Friday, December 18, 2009

The Cost of Art

Price is often a hotly debated subject in the art community. People often have their own ideas about how things should be priced. Some people price too low. Others price too high. Then there are those who constantly worry about how to price their work, always fearing that they're either too high or too low. They don't want to scare away customers with high prices, but don't want to undersell themselves, either.

Then there are the customers (or potential customers) themselves. There are people who are willing to pay the asking price because they feel that hand made goods are well worth it. Then there are those who think that hand made goods are no better than the mass produced things they can pick up at any store. Worse are those who think that hand made things are worth even less than that.

The thing is, it's hard to know how to price your work. Especially when you're just starting out. Selling your work can be an intimidating process, especially with so many conflicting opinions on how it should be priced.

My take on it is this. It takes a lot of work to make many hand made things. Hours of work in many cases. Also, very few artists spring forth with full knowledge and perfect technique. For jewelry specifically, there's a lot that has to be learned and practiced. Some people take classes, which are expensive. Others buy magazines, or books, like I did. Then you have the supplies. All of those lovely sparkling little beads cost money. The tools cost money. Good tools are expensive. A single pair of Lindstrom pliers can cost over $40. That's for one tool. One single tool in a craft that uses dozens.

Now, if you were paying me for the cost of my supplies alone, for those things I specifically turn into jewelry, you would not be paying me very much at all. A12"x6" sheet of solid copper costs around $13 from most places. I can get over a dozen pendants and dangles from one sheet of copper. Leather cord costs me $8 for several yards, from which I can produce about 10 necklaces. Then you get into the etching supplies. $9 for a bottle of etchant. $5 for a bottle of stop-out resist. I can etch several things from one bottle of etchant, and a bottle of resist can yield hundreds. Beads vary in price, but typically a necklace will use only two or three beads from a single 15" strand that usually has at least a dozen beads on it.

So why do I charge what I do for a single necklace that doesn't cost me that much to make? It's because you are not paying me just for my supplies. You are paying me $50+ for a necklace because of the time it took me to prepare everything. I hand cut those copper sheets into smaller pieces. I file their edges, polish them, and then draw the pictures I want to etch onto them and then paint over those pictures with resist. It takes me about half an hour to prepare one small piece of copper to be etched. The etching process takes at least an hour, sometimes longer as the etchant gets older and is used more.

Cleaning the etched piece takes time, and is a hazard to myself. Etchant and resist are both toxic substances. Breathing in copper dust while filing the edges can be dangerous as well.

The etched pieces have to be polished and drilled and polished again. Then if I want to oxidize them, that's more time and another toxic substance. They get polished another time, then put into a rock tumbler (which costs around $80 for a decent quality one, and then another $20 for the stainless steel shot that goes in it, and $5 for a bottle of Dawn dishwashing liquid that is also used for tumbling) for an hour or two. That is for one etched piece. One single etched piece of copper takes hours to make when you add it all together. We haven't even gotten into the rest of the necklace, yet.

The frame of the focal for the necklace has to be built. Copper wire ($13 for a 1lb roll of it) has to be cut, shaped, and then hammered (hammer and anvil, $23 for a good quality hammer and $15 for a small bench block anvil). The stones are wired into place. Individual pieces are wired together. I have to make sure the wrapping is smooth, tight, and even. Then comes the process of polishing and oxidizing and tumbling. I have to make the clasps. Then, when everything is ready, I cut the leather cord to length, put on the clasp, and wire the focal to the cord. One completed necklace.

Oh, but we're not done just yet. I have to photograph the necklace from multiple angles (with my $250 camera that eats batteries like candy, so I bought the more expensive rechargeable batteries and a charger for them). The pictures are saved to the large SD card ($30), and then uploaded to my computer. I have to crop the photos and re-size them. Then comes to the process of listing, in which I have to describe the piece, upload the photos, and then pay the listing fee.

Most of all, you're paying for my skill. It took me years of work, of practicing, of wear and tear on my hands and my tools to get to where I am today. It took buying books and doing research. My skill as a painter comes into play when I draw and then paint those little pictures on the copper. Have you ever taken a really good look at an artist's hands? Mine are often stained, the skin cracked and rough, my nails kept short as possible. There are lots of tiny scars on my fingertips. I always have some fresh cut or scab. I also have a hell of a grip thanks to handling the heavier gauges of wire. This is because I can do what you cannot, and that's take those toxic substances and copper sheet and pieces of wire and leather and strands of beads and turn them into something wearable, something that will last a lifetime or longer.

After it's all said and done, when someone buys one of my necklaces, they're buying something utterly unique. Even if I replicate a design I've done before (which I do not often do), it will not be exactly like the previous piece. The wire never bends the same way twice. Stones vary in pattern and color. An etched picture won't ever turn out the same if I do another one in that style.

If someone doesn't want to pay that much for a single necklace, that's fine. I can understand that. Everyone has priorities and what they'll spend money on and what they won't. It's just that so many artists hear the dreaded words "I can buy that from Wal-Mart for $10!" that it tends to become a sore spot in the community. No one likes having the work of their heart compared to something you could buy off of any store shelf for a low, low price. That is what the art community wants people to understand. It's not just the parts. It's the labor...and since art is often a labor of love, hearing your work declared to be worth so very little hurts so very much.

I will leave you all on that note, because I feel the need to go play a round of Dragon Age ($50) before retiring for the evening to cuddle with my fiance (priceless).

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