouded by the heap of assumptions, conventions, rules, expert advice, preconceptions, etc. Since I see many a fellow painter struggle with similar issues on a daily basis, I decided this little insight of mine may not be as obvious as it seems to me now, and it might actually help some people if I share it. It would require me to be slightly more open about it than the conventions and "common wisdom" hold to be prudent, so please bear with me. 

To begin with, a couple of words about my own – admittedly limited – experience. My first sales happened (online) before the latest economic crisis, when people were overall easier about spending money for useless things, and the prices were very reasonable (quite above the "dollar-per-square-inch" rule); I sold them in good faith – it was the best I had to offer – but I had withdrawn from all selling venues very soon, long before the crisis happened, simply because I recognized that what I used to be offering was what could be referred to as "student work". Sometimes worse, sometimes better – but not even close to my potential, and not at all what I would want to leave behind in this world. 

I went into several years of seclusion and learning, from which I emerged a little more than a year ago, in the times of global austerity. All the paintings I've sold in this year – several dozens of them – I am still, if not proud, but in any event happy that they are out there representing me. The prices for them varied widely; as far as the "per-square-inch" price is concerned, the difference between the cheapest one and the priciest one is more than tenfold. You see, it was important to me that people put some value on my work, and there are some paintings I was prepared to let go for less than others, but I am deeply sensitive to the fact that money mean different things for different people. What would require some to save on food for a couple of weeks is an unnoticeable dent in disposable income for others. It seemed to me rather irrational not to take these differences into account, since some of my collectors are rather well-off, and others live from one paycheck to another. 

This approach seems to go against every bit of advice and expert knowledge floating out there: whatever you do, it says, your prices have to be consistent, independent of whom you sell to or where you sell. You see, even potatoes or identical pairs of jeans might be offered with different price tags depending on location and the type of store you are in, but God forbid the same happens with a square inch of an artist's work (even though these inches belong, after all, to different paintings – and even the most consistent painters are allowed some variation in quality of their work). It is not really like that, because there is a hidden system of discounts happening behind closed doors, but that's how it should appear to your potential collectors. This system seemed quite irrational to me, but what do I know? Maybe I don't understand something essential? And so, my wild variation of pricing was also more or less invisible to the outside world: those who bought my paintings for a quarter per inch didn't know that others are being sold rather for ten dollars per inch; and vice versa.

Two occasions conspired to produce my epiphany, and, eventually, this post. First, I came across the ultimate explanation for the consistent "per-square-inch" price rule. It's really simple and straightforward, and I want to highlight it here:

Everyone else is doing it, and if you don't, it would seem strange.       
Now, that really makes sense, doesn't it? Who would want to seem like a weirdo? But then again, if everyone had always followed this ultimate guideline, the world would come to a halt, wouldn't it? And the sun would still be daily circling the earth standing on three elephants...

The second one comes from my thinking about my Daily Paintworks experience. My prices there may seem ridiculously low, but the truth is – the paintings basically sell themselves once uploaded, without me jumping around enthusiastically promoting them for higher prices, and the canvases cluttering my living space while I am doing what I absolutely hate to do. If I am content with these prices, such as they are, I don't need to do that at all! Instead, I can just go and paint more paintings, that is, do what I love to do. As a result, I will have more paintings to offer and they will grow better from practice, not worse from hateful self-promotion. This is the bottom line, the epiphany: I can double the price by spending more time on self-promotion and gaining exposure, or I can make two paintings to sell instead of one. Or three. Or a dozen. And everyone will be happier for it.

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