Painting How To: Money Matters

Of course it does! Treat your painting as a business. Keep track of what you spend and how much you earn. I’ve learned there are several ways you can make money in the artwork business, but many more ways you can spend it!  Probably the most important thing to do is to spend it wisely and enjoy what you spend it on.  I do believe you can actually combine business and pleasure to achieve great artwork!

One obvious expense everyone encounters is of course painting supplies.  Fortunately, watercolor artists experience less expenses for supplies than other artists. Most items can be purchased reasonably from mail-order outfits like Cheap Joe’s. But also consider seriously setting up an account with your local art store, since most of these are generally quite competitive.  Another source is to purchase stuff from other artists who want to get rid of stuff they no longer need.

Other expenses include memberships in artist associations, which are $25-$40/year. One of the reasons you should join these groups is that most sponsor art exhibits.  There’s almost always an entry fee for such exhibits, but it’s often less if you’re a member.  Since you don’t necessarily have to be a member to exhibit your work in art association exhibits, weigh the benefits of paying membership dues. If you’re not going to enter more than one exhibit each year, and you can’t/don’t want to attend meetings, it doesn’t make sense to pay dues.  On the other hand, if you really want to get to know other artists, are able and willing to attend these meetings, can be of service to such organizations, and want to enter monthly exhibits where you may get some in-house recognition, pay the dues!

watercolor painting of a lighthouse, lighthouse art, lighthouse painting

Click Picture to Purchase: "Beavertail Lighthouse, RI"

There are many watercolor artist associations you can join. Some are local, but there are many more out of town. The only reason you would want to join out-of-town groups is that they may be more prestigious. That is to say, getting into their exhibits and becoming one of their signature members is the principal way artists obtain formal recognition (See discussion on “Different Types of Art Exhibits”).

Of course, artists encounter a number of expenses other than entry fees for exhibits. First of all, you have to mat and frame your painting (See discussion on “Shipping & Handling Your Artwork”). And if you get your entry accepted, then you have to ship your painting back and forth from the exhibit venue.  Depending on its size and the urgency of delivery, this can amount to a fair bit of change.  Most organizations also charge a handling fee for your entry, which will be less if you use a standard packaging system.

The expense of having a studio is also something to consider. That’s one reason why I’m a plein-air painter! I have space at home where I operate my business, but if I have to do any painting, I go outside.  Thank heavens for Southern California weather! I only need a place where I can store my paintings, frames and other supplies.  In the beginning, I simply used my garage for storing all my supplies and paintings.  But eventually, I ran out of space and wanted a more secure location. The cost of storage space can be reasonable, but nonetheless, it’s another expense. (See discussion on “Storing Your Artwork”.)  The cost of renting studio space is a bit more!

An expense some artists will not have… but which most plein-air artists will… is the cost of traveling about to paint.  We have to go places.  But that’s not so bad. Going places is fun! If you like to travel, might as well bring along some painting tools so you can write-off a portion of the travel cost. Check with your accountant, but I generally write-off half my travel expenses when traveling and painting… traveling with my wife to visit friends and family.  When I’m on my own, I write-off all travel costs!  Keep all receipts for such trips in a separate envelope so you can account for these expenses when it comes time to prepare your tax return.

painting of a church, watercolor church

Click to Picture to Purchase: "Christ Church, Owensville, MD"

This brings us to the matter of recordkeeping and accounting. Early on, set up a checking account for your business.  Pay your expenses from this account and put any money you earn from sales of your artwork in it. If you don’t have enough income from your business, accept a personal loan. Keep a record of these loans. Pay them off as you’re able to. Later on, set up a charge account for your business when steady income starts coming in.

Also get the following:

1. an accountant to help you prepare your tax returns
2. a re-sales license
3. a sales receipt book that has carbon copies you can refer to when you need to calculate your gross income

Use your checking and charge accounts as records for expenses. Somewhere along the way, set up credit card accounts so your customers can charge their purchases rather than simply paying them by check or cash. People are more likely to buy your work if they can pay for it with a credit card.

harbor view painting, watercolor morro bay art, morrow bay painting

Click Picture to Purchase: "Harbor View, Morro Bay, CA"

An expense you’ll eventually run into is the cost of exhibiting your work at galleries. This cost may be an up-front rental fee, a sales commission, or both. Such commissions will vary. Find out up front what you will get in return for this commission (See further discussion under “Different Types of Art Exhibits”).

