Monetary rewards


Dear Artist,

A recent study conducted by German neuroscientists scanned the brains of artists to try to figure out why so many of us are broke. When presenting subjects with a button that delivered a cash reward when pushed, researchers noticed that artists’ brain activity flatlined when compared to dentists and insurance agents. MRIs and dopamine measurements showed artists to have a reduced activation in the brain’s reward system. On top of this, a second test showed the artists were having a heightened response in another area of the brain. When told they could reject the cash prize, dopamine surged. Renouncing money, it seemed, is what got artists fired up.


Self-portrait by Judith Leyster ca.1630

I’m thinking part of it might have something to do with survivor guilt — that feeling a decent person gets when she knows she’s getting away with something. “Write a novel if you must,” wrote Pearl S. Buck, “but think of money as an unlikely accident.” If art is a calling and wellspring of joy, individualism, freedom and pleasure, getting a cheque for it can feel like an accident. “I cannot afford to waste my time making money,” said 19th Century Swiss-American natural history biologist Jean Louis Agassiz. For those of us with work that doesn’t feel like work, learning to receive what seems like even more good fortune is a cultivated skill.


“The Young Artist”
oil on canvas
by Jules-Alexis Muenier

At the risk of feeling dirty, I’m going to make a suggestion. Might we exorcise the perpetual myth of noble artist starving? “I’ve always found it very sanitary to be broke,” wrote Orson Welles. First, look at your work and ruminate on what it’s really worth, how to make it better and what it is that you are offering the world. Embrace the purity in your heart and in your anterior prefrontal cortex, where your money motivation lies blissfully dormant. Now, push the cash button. Work at it, if you must, until it feels okay. Rocker Bono, when asked about it, replied, “Selling out is doing something you don’t really want to do for money. That’s what selling out is.”


“Portrait of Sir Alfred East” 1907
by Philip de Laszlo (1869–1937)



PS: “Collectively, our results indicate the existence of distinct neural traits in the dopaminergic reward system of artists, who are less inclined to react to the acceptance of monetary rewards.” (Creativity Research Journal, led by Dr. Roberto Goya-Maldonado)

Esoterica: I remember a time when I couldn’t buy a potato, tormented by late-paying galleries, scrambling to collect and struggling with endless requests for discounts and studio sales payment-over-time plans. The thing was, I needed the money. After a tearful confession to a friend, she lovingly jotted out a new manifesto and told me to follow it for a year. “No discounts. No payment plans. Retire non-payers.” All these years later, it’s not just my bottom line that’s more buoyant. “Poverty makes you sad as well as wise,” wrote playwright and poet Bertolt Brech. Add a commitment to making the very best work you can. Try to think of money as simply a kind of practical form of love, one of a million wonderful artists’ reward systems — not everything, not nothing. Treat yourself as you would others in this sphere. Know that it takes time and respect. “Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” —Epictetus


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“Money often costs too much.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)




  1. Earning a living is satisfying in itself, whether it comes from working as an artist, a carpenter, or an ad exec, but sometimes, doing just one thing is not enough. Not many artists have that luxury. Does it really matter why, or are we prone to judging our work by the amount of money we can pull in doing it?

  2. I used to follow a website called “Artistic Failure in America” which had a piece on artist’s poverty. The line I remember is, “When you give them money, they just buy more art supplies.” :)

  3. Elizabeth Baier Mahy on

    Was it you, yourself talking about the potato? If it was, I’m so sorry.

    The brain thing is tragic. We have enough problems without that.

    Beth Mahy, Dallas
    Thanks for continuing these. I enjoy them and the posts really help get me through the day.

  4. John francis on

    I’ve never believed in the ‘starving artist’ mythology. “You know you’re broke when you have nothing left to sell.” – J.F.

  5. Sara, I’m grateful to have left behind most qualms about the value of what I do when I retired from church ministry to paint full-time. (I wasn’t the pastor of a mega-church so my salary was more that of a church mouse.) I’ve never felt more clarity than I do today about the necessity of my art in the world and its value. Years ago I learned from your father the practice of pricing by size and making annual price adjustments. While I’m still nervous every time I raise my prices, I find myself more and more attracting collectors who don’t quibble over the prices I ask. I still stumble, however, offering discounts even when none are requested (I’m sure the reasons I do so would make a therapist rich!), but most of the time I’m content in my faith that my best works will find their rightful owner at or close to the price I’m asking. (By the way, when a client is asking about the price of a painting, I find that referring to my “official” printed list helps me feel a lot more comfortable when naming a big figure–it’s no longer “my” price but “the” price.)

