Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Painting for a Living – Part Two

Come here for Part One

This has been rather a long time coming, writing wise. I think mostly because I was trying to do too much with too little. I wanted to write advice for potential fellow travellers on this wonderful road of painting. But truth be told. My business didn't really work (I am back "in business" but only for raising investment for other schemes and a bit of pocket money, it can't support me). I am not really qualified to advise anyone! Instead I thought I would offer my thoughts on one of the reasons PVP never really got off the ground as a full time venture and something that others need to consider. Pricing.

Editor's Note: This article might seem like a whine, it isn't, I've loved my work. Consider it more of a cautionary tale than a complaint. Read to the end and you'll see what I mean. Also, others will have had different experiences. I'd urge them to share them. It's a cool job, be nice to find the formula that works :)

Pricing for painting services is really One Of Those Things. You are trying to sit in the sweet spot of a curve between what people are prepared to pay and what you are worth. I'm afraid to say, with few exceptions, it will have to trend toward the prepared end. There is a good reason for this. The market is kinda split into two halves. The premium end where Golden Demon winners and the like live and the budget end where the basecoat-drybrush-wash brigade dwell. I was trying to operate in a medium ground between these halves. Better quality than the budget but cheaper than the premium. The problem comes when you start doing armies and the costs mount up. Even the boldest customer will baulk when you say you want £400 for 20 models and I suspect, rightly so. Lets consider a case study:

Why Badrukk? Well, one, I love how this model turned out. Two, he's a good example of the character work I do. Three, he was done on a mates-rates basis for a friend so I can talk conceptually about the pricing without making anyone feel uncomfortable (definately not my intention). I used to have characters as £30 a model. That was three times the cost of the model in the first place. It seems like a lot. It's actually nothing at all. Let's work through it. This model took the best part of two days to paint. Lets say 12 man hours. That might be under-selling it but it'll work for the purposes of this exercise. Now lets consider an appropriate hourly wage. Well, lets set aside the concept that it has taken 25 years for me to get to this level of painting. Most jobs with 25 years experience are paying a hell of a lot more than painting (consider a music teacher, something I see as comparable in terms of the creative-with-a-lot-of-time-becoming-expert stakes and check out how much they charge an hour). Instead, let's just take the living wage which in the UK is £7.85 an hour giving you about £15,400 a year. Hardly mega-bucks but better than minimum wage. Feels right. Now multiply that £7.85 by 12.

I'll help you out Mulder: It's £94.20.


That's nuts. I wouldn't pay it. Not for one model. Never mind that it would probably round to an even hundred once postage and materials (the cheap bit of this weirdly) are included. It can get even worse when you do a unit:

That unit took me the best part of four days to finish. They're a pain to do, even the shields alone took a huge amount of time. Four days, that's £251.20 for a unit of 30. £8 per model. Now that seems more fair but when you add it up and it becomes £250 odd... well, that makes people baulk a little. By contrast I can do 50 Night Goblins in about a day and a half. More like £1.88 a goblin and the same £94.20 as Badrukk alone cost. It makes it impossible to offer a consistent part rate so you have to negotiate every commission individually which can make people suspicious that you are trying to rip them off. Worse, sometimes what should have been easy - those Longbeards above - can suddenly turn out to be a horrorshow of ultra detail and finicky brushwork. You quoted the client a price that would pay you for a days work and it took you four. You just quartered your income. 

Don't forget that you are competing for these commissions, almost exclusively online. Out there there is the budget end. People offering flat rates of £4-5 per model (what I started with in order to compete). That is what you are competing with. There's no way you can earn any fair pay painting to a high - but not super-high, Golden Demon prestige-bringing designer-label-pricing-justification  - standard for £5 a model. So you end up in a weird hinterland where you end up with a few customer who like you because of the results they get and a lot of drive by clients that you can't bring in because of pricing. For interest, this blog tracks unique visitors as well as crude page-views. In the time PVP has been open I have received getting on for 35,000 unique visitors (and I love you all) generating an eye-watering 275,000 hits. From this I have generated just three clients who I didn't know before. Granted, they are enthusiastic clients. But I am not overflowing with work. 