Another expense will be photographs and digital images of your work; unless, of course, you do this yourself. I made the decision up front to engage a professional photographer. I simply didn’t want to take on this responsibility; and I didn’t believe I had the skill to do it in the most professional manner. And though I’ve progressed through several different photographers along the way to find the one that best suits my needs, I’m convinced this was the best thing to do.  Realize there’s not only the cost of doing high quality photography, but also the cost of producing high quality prints (See further discussion under “Reproducing your Artwork”).

Costs for reproducing and exhibiting prints of your artwork will not only include photographing or scanning your artwork, but also printing, the cost of an over-mat, under-mat/backer, shrink-wrap, display racks, and some type of see-through protective covering (See further discussion on “Reproducing Your Artwork”.)

Then there’s the whole matter of pricing your work. I make a point of maintaining price integrity. I was told to do this early on by someone I respect.  The price of my original paintings and prints are all the same… based on their size… wherever they’re sold or whoever sells them: me, one of my agents, my church, or my art association. There’s no price distinction (except for those paintings that have received awards), regardless of the exhibit type (solo or group) or location (my home/studio, an art association or private gallery, whether local or distant). The prices are the same as those on my website. (See further discussion on “Marketing Your Artwork”).

Oro Park Painting, Montana de Oro Park Watercolor, painting by bay

Click Picture to Purchase: "View from Montana de Oro Park, Los Osos, CA"

Don’t confuse people by allowing them to buy work directly from you on the cheap. Be consistent, even though you may think this will result in less sales. You’ll never get decent agents to represent you if you have a reputation for doing this. Keeping the price of your artwork consistent will also encourage you to shop around and learn what a good commercial gallery can do for you. Also, don’t adjust the sales price of your artwork when you’re involved in some special “benefit” for a nonprofit. Instead, consider simply donating a portion of the sales price to the nonprofit organization.  Your income from such events may be less, but the tax deduction you can take when you file your tax return will generally offset any such loss in sales income.

If you plan to use a gallery, consider whether this makes sense in the light of other local venues which might exhibit your artwork. Many galleries want exclusive rights, which limits your use of other exhibit venues within the same marketing area.

Every artist learns very soon that 3×5 note-card reproductions of their artwork can’t sell for much more than $3.50, so I accepted that fact up front: note-cards are basically loss-leaders. When you include the cost of printing, amortization, photography, the cost of purchasing envelopes, polyethylene covers, and a display rack, it’s obvious you won’t make money on note-cards. I justify the cost of note-cards as an advertising expense, making sure, of course, that my name, address, phone number, and email address are printed on the back of each note-card.  More recently, I’ve made the conscious decision to reproduce note-cards in larger quantities because this substantially reduces the printing cost for individual note-cards.  Though the upfront cost is a bit more, in the long run it makes good business sense. It also provides me the larger inventory I need to have on hand.

Consider also framing some note-cards to get a better return on your investment. I discovered some small inexpensive frames with built-in “mats” that are less than 3×5 and which will accept my note cards.  People like these note-cards in frames.  I price them at $20, and thus make a decent profit.

Also, try making other reproductions of your artwork, for example, 7×10 prints. I place these between a 2-ply mat and backer with a bio pasted to the back, and stuff this assembly in a polyester envelope.  These unframed matted prints are priced at $70– $100, if framed.  I maintain a large inventory of these prints, and I’ve found them to be very marketable.  Whenever I complete a new painting, a print of it goes directly in this file. I spread these about on a table at any exhibit.

watercolor beach scene, beach scene art, Beach Scene at Montana De Oro

Click Picture to Purchase: "Beach Scene at Montana De Oro"

Check out how other artists price their prints. This should have nothing to do with the subject matter or quality of the artwork itself, only the production cost. If someone’s price is higher than yours, they’re spending too much money producing it!  If their price is less, find out how they are able to do it.  Maybe you’re paying too much for something! A good rule of thumb is to price your prints at twice your costs.

Understand, of course, that a full-size giclee print is different than one that’s only 7×10. A full-size print of a 22×30 painting reproduced on archival-quality paper… paper that most nearly resembles that which you painted upon… will be quite expensive. But the cost of an individual print will be less if you order several at a time.  Since the cost of producing and matting these larger high-quality giclee prints is high, you’ll find yourself in an entirely different market. People should expect to pay a great deal more for them.  You’ve got to be doing good work if you expect to sell full-size prints. I only make full-size prints of my very best work, of those paintings I have sold.

