Monday, 13 September 2021

The Botanical Artist: The Art of Earning a Living

This isn't my typical blog post but I think it's important to talk about the business of being a botanical artist. It's not an easy choice to work as a full time artist and Illustrator - I made the decision and took the plunge in 1989 and relocated in Scotland - being an artist meant that work location was flexible and what better place for inspiration! Prior to this, just one year was spent at art school before leaving to work at the Royal Doulton design studio, which was good but I wanted to be an artist. So I started painting, researched the 1980's art market and wrote a half-baked business plan with advice from someone who had even less idea than myself. I successfully applied for a business start up grant for under 25's from the Princes Trust, .... and so it began.  

Teaching is a great way of diversifying for an artists I've learned so much from it, travelled to amazing places and met some wonderful people. Photo from RBGE 2017.

For over 20 years I worked exhibiting, undertaking commissions and doing commercial work, the latter was high pressure, it became a painting treadmill and was burning me out  -although I felt very fortunate in many ways. My focus shifted and whilst still working as an artist, I decided to broaden my training and studied for a degree in plant biology. I did this to inform my practice as a botanical artist - and wanted to be a specialist rather than a generalist, and a plant educator needs to understand their subject. Following that period, I worked in the arts education sector employing artists, with local government funding and external funders, such as the Arts Council and Lottery Fund. This experience gave me an insight from a different perspective, I became very aware of the monetary aspect for artists and started to question advice I'd seen on pricing.  As artists we have the ideas and the create the artwork, which is the exciting part of the job - this is just the beginning though, there is much multitasking involved in being an artist, marketing and selling works can be hard to pitch, this is where information becomes scant. Even if you don't want to be a full time artist, it's important to be paid fairly for your work,  it has to be sustainable and should be enjoyable. 

If you're thinking of going down this work route you may come across doubters, yet it is possible to make a worthwhile career out of being a botanical artist.  You have to be practical, realistic, tenacious and will need to work hard, producing a steady stream of work and marketing it well (but not over promoting to the point where it's annoying). You will need to keep on top of the ever changing market and have good ideas. The market has changed dramatically in the last 20 years through the internet and more recently via social media, for me this has been a great development and has opened up the world of botanical art, it's increased competition and pushes botanical artists to achieve more with their work. Some diversification is usually required to be completely self sufficient, especially if you're slow with your creative practice. I had found good training in botanical art difficult to access at the time and decided to develop the teaching side of my practice, which I've been doing for over 10 years. Many mistakes have been made over the years and I learned from trial and error. Aside from original artwork and teaching there are several other options, such as commissions, commercial illustration work, licensing artwork, publishing, prints and merchandise -  I've done bits of all of them and will cover some of these in future blog posts. Currently, I would say I spend around 40% of my time creating artwork, 40% of time teaching and 20% on commercial work. 

I was prompted to write this post having seen too many artists' selling work for too little,  you just know that the artist is probably making a loss and certainly not making a living, it's almost doomed to failure because it's not sustainable. I also see societies with low minimum prices - this is meant as a starting point,  it's great from a buyers perspective but often the artist ends up with less than minimum wage because the don't value their work and pitch at the bottom end due to lack of confidence.  On the other hand there is no point in being over confident and charging too much and not selling.  Undercharging in a desperate attempt to sell work, drags the business down, as a result the budding artists can become stressed by the feeling that they are spending many hours working for very little reward. We all have to start somewhere but we need to live, so we deserve fair rates of pay for our efforts. If you're a slow worker this means that you will probably need to maximise on your areas of diversification, supplementing income with prints and teaching but it's important to keep a balance and remember that primarily you are an artist.  

Money Matters

Most of us know the feeling of being asked to quote for a commission, maybe you've been asked to give a talk or class or want to enter an open exhibition, but then the dreaded feeling of what to charge rears its head and little help or advice is available.  Pricing varies based on qualification and experience, so you have to decide what your input is worth, that can be a tough call. The first rule is, never pluck figures out of thin air without considering what's actually required in terms of preparation, expenses and taxes. For commercial work make sure there's a contract (more about that in another post). Whatever you do, whether it's a commission, teaching or exhibition make sure that everybody is clear about what's being asked of you and what your client expects, don't be embarrassed to ask what the budget is or to discuss the money - be clear and ask for a deposit if it keeps the cash flow in order. Discussion saves problems in the long term.

When I started out I was looking in all of the wrong places for information and advice, eventually through my work in education I found the best place was the Arts Council and the Artists' Unions, rather than arts societies. One of the leaders in supporting artists is the Scottish Artists Union (SAU), which I was a member of, since moving back to England I joined the relatively new Artists Union England, which is now following a similar route. They give clear guidance on what artists should be paid, you don't even have to be a member to access guidance on pricing. Mostly the information is for art graduates with a university degree. Unfortunately there is currently no formal qualification in Botanical Art but there is training and experience which can be viewed as equivalent. 