    • Ellie Harold: Thank you for sharing your experience in selling your artwork, especially the part of being content in your faith that your “best works will find their rightful owner at or close to the price…” you’re asking. The keyword is the “best work” – if it’s quality work it will sell. It reminds me of the movie The Field of Dreams. The message is to “build it, and they will come.” Also, thanks for the tip to refer to the “official” printed list, it is a great way to reduce the stress of dealing with potential buyers. I will remember to do this. In gratitude.

  6. Our society seems to equate success with money. How much you make or the prices you sell at determine your worth. It’s a distraction. Once I have enough money it is hard to be motivated to earn more until I need it.

  7. Glad to read this. I always felt dirty and embarrased selling. It was my biggest problem as an artist. I hated touching the money.

    • So too have I struggled with that embarrasement of selling. I recently left my adjunct teaching position to work in the studio full time. I must now price ( by size) and praise God for the gift of painting.

  8. Jackie Wilkinson on

    How does one put a price on a painting? What must be considered? Size,subject,skill level,learning experience,the total journey travelled from blank canvas to finished piece. I just finished a commission piece and charged just a touch more than the cost of the canvas and paint. I consider myself an artist through and through,but I factored in the experience. I have sold pieces for much more,but didn’t have the nerve to quote the price I really felt the work was worth….go figure

    • I had to teach art at a high school for 30 years to support my family and my output of paintings. My old mentor Gordon Smith told me 40 years ago at UBC never to give away my art, always charge something. All the income I make from painting usually goes towards buying more art supplies, framing and studio rental costs. I can’t afford to give anything away, but I will continue to paint until I die.

  9. I love the sentiments expressed in this article. It is a challenge to get ones head around the idea that having a price for a painting is appropriate. Thank you for the validation.

  10. After working a creative full-time job from 1972-79- making only 3 pieces of art during that time- I quit (because I was burned out) and put myself on my full-time art path. I’d been making since I was a child and I’d already been written up in the local newspaper twice- a local magazine- and won my first Best-In-Show award. 6 months after that job ended I moved to another state- leaving behind a reputation that would take me 8 years to reestablish- but this time that reputation was built around my art. During that early period I actually started a second career that would last a half-dozen years- but it was part-time work. And I’ve never really had another full-time job- so making money on my artwork has always been front and center. Unfortunately- it’s never been enough- and it’s never been anything but irregular- making functioning in a regular world almost impossible.
    Since the work is abstract- and it’s never been landscapes- portraits or still-lifes- and I don’t work in any kind of traditional media- I literally had to create an awareness that what I’m making is art- and that my art has value just because it exists. And I still struggle. But I still get up every day and work.
    The medium problem? Most people working with similar materials and tools are making something functional.
    The collector problem? Most people see what I’m making as the functional craft object and base its perceived value on what they think that object is worth. So- sticker shock.
    The money problem? I haven’t been able to effectively raise my prices in 2 decades and due to a commission in my retail price- the price remains somewhat negotiable.
    The gallery problem? I’ve never had one. And almost all fiber-related galleries that have come into existence have gone out of existence within a short period of time.
    The buyer problem? My art sales have never been easy- so if they’re easy for you consider yourself extremely lucky.
    The artist problem? Above- you and your readers have nailed it- several times. Accepting money for your art work makes you feel dirty. I don’t have this problem and I’ve never had it. But I’ve run into it again and again. It’s like- what the hell! Why on Earth would any artist have a problem getting paid for their work? When I began- I was simply not able to see that we artists are a huge part of our own problem and we artists need to fix this problem within ourselves. And I harp on this point regularly.
    Art Work is WORK. There’s nothing wrong with the production of art also being seen as work. There’s nothing wrong with WORK. Working is a good thing- sitting on your ass doing nothing- isn’t. For those of us who are compelled to create art- struggling with money doesn’t make us sad- it makes us suicidal. And since I’m several thousand dollars behind right now- and I’m having age-related health issues- I get closer every second. Because really- what else is there? If your VOCATION is realizing your creativity and manifesting art into the world- not being able to do so removes your primary reason to exist. Fight another day? What for? Sometimes you just run out of time.
    This morning- because I told this truth to some friends online- I made a $1500.00 sale. Is it enough? No. But it’s something. And nothing comes from nothing and nothing ever could- so thank you- to the Sound of Music.
    I believe that every art school on the planet should have business-related courses built into art courses- so when people get out of art school they have a parallel business training background- something I never got. But hey- what do I know? And I believe every artist on the planet should get psychological help to remove the failed anti-money bullshit from their brain’s reward center- so we can change the cultural perspective by changing our own artist’s perspective- first.

