I have answered this question hundreds of times wearing different hats: as a private art teacher, as a gallery director, as a professional artist and as a friend. Each time, I have given a different answer. It is not that I want to slither out of giving a straight answer. But to answer the question honestly, first, I need to separate the subjective artistic value of the artwork from the objective commercial value of the product. Because, as we stand today, the art market is a very speculatively and subjective big mess.
In this chaotic environment called the art world, I made every mistake under the sun when it came to price my work. It has been very difficult. The art market is whimsical thing that changes with every new fad. I have tried to learn from each mistake and adjust my approach to understand the real value of my art as a weather vane catching the wind. For a long time, I have been searching for a constant variable that can stabilize my growth as an artist. After all, you cannot sustain financial growth, if you do not know what is driving it. The big surprise was that until I was able to put my artist ego aside, I was not able to see a logical method to price my own work and, as a gallery director, to price the work of other artists.
Since art dealers and galleries took over from the artist and became the intermediary in the sale of the art product, the price of art has been driven by third-party hype and artist ego. Marketing hype makes money for the seller and the artist because it creates demand for an artistic product in the short run. But hype is rarely sustainable. It cripples the artist career by reducing the access and price range of collectors in the long run. Most galleries put too much money trying to build up their artist roster pampering the artists’ egos to maximize short term gains. No wonder so many art galleries close as fast they open. The artist ego could be a great creative force to produce a unique body of work, but it is a blinding poison for financial growth. It is the main reason why many artists cannot make a living selling their art. The “starving artist” image is nothing, but great artistic skills engulfed by larger egos basking in the ignorance of financial value.
In order to price our art correctly, we must look at our creation like any other product. Let me be clear, I am not talking of watering down or selling out the integrity of your creative process and art. Many great artists have produced bodies of work with intangible or negative commercial value to the artist during their time that have impacted and influenced the course of society. There is nothing more important than that. All I am saying is that there is an objective financial value in each creation beyond hype and ego.
The real price of art depends on several factors. First, who makes the art determines skill level. The higher the skill level is, the higher the price should be. Second, type, size and the quality of the supplies used to produce the artwork determines the production cost and durability of the artwork. A drawing should cost less than a bronze sculpture by the same artist or artists of similar skill level. Third, the concept, composition and style of the artwork determines labor time. An impressionist painting takes less time than a classical painting of similar subject and size created by artists of similar skill level. Finally, market demand determines the commercial value of the art in a specific region.
Thus, the answer to the question above is simple honesty.
Put your ego aside and first determine your skill level: student, emerging artist, mid-career artist, established artist, master of the universe, sacred cow. Second, determine the production cost of the piece and the longevity of the product that you are creating. If you are making an amazing ephemeral piece of art made from recycle materials, that is great. But few collectors will pay big dollars for it. Third, determine the time that it took you to create the product. The real active time. Not the time that the painting was drying on the easel or you were smoking a joint to get inspired. Finally, determine the demand for your product. Do some research. There is a market for everyone. Find your niche. Add them up and that is the commercial value of your art.
Artists are not special people. We are specialized people. Art is not a magical product. It just another consumer product: sometimes, a luxury product, sometimes, a utilitarian product. As such, each piece of art has a real price which is affected by the demand of the product in the market.