what you think it’s worth/what you can afford

edited to add: After many discussions with friends and strangers, I have gone back to pricing my work. While I sold two pieces within weeks of changing to “pay what you can afford,” most people have indicated a preference that the price be listed with the paintings. Still, the old post may be an interesting read…
A day or two before an opening reception for my paintings it occurred to me the people I had been so enthusiastically inviting might think I wanted them to buy something. Sales hadn’t even entered my mind. Selling my paintings, even that phrase, disturbs the pleasure I find in making them. It’s not that I think they have no worth. And, it’s certainly not that I think there is no literal expense in the time and materials I invest in each piece. What mucks it up for me is the head games that come with the process of “pricing.”
Too high a price could be read as egotistical or self-important. Too low a price could present a vision of insecurity or self-doubt. A very high price frequently makes the viewer feel the piece is more valuable while a very low price might strike someone else as a great deal.
The only time pricing was ever not an annoyance for me was when I simply considered the numbers themselves with little consideration for the dollar value. That was kind of fun.
When I sell a painting, or when someone even mentions they are thinking about buying one, I know what “feeling honored” really means. However, painting with the intention of selling makes a painting unsuccessful for me. I’m not able to enjoy it no matter how it turns out. It’s a complicated experience. I love when my paintings are purchased. I do like making money. And, most of all, I love knowing someone finds something in one of my paintings that makes them want to keep it or share it. But I can’t make a painting “so it will sell” without taking away the pleasure of painting.
As the start-up manager for Ten Thousand Villages-Houston, there were many aspects of sales we considered. We had some weighty conversations about the decisions about pricing. The point of fair trade is, of course, ensuring that workers are paid fairly—a livable wage—as well as making sure the working conditions are safe and reasonable. The location of the production sites mattered, of course, in what constituted a living wage. Fair trade does not mean paying a livable wage that would allow for an American way of life if the country is Kenya or India, for example. One valuable lesson I learned during those days is how the system of “pay what you think it’s worth” frequently brought in more cash than posting a set price for items.
I can’t stand setting a price for my paintings. I hate getting caught up in trying to guess what a person might or might not take from the price I select. I can’t know how people will perceive things. When I think I have some kind of control over other people’s perceptions, I lose touch with my deeper self. I like knowing I can’t know how people’s minds work. When I remember it’s not up to me (how the prices are received) I could simply select a price that feels right to me and post it. Or, I could do what I’m going to do, and that is: choose to set no price at all.
My paintings are all for sale (unless otherwise noted with “not for sale” or “sold”). They are all for sale at whatever price you feel they are worth combined with what you can afford.
Even typing out those last two sentences caused me to breathe a big, deep sigh as if I had been holding in tightness for a long time.
I’m going to keep painting. I’m going to keep asking people to come see my paintings when they are displayed in public. But, I’m not going to “try to sell” them in any way that involves predetermining prices. I want people who want my paintings to get to have them. How unbelievably cool is that? Someone might want a painting of mine to be in their home*? Wow.
* I think it bears repeating that this awe I feel isn’t because I think my paintings are not worthy of appreciation. I like many of my paintings a lot. I think I’ve got talent in some some measurable and some immeasurable ways. But, no matter how much I like them personally, it still blows my mind that someone else might be touched by them in some way. Again, not because I think they aren’t deserving, but just because that is SO AMAZINGLY COOL!