How to Price Digital Art Commissions: a Beginners Guide

Figuring out your hourly rate and prices, and how to improve them

Artist: 
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Written: 
November 8, 2020
Last Updated: 
November 25, 2020

Calculating your prices is an important step before taking art commissions - you don't need your prices to be absolutely spot on before you begin, but you also don't want to be way off.

If you don't charge enough, you may find yourself under a mountain of work yet still unable to pay all your bills.

If you charge too much, you might find yourself with no work in sight, and still unable to pay those bills!

Unfortunately, most price calculators on the internet are aimed at traditional artists, and as a digital artist, you can't price your work the same way. 

Since you'll almost always be sending a digital file to your client, cost of materials isn't a factor in digital art pricing.

Nor can you really price your art by square inch, like you might price a physical canvas, since in digital art the size of your canvas is so easy to change and doesnt correlate as much with the time you spend making a piece of art.

The best measurement digital artists can use to charge a sustainable price for our commissions, is to track the actual time spent making a piece of art, and multiply that by an hourly rate that we know covers our time.

So, that essentially requires you to know two things - how long does your art take, and how much per hour do you need to make?

Since the price of a commission is usually agreed on with a client before you begin working, you have to figure those two things out first, to then be able to give clients an accurate price.

How to calculate your hourly rate

Before I got into doing freelance and commissions, my only jobs had been in someone elses employment.

I remember hearing some of the hourly rates charged by freelance artists, and comparing it to my wage at work, and figured freelance artists must all be wealthy! 

Although rates of $100 an hour, $50 an hour or even $30 an hour sounds like loads of money, the reality of being a freelance artist is a little less glamorous.

There are so many factors and expenses that you have to handle in self-employment as a freelance artist, it's not fair to compare it to an employee's wage - but I'll get into that later.

A simple formula for minimum hourly rates for commissions

Here's an easy way to figure out a minimum hourly rate, regardless of your living circumstances:

Take the amount you need to make every month from commissions to cover your monthly living expenses, then double it - to account for other expenses like taxes, sick days, holidays, replacing equipment etc.
Divide this by the number of hours you can work on commissions per month, at a maximum of 100 hours per month.

Any more than 100 hours per month is unsustainable - believe me I've tried.

If you've ended up with an hourly rate of under $10 through this formula, round it up to $10.

So, if you can work full-time on commissions and need to make $1000 a month from commissions, double that to $2000 and divide it by 100 hours, equalling a minimum rate of $20 per hour.

This is your minimum hourly rate - if people try to talk you into charging less than your minimum hourly rate, whether that's clients, or other artists, or friends or family or strangers, ignore them and move on.

This minimum rate is what you have to charge to survive. If you charge less than this, I promise it will bite you and you will struggle.

New freelance artists can earn $10 per hour minimum. I don't care where you are from or if you dont think you deserve it - if your art is good enough to land jobs, you can charge an absolute minimum of $10 per hour.

If you see artists charging less than $10 per hour, it's probably because they are scared to charge more. They don't realise they could get $10 per hour or more if they overcame their fear.

Only take jobs if you can make this minimum rate or better.

How this hourly rate translates into annual income

From my experience as a freelance artist, I'd say this simple equation sums up how well your hourly rate translates into a maximum annual salary:

As a reasonable estimate, a freelance artist can expect a maximum annual income of about 1000 times their hourly rate, after taxes and expenses.

So, $30 per hour is a maximum salary of $30k per year - and $10 per hour means an income of around $10k per year.

Do the calculation for your own rate - does 1000 times your hourly rate sound okay?

Does it sound alright, also knowing that this annual salary is only achieveable if you work pretty hard all year round?

If you're excited about this figure, great!

If you think your projected salary is too low, I would go with your gut and just increase your hourly rate right now, to something that feels more appropriate.

Now we have a minimum hourly rate, we can talk about the next step to figure out your commission prices.

How to track the time you spend making a piece of art

Put simply, you will have to record the time you spend making one or more pieces of art.

The more these are like the commissions you plan to offer, the better.

If you want to start offering D&D character commissions, I recommend you time yourself making a sample full-portrait character. If you want to offer pet portraits, give yourself a pretend client and time yourself making their pet portrait, etc.

I've used a few different methods to track my time spent on a piece of art

1. Track time manually

Make a note of the time you started working, and the time you stopped - this could be a good enough method if you tend to create a finished piece in just one or two sittings.

If you are like me and tend to work on a piece of art over multiple sittings and have many pieces of art on the go at once, tracking manually probably wont be good enough.

