The Artist as Historian

Studio musings -- A friend and I were talking last summer about my paintings, the process of creating them and being creative in general. She doesn’t paint and I told her that I see painting as a method – a learnable skill – for communicating.

I also told her that I don't even think of my work as being creative. I feel that I am documenting or translating something that Mother Nature or God or whom or whatever, has already created. This beautiful thing already exists; I am just putting it on canvas. In a way, this diminishes my involvement in each piece. I don’t have to have the idea of what to create and claim no credit for the inspiration for my paintings. However, I don’t feel that this diminishes my craft or what I am doing – it certainly doesn’t bother me – it just changes how I think about my role or my title. Artist? Yes, without question. But am I creative? Am I generating the ideas? Not in this case. I am recording them.

I have always been compelled to document places that are important to me. Up until my early twenties, though, I wrote about them. I am not sure why I switched mediums, but it was the same overwhelming feeling coursing through my body – a visceral response to natural beauty – and a need to preserve it in something more tangible and permanent than my memory.

Some artists struggle with the business side of being a working artist. Sure, I struggle to sell as much as I want, and balance time between efforts to grow the business and actually paint, and I struggle to input my receipts into Freshbooks in a timely manner, but I definitely don’t struggle with the idea of it being a business. I think that is because, to some degree, I don’t feel ownership of my paintings. And I don’t see the work as precious – the paintings are just records of landscapes that I didn’t create or even have the ideas for. There will always be another landscape that calls me to paint it, and I will paint it – helping, like a historian, to document what our beautiful earth looked (and hopefully, felt) like at a moment in time.

Pricing: A how-to for artists just starting out

Disclaimer: I’m relatively new to selling art, don’t sell in galleries, and am not yet making a living as an artist so, take all that into consideration. I am not saying I have the right answer, I’m just sharing what I’m doing.

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Pricing has been one of the hardest things for me as an artist and I know it’s hard for others, especially when they are first starting out. In the interest of helping other artists, I thought I would share a bit about my pricing structure. Maybe this is poor form, maybe collectors aren’t supposed to know what’s under the kimono, but I’ve benefited a lot from other artists sharing their knowledge and I like transparency. 

It is commonly advised to price based on size and (with rare exception) to price all paintings of any given size the same. I follow this advice. Sure, you may like one 30”x40”painting more than another 30”x40” and one may have taken longer than the other, but prospective buyers don’t know that – and don’t need to. Seeing price discrepancies on two paintings that are the same size and caliber will confuse them and may make you look untrustworthy and unprofessional.

My first step in developing my pricing was to set the price for an 18”x24” painting. It is roughly in the middle of the sizes I paint and it is popular with my buyers. My other prices are based off this first price; as such, this step is the hardest and most important.

This price is based off several factors and you can find equations galore about summing materials cost, labor, overhead, profit, and then multiplying by two, etc. I’m not going to lie – I’m not quite that organized with my expenses and didn’t set this first price off any such formula. 

Expenses: I know how much a canvas costs (a lot), I know how much paint costs (a lot), I know how long my paintings take me (a long time) and what kind of hourly wage I want to make (something I can actually live on), how much Facebook ads cost and business cards, and how much time I spend managing my Instagram and responding to email inquiries and going to festivals, etc., so I take all those things into account. For me, that’s kind of the ‘duh’ part. Even if you’re really, really just starting out and selling art as a hobby, you definitely need to cover your expenses and, ideally, your time.

Competition: You also need to know what other artists at your skill level and with a similar level reputation are selling their work for. Look at festivals, look at coffee shops, look at galleries, look online. Study up. Figure out what a reasonable range is. Of course, having the lowest price is not the answer to selling more. In fact, if your art is priced too low, potential buyers may think there is something wrong with it. Everyone is always suspicious of something that seems too good to be true. Also, if they are trying to invest in art or just want to feel proud of the new painting they have on their wall, that feeling is not going to be based on having bought the cheapest thing they could find. 

