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The Worth of My Art

How do I charge people for a work of art that gave me such immeasurable pleasure while creating it? I mean, is it really work, if I enjoy creating it? Is it real work if I don’t get totally stressed-out while creating it? Sometimes, I feel guilty when I calculate the price of my work. Over and over, I start questioning my worth as an artist, and I question the worth of my artwork.

 

A few days ago, a couple walked into my studio in downtown Scarborough, Tobago. They were on vacation and wanted to look at some local art. I started showing them the smaller and more affordable pieces I had to offer, and then left them to browse while I worked on my current project.

 

They browsed, but the lady kept going back to one of the larger pieces. “I love this one,” she said.


“Thank you,” I replied. 

 

“I really want this one,” she said, as she inspected the piece closely.

 

I smiled and thought, I hope the price is not too high.

 

“I love the details on her face,” then she added, “I wonder if this will fit in my suitcase?”

 

I started telling her a story about the subject-matter in the painting. In my mind, I still couldn’t believe she was ready to purchase my artwork.

 

She whispered something to her husband, and he responded, “It’s up to you, Honey.”

 

She turned around, looked at me and said in clear concise English, “I would like to purchase this piece.”

 

I swear, I almost said, ‘Seriously?’ I didn’t say that though. Instead, I said, “Oh, wow. Great!”

 

“Your work is really affordable,” she added.


I responded, “Well no one really knows me yet, I mean I’m not anyone famous or anything.” The sad part is that I really meant it. I wasn’t just trying to be modest, I truly believed that my work should be priced lower because I didn’t feel I had established myself as a noted artist yet.

 

While fidgeting and blabbering on about how I’m just an emerging artist, I couldn’t find the certificate of authenticity, that I'd painstakingly created for each original painting. I wasn’t really prepared for a big sale!

 

Why?

 

Because it was ingrained in me as a child, that art is just a hobby. It is not real work, not a real profession and can never be a real business but might be a good ‘side hustle’.

 

Recently, I had two teenage students come into my studio and tell me that their art teacher told them that “Art has no money.” I was told the same thing at their age so in 1987, I studied computer operations and programming which led me to a life in corporate America. I’ll never forget a conversation with a co-worker who was considering retirement. He said that he would most likely have to downsize considerably to even live comfortably based on his salary alone. Then he went on to say his wife had a degree in fine art which had been completely useless.

 

While I will always be grateful for the corporate experiences I’ve gained during my ‘other career’, the yearning to create felt like a perpetual heart break. It was like a scab that I kept scratching and never completely healed - never went away.

 

Now at almost 60 years old, I’m an ‘emerging’ artist. I joke about being an old-new artist. I’ve spent such a huge part of my life working hard and incredibly long hours, and always on deadlines that I feel guilty about enjoying my work. Mind you, I still work incredibly long hours and at all hours of the day and night but it’s a different type of work. It’s work made from love and from the soul. Feeling guilty for making money from my work is something I’ll need to get over fast.

 

Last Christmas Eve, a business owner from one of the largest companies in Trinidad called me to enquire about a painting. When she identified herself, I literally started stuttering. I mean, I couldn’t believe that she wanted to buy my art. She was interested in purchasing a piece for her daughter who had gotten engaged, and they were coming over to Tobago to celebrate.  

She asked me the price and I immediately started bargaining against myself. When we agreed on the price, (when I finally stopped talking myself down) she asked me to wrap the painting and explained it was a surprise for her daughter. She said, “make sure and mark sold on that painting.”

 

I didn’t ask for a deposit because, after all, she is one of the owners of a large, well-known company in Trinidad and Tobago. On December 28th, I went into my studio early and full of anticipation. I knew there was a cruise ship coming in so I would be busy selling my smaller ‘craft’ items, but I was really looking forward to the ‘big sale’. As I took the painting down from the wall and was getting ready to wrap it, a gentleman who came off the cruise ship walked into the studio at the same time and offered to pay me full price for the painting as a present for his wife. He said it was their 25th wedding anniversary. I told him that unfortunately the painting was already sold.

 

I’m sure you know where this story is going. The lady from Trinidad never showed up and never answered her phone.

Did I learn from this? Of course, I did. I’m still learning. I’m learning to treat my work like what it is – work that I just happen to love with all my being. I’m learning to ask people for money for the work that I’ve spent time and energy creating. I’m learning that I am not gloating when I post a “work sold”, on social media because for every original artwork sold, the value of my work and my value as an artist increase.

 

I’m forever grateful to the people who recognize the work I’ve put into the pieces I’ve created. After wrapping the artwork and handing it to the visiting couple, she hugged me and said, “You are a real, world-class artist, especially when someone who doesn’t know you, buys your work.”


While I am a professional artist, and my income is based on my pieces selling, and while I have enjoyed success so far with my works being purchased from clients in many countries, I still have this attachment to my works that is curiously unsettling when I see them leave my studio.  So, I consider the sale of my works more like an adoption - that I leave my works in the care of new owners for them to enjoy and to hopefully share my stories with their friends.

 

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Vidya Birkhoff is a painter and writer born in Trinidad and Tobago. A fine-art graduate from the Ani Art Academies, her studies focused on Trompe L’oeil - the Language of Drawing and the Language of Painting. Vidya shares her experiences through her paintings, with a composition of hyper-realism, while pushing color and contrast, to bring viewers into a distinct West Indian style. Vidya’s work can be found in galleries and private collections in Trinidad and Tobago, the US, Canada and throughout the Caribbean. She is the owner of the Yellow Butterfly Studios & Art Gallery, on the Scarborough Waterfront, Tobago, West Indies.

 

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