I’m not the first person to write this, and I certainly won’t be the last…

Nonetheless, it must needs be said.


Ok, so we’ve all seen the “For exposure” twitter accounts, and heard the “Artist dies of exposure” jokes. On the other hand we’ve also heard innumerable “You charge too much!” and rants about “uppity artists who should just be doing it for the love of the art.”

Lets be clear. This is not just about you, the individual artist and creator. This is a moral imperative, and effects everybody else that would like to make a living, or even just a few extra bucks, with their art.

Every time you devalue your own art, you create a marketplace of false values, that brings down the work of everybody else in that market.

But first, lets talk work, and the value there of.

Anybody who has spent any amount of time looking for work, particularly starting out, has become aware of the difference in pay between trained/experienced positions, and untrained or “entry” level positions. You can get a job with no experience needed… but the hours will probably suck, and you’ll be making minimum wage. If you’re lucky, and you’ve got an applicable degree under your belt, you’re likely to skip the first couple years worth of pay raises and get in at something a little closer to a living wage. If you’ve got experience, you might even be able to do better than that.

To throw some numbers at that, lets take a hypothetical “average American restaurant.” The average server/host position averages out to about 21k/year, or about $10/hr. (I’m not sourcing these because these numbers are all VERY rough, and they are largely for demonstration) The average line cook, somebody with some basic training and or expereince, jumps up a couple bucks an hour to about $12/hr, or about 25k/year. A chef, on the other hand, which is to say somebody who went to culinary school or has a much more significant amount of professional kitchen experience, is likely to make closer to 34k/year, or about 16/hour.
There’s more to it than that, though. That waiter that’s fresh off the street, or even the line cook, is not likely to get much, if anything, in the way of benefits. The chef, however, is expected to have at least a minimum level of compensated insurance, etcetera, so their actual hourly work value is significantly higher.

What’s the point of all this?

Well, it’s simple. Not only should you get paid for the work you do, but your pay should reflect the preparation, experience, and training that has already gone into it. Yes, the market has a say on how things are valued. That’s why the line cook at a fancy steak house, might just make as much or more than the head chef at a chain bistro.

Nobody in this imaginary average restaurant, however much they love what they are doing, are doing it for free, nor should they. It’s work, even if you love it. It takes training, and experience, to get good at it, no matter how transient or unnecessary it is. So they are compensated. (I’m not going to get into the horrid way we treat workers in this country, so lets just leave it at, even this is a MINIMAL compensation and should be addressed as well.)

So lets talk about you, the artist, and your commission. More importantly, lets talk about what you SHOULD be charging for it.

Now, many of you here, have probably seen my art (over at Hey Fox) and know that my first love is not visual arts. That said, I’m going to come at this from a bit more of a reductive, business side of things. There’s going to be some stuff in here that might seem a bit ridiculous, and some that is definitely going to make you a bit uncomfortable, but please, trust me, and keep reading.

This is important.

This is on you.

We all need your help.

You need to value your art, your product, correctly.

I’m going to use some more numbers here, based off of some averages, and some broad sweeps. What applies to you specifically will, in all likelihood, be different. That said, I stand by the overall arguments, and believe that you can plug in the numbers that are appropriate to you and your location.

Like we used a fictional restaurant in the example above, I’m going to use a fictional artist here. Somebody who does commissioned works, a variate of subject and content, as requested by their customer. Although I’m mostly going to use terms around drawing/painting and visual arts, remember that these apply to any creative endeavor, be it musical, sculptural, knitting a blanket, writing a story, or whatever.

Our artist has a commissioned work. It’s a full color, single character portrait. It takes them about 5 hours to sketch it out, line it, ink it, and color it. In the end they have a fine digital image, that they have printed up on nice stock and shipped to their commissioner. A good days work, all around. They charge a very modest $50 for all this work.

At first glance, this might not seem to be too far out of reason. A bit expensive even, compared to some commissions that go around. Heck, that’s like… $10/hour even, right?

Not really.

5 hours of work on the final product doesn’t take into account large chunks of the time spent on this project, not to mention the hidden costs of a work like this, even one that’s all digital!

Here’s a more realistic look at goes into a commission like this:
– back-and forth communications with the commissioner, getting to understand the subject matter, what they want.
– gathering references, doing whatever other research is required for this subject.
– rough sketches that are sent to the commissioner and scrapped as they pin down exactly what they’re looking for.
– printing, packing, and shipping the final product.

