The Price of Art

rat swarm 72dpi

Above: Recent drawing of a man being attacked by rats for an upcoming book being published by Goodman Games. Sharp eyed observers may notice this fellow bears a certain resemblance to The Klartesh Fiend of the Hobonomicon. That is not an accident.

I get questions from people who want to buy art as to how much art should cost (and I also get questions from other artists trying to suss out how much I charge… but I’ve noticed other artists are pretty cagey when I ask them that same question so I am not sure if answering the question honestly is ensuring that I will then get underbid on a future projects). And I want to answer those questions clearly but it’s hard to understand how complicated art pricing is until you try to do it.

I don’t want to sound condescending (and just by saying that I already do sound condescending), but a lot of first time art buyers don’t understand the difference between “reproduction rights” and “ownership of the original.” “Reproduction rights” (also called “usage”) is what publishers tend to buy. If I sell you the right to use a picture I drew in a book you are publishing (or on a t-shirt or a poster or whatever) you are buying just that – the right to use the picture. You don’t get to keep the original artwork itself… legally, that needs to be returned to the artist (and these are not just my rules, there are US copyright laws governing the rights of artists and creators). “Ownership of the original” means you are buying the artwork itself (a physical object like a painting, drawing, etc.). If you buy a Frank Frazetta painting, you get the right to hang it on your wall. You don’t automatically get the right to sell reproductions or license the image for use on book covers, album covers, T-Shirts, etc. When I have a new client I always have to find out whether they want to own the “thing” or they want to own reproduction rights. I often feel stupid asking the question because people who are getting into self publishing don’t understand what I am getting at.


Artists proportion scale. There are two parts and they twist so you can see how an image will scale up or down depending on how much you enlarge/reduce it.

Once I establish what the customer wants, I need to generate a price. I used to just charge a set rate… x number of dollars for a BW drawing of such-and-such a size, half that for a drawing half that size, etc. I soon discovered this was a bad way of doing things since I sometimes ended up spending a lot of time on a small drawing which would pay me very little when compared to a larger drawing. And it needs to be mentioned that I am always drawing things larger than they will appear in print — in order to get a good image for 8.5×11 size reproduction, my original needs to be at least 11×14 or larger. To keep the proportions right, I use an artist’s proportion scale (which is a wheel-like calculator thing that you can use to make sure the image that you draw in a larger scale will properly fit a smaller space). So my new method is to try to figure out how long I think a certain drawing will take, then multiply that by what I hope is a fair hourly rate and then adjust the total to something that I feel is more realistic (in other words, I regret to say I usually feel compelled to discount my own work). This is a terrible system, but it is better than any other of pricing system I have used.

This system is terrible because I am a notoriously bad estimator of how much time it will take me to do anything and I always seem to think it will take me less time than it actually will. Unfortunately, clients always seem to need to know what an illustration will cost before I even start it. It’s also a bad system since the more I work at a skill like drawing, the better I get at it and then I can accomplish more good work in less time — which means that if I price my work based on time, as I get to be a better artist I am earning less money per drawing since I am doing better work in less time. It is also a bad system because it is not always clear to me what is art time and what isn’t. Sometimes, if I get stuck on a drawing, I might take one of my dogs outside or make myself a cup of coffee and think about whatever it is I am getting stuck on. If I manage to get the self discipline to do this (instead of trying to force myself to continue to draw even tho I am stuck), I often manage to solve the problem… but then we wonder, if the client is paying for a drawing, should they also pay me for the time I spent thinking about how to make that drawing or should they just be paying for the time I spend rubbing pencils and pens across the paper? Similarly, if I spend time looking for pictures of interesting shaped hats for a specific drawing, should that be on my time or on my client’s time? What about all the time spent scanning the artwork or communicating with the client and trying to figure out what it is they want? I think what I am trying to say is that figuring out what a drawing should cost is really hard.

I don’t remember who said it, but some famous artist person said (I paraphrase), “You are not paying me for the time it took me to make that drawing. You are paying me for the time it took me to learn how to draw like that.” Which I guess is the philosophy that should be driving my pricing but I am not at that point yet.

3 Comments on “The Price of Art”

  1. As one of those other artists trying to assess the rates you and other artists charge for work, I can say I certainly respect the rates you do charge, and would even suggest that your rates should be higher. Doubtless our mutual client will not be pleased with that suggestion!

    • Stefan says:

      Yeah, well, what are you going to do? If one is a publisher and you like working with a certain artist, wouldn’t you want to pay them enough to keep them loyal to you and in the game? If the artist can’t pay the bills, they can’t keep illustrating your books and you have to find someone else.

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