The Cost of Art

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked me how I price my paintings. His question helped me realize that not many people know what goes into making a piece. I thought this month I would pull back the curtain a bit and share with you my process and some of the hidden costs to help build understanding about why buying art is valuable for the price. 

The difference between the paints you used in school and the artist quality paints is the amount of pigment, and some pigments are truly expensive. I don’t buy Cobalt Blue or Cadmium Red because a 35ml tube (about the size of a travel toothpaste) can cost somewhere north of $50 for top-shelf paint. Synthetic alternatives are good enough for me at this stage in my journey. Regardless, it’s all too easy to leave the art store with a few hundred dollars of paint tubes looking depressingly small at the bottom of the tiny bag they give you to drive the point home. 

Many artists save canvas costs by stretching their own. I admire that process, but that’s a long game and requires a whole different set of skills, tools, and extra time to do properly. I tend to buy artist-quality pre-gessoed canvas, and when they go on sale I regularly drop more than $1000 on canvases at a time. My mom has a habit of hitting the Michael’s BOGO sales on my behalf and ‘forgetting’ how much the pile of canvases cost, and then insisting on paying full pop for a painting from that batch. As a result, my mom’s house is a growing retrospective of my work since high school (side note: support your creative kids because it truly helps). Reasonable quality canvas can cost anywhere from $40 for a 16 x 20” to more than $300 for a big one like 48 x 72”. 

With care, brushes can last for years, but each one costs between $10 and $40 so it’s pretty easy to look around my studio and see hundreds (or maybe thousands) of dollars of brushes waiting for their turn to be used for just that right moment. More than a handful that sat too long and finished their serviceable life covered in crusty goo. A good brush is a requirement for good marks, though, so it’s worth having them around.

The final costs that factor into the mystical price of a painting are gallery-end costs. Most professional galleries take a 50% commission—which I am happy to pay so I don’t have to be involved in the transaction. Selling art is a skill in itself and for the most part it’s better if the artist isn’t directly involved. Out of that chunk the gallery pays for retail space, staff, and promotion of shows, which helps to make sure works get hung on the walls of appreciative homes and I get to stay in my studio and paint. 

With the caveat that every painter will use these same ingredients differently, let’s see how it all adds up. I do love the texture of oil paint, so I tend to make sure it goes on visibly thick. If I’m working on a medium-sized 36” square painting as an example, I might spend $80 on a canvas, cover it with several tubes of paint that add up to $100-$120, and spend the better part of a week making sure I was happy with the result. If I have to ship it to a gallery, I’ll spend a couple hours crating and $50 shipping it, where it will be priced at something like $1400. If that painting sells (and for me that’s still an if—most pieces do eventually sell but not all, and some take years to find a home) I’m potentially $250 and three or four days of labour into a piece that will net me about $450 of revenue. That works out to about $14/hour which is less than my 16-year old son makes working at Starbucks.

I worry that this explanation will be read as a kind of complaint—it’s really not. I’ve made my choice to be an artist and I did so because I get so much more value out of my practice than just the money I get in return. Additionally, I want people to know that being an artist is a viable (if intense) way to make a living. In showing you these details, I only hope to increase the understanding and subsequent value of that piece you love as it hangs above the fireplace. Thoughtful art investments rarely go down in value, can be written off at tax time (for businesses in Canada), and never need a tune up even after years of enjoyment—ultimately that’s what makes the process worthwhile for me: the joy you all get from something I’ve made.