Confidence: This might be the hardest part. You need to feel good about your prices. You need to be excited to sell the painting at that price and you need to be excited for the client to get the painting at a fair price. You need to be able to tell someone the price of your painting without hesitation. Without adding, sheepishly, “I mean, the canvas itself was $60!” This part is SO hard. So many times, I’ll look at a painting and say, “Damn right that’s a good painting that should cost $500!” The next minute, I’ll turn around, look at again and say, “Who am I to think I could charge $500 for that little painting? I’m not in that league.” Constant battle. I’m not saying you should positive self-talk your way into high prices. Go back to those first two components (expenses and competition). Know the true value of your work and when you land on your prices, own them.

So…let’s say you’ve set that first price. Next, calculate what that comes to as a price per square inch. When I first did this a couple years ago, I decided I wanted to sell my 18”x24s” for $250. That felt like a good price for my skill level, my history of selling and I knew I was definitely covering my material costs. That comes out to be about 58 cents per square inch. If you want all your paintings to be the same price per square inch, boom! You’re done. Just multiply each size’s total square inches by whatever that price per square inch is. 

But, I didn’t like that approach. I figure every painting has some fixed costs that don’t change based on its size. You have to drive to the store or order the canvas online (please tell me you’re buying in bulk to save money and time) and it doesn’t matter whether that canvas is 5” or 5’ – that time cost of acquiring the canvas is the same. Also, let’s say you paint from photos of landscapes, like me. You have to go out and get those photos, or have that inspiration and again, it doesn’t matter if you’re painting something tiny or huge, it still took an hour of sitting in your car watching the clouds to get that perfect photo. And then there is the mental courage of walking into your studio and opening up that first tube of paint. 

All that to say, I increased my price per square inch for my smallest paintings. Do this in Excel so it’s easy to just try different numbers in your calculations. You can play with the numbers until you get prices you like. Or, set the price for your smallest painting by saying, “You know it’s really not worth it for me to sell something for less than X.” Then, use that price per square inch as your small-painting number.

The opposite is true with my biggest paintings; historically, I have given a pretty big “volume discount” – the price per square inch goes down substantially on the big guys (but I'm changing that). You can decrease price per square inch linearly or you can have a couple or few prices per square inch: one for your smallest sizes, one for your middle sizes and one for your largest. 

Make sense? Thoughts? Maybe next time I'll write about raising prices... Leave a comment here or shoot me an email at catherine@catherinefreshleyart.com.

30 paintings in 30 days: Day 31

Well, here we are, January 31st, the end of my second 30 paintings in 30 days challenge. I have to say that I’m glad it’s over. There were too many days that I didn’t have anything to share with my lovely readers and that was stressing me out a little bit because I didn’t want to let you down and I don’t like failing at things I set out to do. But! I am happy about the paintings I was able to complete this month and the ones I made big strides on, as well as the fact that I have exercised 20 of the last 23 days, and that, for some unknown reason, my husband is especially interested in going on walks lately – never going to say "no" to that!

Here is the painting I am working on today. If it looks familiar, it is because it is the 7th painting I have done from the same five minutes of photo taking. This one is 20"x20." Here is another take on the scene, at a smaller scale.

Most of the paintings I did this month and still have in progress are for the Oklahoma City Festival of the Arts, which is April 24-30 (side note, I will turn 30 during the festival!), but I’ve decided to make a few available. I’ll be sending my monthly newsletter out to my entire list later this afternoon, so act quick if you see something that tickles your fancy. My website host has been a little moody this afternoon, so hopefully my site isn't down when this email goes out. If it's acting up, just be patient and persistent.

Are you only signed up to receive my 30 in 30 emails? Let's not let today be the end. Sign up to get my monthly updates here

Thanks so much for your support and encouragement. It keeps me going. xo

"Ooh baby, baby it's a wild world"

Enid December Sunset - Available here

I freaking love this one. If you buy it, I might have to come over every now and again and just look at it. Hope you don't mind.