  11. I LOVE MONEY AND WISH I HAD MORE OF IT! However, at 86 years of age, (living on my Social Security), I am too old and lacking in energy and good physical health to involve myself in all the bullcrap of website, social media, gallery hopping and everything else that is necessary to sell as an artist. And besides, at this age I am too lazy to waste time on these endeavors and would rather just paint. I do landscapes (and occasionally do pleinaire), and have a love of still life. I do not use photographs but have a storehouse of 8×10 pleinaire studies which I use for my studio paintings which do not exceed the sizes of 16×20 or 18×24. My living room/dining room are my gallery and studio and I can be found painting in my pj’s any day of the week . And although I do not pursue selling anymore, I AM HAPPY AND INSPIRED TO BE AN ARTIST living in beautiful Colorado. I am on the website of a community art center (which does not require me to spend hours on it) Bradford. My love and peace goes out to all the artists who struggle to sell their work. Namaste.

  12. Steven W. Dunn on

    I absolutely love to sell my paintings! I can buy more art supplies and keep on creating!
    Sara, thanks for keeping on with these letters. It’s wonderful to here what other artists think and feel and believe.

    • So true. I use your system of pricing by size. I sell 2-3 paintings each year and they range 1,800-2,400. USD each. This replaces my tools and materials. I am retired with a modest income. I do one show per month and have my art in at least one well known gallery in our area (ongoing). Now, consider how many artist there are in the world and how many real buyers comparatively. I FEEL FORTUNATE to have discovered my true bliss work. Oh happy day.

  13. I wonder, at least about myself, how this fits in with the concept of self-esteem. I have a cousin who wanted a print of one of my watercolors, and although it was posted on a 3rd party site that sells prints, I had a copy made by a local printer, matted it, and sent it off to her myself. I paid $30 to give it away, partly because I was thrilled that she wanted a print. My excuse was that she was family, but in truth, my somewhat low sense of self-esteem kicked in and I would have felt guilty about charging her.

  14. Thank you, first, to Sara, for bringing this subject to light for all of us. Thank you to J.Bruce for a long dissertation which makes a lot of sense. Thank you to Gerri for expressing the opposite side of the coin. As a commercial artist / graphic designer working at ad agencies and printers, I definitely approve of being paid for creative work. It is a unique skill that should have value. I’ll have to admit that I taught a highschool art course in graphic design, not fine art painting, because I wanted the students to realize they could make a living in that field.

    Now I am strictly a watercolor painter. A frustrated architect, my specialty is house portraits, which I have been commissioned to do more than twenty over the years. Also animal / pet portraits. That is where the money is, because the customer has requested the painting and is willing to pay for it. As a member of a co-op gallery for 14 years, I was competing with more than 30 talented artists for sales. There my florals were popular. Pricing had to consider my expenses of gallery rent and sales commissions, in addition to framing costs and the actual value of the painting itself. From my agency experience, I keep a log of my time spent on each piece, with $20 to $25 per hour, depending on the complexity of the design. I don’t believe in pricing by the inch. I have never felt guilty about charging for my artwork. I think it is insulting to any artist to ask for a discount on a single piece. We are all professionals, like a doctor or lawyer, because we have invested a lifetime in honing our skills. Would you ask them for a discount on their fees?

  15. I love selling my works. I love earning money doing what I love. I love making money and being independent. If more people in society valued and purchased oringinal art work that would be great for everyone!

