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Pay Artists a Living Wage: Art is Work

Naomi Elfred Ross Citizen Wang Studio
The Kray Twins. Photography by Naomi Elfred-Ross

Article By Naomi Elfred-Ross @

Pay Artists a Living Wage: Art is Work!


As a freelance artist, I occasionally get commissioned to do a specific piece of work. Recently my pop art portraits, which would be recognised as of a similar ilk to those of Any Warhol, have been popular. These portraits are made by layering a screen-printed stencil, which is created from a chosen photo, on top of a gestural/abstract monoprint. Until now, these portraits have been of individual sitters, but I was recently commissioned to do a double portrait, you may recognise the subjects. On this occasion, the photograph was also taken by me, but that doesn’t necessarily need to be the case. As we well know, through generations, borrowed images have been reinterpreted and given new life by a wealth and broad range of artists (see previous blog).


Of course, an artist cannot survive on fresh air and sunshine alone, so the awkward matter of price needs to be discussed and ideally this should take place early on. This is made even more awkward when commissioned by a friend, as mates’ rates would be possibly applied and, in this instance, it was my choice to do just that. I always consult other artists when deciding on price and I am advised to take a variety of things into account. For a start, how many hours will the piece take to make? This can be hard to judge sometimes, so in that case; what is my hourly rate? Surely a starting point would be to ask for a living wage, at the very least. I have also been advised to consider whether the works are one offs, or, as with some printmaking, could further prints be made and sold? Also, what size is the print and what level of skill is involved? I think it also important to take into account the level of experience the artist has. Then, lastly, there is the cost of the materials, art materials do not come cheap! As you can see, there’s so much to think about!


On deciding the price for this particular commission, I realised it would take longer to do than an individual portrait. It would, in fact, take twice the amount of time to create the stencil, which is a prolonged process and requires a high level of skill and concentration. Single portraits take, on average, two full working days (16 hours) to create and this excludes the initial planning stage. If I were to pay myself the £9.50 an hour living wage, this means each print, which is a one off, should be priced at £150 each, at the very least. This being the basic price, as it excludes some of the other factors I have already mentioned. This would mean that a double portrait, of the same size, should cost around £300.


As this commission is for friends, I knew I didn’t want to ask this much, or (rightly or wrongly) would feel embarrassed to, so I asked for £150 per portrait. However, to my dismay, this news was not received well, as the buyer couldn’t understand how these original artworks could be worth this amount. I felt a bit taken aback, initially, as I knew I had already made a considerable discount. To be honest, I felt a bit pissed off and disinclined to pursue this piece of work, which would be taking considerable time from my schedule, preventing me from getting other work done. I am currently working on a personal project, as I am hoping to begin an Art Therapy MA, in the near future and this is requiring a certain kind of process and commitment that needs to be somewhat absorbing.


Eventually, I felt bad for my initial response and ashamed that I had valued myself to such a degree. I suffer from anxiety and depression, so it doesn’t take much for my self esteem to take a hit. Surely, I thought, I should be giving my artwork away, particularly to friends who I care about a great deal. Surely friendship is more important than money? Yet, we come back to the question of, yes but; what am I supposed to live on? And what about my years of training and experience as an artist? Doesn’t that have some value? So many artist friends I know face the same dilemmas. Often, they are so flattered that somebody likes their work enough to want to pay for it, they almost end up giving it away. There is a notion that, perhaps, it is easy for an artist to do a piece of work, that it is what we live and breathe and so little effort is required and that it is almost a favour to us for someone to show any interest. I would say that the opposite is true; when I work I put all of myself into it and selling art is like letting go of part of me. I reflect on what I recently had to pay a plumber for laying new gas pipes; £700 for a morning's work! He worked hard, there’s no doubt, but I don’t feel he necessarily threw his heart and soul into it. Maybe I’m wrong.

Are plumbers of more value than artists? Do we need artists less than we need plumbers? I urge you to take a look around yourself, where you are seated right now and take stock of everything an artist would have had a hand in creating. Just look and think about it. I did, in fact, have this conversation with my 6-year-old nephew recently. He kept asking me what I did for work and found it hard to accept that being an artist qualified as a job. He insisted that true work involved an awful lot of emailing and that he would need to take me in hand and ensure I am sending my fair share of emails to ensure I earned my keep (in truth, I do a lot of emailing anyway, but this was hard to explain). The hours he demanded I work were quite extraordinary and toilet breaks were unheard of. However, I was overjoyed to learn that in a conversation he later had with his parents about what he wanted to do when he grew up, he said that he wanted to be an artist. I felt very proud. I was also encouraged to hear that at a recent art fair at Core Arts in Hackney, an organisation that promotes artists who suffer with their mental health, some proper cash was being deservedly paid for some truly beautiful creations. May this happen again and again, many times, henceforth! Also. a friend and buyer of art recently commented to me that she feels awkward when an artist undersells themselves and will always pay what she believes to be the true value of the work.


I think we artists do ourselves no favours by underselling ourselves far too often, so it’s no surprise that this has become expected of us now. That is unless we happen to have been spotted by the likes of Charles Saatchi, but this is rare! Just think, every time an artist undersells themselves, they put every other artist in a compromised position and maintain the myth that art is not work. Is there an issue with the idea that artists enjoy their work and so didn’t require paying as much? Is it a crime to enjoy one’s work? I hope not! Also, I don’t necessarily always enjoy it. There are aspects that I find agonising and commissions are not necessarily what I would personally feel inspired to do and so there is additional effort required to get myself motivated and excited about what I’m working on, in order to get the best results.


On this occasion, my good friends and I have agreed on a price and the writing of this blog will account for the shortfall in what I had originally asked. Interestingly, the pay for blog writing is much better! Watch this space though, as I am  photographically documenting each step of the process to share, not just with my friends, but with anyone who may not realise the time, effort and amount of oneself that goes into creating original art. I think many would be surprised.


Thank you, dear friend, for giving me the space to have my opportunity to get on my soapbox and say my piece. It was an inspired suggestion and was a diplomatic idea and highly magnanimous of you. Please don’t be offended by my openness and honesty. It is testimony to a strong friendship that can allow such candidness.