2. Use an app to track your time spent in a program

I use both Work.exe and ActivityWatch to track my time spent in the art software on my computer.

Work.exe is free and very simple - just tell the app which programs on your pc are for 'work', and it'll track how long you've spent in them today.

You can download Work.exe here; don't worry it's safe, despite the strange looking webpage it's hosted on!

I also use ActivityWatch which is free as well, but much more advanced. It tracks the time I spend on everything on my pc, so I use this for more general time tracking, but it's also good for tracking how much time I spend on art.

You can grab ActivityWatch on their site.

3. Screen record yourself while you make art

Something I used to do a lot was screen recording my painting software while I worked, and rewatching it to add up the time I spent on the art.

You can be very accurate this way, though it takes a bit more effort to set up and review the footage after.

I use OBS Studio to record my screen which you can grab here, totally free and safe.

As a bonus, recording yourself making art has the benefit of creating a valuable asset in itself, as you can use the recordings to make video content for youtube and other social media platforms.

Don't forget to add time that you spend outside of directly working on the art, but doing other necessary things like gathering references.  This is work time too!

Whichever of these methods you choose to use, it's hard to estimate the exact time you'll spend on any given commission - this is only going to give you something good enough as a starting point.

Calculating your commission prices

Once you know the time spent making a typical piece of art, and your hourly rate, simply multiply them together to get a base price for a standard commission.

The basic D&D commission I offer is a full body character on a white background, and I spend around 10 hours making it, including emailing with the client and gathering references.

If you charge $30 per hour, then a 10 hour D&D commission costs $300. If you spend on average 6 hours, that would be $180, if you spend 20 hours thats $600.

Once you have your basic price, I would estimate prices for variations or more complicated commission requests, by estimating the additional time they would take. 

In my case, if the design of a character will take more work to paint, such as if they have a small pet, complicated armour or a big set of wings, I would estimate each element to add about 2 hours to the painting process. 

If the client wants a background, simple ones would add around 2 hours, but complicated ones might add 10 hours.

If the client wants multiple characters in a single illustration, I simply figure out the time investment for each character, and the time investment for the background, add it all together and multiply by my hourly rate. 

For example, a client wants a scene with 3 characters fighting in a ruined church. 2 characters are simple at 10 hours each (20 hours so far), the other character has intricate armour and large batlike wings, so I think it would take around 14 hours to paint (34 hours total now). The ruined church is also a more complicated background, and I estimate would take 8 hours to paint (42 hours in total).

The above example illustration would take around 42 hours, and at a $30 per hour rate would cost $1260.

These prices are assuming you are sending the client a digital file when the art is finished, and the work is for non-commercial purposes.

If the client wants you to print the art and send that to them, I would also charge them for the cost of printing and posting the art, as well as charge your hourly rate for the time you have to spend getting that handled.

If the client wants to use the art commercially, as in include it in a product like as a cover of a book or on the front of a t-shirt, you should charge extra. 

How much extra you charge really depends on the project, but I usually add around 50% to the price to let clients use the piece for that one product. If they want to own the piece outright and do whatever they like with it, so the art no longer belongs to me at all, I would double the price or more.

You don't have to try to plan prices for every potential commission that might come your way - I would look at the kinds of commissions other artists are posting online, try to imagine how long they would take you to make, and thus plan out how much you would charge for something similar.

These are also just estimates - you'll find that as you do more commissions, you'll get better at estimating how much time a piece of art will take to make, and be able to price it more accurately.

If you feel your rates might be too high to get any commissions, remember this - marketing is king. 

How much you can charge for your work is based much more on how well you market your art, than it is anything else.

Pricing your Revisions

I always have 2 revision periods during my process - one after the sketch and one after the final. The client can ask for changes in these periods, and these only. 

Don't do unlimited free revisions for clients, only offer 2 per piece at most, perhaps 3 if the art is really big and complicated. If the client requires more revisions on top, I let them know that these will be charged at my hourly rate.

If you offer unlimited free revisions, most clients won't take advantage, but some will - you'll end up losing a lot of time and money on the commission. 

As soon as the client asks for additional changes after your included free revisions, tell them that they will cost an additional $30 per hour, or whatever your hourly rate is. 

Comparing your prices against other people's 

Once you have your estimated prices, I would compare them to what you can see other artists charging, to see how your prices sit in the commission market.

But no matter how your prices compare to anyone elses, I wouldn't let their prices influence yours. 