  16. As someone who gave up many things because I had an “on the road to Damascus” style artist’s epiphany to write both poetry and prose & a self promise that I will never give up. Money was the last thing on my mind. Brought up on the family’s farm I was expected to become a Sussex farmer. I wrote because if I didn’t I became depressed and couldn’t live with myself. Originally, I went to live in a monastery to change my brains’s the social software that I was brought up with. I gave up marriage to a wealthy woman and a social life in London that would have set me on a course of capitalistic wealth and a social life that today’s celebrity obsessed people would give their lives for. I am also a member of the NUJ and was offered numerous posts, (which I didn’t take up) that would have offered me several celebrity style posts that would have launched me forward. I agree with your latest sentiment apropos money and the the inexorable soul/ spirits obligation and desire to follow the mythical siren’s song of the muse ( Or in my case the sound of the wild geese flying south to escape the cruel Canadian winter!) Fifty five years after I made the decision to side step out of the establishment, I have written approx 50 million words in long hand which includes 10 novels several plays approximately 1000 poems, countless essays, film scripts, three plays and political comments. However, I am still totally unknown and although I have reached the age that many put on slippers to watch the evening television, I am fired by the same belief in my destiny that I had in my twenties and thirties. I drive 1100 cc BMW motor bike and when I can afford it, still fly light aeroplanes.(licence for 40years plus) Do I regret my relatively impoverished state? No, but I suddenly I want to become known for what I believe I am. What was the catalyst ? My three children. When I die I would like them to be proud of what I was but perhaps never became. So, I need the celebrity status proof having proved that I was never motivated by wealth or the desire to be famous. Perhaps it isn’t too late? Time will tell as long as I dont die before I am 100 plus !! I am a Capricorn and would welcome any like minded people getting in touch. I live in Southern England and spend a lot of time in Southern Ireland where some of my ancestors lived. With my surname my ancestors were obviously Dutch/ Flemish who were rich and powerful. Perhaps my ascetic life had been karmic punishment for their sins !?!


    Dorian van Braam

  17. Well written Sara. I believe your Dad would have been content to have composed this himself. My own take on money is that I seldom think of it and never dicker about the price. I owe that to myself, my art and my patrons. Simple.

    • So true. I use your system of pricing by size. I sell 2-3 paintings each year and they range 1,800-2,400. USD each. This replaces my tools and materials. I am retired with a modest income. I do one show per month and have my art in at least one well known gallery in our area (ongoing). Now, consider how many artist there are in the world and how many real buyers comparatively. I FEEL FORTUNATE to have discovered my true bliss work. Oh happy day.

  18. WOW….this little piece really resonates! Are you content with 50% consignment rates to galleries….30 day net for wholesale if you provide it….exorbitant “jury” fees for the onerous task of looking at photos….paying all shipping costs to and from and still getting only half the retail/gallery price for the work sent….if it sells, being subjected to critiques from marginally talented MFA’s, multiple rejections coupled with the loss of those jury fees and then having to compete with talented retirees who are content with getting the price of their frame for work sold? It’s no wonder the stereotype of starving artist is actually truthful. Recently I heard the comment that being an artist is a curse. There is a bit of truth in that as well. The compulsion to create is not something that has a cure even though it is similar to an illness….like OCD. Thankfully it’s enjoyable, not curable and you can’t eat it….but enjoyable none the less.
    Right on Mz. Amy!

  19. Ronaldo Norden on

    This subject discussion is one of the best that l’ve ever seen on the web page,artists tend to be loners so it’s good to hear what other producers of beauty say that we all have in common. One thing l feel about some of the results provided by the German research project , about how artists get edgy about pricing.l feel that most producers of art are sensitive. Now here in N. America there’s a statistic that l’ved heard a few times which is that only 5% of society love art, the rest are indifferent to it.So wit h these odds, occasionally and offhand a comment will be heard “Art who needs it?” which sometimes is remembered by a working artist which can effect their sense of value. And we all want to be of some use to our tribe in our heart of hearts.So sometimes our sense of value gets too much influence from reality statistic’s

  20. Such inspiring and well needed comments. The gallery which exhibits my art used to hate to see me coming because I could never figure a price. Finally I said to the gallery owner- You price it
    I only wanted to sell it and never encounter anything to do with money or knowing anything else. Foolhardy- maybe but it works for me and the gallery owner has an idea what a purchaser will pay. Of course I know the price before I leave but by then I am hotfooting it back to my car

  21. It blows my mind that some artists think getting money for art is “dirty”! Why would you even think that? Someone loves your work so much that they just HAVE to have it! That they would lay down their hard earned cash for it? What an honor! Very humbling.
    I’m delighted that most of my work is sold. They are things of this world and are gracing peoples’ homes for their aesthetic pleasure.

  22. W O W !!! This was awesome, (again) many thanks and much appreciation. I absolutely love what I do-painting, etc. and any gig I did have ‘for money” I also made myself love it in the moment- and quit doing things that weren’t helping me grow (or, paying) ;) Your newsletters continue to astound and inspire, thank you so much.

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