There is a really problematic culture of artists underpricing their commissions online – though I’m sure this practice extends towards the ‘real world’. A fun fact before we start: the internet is actually part of the ‘real world’. If you don’t think that industry artists are also underpaid and undervalued, then I’m not sure what to say to you and you should probably quit reading while you’re ahead.
Pricing low in and of itself, isolated from the context of the kind of expectations that accompany low pricing for artwork, is not really problematic. What IS problematic, what MAKES it problematic is the fact that (as far as my experiences and the experiences of artists I know have made clear to me):
- People expect cheaply priced artwork to be the norm.
This raises all kinds of issues:
Because of this belief, it is then only reasonable that people tend to strongly believe that appropriately priced work – and I am talking about when an artist decides to price themselves according to a standard minimum wage, while also accounting for their time, effort & level of skill – is actually overpriced.
This lends credence to the very popular (and unfortunate) mindset that art is not a ‘real’ job. It is a real job. But you, as a client or a consumer, probably find it difficult to even entertain the notion it is a real job. Why? Because if you have ever bought artwork online or otherwise, you will have never paid for a piece as if it was the product of a ‘real’ job or service.
When worth and value in our society is tied so closely to money, how can you think art is a real job when what you pay does not even come close to approaching what you would pay others for a ‘real’ job, a ‘real’ skill, service, product (all of which art is?) You are even afforded a choice to continue to believe that art is not a real job. There might be one artist charging appropriately for their work, but hundreds of others aren’t. I doubt one in a sea of many is enough to convince you of the worth of art.
I feel artists charging so lowly for their work breeds an attitude of entitlement in clients. This manifests in the messages artists receive begging them to lower their prices, telling them their art isn’t worth x or y, showing shock at the extravagant amounts that artists ask for their work (‘extravagant’ often being ‘enough to buy one meal in return for six or seven hours of work’). It does not help that art is often marketed as ‘cheap’ therefore worth buying (‘you should commission this artist, their work is so cheap and affordable!’) versus the fact it is worth buying because it is beautiful, custom-made, one-of-a-kind, everything else that art is and can be.
It is absolutely demeaning and almost humiliating to be at the whims of clients who asks for a thousand changes to their commission, who is picky, fussy, disrespectful, and who is trying utmost to get their money’s worth, when they have paid you $10. $10 for work that is already going to take you a good 3 or 4 hours, and then you have to spend MORE time on top of that dealing with their difficulties. The worst part is that most artists expect this. That this is the kind of client you must cater to when you’re working for $2 an hour (if you’re lucky). I know artists are terrified of raising prices because they fear they will lose clients, but are the literal scrooges of people the kind of client base you want to build?
“Finally, don’t work for cheap people. It is widely agreed among artists that the majority of the time, the less a client pays, the less they respect you and the more they will dick you around. If somebody thinks that image, which I’d guess to be at least an hour or two’s work, isn’t worth paying the measley sum of $7, which is like, what, the price of a bowl of soup and a coffee at a cafe? They don’t value your work and are not worth working for.”
Then there are absolute illogicalities that arise in pricing due to the pressure of keeping prices low. Why on Earth, for example, is it that almost every single artist will charge less than double the amount for a piece that involves more than one character? Almost every artist I know has confessed that it is more difficult to draw two characters interacting in the same image than it would be for them to draw two entirely separate, singular characters in different images. And yet everyone charges 50% of the base price for an added character. How does that make sense?! It doesn’t. Think about it. I think this example speaks a lot about how art is valued (the fact that it isn’t).
The lack of appropriate monetary value assigned to art also makes it broadly valueless in other areas. There is this uncomfortable attitude that art is not a real job, that anyone can do it, that it is wrong for artists to profit off their own work, that it is wrong for artists to own their own work. Do you think I am being melodramatic?
This kind of unsettling, depressing culture is played out on Tumblr almost every day – artwork that is reposted, edited, unsourced. The deletion of artist comments because what we say about our own work doesn’t matter. We don’t matter. Art is only of value when it is divorced from its creator.
I don’t think people think a lot, or much, or at all about the process of creating artwork. Maybe if they did they would understand that there was a PERSON who poured some of their time, effort, and skill into it. I think people have some kind of disconnect between artwork/artist, as if artwork is produced separately from the artist. This is just a theory, but since I struggle to understand why some people are so adamantly against paying more than $20 for a piece of quality work, this is the best explanation I can come up with. I can understand, because if people think that art is separate from the artist, why bother paying the artist or giving credit to them? If they exist as separate entities, why even care?
I’m not suggesting that there are any quick-fixes to these kinds of problems. There isn’t. I’m not encouraging artists to raise their prices or people to pay more. Though both those things would be very nice, I don’t feel it really addresses the underlying issues. What came first, underpriced art or undervaluing art? Who knows.
I think people are in need of an attitude adjustment, more than anything. I think I would be far more comfortable with artists charging lower prices if people actually acted in a way where they realise that it is a privilege and not a right. That it is a privilege to be able to buy art, which is a LUXURY – it is not a right afforded to you. You do not have permission to act like a spoilt child because you cannot afford someone’s work. You do not have any right to assign arbitrary values to someone’s art according to your own ludicrous attitudes to the worth of art.
I would also be much more comfortable if I knew that all artists were also acutely aware of the culture of underpricing, especially so that they know that they do not have to put up with the poor attitudes that often accompany clients that pursue cheaply-advertised artwork. If these two things worked in tandem, I am pretty sure that everyone would have an easier time in regards to commissions.
Lots of artists have talked about art pricing, and I suggest these for further reading (especially as they complement & provide further understanding about the issues I’ve raised here):
- Art, Mass Production, and You
- Why is Undercharging a Bad Idea?
- Commissions, Pricing and Why It’s Unfair
- Viivus explains why she charges what she does for her commissions
And since I feel a lot of my gripes with underpriced artwork (and what artists have to put up with as a result of that) can be alleviated by manners, here are some articles on commission etiquette: