FAQs: Why is Art Expensive? (What You Pay for When you Commission a Sculpture)

But why does it cost so much? This is a question artists are asked across every field. Whether the artist is a sculpture, musician, painter, photographer (or any other field!) they are frequently asked to justify their prices. Many artists struggle to make a living as they often end up not charging enough to cover their time. It is definitely a valid question and one that we want to cover in this blog!

Simon O'Rourke photographed with the wooden bust he created of Ayrton Senna.
Simon photographed with his Ayrton Senna bust

Why is Art Expensive?
An Economist’s Perspective.

According to Wonderopolis, economists believe the cost of art to be based on supply and demand. They would say when it comes to demand, nobody really needs art! However, there are plenty of people who want beautiful artworks. Therefore, with plenty of demand for artwork, it’s the amount of work available that leads to high prices. Scarcity or the artist’s ability to only produce a limited number of pieces is what makes it expensive.
This is true to an extent. There are however LOTS of other reasons for the cost, and LOADS of things you are getting when you pay for a piece of art…

why is art expensive? photo shows a small wooden sculpture of a bulldog by simon o'rourke.
People are sometimes surprised by the cost of smaller pieces like this adorable bulldog portrait

Why is Art Expensive?
Materials & Sourcing

The first cost behind one of Simon’s sculptures is an obvious one. The raw materials, and the cost of sourcing that material. Even though his timber is only ever from a tree that is damaged, diseased or dangerous, there is still a cost involved. Unless of course, the commission is for a standing stump.
Simon works closely with a few tree surgeons he trusts to ensure that he is getting good, useable timber at a good price. Incidentally, if you are looking for someone to evaluate, cut back or remove a tree, we recommend TreeTech NW!

Sourcing and transporting the raw materials is one of the expenses underlying the cost of a sculpture

Why is Art Expensive?
Cost of Equipment

Every artist needs tools to work with. Simon is no different. And purchasing and maintaining chainsaws, drills, burr bits and more can be expensive. They cost a little more than say a good quality rolling pin or paintbrush! Tree Carving also demands good quality outdoor clothing, and protective workwear such as boots, helmet, ear protection and sometimes glasses or mask to shield Simon’s face. It’s important not to compromise on these as they have an impact on both long and short term health. Stihl make some great quality PPE by the way if you are on the lookout for some yourself!

why is art expensive? photo shows treecarver simon o'rourke on scaffolding working on a sculpture of a ghostly woman. He wears PPE. this is one of the underlying expenses in the cost of art.
It is important for artists to have the right tools and equipment like the PPE Simon is wearing in this photo of him working on The Marbury Lady

Why is Art Expensive?
Project-Specific Costs

Every project also has its own unique costs, not just the cost of the materials. If Simon has to travel, or stay in local accommodation, these are costs he has to take into account. Artists have different ways of doing this. Some create an itemised account and bill the customer for it specifically. Others will take it into account as something their annual income needs to cover when they set themselves an hourly rate. Either way, it is a legitimate thing!
There may also be other costs too, like hiring scaffolding or a cherry picker (trees can be quite tall you know!). Perhaps Simon needs to pay someone like Treetech to deliver the piece. There may also be permits needed in some public places for some of his sculptures.
Whatever the need, they are some of the costs that have to be factored into a commission, and they are part of what you get when you pay for artwork.

Why is art expensive? photo shows simon o'rourke with his oak maiden sculpture. It is around 3m tall, and he is standing in a cherry picker, one of the underlying costs behind his art
Sometimes Simon has additional equipment to hire, like this cherry picker used for The Oak Maiden

Why is Art Expensive?
Underlying Business Costs

We’ve all seen the romantic pictures of Bohemian artists working from their cluttered studio apartments. Or the classic photographer-in-movies who turns his bedroom into a darkroom. It’s a lovely picture, and one that we often cling to. Sadly though, it isn’t accurate! While there are many artists who are able to work alone, others (like Simon) employ a team of people. And rather than working from that perfect attic apartment, they rent or buy buildings. In Simon’s case this is a necessity not a preference. Can you imagine trying to carve a sculpture with a chainsaw on your dining room table?!  This means there are lots of costs that the artist’s business has to cover…

Rent/mortgage and utilities.
Health and safety training (especially proper training for using chainsaws and keeping licenses updated)

Insurance and health and safety compliance aren’t things we often think about when we think ‘art’, but as many artists are running business that go beyond themselves, it is one of the costs behind the ‘product’. Simon and Liz are fortunate to have a great consultant they work with to help with this side of things. If you run a business and need some advice, we recommend talking to Acton Health and Safety.

Why is art expensive? Simon O'Rourke is working on a sculpture in the middle of a busy workshop. Running the workshop, insurance, licensing for the chainsaw users etc are some of the costs behind his artwork
Simon at work in the workshop. Covering the costs of running a workshop are some of the underlying costs behind the cost of a commission.

Why is Art Expensive?
Artist’s Time

One of the costs behind a piece of art is paying the artist for the time it takes them to create the piece. That time may not just be the actual creation time either. They will have put time into getting quotes for equipment, finding the costs of materials, going back and forth with the client in conversation to find out what they really want. They will also put time into research and sometimes practice.

When Simon is asked to create something, he needs to take time researching the subject. That may look like hours on the internet looking at lion paws, as he did for these big cats. It may mean googling the clothing of a particular period as he did for these miners and the cricketer. His most recent portrait even included trying to establish if Shakespeare was left or right-handed! Portraits of real people, in particular, need him to spend time really trying to learn something about the person’s character and life, as he did for the Ayrton Senna bust.

This time and these details can be what makes the difference between a very good sculpture and an excellent one. And so, when you pay for a piece of art, you are getting the physical piece, but also the artist’s time!

ayrton senna bust by simon o'rourke in foreground. It is in progress. In the background Simon looks at a wall of senna photos, checking the details for his sculpture
Thorough research and preparation ensure excellence in Simon’s pieces

Why is Art Expensive?
Training, Expertise, Experience & Reputation

This last category of costs is a little harder to quantify than all the others. In every industry, we set salaries according to how much responsibility the person has, how much training and how much experience. Teacher salaries increase each year to a certain point. Gaining a Masters can lead to an increase in salary as a nurse. Many salaries are set taking into account how much the person paid for their training as well as the incredible amount of knowledge, skill and expertise they have. A consultant is able to charge more when they have gained experience and proven their capability.

We recognise these unquantifiable things make a difference to the ‘product’ we are receiving.

And so it is in the art world.
When we pay for a piece of art, we are gaining something we can’t count. What we see represents years of training, reading, watching, practice. Making mistakes. Learning better methods. Trying different tools. Tears. Sweat. Coaching. Starting over.

When you pay for a commission, you are getting all of that as well as the physical piece you take home… something that really can’t be valued.

simon o'rourker with his sculpture 'the dragon of bethesda'
When Simon carves a dragon like this, it is informed by years of sketching and carving other dragons.

Commissioning a Piece

We hope this has helped you think about what you are getting when you commission and pay for one of Simon’s sculptures – or any piece of art!

Simon often takes on a lot of public sculptures and loves for art to be accessible to as many as possible. For this reason, he is very reasonable in his costing. We do recognise though that for many people, owning art is a luxury, and cost can be off-putting.
However, Simon will also do what he can to ensure that cost isn’t the reason a potential client doesn’t go ahead with a commission. As we mentioned in our blog about ‘the sculptures that didn’t make the cut‘, if a potential client says ‘no’ based on cost, Simon will often have other ideas that could help bring the price down.

Maybe it’s size.
Maybe it’s less detail.
Perhaps it’s using different wood…

sketch by simon o'rourke of a potential sculpture of an unknown female
After Simon has made initial suggestions, he will chat with you about any changes, whether that be cost, material or design

So, if you are thinking about commissioning a piece, don’t assume that the initial quote is a final one. Although there are very real costs that often can’t be altered, Simon will also do what he can to make suggestions that match the budget you have, where he can. Don’t be afraid to ask!

You can start that commissioning process at www.treecarving.co.uk/contact/

We look forward to hearing from you!