Accept the fact some artists are able to sell their prints when you cannot.  They’re able to do this because customers prefer their work. Learn to do better work!

With respect to original work, you’ll learn how to price it by comparing it with that of other artists. Consider not only the paintings themselves, but also the backgrounds of these other artists. How long have they been painting?  How many paintings do they produce over the course of a year? How much time do they put into each artwork?  Matters of size are also a factor.  Larger, successful works are more difficult to accomplish (Painters of miniatures, please don’t take offense!).

There’s no question the pedigree of a painting has value. One that’s received an award is worth more than one that has not.  How much more, depends on the number and nature of such awards, and the reputation of the jurors who selected your painting.  This argument is mute if your painting has received multiple awards… from national artist associations and prominent jurors.

Mango Dodd Park Painting, Shell Beach Painting, beach watercolor

Click Picture to Purchase: "View from Mango Dodd Park, Shell Beach, CA"

But in the final analysis, whether someone sees your painting determines whether it will sell… at any price! So, after all is said and done, we’re right back to the matter of exhibiting your work.  If you don’t exhibit your painting, it won’t sell!

But what if you don’t sell paintings you exhibit? Perhaps you’re not reaching the proper audience of viewers.  Consider different venues.  Maybe it’s not that great a painting!  Did you enter it in a competition?  Did it get an award?  What do your art instructors and colleagues think about it? (Make sure they’re up front about their criticism or compliments!). Consider not only the painting but also the way it’s presented. Some artists don’t know how to properly mat and frame their work. Consider also the subject matter.  Some audiences don’t like certain subjects; others do.

The same is true of jurors. Read up on who’s going to jury the exhibit you plan to enter. How does the juror paint?  What style? What medium?  What’s their usual subject matter?  What paintings got awards at the last exhibition they juried?  Did the juror ever give one of your paintings an award?  If the answer to this last question is yes, be sure to submit something! Do your homework and you’ll have a better chance at winning awards, getting recognition, and gaining the justification you need for increasing the price of your artwork!

halloween scene, halloween watercolor painting, pumpkin and building painting

Click Picture to Purchase: "Halloween Happenings"

Every artist must identify their own clientele. You can’t be everything to everyone! Target your audience! Some point along the way, you’ve got to be more selective. In the process of doing this you’ll most likely get clues about where to best exhibit your work, what subjects to paint, and even when and where to publish your work.

Find out why people buy your artworks. What was it about your artwork that led someone to purchase it? Was it the subject matter or the way you executed the painting? Was it the size of the painting?  The presentation?  The place where it was exhibited?  What circumstances led to the purchase?  Do you have some prior relationship with the buyer? Is there anything about you they like?  Find out the answers to these questions and consolidate your notes.  It may not only help you identify what you need to do, but lead to some commissions!

Commissions are another ball of wax. Having someone come to you and say they want you to do a painting is quite different than speculating on a painting, as most of us do. If you want to be successful financially at the business of producing artwork, this is certainly the best way to go.

I’ve had some success getting commissions for my artwork; not many, but enough for me to value these rewards. I didn’t have to prostitute myself in any manner. Quite the contrary. I found out I can often take a number of liberties with a commissioned painting. I’ve been able to try different techniques, introduce additional elements in the composition that improve it, etc.

Most of my commissions are, as you might guess, for buildings. That’s because people know I’m also an architect.  Commissions often lead to requests for reproductions… prints or note-cards the client needs for some particular purpose.  In one case, a client asked for several hundred note-cards. Note- cards sold in that quantity can provide you a very nice profit.

Teaching is another way to generate income. Knowing how to paint doesn’t necessarily make you a good teacher.  You have to be a helper, a friend, someone who can communicate your know-how, and, most important, someone who has helped produce some good artists. That’s asking a lot!  Most of us would be content with having achieved any one of these accomplishments.

Douglas Stenhouse also wrote a book about watercolor painting.

“I decided to write about how I paint, not only to share my observations with others, but also, frankly, to do some self- examination. I wish I had done this earlier in my life! But then, how was I to know I’d benefit from doing so, certainly at a time when I had no aspirations of becoming a professional artist.” 

To learn more about Doug’s Watercolor Painting Book, click here. To purchase a signed copy, use the link below.


Douglas Simms Stenhouse, watercolor artist, transparent water color art, watercolor painter, painting with water colors