Late Summer Sky #2 - Available here

Not Oklahoma

Willamette View - Available here

Wood panel painting

Memorial Day #6 - Available here

30 paintings in 30 days: Day 29

Today I primarily worked on the painting that I started on Thursday. It is hard to appreciate in this small photo, but I think I spent at least two hours just working on the blue of the sky -- making sure I had enough paint on the canvas, getting the colors right and creating a nice, smooth transition from light to darker blue. The blue at the top of the painting is more of a cobalt than is reflected here (both the hue and the tint change from bottom to top).

I've got two more days to wrap up some of the many unfinished paintings I have clogging up my studio space. Jury's still out on how I feel about what I have accomplished this month. 

30 paintings in 30 days: Day 28

Today's painting is a commission for one of our friends here in Enid. These friends have an amazing westward view and this painting will depict a sunset from their back porch. She gave me about a novel of notes on exactly what she wants, with references to my other paintings. She was worried that it would be overwhelming, but the notes will be helpful. Here is the painting in progress; it's 15"x30."

Now, we're headed to Stillwater with a few friends (including the commission-er) to watch an Oklahoma State men's basketball game and get dinner. Have a great weekend!

30 paintings in 30 days: Day 27

Today's painting is at that super-important resting phase; I don't see anything about it that I want to change (okay, maybe the road needs to get a little lighter as it get farther away), but it is too soon to call it done.

October Kansas Drive - 24"x36"

Speaking of that resting phase...I've had the painting below hanging right there for a week. I wanted to love it, and I almost did, but it just wasn't quite right. I knew it was something about the dark green foreground. (Note that the photo below is slightly lighter/brigher than the actual painting.)

After cleaning my studio this morning, I pulled the painting off the wall and added some green-gold to the near foreground to help create depth and to add variation to the color. And that, my friends, was the answer!

Happy freaking Friday!

30 paintings in 30 days: Day 25

I am so excited about today's painting -- well, excited about how it will (hopefully) turn out. The photo is amazing and if the painting looks half as good, I'll be thrilled. As you can see I've just barely started the painting. It's 36"x36" and will be a great "window" on a wall.

Here is the reference photo.

Believe it or not, I have already painted three other paintings from this same day and they look totally different. I took all these photos in the span of an hour. What you see above is our view as we were driving north, with a storm approaching from the southwest. The painting below is looking southwest at the oncoming storm.

August Oncoming Storm - 24"x48" - Available here

And then this painting below is after the storm had passed and was moving away from us. It was my first painting from September's 30 in 30 challenge and it's still available.

Gravel Road Drive - 10"x10" - Available here

Tomorrow is not looking good for painting. I'm headed to The Collective to take down my show that has been hanging since November. I'll also be meeting with an artist friend to talk shop as well as taking a conference call for a freelance project from a coffee shop and maybe popping into some galleries.

30 paintings in 30 days: Day 24

I'm back on the wagon today. Sorry for letting you down yesterday. I painted the edges of some canvases, did two mock-ups for commissions and spent 3+ hours at my office filing papers and organizing. But today...I have a wild Oklahoma sunset for you that is "hot off the press." It's 12"x12" on a 2" deep wood panel.

Here is the reference photo, from a December trip to Lowe's. I remember the color below the clouds being more mint than what you see below and in the painting, the color is more minty (not as bright) as what was captured in my photo of it. Poor camera didn't know what to do with all those crazy colors.

30 paintings in 30 days: Day 22

Today's painting is "done" -- the composition is finished and I am happy with the colors, but there are a couple little things I want to clean up to make it look a little more polished. But, for all intents and purposes, it's done.

January Dusk - 16"x20" - $350

I haven't been releasing new paintings for sale since I am working toward having a full display at the Festival of the Arts. But, I am feeling confident in the pace I am keeping and think this sweet painting would make a nice Valentine's Day gift. So, I am willing to let this one go. I am not listing it for sale in my shop section and am just sharing today that it will be available, so let me know if you are interested.

I painted this from a photo I took in my go-to photo spot on Friday night. I was driving home from the library at dusk and pulled over to snag a handful of great reference photos. Here is another one of the photos.

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