Link to SAU

Link to AUE

Anyway I thought it would be useful to share my background, thoughts and sources of information on hourly rates, of course it's up to each individual to decide for themselves, this is just what I do based on advice by the Unions. The English Union are currently preparing new advice on exhibiting, so this is something to look out for. I've rounded their figures and put in my own thoughts. Im just focusing on hourly rates and workshops in this post and will cover others later. You can convert the currency to your own if outside the UK. 

NOTE: Rates exclude artist’s expenses for a specific project, tax and VAT where relevant. Think carefully about other expenses and make sure they are covered. 

Variations in rates relate to qualifications and experience, defined by ‘years as a working artist’, and would be evidenced by a professional CV, indicating the artist’s track record, additional qualifications and achievements, such as Botanical Art Diplomas/ Certificates, awards such as RHS medals, Society membership, exhibition track record, work in collections or publications etc. You should always have a CV and Biography that's up to date. 

I find the only reliable method for pricing is an hourly or day rate and then adjust where necessary based on the market, expenses and commission. However, some artists are slow and this isn't practical so they need to consider how to make it viable, such as prints. You have to start with some benchmark for pricing and this is a good as any - and is supported by the Arts Council and Unions.

Hourly working rates based on Union rates but rounded: 

£23.00 /hr new graduate artist 

£30.00 /hr with 3 yrs + experience 

£38.00 /hr upwards with 5 yrs + experience 

Original Artwork in Exhibitions

When pricing paintings for exhibiting it is important to calculate everything or you may find yourself out of pocket. The starting point which should be the hours worked and experience of the artist (some people use size as a way of pricing but I don't find this so helpful). You should work from your costs rather than stipulating an ‘on the wall price’ it saves you from the shock of the small cheque after the sale and feeling like you gave it away. Remember that commission can be vary from between 20% - 60%. Bear in mind that VAT may be added on top and if exhibiting in other countries there can be significant additional costs, which can be high, so you will need to find out about these in advance and weigh up the cost:benefit. 

Example, using the hourly rate:

Graduate level work for an exhibition or gallery. 

15 hours working time @ £23 per hour = £345


Presentation and framing e.g. £ 75 

Delivery e.g. £ 30 (highly variable depending on where the work is going, calculate as appropriate with courier or travel. If you are delivering it personally you need to consider your time, its better  to use a courier)

Also any insurance costs should be added to this

Hanging fee if appropriate e.g. £20 (varies) 

That's a total of  £125 

£345 + £125  = £470 but should this be your 'on the wall' price? 

Commission and Consistent Pricing

The simple answer to the above is no, it should not be the 'on the wall' price. You have to consider the commission that will be charged, the  20% - 60% variation makes this seem more complicated. It doesn't matter what commission is, the 'on the wall price' should be fairly consistent, otherwise buyers might be upset if they feel they paid more and see similar work at a lower price because commission is lower or drastically lower online prices may  upset the galley that you sell through. Pricing should be consistent.

Think about this: from the £ 470 selling price, say the gallery commission of 40% is £188 to be deducted and the expenses were £125, which leaves you with approx £157, which isn't very much for your efforts, it works out at about £10 per hour, then there is tax, depending on your earnings and all the other day to day business expenses. You will need to churn out work at this rate and won't have time to do anything else, so I suggest factoring in a proportion (about half or so) of the commission price to the 'on the wall' price. This will even out for you over time because sometimes you will sell direct, and others you will pay more or less commission.

Teaching Workshops Union Rates

£190 /8hr day  new graduate artist 

£245 p/day with 3 yrs experience

£302 p/day with 5yrs+ experience 

Workshop Additional Costs These rates from the Unions are useful but you must factor in the preparatory time (e.g. a half day), travel costs, materials, insurance etc. If you're asked to do just a few hours have a minimum charge because of set up time, it's unlikely you'll get much else done that day! Also be clear about who is marketing and selling the workshop, what else are you expected to do? 

Why Personal Development is Important

Aside from the above, it's important to have time for other projects to develop your practice, if you are caught in the cycle of churning out work to survive it will be impossible. Sometimes I do Florilegium projects and also spend time on my sketchbook, whilst these have no direct financial benefit they are good for my development and create a legacy of work, as well as being beneficial for the education of others about plants, which is what its' all about for me. These projects may yield other benefits and create exposure often being included in publications, so don't write off work that doesn't pay directly, whilst this may seem contradictory, consider wider benefits and choose wisely. 

Exhibiting work from the Sydney Florilegium at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery, Kew in 2018 

I hope this helps, will write more time permitting. I wouldn't change anything even though it's an ongoing learning curve. 


  1. Thank you for providing this super useful information. I'd taken many art classes throughout the years, since my teens, but didn't really know what I wanted to focus on in art until I discovered BI. I then took 3 years of BI classes through the Denver Botanic Gardens School of Botanical Illustration while running a small franchise business full time. Absolutely love it!

    A year ago I sold the franchise and have just moved to a different state. My new career ambition is to be a professional botanical illustrator and artist but, as you mentioned, there is little info on how to build this type of biz. You can bet I will be following this series in your blog.

  2. Thank you for this, Dianne! This was very helpful.