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The Economics of Art Making

The Cost of Art Supplies

People don’t seem to understand the real cost of art supplies. I think they see the scholastic oil paints at $6 a tube and think “well that’s not so bad!” And I suppose it isn’t for them when you’re only buying a handful of colors for artwork nobody plans on selling to the world. But what about the dedicated oil artist who needs a tube of professional paint of the same size as the scholastic but has to pay $28 plus tax? People don’t see that. Now multiply that $28 by just 5 different colors and you’re out $140. Depending on the person / styling those tubes of paint could be used up real quick.

The fact of the matter is that art supplies, especially professional grade art supplies, are ridiculously expensive and can be used up very quickly. You can easily use $30 worth of materials in the first 10 minutes of making a new piece.

This is a cost I don’t think people understand until they have to pay it. Which causes a problem you see, because not all people are particularly artistic and encounter art supplies.

This also comes up against another societal issue. People do not like to think of Art as a product, with costs, and resources associated with it. People wish to see it as something higher than “mere commerce”, as something more than a product, and therefore should never have a cost estimate or try to be priced in a more economical way.

I think people would rather see a $5000 price randomly thrown out than hear an artist price their piece at $2300 because they rationally measured the cost of supplies and set a premium for their time that was used up.

Okay anyways… let’s try to move on and mention some other things…

On a side note… You know what the real shame is here? Professional quality art supplies are so ridiculously expensive that I rarely hear of anybody using exclusively professional art supplies. They’ll mix and match to reduce costs. Some of it’s understandable… some black colorings are nearly identical in texture and quality between professional and student grade paints for example. But it’s just one of those things. Uniformity in your supplies is not only beneficial to your work but also provides a psychological boost to you.

And for the pastel artist, every time I need a replacement set of colors… it’s $80. $80 for 50 colors that you burn through so fast you’ve got to order more the second you get the dang package of replacements!

I’ve recently gotten a fancy for Sennelier’s Grand Oil Pastels… now for me to be indulgent and order all the colors they make, it would cost me $792. If I were more realistic and confined myself to a pallet of 60 colors it’d ONLY be $396.

The Time Cost

The amount of time art of all kinds take is immense. They soak up all your free time and leave you with so little left. You think artists are flakey just because? Nah their art has taken up so much time without them realizing that they can’t even keep track of the day!

The Mind Cost

Tired. Exhausted. Burnt out.

There’s a very real cost to the mind to make art. It takes a lot of thinking power to see some of these art pieces through to the end. And I think artists should be compensated for that cost. No, it really isn’t possible to actually measure the cost to the mind in dollars… but I think artists can generally guess close enough to the cost we’d get if we could measure it.

I wish we could measure it.

But I’m just going to have to ask you to imagine how much art taxes you mentally.

The “Work for free!” Mindset

That moment when people say they like your art… but they want it for free… That moment is the moment artists hate. It’s almost offensive. It’s like those backhanded compliments people give “You look so pretty when you put a little effort into your appearance!” And you just stand there and think “WOW”.

This kind of mindset, wanting artwork for free or offering “exposure” as compensation, demeans your art and work. The cost of making art to you are high. “Free” generally isn’t a word that applies when it comes to art.

The Real World Cost of Making Art

Here’s a real world example of the cost of making art. So this is my Eels in the Water piece. It’s on the largest pastel board that they make and took me over 15 hours to complete.

36 inch by 24 inch Ampersand Board – Cost $22.24

Sakura Specialist Pastels – Cost $79.99

Fixative Spray – Cost $6.60

So that makes a direct cost of $28.84. Indirect cost of $79.99 (which doesn’t include things like turpenoid).

Now for the hours worked on this piece multiplied by various wages… this will get us a base price for the work.

15 hours multiplied by a wage of $5 per hour (below the federal minimum wage) is $75.

15 hours multiplied by a wage of $10 per hour is $150

15 hours multiplied by a wage of $15 per hour is $225

15 hours multiplied by a wage of $20 per hour is $300

15 hours multiplied by a wage of $25 per hour is $375

Let’s just assume my wage equivalent is $10 an hour. So that means the base cost of my piece is $178.84 (labor + direct material costs). This does not actually include the price of other materials that were only fractionally used up (oils, turpenoid, oil pastels) because I didn’t want to sit around and measure the fraction of various pastels used, and measure out the turpenoid, etc… So when I say it is the base price, I mean it. In the real world y’all would / will need a larger margin than the base provides to be able to replace your materials let alone provide for yourself.

Next thing to remember, it isn’t even framed! And then shipping! Both are very real and large costs when we’re talking about a 24 inch by 36 inch piece!

The real cost of art making is huge…

And I will revisit everything I have mentioned above ^ in later articles. Right now I just want to emphasize that the costs of making art are very high… so when you see a piece priced at $1000… it’s justified (sometimes).

To Summarize

Art is expensive to make when you account for the cost of materials, the time burnt up, and the toll taken on the artist themselves. This creates a fundamental issue when we remember that societies do not wish to think of art in this rational economical way. That attitude leads to people simply not understanding the real cost to artists and leads to people not respecting the toil of the modern and living artist. The costs of making art just aren’t understood or discussed much… which is why I will try to flesh this article out more at a later date.

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