Time wise, now we’re closer to this:
5 hrs – dedicated art time
2 hrs – negotiations/communications
1 hrs – research/prep
2 hrs – roughs/sketches
1 hrs – printing/shipping/cleanup

Even if we consider that, working largely digitally, the negotiation time and printing time can be spent working on other projects, and cutting those in half to reflect that efficiency of work, we’re now looking at a more realistic time commitment around 9-1/2 hours.
Now that $50 price tag is closer to $5.25/hour. That’s like half of minimum wage.
That sucks!
And that’s assuming that the artist lives in a place where that “average” minimum wage applies. If they happen to live in a big city, they’re probably closer to 1/3 of minimum wage than just half!

So what should they be charging?
Part of that, if you’ll recall our restaurant example, has to do with their experience and the quality of their work. This is where that whole “market forces” comes into it… but remember, those are things that increase the value of the work, not decrease it.

Lets say, this is a self-taught artist, and their art is fairly average in offering. The “minimum wage” worker here. Just to make it simple we’ll just use $10/hour. About average. That means this full color work, printed and shipped, should have gone for more like $95.
If the artist is experienced, gone to art school for example, or has built an audience, they should be charging something much closer to $12 or $15/hour. And if they are very eperienced, have an extensive audience, etcetera… Then they should be much closer to $20 or $25/hour!
Wow! (I hear some straw-man moan) But that’s so much more than the hypothetical chef. Why is an artist’s time so much more expensive!?
Remember those benefits? See, the artist, working for $20/hour isn’t getting health care, or paid time off, or anything like that. All of that comes out of whatever money they make, cash in hand. The “take home pay” might look like it’s much more, but in the end, it tends to actually be less than that step up in pay for the worker working for a company.

So lets take a look at those rates now.
Casual – about $95
Expereinced/building – about $140
Professional – $190 – $240

Sounds like a lot! That’s a really big difference!

But wait… There’s more!

See, all we’ve actually taken into account here, is the hours spent at work. That’s just the time. There’s a lot more that goes into making something than that!
If you’re working in traditional media, there is all of the paper, paints, pencils, inks, etcetera that you use.
Yarn, cloth, clay, or whatever you spend!
Even when working entirety digitally, there is the computer you’re using, specialized hardware, and software!
All of these things are costs on the work you are doing!

Now lets pretend that you’re making art, this way, full time. 40 hours a week, 52 weeks per year. Figure you’re going to have to replace your whole computer rig about once every 4 years. You don’t do this all at once, but piece by piece, when and where you can.
Lets say our artist has a drawing tablet (about $1000) a workable computer rig (another 1000) and some professional art and editing software (about $500/year). That gives us a total cost of about 4k/4 years.
Therefore, there’s another thousand dollars of materials costs that have to be integrated. If they’re booked solid, that’s only another $0.50/hour… But lets be honest, they’re probably not… So at minimum, you want to add another buck an hour there, so pump all those estimates by another $10 or so.

So, what’s the takeaway from all this?

Our imaginary artist should have charged $150 for their $50 commission?

No. That’s not actually it. They likely did undercharge, and significantly, but there are a lot of other factors. Like I said, some mean that they should charge more, but some mitigate the other way. Plenty of artist friends of mine have lamented something to the effect of “If I charge what it’s worth, they wouldn’t pay it,” “Well, it was for a friend and I didn’t want to charge them so much,” or the like. And while you are building your audience, or making exceptions for a friend, or whatever, there is good reason to charge less.
What you should always do in these cases, however, is to make sure that you are clear HOW MUCH you have discounted the work. I’m not saying that you should give somebody a gift and follow it up with “You know, that’s liek a hundred bucks worth of work…” But what I do mean is that your commission sheets, your negotiated prices, and the like, should include “This is what the value of this work is, but for X reason (sale, exception for you, whatever) I’m going to mark it down by this much.”

There are always mitigating factors. “I don’t want to make a living at this, just make a few bucks for con” or whatever. People who are still learning and aren’t ready to charge full price. Whatever. Just remember that you MUST be aware of what other artists in your market are doing. Every time you undercharge for your time, and your effort, and your experience, materials, etcetera… You are hurting their chances of being able to make a living doing what they love. It’s all good to be kind, but be AWARE of the value of what you are giving away, and recognize it. Make sure your commissioners and customers do as well.