What Does an Oil Painting Cost?

Sometime back a friend and I were talking about painting and she expressed surprise that it cost me more to paint than to write. She didn’t know that self-publishing is essentially free and that painting is very very very very far from free.

I was contacted today by a woman who wanted two of my paintings that are available on Etsy. She wanted a 2 for 1 deal. Was I having an after-Christmas sale? I offered her a deal — the best I could — and that was the last I heard. My paintings are already priced low since most of my market is here in the San Luis Valley which is not a wealthy area.

Let’s look at a 16 x 20 oil painting painted on an Ampersand Gessoboard. This is a common surface for me to use and a common size.

The surface alone ranged in price from $35 to $50. Since I try to get them when they are marked down, let’s just go with the $35. I use this surface because it’s easy to frame and will not bend, shrink or do other nasty things that crack paint. It is also very long lasting so if a person really LOVES the painting it will always be THAT painting. Same with the paint I buy.

Then there is paint. Since a tube of paint is good for multiple paintings, but you can’t paint any without any paint, you have to buy it. I mostly use a brand of paint made in the United States by Robert Gamblin who, in his long career with pigment, has restored paintings all over the world including the National Gallery and the Smithsonian. His company is dedicated to giving artists the chance to make their studios as safe as possible. Most people don’t think about the chemicals that are in paint, but some of them are nasty, such as chromium and lead, not to mention some pretty toxic solvents. If you are interested in this you can learn about it on Gamblin Artist Colors website. Since my studio has no direct ventilation and I don’t much want to die of chemical poisoning, I care very much about this, as should any person buying paintings.

Gamblin’s paints are competitively priced and I generally prefer mixing a lot of my own colors, so I’m a thrifty painter. Let’s invest in Gamblin’s basic set. It is $116 and the artist gets a good assortment of colors to mix with and paint just about anything they would want. But down the line paintings will demand different paints so let’s add another $100 to that for paints that are likely to become important to the painter. My REAL ultramarine blue made from Lapis Lazuli was a bargain paint, on sale, from Daniel Smith at $35. To that I added a collection of natural pigments last year, on sale, for $70, and I’ll “give” you an additional white that behaves differently from the Titanium White that comes with Gamblin’s set.

The artist also needs brushes and brushes are expensive if they are any good. It’s better to invest ONCE in a really good brush than buy a cheap, unresponsive brush that wears out. I have a few brushes I bought on money from the Denver YWCA back in 1977 that I am still using. Cheap brushes wear out faster and do crappier work than good brushes. There is also no one-size-fits-all brush. Depending on style, the subject and the size of the painting any artist needs an assortment of brushes with different types and lengths of bristles. Brushes are an enormous investment for an artist, but since we’re trying to keep costs down while maintaining quality, we’ll get a large set of decent student-grade brushes and figure around $50.

If the painting is any good when you’re finished — or you hope to sell it — you’ll probably want to frame it. Since most of my paintings are OK in a rustic, barn wood frame, and they are economical and still make a nice finished product, we’ll buy one of those for $50.

Framing an oil painting requires more than slapping a frame on it. There are necessary tools and hardware. Some years ago I bought these tools and continue to replace the hardware, so I’ll cut you a deal and only add $25 to the price.

Then there is shipping. Shipping this painting anywhere will be impossible for less than $25 and might be more depending on how far and what level of insurance the buyer wants.

All this adds up to $400 and does not even consider the hours, skill and effort that goes into a painting. Some of my paintings took around 4 hours/day for a month to finish. Some longer. At the rate I was paid as a teacher, let’s see. 4 hrs x $75/hr x 7 days/week x 30 days/month? That’s what, $9000?

So… a GOOD 16 x 20 oil painting, painted with high quality materials with a thought to preservation — lasting a while — priced at $300 is a bargain.

P.S. I did NOT include a dedicated surface like a table, but I had to buy that too. I got lucky at a thrift store and got a great drawing table for $12. And then, my recent purchase, my easel, which I scored in an estate sale for a mere $100 which is $200 off the price the easel costs new. Storage isn’t free either, but I’m OK with my brushes in Lavazza coffee cans, my paints in tool boxes, etc. all scavenged from somewhere. I give up a lot of things in order to paint. I need a new phone. I will need a new laptop this year, but there is always the hope that the money from paintings will refill the well and those other necessities will be in reach. I’m not a starving artist, but some of the garden signs I have painted and sold paid for vet bills, lights, groceries, etc.

43 thoughts on “What Does an Oil Painting Cost?

    • I know. I’d rather give it to friends, but I’m getting over that. One friend wanted the oil painting with me, Bear and the tree and when I told him what I would take for it he was shocked He said, “Well I just want an original oil painting. I never had one.” I thought, but didn’t say, “Go get some paints. Paint your own fucking oil painting.” πŸ˜€

  1. She didn’t want a painting–she wanted a bargain. What? No after-Christmas deals?? This was no lover of art. I’m sorry you didn’t make a sale, but glad you didn’t sell. I hope that makes sense, Martha.

    • It makes perfect sense. At first I was like, “Cool I can get a new phone” and then, as the day wore on, I got pissed off. I am probably going to raise my prices. If it’s a garden sign that I paint with acrylic on plywood I got for free that’s one thing, just fun and without consequence. But an oil painting on a surface in which I have invested money, time, imagination, worry? Acrylic is less expensive, goes farther, cleans up with water and my neighbor gave me enough really nice exterior plywood to build a small shed! πŸ™‚

  2. Absolutely! My ceramics are small, about 1-2 lbs but people don’t realize how much the cost really is. When I factor in clay, glaze and firings (not counting my time) it comes to $15.38 with my time for making and glazing (estimate 2 hrs to make and 1 hr to glaze) the base price should be about $37.50 per orb with the addition of $2.00 for each additional glaze color… and I generally ask $25 -35 per small orb… I don’t even factor in my brushes and other equipment! So I hear you. Art is not always a profitable endeavor. Still I do it – just because I love it regardless if I ever sell a piece!

