Merion Art Blog
The gift-giving season is upon us! Now is the time to get framing orders in to make sure they’re ready for Christmas or Hanukkah. Frames make amazing gifts all year round, and with a little forethought, they can be an absolute showstopper gift for the holidays. If you’re looking for gift-giving inspiration, here are a few of our favorite custom frame gift ideas.
Go Small- Frame a treasured snapshot, preserve an antique print, or protect a Polaroid. Photos from the 70’s and earlier tended to be printed very small, and for a lot of those older pictures, the only copy may be 2×3, 3×4, or 4×5. Give these classic photos the respect they deserve by getting them behind UV protective glass, and make them easier to see with a small mat. Pick a delicate antique style frame, and your teeny treasured 2×3 will have the visual presence of a photo 3 times its size.
Go Big- Choosing a large piece can be tricky- you want to be sure they’ll like it! But maybe you do gallery crawls with this person and they fell in love with a specific piece. Or maybe you’re an artist who works large scale: if you know of a big painting or over-sized photo print they’ll love, go with it! Stick to a simple style on something large- you don’t want to get overpowering. Think about gorgeous abstract canvases with float frames! Make sure to take extra care to choose frames that align with the recipient’s home decor and personal tastes, as a large piece of artwork is really a loud statement. Hanging a new painting that’s over 16×20 can instantly upgrade a whole room, so a large scale framed piece can be an amazing gift!
Go Multiple- Start a gallery wall by framing three relevant photos, prints or decor items in three matching or complementary frames. Choose artwork or photos that are similar in size, color and subject, and dress it up in frames with similar colors and designs. For instance, black and white images, prints from the same artist, photos of the same flower, pictures from the same photoshoot (wedding, engagement, maternity, seasonal family photos), images from the same soccer game/dance recital/track meet, landscapes of a similar color palette, photos of the family pet- the possibilities are endless. This is a great gift for a tween or teenager looking to make their room feel more grown-up, recent grads looking to decorate a new apartment, or a Mom looking to get a little visual unity in her family photos.
Print a Canvas- Give your favorite photo the fine art treatment- wedding portraits, fabulous sunsets, adorable pet photos, artsy Instagram still-life pics can all look amazing on canvas. Or print a big family photo extra large and get it stretched. If you’ve taken a photo at a family reunion or other gathering in the last few years, chances are the digital file will allow for large scale printing. Get it blown up, printed on canvas, and stretched. Canvas will give it a fine art flair and a great physical presence. You’ll be able to see everyone’s smiling face and Grandma and Grandpa will be so pleased.
Frame a Treasure- Frame a kids scribble drawing as if it were abstract art from the 50’s- it can look amazing on the wall. Frame a favorite jersey or souvenir t-shirt. Shadowbox their first hockey stick or first ballet slippers. Baby blankets and booties, roses from your first date, wedding invitations, medals won at competitions, scout sashes, graduation tassels, military memorabilia, collectible coins, love letters, baseball cards: all of these things can be framed! If it is an important part of their life, it deserves to be preserved and displayed. Get those things out of boxes and up on walls. (Pro-gifting tip, if you’re one of those folks who likes to make people “happy-cry” at emotionally touching gifts, this is an excellent way to go!)
I love cradled wood panels, and I think you should too. Cradled wood panels, usually made of birch plywood affixed to a pinewood frame (called a cradle), are a durable, frugal and versatile alternative to canvases and paper. Wood panels have a rich and exciting history (for instance, the Mona Lisa was painted on a wood panel) and several excellent brands are available for modern day artists. Despite their many sterling qualities, they are still underappreciated and underutilized in the contemporary art community. Allow me to explain why I think that’s a shame!
I love how durable they are. They are wood, so you don’t have to worry about denting or tearing, they way you do with canvas and paper. If your panel gets gouged or deeply scratched, you can simply fill with wood putty and sand it down, just like furniture. They stack for easy storage, even at different sizes (with canvas, you have to be careful to brace the stretcher bars against each other when stacking canvases of different sizes, otherwise you get sagging and denting). Different sizes can be stored in the same box, Tetris style. The way the laminated surface is attached to the frame prevents warping.
This durability also extends to making art on panels- you can lean on it, press firmly, scratch, scrape, erase, and wipe without worrying about damage. Working on wood means you can sand, carve and chisel the surface, adding sculptural elements into your artwork. Wood provides a solid surface to build up heavy applications of gel mediums, fiber pastes, and other textural mediums. The panel to the left has been carved and then areas have been built up with gel mediums to create a relief. A solid, rigid surface means you can glue, nail, and screw things to it. Panels are fantastic for so many kinds of mixed media.
On a practical level, basswood panels can save you money. A heavy duty canvas can cost the same or slightly more than an identically sized panel. Aside from the durability bonuses above, the panels have a few specific advantages to save you money. Because of their rigidity, they don’t always require the protection of a frame, and because they are made of raw wood, it’s possible to paint or stain the sides, creating a classy finish that gives the impression of a frame without the cost (obviously this only works with light-fast and waterproof mediums). The panel to the right got iridescent gold edges, to match the snake. You can even wire the backs by putting screw-eyes directly into the panels cradle, and the flat backs of the cradle allow for the use of 3M Command strips, making hanging extra simple.
The versatility of panels is pretty amazing. Aside from traditional painting applications for oil and acrylic (which they are great for), panels are an absolute godsend for mixed media artists. You can prime them with a variety of different mediums for a variety of different effects. Panels allow for the mix of wet and dry media without having to worry about wrinkling or damage to paper. It allows you to use sharp implements like pens and pencils without gouging or tearing canvas, and on a much more durable surface than paper. You could use an absorbent ground in order to incorporate watercolor, or a silverpoint medium to dabble in historical drawing styles.
Personally, I use panels for oil pastels– in order to get them to stick, I coat the panel with gesso, then paint, and then a layer of Golden Molding Paste. The molding paste gives me enough of a toothy porous surface for the pastels to cling to, and the rigid surface prevents the sagging and slipping I had encountered when trying to work on canvas. The piece at the right here is mixed media- the central rose and flowers to the top left are acrylic paint, the detailed roses on the left and bottom are decoupage taken from a gardening catalog, the other flowers and the hand are oil pastel, and the text in the background is pen and ink. Wood panels allowed me to layer and mix all these different mediums without paper rippling or canvas denting.
Panels allow for some really outside-the-box applications too. For instance, since it is wood front and back, you can paint on either side. You can use wood-burning tools to create rustic details. You can hinge panels together and paint each side, creating diptychs and triptychs like the altarpieces of the early Renaissance. If you flip a cradled panel over, you’re left with a framed indentation that’s perfect if you want to skip a frame, or want to create a shallow relief that has some protection. I’ve seen people use the backside of panels in order to do some really interesting things with resin and other pour-able mediums: the cradle creates a natural boundary for the resin. You can stain, carve or sand the cradle to look like a real frame, or to be part of the artwork itself.
You can use a number of techniques to attach and include all kinds of 3D elements or non-fine-art items to your artwork- I’ve seen metal jewelry findings, cabochons, fabric, and even hand tools (like the very heavy artwork at the right) attached to panels. You could apply a stain or a clear-coat in order to work the natural wood-grain into your artwork.
Aside from fine art applications, cradled wood panels are awesome for crafts as well. Flip a large panel over and attach handles to the short sides to make a quick tray, then paint, stain and personalize. Use a painted panel with hooks screwed into the edges as a caddy for keys and phone chargers, or attach two small panels with hinges to make a sturdy jewelry box. As for home decor hacks, you can paint a gallery depth canvas panel and hang it to cover an unsightly thermostat or oddly placed switch or outlet.
Whether you’re a traditional painter trying to get back to the roots of medieval and Renaissance painting, or an experimental mixed media artist looking for the next amazing surface, panels are something I highly recommend trying! You could fall in love with them, just like I have!
At Merion Art, we talk to newbies as often as we talk to experienced artists. For every driven creative who comes in with a brand name, size, shape and color, we have someone who comes in asking “I need a brush- how do I even choose?” We speak to countless moms or new students standing, frozen, confused and overwhelmed, in front of a wall full of brushes. This weeks blog post is an overview of the basic nitty-gritty info we would give to someone just starting out exploring the many varieties of brushes, including brush types, shapes, uses, and care. When we’re done, you’ll be able to stride confidently to the brush aisle and pick exactly the right tool for your project.
Anatomy of a brush
Basics first: What makes up a brush? The handle comprises most of a brushes mass, to balance it out, and can be wood, plastic or (less usually) metal. The handle will be long for painting on canvas (oil and acrylic) and shorter for painting done on paper (usually watercolor). The ferrule is a metal tube that connects the bristles to the handle (fun fact, the metal bit that holds an eraser onto your pencil is also called a ferrule). The crimp is a dent in the metal that holds the ferrule in place. The brushy part itself is comprised of bristles which can be natural or synthetic. It is alternately called the hairs, belly, bristles, or tuft.
Types of brushes
Generally when dealing with fine art brushes, you’ll be dealing with bristle, synthetic, or hair brushes. Bristle brushes are made up of hog bristles, which are stiff and have natural “flagging”, split ends that help the brush hold more paint. Hair brushes are often made with sable, weasel, ox, or squirrel fur, and are excellent for holding more water. Synthetic bristle brushes were developed along with acrylic paints, and are made of nylon, often golden or white taklon. Each kind of brush has its own best uses.
Bristle brushes work best with oil paint. The oil does not degrade the brushes, and the flagged tips of each bristle allow bristle brushes to carry a better paint load. They can become ragged with too much rinsing in water, so they work best with oil paints which don’t require water to clean up. The bristles are fairly rigid, which helps when moving heavy paints, but can leave brush marks in acrylic and can fail to properly move thin watercolors. Oil sticks to the bristles and helps the paint to spread smoothly, but the bristles do not hold water well, which leads to difficulties spreading waterbased paints.
Synthetic brushes work best with acrylic, but can also be used with oil or watercolor. They are an excellent, cost-effective workhorse. They clean up well with water and can hold up to prolonged soaking. Their thinner, unflagged hairs allow for greater detail and smoother application of color. Prolonged exposure to certain chemicals can degrade these brushes, so it’s best not to leave them sitting in solvents, and to limit their use in oil painting to smaller details and finishing touches, unless they’re specifically designed for it. Many brush lines have begun creating flagged synthetic bristle brushes, which are a hardy alternative to hog bristle. Synthetic brushes can imitate sables or bristles, depending on how thick or rigid the nylon filaments are.
Natural Hair brushes are best used for thin paints like watercolor, ink, or gouache. The soft natural hairs are excellent at absorbing and carrying a larger amount of liquid, which is important when working with watercolor and inks. The hairs are often too soft to effectively move a heavier body paint like acrylic or oil.
Brushes come in a dazzling array of different shapes, with some of the most common being round, flat, angle, bright, fan, and filbert. Each shape has different strengths. Rounds are good for lines, flats are good for wide fields of color, angle shaders are good for angles and controlled shading, fans and filberts are good for a variety of different nature effects like leaves and grass.
Less common shapes: Mop- usually a fluffy and full brush made of soft synthetic or natural hair used primarily in watercolor painting. Cats tongue- resembles a short, sharply pointed filbert, used in watercolor. Dagger- a long-bristled angled brush, usually for acrylic painting. Rigger- a long bristled, narrow round brush, used for script, lines, and fine details.
Brush sizes are not uniform across brands, or even lines. One companies #2 round might be closer to a #3 in another line. Be aware of this when buying from lists: teachers will sometimes specify a size but not a brand. Generally speaking it won’t matter too much, (close enough is probably okay) but it can be confusing when your 00 spotter is bigger than someone else’s 00 spotter in the same class. The exceptions to this are the flatter brushes: flats, angle shaders, and brights will often be measured in inches, (3/4 flat, 1 inch bright, 1/2 inch angle shader and so on) and of course, an inch is an inch no matter what brand you’re in.
Cleaning and Care
Make sure to always clean paint off your brushes before letting them dry- when oil or acrylic paints dry, they are nearly impossible to remove from bristles. Watercolor and acrylic paint can be cleaned with soap and water- artist’s brush soap is ideal, dish or handsoap also work well.
Oil paint should be wiped out of the brush with a rag, then cleaned with mineral spirits, and then with soap and water. Mineral spirits for cleaning oil paint brushes can be reused, as the paint solids sink to the bottom of the container: if you keep it in a glass container with a bit of wire in the bottom, you can clean your brushes with the same mineral spirits again and again.
Brushes should never be left soaking in liquid- this can damage the bristles and cause the ferrule to become unglued. They should never be stored bristle side down- this can leave you with bent and misshapen bristles. After cleaning, brushes can be blotted dry, reshaped, and left upright (bristles up) or suspended upside down to fully dry.
Info and graphics from this post from Princetonbrush.com and wikipedia. Check Princeton’s website for so much more info about brushes!
Framing a canvas is different from framing a photo or a work of art on paper. There are specific techniques and considerations for stretching and framing canvases, and it’s important to have an understanding of what those things entail. On a canvas, framing acts as embellishment, protection, and a method for display, and properly stretching a canvas is integral to its longevity. Here are some things the Merion Framers think is important for artists, collectors, and students to know about framing works of art on canvas.
The first thing you’ll want to do when getting ready to frame a canvas is to make sure you’re actually dealing with canvas fabric. Canvas can be made with linen or cotton, tightly woven together. The weave and choice of fibers makes canvas very durable, and canvas material is also used for heavy-wear items like sails and backpacks. Real canvas will feel rough, thick, and will usually be a light beige color on the back.
All fabric is not created equal- if a painting has been done on a piece of fabric with a different weave, weight, or material, it will not stretch the same as canvas, and it will likely not hold up for as long. This is something to keep in mind for artists who are trying to cut costs: changing to scrap fabric is NOT the way to do it.
We often seen this issue when people buy cheap souvenir art on vacation- artists in places where regular canvas might be hard to obtain do quick paintings on whatever fabric they can find around; one of our framers even said, “I was once asked to frame a painting that I swear was done on a recovered parachute.” You can still frame a painting on a different kind of fabric, but it needs to be treated like an embroidery or t-shirt, since it won’t be able to endure the tension required to properly stretch a canvas. This will involve stitching or otherwise affixing it to a rigid surface like acid-free foam board.
The next step is to make sure it’s properly primed. A properly primed canvas has a layer of gesso between the canvas and the paint. Gesso coats the fibers, creating a stiffer, stronger substrate. The main purpose for priming a canvas is to plug up the holes in the canvas thereby creating a surface on top of which the paint can sit- gesso keeps the paint from bleeding through to the other side. It also helps to protect the canvas from degeneration due to contact with the chemicals in the paints. This is especially important with oils, as they will eventually cause the canvas to decay if they are touching raw fabric. You can tell if the canvas has been primed by seeing if the front of the canvas is white- gesso is generally white and canvas is naturally beige. If the artist has used a non-white gesso, the surface will feel different from fabric and will be stiffer. No light should shine through.
Once you’ve determined that what you have is gessoed and that it is, indeed, canvas, you’ll have to decide what to do next. If the canvas is already well stretched, you can move right on to framing. If the canvas is loose or rolled up, you’ll need to stretch it. Even if it is stretched, check that the bars are in good shape, that the canvas is not dented, floppy, loose or damaged. This is most often an issue with street-artist canvases or older canvases. You can try the penny test: drop a penny on the back of the canvas from about a foot: if it bounces, its well stretched. If it just lands, it might be time to re-stretch.
You can do this all yourself, but it’s worth noting that canvas is drastically easier to stretch BEFORE its been primed and painted. If you’ve bought a pre-painted unstretched canvas from an artist, or you’ve removed a painting from its stretchers for whatever reason, you might want to take it in to a professional framer to be stretched. Knowledge from experience helps when stretching an older painting. You’ll want to stretch it tightly but take good care not to stretch too tightly, as it might result in cracking. When stretching older works, cracking may be inevitable. In some instances it may require the skilled hand of a reputable conservator to repair overly cracking, brittle, torn, otherwise damaged works.
There are ways to mount a painting with glue to a rigid backing, but they are not ideal- its harder to reverse, and the glue can remain stuck to the canvas. Canvas paintings should never be dry mounted. According to the PPFA “All paintings have some three-dimensional quality. Cured acrylic and oil paints both soften with heat. When combined with the pressure of a dry mount press, significant damage can occur to the surface of a painting” and that’s the last thing we want!
The next step in framing canvas is to stretch it. The canvas is pulled tight over wood bars and stapled in place with a staple gun, or brass tacks. Canvas stretching has a learning curve, so your first few stretches will probably be a pain. Learning how to stretch a canvas is better with visual aids, so for a quick video tutorial, check here or for a very thorough text tutorial with gifs and pics click here.
It is important to note that there are two types of stretcher bars. The stretcher bars you buy in the store can fit together at the corners like a puzzle piece but often times professional framers will join a stretcher frame from a length of stretcher wood like a frame (with glue and pins). These professionally joined stretcher bars can be better and sturdier, especially if the painting is very large. Commercially available stretcher bars come in multiple depths. The most often seen are “gallery depth” (around 1.25 inches) and studio depth (around 7/8 inch).
It’s important to measure extra carefully when you’re framing a canvas. Adding the third dimension to framing always adds a layer of complication. If you use the wrong size stretcher bars, you’ll be in trouble. If you’re stretching artwork that was painted close to the edge of the face, or artwork with cut corners, getting it centered will be extra difficult, and you may have to size down. With canvases that are already stretched, you’ll want to double check sizes anyway. A canvas that is supposed to be 16×20 might in fact be 16.125 x 19.875. If the frame is ordered for a tight fit at a slightly wrong size, the canvas may not fit at all.
How to Stretch a Canvas
- Put the stretchers together, checking that they are flat, not warped, and that the corners are square
- Tear the canvas to size (instead of cutting, make a small starter cut and then pull the canvas apart) to make sure threads are straight
- Leave 2 or more inches of canvas on all sides of stretchers (if you are stretching a prepainted canvas, and it’s already trimmed to closely, you’ll have to make do)
- Center the stretcher frame on the canvas
- Using a staple gun, tack the center of one of the long sides
- Pull the canvas around the opposite long side and tack the center- snug but do not strain
- Tack the centers of shorter sides
- Watch threads to check how even the stretch is- they should be parallel to the bars
- Keep alternating sides every 2 or so tacks on both sides of the center, to keep even tension. You want to work on all sides together to maintain an even pressure.
- Re-tack the middle staple if needed, if the others are tighter
- (This is the part where a visual aid is helpful. Check steps 5 and 6 here for a gif, or this part of the video to see a visual explanation of folding the corners)
- When all sides are close to corners, leave between 1 1/2 to 2 inches unstapled on all sides
- Pick which side of the corner will end up with the fold on the outside (Side A). Go to the other side (B) and put in a tack close to the corner.
- Pull so the fold is even with the A side. Pull remaining loose canvas at 45 degree angle, even with the corner join. The B side of canvas should lay down smooth. Then pull the remainder parallel to the B side and tack
- You should end up with the ghost of a corner (under the top layer) on the A side. Tack generously.
- Spritz with water to tension if necessary.
Make sure your stretcher frame has squared up corners, or tension will be uneven and framing will be a pain. You will be hugely frustrated if you try to put a rhombus shaped painting into a rectangular frame. My high school teacher used to use a door frame to check squareness, just butt the corner of the stretcher bars up into the corner of the door frame to knock it into place. If the canvas is not square, it will need to be shimmed with matboard strips or something similar, or a chunk will need to be carved out of the frame.
You’ll want to make sure to get an even tension on your canvas to prevent cracking and warping. You want it to sound like a drum when tapped once it’s finished; not too loose, not too tight. Tight canvases can warp, pulling opposite corners up, and sagging ones can tear or crack the paint. To tighten a slightly sagging canvas, lightly mist the back with water- as it dries, it will shrink and tighten up. To help prevent sagging, cross-bracing can be added to the back of stretcher bars.
Never put pressure on canvas, because it creates dents. Don’t stack canvas on top of each other, never leave anything heavy sitting on a canvas. It’s just like stretching out a favorite sweater- it will never really go back to normal.
Pre-stretched canvas has its advantages, for artists as well as framers. For one thing, you can skip the entire previous section! Machine stretched canvas can be very even, with uniformly applied gesso and pristine tension. Corners will be square, sizes will be more exact. If you’ve bought a pre-stretched canvas from a store like Merion Art, it will almost always be pre-primed (if its white, its primed).
Pre-stretched canvas also has its disadvantages. While pre-stretched canvases can be very convenient for artists, they can be tricky for framers later on: many of the methods used to make the pre-made canvases are very hard to reverse. Its difficult to un-stretch them. If the painting sags and needs to be re-stretched or tightened in the future, this can be very difficult to do with a pre-made canvas, without cutting it loose. Similarly, cheap discount brands sometimes cut the corners to avoid folds, which can look sloppy, and can cause the canvas to catch on things, making it incrediblya difficult to re-stretch. Your framer will take all of this into account when choosing framing techniques for your particular canvas.
Choosing a Frame
Once the canvas is properly stretched, it’s time to choose a frame. In a perfect world, every piece of artwork would be framed with a protective barrier like glass or plexi, creating a micro-environment. However, as with every rule in framing, there are exceptions. Outside of a museum environment, glass is rarely used on framed canvases, as paintings are less susceptible to UV damage, and canvas and acrylic/oil paint are much more durable than, say, paper and charcoal. Canvas may be framed with glass or acrylic if a delicate and expensive painting will be hanging in a dusty or high traffic area where there is a danger of scratches and punctures, or if there is some kind of mixed media included that requires extra protection (i.e. paper, charcoal, oil pastel, light sensitive ink), or if some unorthodox method has been used (like paintings done on odd fabrics, un-primed paintings, old and damaged paintings, etc). With all framing you want to have “breathing room” between the art and the glass to prevent sticking and off-gassing issues.
When picking frames for canvases, the choice is between regular frames, and float frames. Regular frames fit over the canvas and are the same frames you’d use on any other artwork, sans glass. Float frames are designed specifically for canvases and panels, and are made so the artwork fits into the front without glass. Both have distinct pros and cons.
Pros: These frames have a classic look, as they are the frames we’ve been using for centuries. Since they are the most common kind of frame, they are easier to assemble, and come in a huge variety, which allows you to customize the look of your painting. Traditional frames protect the edges of the canvas and can hide slight warping or damage to the sides of the painting, since the canvas is behind the frame. These frames can also give a finished look to paintings where the sides of the canvas remain unpainted.
Cons: For paintings where information goes all the way to the edges, traditional frames will hide the bits under the lip, which can crop the painting in an unintended way. Traditional frames are limited by depth: you’ll need to choose a frame as deep as your canvas, or the painting will stick too far out the back, which looks comically bad. The pictures below show the right way and the wrong way!
Canvases are fitted into regular frames using framers points- flat pieces of metal driven in by a special tool, or offset clips, which are bent metal pieces attached with screws to modify the depth of a frame. Back in the old days, nails were driven at an angle through the stretcher bars into the frame to keep the canvas in. It’s effective but risky, and today’s more easily reversible methods are better.
Float frames, also known as “floater frames”, or “canvas float frames,” are designed specifically for use with canvas and panels. Canvases are mounted in float frames from the back and make the canvas look like it’s suspended in the frame, floating. You’ll need to check your depth again, since you don’t want your canvas sticking out the front of your float frame.
Pros: Float frames have a clean, contemporary look and a simple aesthetic. Because they are a more recent invention, they are still unusual in the public imagination, and can give your canvas a modern flair.
Cons: because of the way canvas floaters are attached to the artwork, they can be difficult to do outside a frame shop, and because of the limitations of the design and the fact that they are less common, there are limited style choices for these frames. The float frames do not cover all of the edges of the painting, so there is a little less protection from these frames. If the artist did not continue the painting along the sides of the canvas, a float will not be able to hide the sides, and it can look unfinished. Because you see the sides, if the frame is off kilter or out of square at all, it will be very obvious.
When dealing with float frames, the best advice I can give is: have a professional do them. They can look amazing, but there are so many things that can go wrong. As you can see in the picture to the right, the screws holding the painting into the frame go right through the back of the painting. its very important to do all the math associated with canvas depth, or you’ll end up with a screw that goes too deep. Float frames are tricky to center properly, often requiring custom shims for each fitting, and it’s difficult to put in the screws correctly when you are working blind from behind- I’ve seen an amateur put screws right through the front of the painting. Experience goes a long way to avoiding the issues with float frames. That said, floater frames are becoming more and more the standard for clean home decor canvas framing, and no one can deny that they have a certain special aesthetic something.
Final Tips and Thoughts
Each canvas will be different. In framing, every artwork is a new problem for a framer to solve, and each one requires a unique solution. For every best practice we’ve mentioned here, one of our Merion Art framers could remember an instance where it wasn’t or couldn’t be done that way. There are so many variables involved, from the weight of the canvas, to the depth of the stretcher bars, to the type of paint used, to the age and condition of the painting. The best advice for framing works of canvas well is, as always, to talk it through with your framer, and expect the unexpected. There is a huge learning curve with canvases, and if the framer doesn’t do it for you, they can certainly advise you.
To assist in your personal canvas framing endeavors, click here for a canvas framing coupon good through the end of 2017!
Our last two posts have been about Charging for Creative work, and this weeks post is a collection of lessons, tips, and final thoughts about making money from art. From our conversations with artists, here are some of the best lessons we’ve learned. If you want to make some money from your art, these are the things you should do:
Do the math.
If you want to make money from your art, treat it like a business. Don’t let art become just a money-eating hobby. Be sensible and get familiar with the numbers involved. Make sure you know what your expenses are and what your hourly rate is. Figure out how much you need to make to break even or make a profit. If you do the math, you’ll be able to quote prices accurately for clients, and being knowledgeable is more professional than waffling and estimating blindly. There’s a stereotype of artists being so high-minded and committed to “the work” that they don’t care about the bottom line, but that’s where the stereotype of the starving artist comes from: do the math and you don’t have to starve.
Know what your materials cost: how much is your canvas? Your brushes? A tube of paint? What will be necessary to display your work: will you need a frame? UV glass? Will it cost money to sell your work online or in a fair or show? Keeping track of your costs allows you to make better decisions about how to cut them: you can change the volume or quality of the paint you work in to decrease price per ml, for example. You could split a booth fee with a friend. You can learn where to cut corners when framing. Knowing where your money is going allows you to control how much of it is going, and a penny saved is a penny earned.
Know your market.
Who is your art for? How old are they, where do they live, and how do they think? What is their style and sense of humor? Find the right market for the work you do: different subjects and styles will be a hit in one area and a bust in another. Artists who are a big name in one state are barely heard of three states over. Artists who don’t sell well in person can be huge online. Make sure you are reaching the right audience, and you’ll get the response you need.
When you identify your market, take time to adjust your prices accordingly. Millennials and Baby Boomers have different ideas of what art is worth buying, and how much they should (or can) spend. Different people are willing to pay different amounts for different things, in different places. If you’re selling your art in a gallery, you’ll be able to charge more than if you’re selling at a small town fair (in fact, you definitely should, as galleries customarily take a percentage). You’ll charge differently for the same work in rural North Carolina than you will in the ritzy Mainline suburbs of Philly.
Beware of problem clients.
The phenomenon of clients or potential clients not understanding the value of creative work is sadly well known. There are whole twitter accounts dedicated to the outrageous demands of potential clients who don’t think creative work is work at all. You may encounter people who don’t understand the time, skill, mental and physical exertion, and cost involved in creating artwork. Explain it to them calmly and politely, but firmly. Don’t agree to work for “exposure” or “just because you love to make art”: unless you are getting something of equal value, they are ripping you off.
Don’t back down if a customer is refusing to pay what your work is worth- doctors, plumbers, and retail sales people don’t do work for free, so you don’t have to either. Similarly, don’t go out on a limb for clients who are being argumentative, shady, or evasive about pay: if they wouldn’t act that way with a lawyer or a waiter, they can’t act that way with an artist.
As you know, we’re living in a time of unprecedented technological advancement. Tech gives us so many opportunities as artists, exponentially more opportunities than we’ve had throughout the whole rest of history. Take advantage of these opportunities or you’ll get left behind, making 1917 money for 2017 work. Use email and Facebook to communicate with clients and other artists. Use your smartphone as a portable portfolio to show people what you do. Use Etsy to sell your handmade goods to people all over the world. Use Instagram, Tumblr, Deviant Art, etc to get your art “out there” for people to see. Use Square to take credit card payments and keep track of sales. Use Reddit to find creative gigs and design opportunities. Use YouTube to watch tutorials for new mediums and techniques. Use photo editing software to get the best prints and paint digitally. Use sites like Society6 to print and sell your designs on all kinds of housewares, and textiles. There are so many options, and there are more options developing every day.
Finally: If you are looking for variety in paid creative work, you can find it.
Non-artistic people will always need an Art Guy. They need someone who can correctly hold a paintbrush, someone who can edit a photo, someone who can sculpt a display or paint a sign, someone who can tell if something looks good, and how to make it look better. It may not always be a reliable 9-5 job, but if you want to, there are all kinds of ways to earn money as an artist.
Just out of the small sample we spoke to, we had artists who have been paid for freelance design, fine art commissions, print design for small businesses, sign painting, sculptures, murals, displays for retail stores, t-shirt design, face-painting, photo correction, wedding gifts, stationary design, live painting, art teaching, custom framing, caricatures, and more.
Some of us work 9-5 M-F doing design work, some do whatever art-related things come up at a non-art-related job, some are independent artists who paint for galleries full time, and some take commissions every once in a while- there’s creative work available to fit all lifestyles. Go find some that fits yours!
With diverse work comes diverse business models, and methods that work for one artist may be totally off-base for another. Some artists work mostly in commissions, while others rely on reproductions to make their money. We have designers who work hourly based on their design software, and painters who keep their own creations for themselves and make money painting for hire. We’ll be exploring more of the different ways artists organize things financially and sharing our tips on how to come up with a fair, logical number, how to communicate effectively with clients, and how to avoid underpaying yourself for your hard work.
In part two of this post, we’ll be hearing from Sarah and Cary. Sarah is a multi-media painter/sculptor and textile artist who works mainly in commissions and small creative jobs which she obtains from networking through work and socially. Cary is a graphic designer and digital artist, who finds a lot of his commissions online, through design classifieds and subreddits.
Sarah- Paintings and Mixed-Media Sculpture
“I don’t really sell already-made artwork – I tend towards art-based “side jobs” for companies I am already affiliated with as well as the occasional larger commission piece. In the case of commissions, here is the “equation” I use to figure out what to charge for my work:
I pick a rate, something between $25-$50 an hour depending on the task at hand – and try to price out how much it would cost in a perfect world, where everything goes according to plan and I get everything done in the smallest number of hours possible, encountering no pitfalls, and with only a minimum of planning.
Then I think of the absolute maximum for materials, toss in the cost for some extra last-minute glue or some other varnish-type thing I might not have enough of, and add it all up to come up with a number. I keep the hours as one number and the materials as another number.
Then I come up with the absolute lowest amount of money that I am willing to accept, per hour, without completely wasting my time and energy on the project, and times that by the truly extravagant version of how long this could possibly take – all the possible extra trips to get more things, set up and clean up for anything complicated that might not get done right the first time, and of course just the general time that any kind of tedious creative thing could take up — absolute maximum time.
Figuring out the minimum pay rate I’ll accept is important to me because I often take on work in somewhat unfamiliar mediums, and may need to learn new skills to properly execute the piece. The incentive to try out a new medium or material is probably one of the main reasons why I take any commission work at all -but it still takes considerably extra time and research. For example – if I estimate it’s going to take me significantly longer to do something like resin casting or textile dying that someone already skilled might be able to do in less time – I’m not going to charge $30 an hour for the overall time I expect to spend.
The last number I look for is the bare minimum of what I could spend on materials – this would include using re-purposed supplies, which I tend to keep a stock of, as well as any ways to substitute less expensive materials when it’s reasonable to do so. In order to increase profit and cut costs for myself and my customers, I tend to hoard old materials, recycle scraps, etc. etc. – anything I can get my hands on, I tear apart old canvases and re-use stretcher bars. As long as it doesn’t affect the longevity of the piece then it’s fair game. I’ll also encourage working in standard sizes, or work directly with a frame they give me that already matches their house and their style.
Now, I see if the MAX hours at MINIMUM payrate plus MAXIMUM material cost is anywhere close to the MINIMUM hours at MAXIMUM pay with the MINIMUM material cost added on. I fuss with the numbers until I can get to a place where the numbers kind of end up similar, and that’s the quote I’m going to give someone. You won’t actually get your project done in the perfect low number of hours with the perfect pay rate with the perfectly LOW material cost — but hopefully, you won’t end up spending the tediously long hours and you won’t have to outlay the maximum materials budget either, which is why I set the high and low numbers against each other when I’m figuring it out. You don’t want to end up giving someone what seems like a “reasonable” quote only to realize that you’re spending 2x as much time as you expected. You also don’t want to come up with an unrealistically high number ahead of time – it’s a price you’re agreeing on with a client, and they might disagree on the number you tell them.
If someone DOES disagree with the price you’ve quoted them, you can work the price down from the cost of materials by giving them the option of less expensive materials, and you can work the price down from the standpoint of how much time you’re willing to spend on it, but do not compromise on the cost of your own labor. Additionally – don’t bother explaining this whole price breakdown to the client. If they act like they’re someone who needs an itemized list of every little thing, kindly point them in another direction and suggest they look elsewhere for someone to do the work – it’s usually a red flag for someone with unrealistic expectations who will try to nickel and dime you.
My exception to this rule is in the case of a business paying an hourly rate for creative side work – since they’re keeping track of the hours and either paying for materials up front or reimbursing me for the invoices I submit, I have no problem having it all plotted out in detail.
One thing I try to watch out for in either case is that it will always take more time than you think. Always. Always. Something comes up that causes you to lose a studio day. Job schedules collide. The weather is wrong and you can’t varnish. The humidity is too high and something takes longer to dry. The oil paint just decides to laugh in your face and go as slow as molasses. I have found myself locked in a room with space heaters and lamps and fans just hoping things will oxidize in time for another layer, so plan ahead as best as possible and be ready to think up a back up plan.
“Okay so most/all of the paying work I’ve done has been freelance animation and illustration for the indie games market and my pricing model was very much based on the type of clients I was trying to land. I find most of my clients via message boards and forums online. Using online sources for clients is great for reaching a much wider market- the downside is that the anonymity of the internet makes it easier for people to not take your business relationship seriously.
In a more professional setting, you should definitely be charging more for creative work than I ever did. With that said, I think the way I figured out my pricing is fairly straightforward and probably pretty similar to what most artists do. The basic formula is this: 1. Figure out how much you want to be paid per hour. 2. Figure out how long the job will take you. 3. Multiply hours by wage-per-hour and there’s your price for the job. Now in my particular experience I was charging super super low hourly rates as most of my clients were small teams, sometimes of students or hobbyists, and I had little to no relevant examples in my portfolio. So I started at $10 an hour until I built up some portfolio examples, at which point I started gradually bumping up my rate.
Step 2 is the tricky part of this equation because in a freelance situation people often aren’t comfortable giving an artist free reign. I have had jobs that were more long term and clients who were happy to pay my hourly rate for however many hours I logged on their project each week, but these are few and far between. The vast majority of my clients wanted to know what they were getting into up front, which of course means you will have to be able to accurately predict how long a project is going to take you, or else you will end up signing yourself up for unpaid overtime.
I use a super simple work timer for this which you can find here. I recommend starting to time your work now if you have plans to go into freelance work ever, as having an idea of how long certain tasks will take you is invaluable when you get started.
The last, and theoretically optional, step is to factor in any incidentals. This includes things like PayPal fees, shipping charges and supplies. If you are using art materials on a project you should be accounting for their cost (even if they are things you already own.) It’s also probably a good idea to give yourself a bit of a cushion in terms of your time estimate to make sure you don’t do extra unpaid work if something goes wrong. My strategy here was usually to tell clients that the quote I was giving would be the most I would conceivably charge, but that the final invoice might be lower if I finish the project quickly.
Lastly I have known several artists who add what might be called an “inconvenience charge” or an “annoyance tax”. Does this client seem like they are going to be problematic to work for? Are they slow to communicate? Demanding and yet vague? Just generally rude or unpleasant? Tack on a percentage. I’ve seen everything from 10% to 100% suggested as the appropriate percentage, but that’s really up to you. This is not something I ever did personally, but that doesn’t mean I wholly condemn it as a tactic. Things like a client who doesn’t communicate in a timely fashion can really slow down a job and make your life miserable. It can even take up time and energy that you could have spent earning money on other jobs, so there is absolutely nothing wrong with accounting for that in your pricing structure. After you’ve figured out your price you still have a little bit of work to do.
There are two things that in my opinion are absolutely essential in any freelance situation so this is probably the most important advice I’ll give here. First: Sign a contract. There are a ton of generic contracts kicking around the internet, it’s not hard to get something tailored to your purpose and it only takes a minute to get someone’s signature. Honestly if you’re like me, you are in no financial situation to pursue litigation should a client ghost on you, but it’s still nice to have just in case a serious amount of money is involved, and it gives your whole operation a sense of professionalism that’s always an asset.
Second: Ask for a percentage up front. My standard was 20% and I never had a client who had a problem with it. This way if your client does disappear on you (And they will. Seriously. Most of them will.) you won’t be coming away empty handed. I also find that if you have already taken money for a job it helps hold you accountable to finish it (Sometimes you’re the one who disappears, which is just as bad if not worse than the alternative.) Okay I guess that’s pretty much it. Good luck out there artists!”