So what to do? Honestly my advice would be pick one end of the market and target it. If you have serious Golden Demon/Crystal Brush/Euro Militaire winning cojones then go straight for the Premium end. Estimate carefully with wriggle room for time and just straight up charge what you are worth. If you don't, my advice is to do what I could not. Swallow the pride and pitch for the budget end. If I found spraying a basecoat, doing one drybrushed highlight and a wash satisfying then I could easily make a comfortable part time living. I don't. I can't. That's why PVP doesn't really work. But you could! The only thing I would charge and abdure you with is the following:

Do not, DO NOT bait and switch. I see it all the time. The painting service page is all beautifully painted examples of their premium level work (of course, you want the page to look nice) with just one picture of a unit painted in the basic scheme (and frankly a little more work) on the payments page. I have seen examples of work from some of these services and am really not impressed. I could teach people how to paint to that standard in one hour. Did so, for years (ex-GW staffer). Don't do that. Be up front. Be honest, you are trading people time. You are for the people who can't be bothered to paint and aren't fussed about the quality too much. Don't make people think they're getting one thing and deliver another.

There. Lecture over. No more didactic commands from me ;)

I'll leave you with a few final thoughts, some cross pollinate with blogging:
  • If you are considering painting for a living, consider whether you can afford it. It will be a year or more before clients really notice you. Even when they do you'll be only earning part time salery. Don't do it if you're looking to support family and home on this alone.
  • The first year is networking. Go everywhere. Register for every blogroll, find every directory, drive eyeballs to your site. Offer tutorials, offer advice with a link back to something useful (DON'T spam just the link). Site traffic does come. It just starts slow until eventually something goes what I call "Wargamer viral" as one of the big sites links to you. From this traffic comes your customers.
  • Have your own hobby. It'll generate interesting content for the page but...
  • Do not waste money on things you are not interested in just to show you paint them. I did Flames of War models, Warmachine models, all sorts. Number of commissions generated? Zero.
  • Do not try to predict what the internet will like. I have failed hopelessly. Projects that I thought were winners didn't register, some things I thought were routine went through the roof. Throw everything against the wall without ego or expectation and see what sticks.
 When you do get clients:
  • CONFIRM what they want, how they want it on which models. Take photos of the models as they arrive, tag 'em with numbers and confirm with the client which models need what job. It sounds daft but there is a lot of misunderstanding possible with email. There is nothing more embarrassing for a "pro-painter" than to spend days working on something only to mix up which were supposed to be blue and which brown (real world example).
  • Consider taking daily progress shots and either sending them to the client or posting them on facebook or whathaveyou. It makes the clients feel involved with the process, generates excitement, content and keeps you aware of your rate of progress.
  • Make suggestions. The client is hiring a professional, if you think the colour scheme will clash, mention it and offer an alternative. Make it clear that it is entirely their choice but they may not have realised that there was a more attractive option.
  • Don't do volume discounts, it's tempting because people are used to buying things that way but your costs are your time, you can't make them lower by clever bulk ordering.
  • Enjoy it. This isn't 9-5 in an office.
That having been said:
  • Do not paint from dawn to midnight. You WILL get an RSI. I did. 

Who knows, maybe this will help someone. Otherwise it'll give you a view in to what it is to run one of these things. I'll say again, my business didn't work, there are reasons for it! If you can avoid them then you might well do better. In the mean time

Happy Painting and



  1. Very thoughtful piece about the intricacies of this subject. I have experienced similar issues with painting commissions (canvas, not miniatures). I enjoy doing the occasional paid-for painting/drawing (usually a pet portrait), but the price that seems reasonable to charge/what people are prepared to pay works out about the minimum wage when time is factored in. It looks like the situation is worse at the mid-range of the miniature-painting commissions though.

    1. There is a strange reality in the wargaming psyche that it is a strongly acquisitive, we prefer to invest in even more grey plastic than in getting what we have finished. It's an expensive hobby so rather eats the available wallet room.

      Oddly, my other commission based thing (mostly LRP props) is much (well, a bit) more lucrative possibly because the object is the goal of the purchase rather than the purchase being an add-on expense. Possibly. But yeah, I've got several friends in the commission art world and it is the same all over.

      At least neither of us are talking about experiencing the sheer arrogance of assuming artists will work for "exposure". Urgh. Try that with any other profession other than creative types: "oh yes, I know it's less than you normally get for tax accountancy but at least you'll get good exposure and free advertising as I'll mention you on the website..."