  3. It’s insane to me. People who don’t hesitate to pay a doctor or lawyer, but want to question an artist’s rates? If anyone can do it, then they should DO IT.

    • Yep. I think so too. I understand completely that the market sets the price for things as much as I do. I know I’m not a famous artist and will never be, but I’m not an inferior artist and I care a LOT about the quality of the materials I use. I LOVE giving my work to my friends and I will always do that, but GRRRRRRRRR….

      • I know exactly how you feel. My niece is turning 21 soon. Her mum suggested that a gift wasn’t necessary, but it absolutely is necessary. I did speculate aloud about the ice maiden. Her mum did say that if I was really determined to give my niece something, then my niece is bound to love one of my mosaics. I kind of felt that my art was the consolation prize. I know that wasn’t the intention, but …. Anyway, a piece made in anger is not the right present so it is immaterial.

        Also, you have to cost in all the aches and pains that go into producing the art.

        • Humans are just a bunch of tone-deaf, oblivious, arrogant beings, I think. That person doesn’t sound like someone with a very generous soul. I wonder what’s up with her. But yeah; anything made in anger (except a mess or a cleaned house) isn’t likely to be right. ❀ I love my kestrel, by the way. He keeps me company and makes me feel like distances are not so distant.

  4. To me artists, in all media, are the acme of civilization. The everyday world has a hard time valuing us. Oh, most people value what they’re looking at, but don’t make a connection between what they see (or in my case hear or read) and the value of the time/materials involved. It’s a weird mix.

  5. I’m sorry the sale fell through. The whole concept of placing a value on art of any media is complicated. The other day someone asked me how long it took me to do a drawing. I said, β€œa half hour,” but I wanted to say, β€œmy whole life,” because that’s more of the truth of it. It’s hard for people to understand what really goes into art and therefore what the value really is. You can’t measure the impact that art has on the life/spirit/soul but, in my opinion, that’s where the real value is.

    • I don’t think half an hour is a good answer.”it depends” seems to be a better answer. It depends what you’re drawing, it depends on your mood, and it depends if you want to take into account the lifetime of learning that led up to it.

      • The person was asking about a specific drawing which took me a half hour. Regardless, without years of practice the drawing would not have been possible.

        • I understand that. πŸ™‚ I think we pushed some buttons for another reader and gave her something to think about — which is the point, after all. I did a drawing for a person recently, a commission, it really didn’t take much time to do it (by the clock) but as I drew and contended with feelings of insecurity as I worked I thought, “Every single time I work, if it’s real, I will push myself beyond the place where I started a project.” It’s pretty amazing what an experience even a small pencil drawing can be. ❀

  6. It is time to raise your prices and appropriately value your time and energy. No, you may not get $75/hr, but you doing better than breaking even seems more than reasonable to me.

  7. Happy to read you raised your prices; that’s what I was going to urge, given all that goes into each of your paintings.

    I learned long ago that no one will value my work until I do, regardless of the product/service. Early in my legal career I took on a few pro bono cases. Those clients – not paying a dime – were always the most demanding, time-consuming and irritating. A lot like the woman seeking a two-for-one post-holiday deal from you. She would never have truly valued your paintings and may even have tried to return them for not matching her decor!

  8. I love that you spelled all this out for those who just don’t get it. I don’t use oils, I paint with acrylics and watercolors and create mixed media as well… All those costs still apply! I constantly underprice my work and give deals because of having to pay things like vet bills, etc… And I have rent for my studio. Classes have diminished thanks to Covid so that income is gone… But the end of your post left me hanging, it felt like a closing line was missing…

  9. Maybe, but I don’t really have a closing line to this — it remains an open question as my relationship toward selling my work is evolving. πŸ™‚

  10. I also did a lot of oil painting, yes money is quickly spent. For some reason I do more works now with rice paper and ink. As I only use best quality material I sure spend more money than anybody would believe.

    • I would totally believe it and I also don’t think there’s any point in using any materials but the best you can afford. It’s awful to fight against your materials. They really need to be your allies in this whole venture.

      I looked at your blog — I was in China 82-83. What a wonder all that was.

      • I was there too at that time! Maybe we even met – but both look different from today πŸ™‚ Yes, great time! I was there from 78-80 and then from 82-85. Unforgettable!

        • I was in Guangzhou working as a foreign expert in English at South China Teachers University. Last year I was inspired by an Indian man whose blog I follow, who was in Guangzhou on business and posting photos. I was stunned to see that areas that had been open country, agricultural, when I was there were now very fancy neighborhoods, museums, etc. He wrote, “I wish I knew what it was like before it was developed.” I thought, “I could tell you.” So I did. The book is As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder. I loved China so very very much.

  11. Great article. I decided awhile back to stop trying to sell my artwork. If one day I need to make room, will have a show. Dealing with the selling of art, a mixed experience. A lot of people are appreciative, but then there are always those looking to get for cheap or say something very inappropriate. I just decided they are not worth my energy. Better to just paint.

    • My strategy is to price things where the market is (my little valley in Colorado) except for work I know is worth more. My Etsy shop does a slow but steady business in notecards. But sometimes people do and say things that are completely off target and I’m just shocked and bewildered by that. But yeah, just paint. πŸ™‚

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