Some people, when they first open commissions, will charge too much - but most will heavily underprice themselves because they are scared they won't find work otherwise. 

Not always, but typically, you'll find that it's the artists who are undercharging who mention their prices publicly - because they are using their low prices as a selling point.

Artists who are charging higher rates don't normally mention their prices, as they are letting their art be the selling point. 

Thats how you want to approach commissions - make good art, and have faith that you charge an appropriate price for it.

Only compare yourself so you know where you stand in the market.

Don’t compare your prices against the wages of people who are in normal jobs

As a freelancer there are so many extra expenses to pay, and there is so much work you have to do that you won't get paid for, like advertising. You don't get holiday pay, you don't get sick pay, and you don't get paid during your tea breaks. 

Full-time wages don't include all of their employer's costs, and at most jobs you also get paid just for being present for 8 hours a day, not for being productive 8 hours a day. 

If we look at this cost of an employee calculator you can see that a £50k annual salary employee, which is roughly equivalent to an hourly wage of £25, actually costs the employer around £100k a year, which is an hourly cost of £50.

(Apologies for the calculator using British Pounds, its the best calculator I could find - £25 is roughly equal to $30 USD)

Further than this, if we look at this article on how much time the average employee actually spends being productive, in a typical 8 hour workday people are on average productive for less than 3 hours.

So, that £50k salary employee earning an hourly wage of around £25, is actually being paid £133 for each hour of their real productivity (which in USD is a $30 per hour wage translating into a pay of $160 per hour of productivity!)

Don’t compare your commission rates with an employees wages, because an employee earning $30 per hour is vastly different to a freelancer who charges $30 per hour. 

If someone in a normal job tries to compare their wages with your hourly rate, they probably have no idea about the realities of being a freelance artist - ignore it and move on, or perhaps even show them this article.

Increasing your commission prices over time

As you become more accurate at estimating the time a piece if art will take, and figure out what kind art youll be able to make quickly and what will take longer, you will find yourself adjusting your prices a lot.

Once you've started taking commissions, one of your goals should be to work on improving your commission income.

This is a very deep topic, but for now here are a few things to consider:

Increasing your hourly rate

A lot of artists are scared to increase their hourly rate, because they are scared of not getting any jobs.

Whenever you get more work than you can handle, raise your hourly rate.

Once I have more than a months worth of work queued up, I raise my rate, and thus my commission prices, by 50%.

If your queue still keeps on growing, raise them again, and again until it stays steady or starts shrinking.

If you're actively accepting new commissions and increasing the demand for your work, it shouldn't be long before youre able to hit $30 per hour or more.

If you are struggling to build a big queue of work, then you need to work on increasing the demand for your commissions.

Increasing demand for your commissions

In order to grow your queue big enough to increase your prices, you need to have large enough demand for your art.

Increasing demand largely comes down to finding your target audience - people who like your work, and who actually have spare money to spend on art commissions.

If you need more places to advertise your commissions, check out this article.

You can also increase demand by improving your advertising process, and simply (or perhaps not so simply!) by creating better art work.

Increase your supply of art

On top of trying to increase demand, you could also try to find ways to increase your supply - make your commissions process more efficient, so you make the same art in less time.

If you can halve the time it takes for you to complete a commission, congratulations, you just doubled your hourly rate!

A lot of commission artists develop a specific process that they've made as efficient as they can, so they can produce art faster without a drop in quality.

Things like using 3D models as a base to draw over, or changing their art style slightly to something thats faster. 

In summary

I know this has been a long article, filled with all kinds of different formula and rules, so here's a small summary of the key points:

  • Hourly rate = 2 x monthly income goal / monthly work hours (max 100)
  • Projected maximum annual income = hourly rate x 1000
  • Commission price = hourly rate x time spent
Don't charge less than $10 per hour under any circumstances. Don't offer unlimited revisions- have a set number of revision stages and charge hourly for more. Don't feel insecure aboout your prices, and increase them by working on your supply and demand.

Now you have your commission prices, it's time to start getting commissions!

If you dont have a portfolio set up to show people your art, this article will explain how to set up a free and simple art portfolio.

If you have some sort of portfolio set up and you've figured out your commission prices, you're ready to start advertising!

This article explains the best places I use to get art commissions.

I hope this article has helped you out. Good luck!

Hey, I'm Christopher

I started making digital art in 2009, and became a full-time freelance artist in 2016, able to work on my own schedule from anywhere in the world.

Now, I want to help young artists make the same journey!

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