32 – Should artists work for free?

Laura and Nikki talk about whether or not artists should work for free. As artists, we tend to be generous and want to see our work out in the world, but others don’t always see our art as work – and we often don’t value our own work as much as we should. How can we reframe this view? In this episode, we talk about the impact of working for free and give examples of times we think artists might benefit from working for free versus when we likely won’t.

LISTEN AND SUBSCRIBE ON:

Topics discussed

  • Should artists do spec work?
  • Responding to requests for work with no up front payment 
  • Doing it for exposure
  • Pricing too low 
  • Design contests
  • Donating art 
  • Free work to gain experience or grow your portfolio
  • Volunteering for a good cause
  • Barter or trade

Laura

0:04
Hi, this is Laura Lee Griffin.

Nikki

0:06
And this is Nikki May with Startist Society, inspiring you to stop getting in your own way and start building an art biz and life that you love.

Laura

0:15
We are artists who believe strongly in the power of community, accountability, following your intuition, taking small actionable steps and breaking down the barriers of fear and procrastination that keep you stuck.

Nikki

0:30
Follow along with us on our creative business journey as we encourage you on yours.

Laura

0:39
So Nikki, what are we talking about today?

Nikki

0:42
Today, we’re talking about whether or not artists should work for free.

Laura

0:46
This can be a tricky topic. As artists, we tend to be generous and we want to see our art out in the world. But it seems that some people don’t see art as a piece of actual work, but more like a hobby or something that can be bartered or given away, etc. And sometimes it’s, it’s because we don’t value our own work yet, too. It’s sort of a mindset thing.

Nikki

1:11
Right? So let’s talk first about situations where we think we should either say no to free work, or offer an alternative that’s beneficial to both sides.

Laura

1:21
Okay.

Nikki

1:22
And as a disclaimer, we are not the law on this topic, and there are a bunch of situations where I could really argue both for and against working for free. But here are some of our thoughts on the topic.

Laura

1:34
Okay, I think one big fat no, is to avoid doing spec work for free. And this goes for both fine art paintings, as well as design work.

Nikki

1:46
And for those who aren’t familiar with the term, spec work is short for speculative work, meaning work done for free in the hopes of getting paid for it later.

Laura

1:55
Right. So let’s say a collector or a company wants a sample design without any guarantee that you’ll actually land that project, they should pay for it.

Nikki

2:05
Right?

Laura

2:06
Right, your portfolio will show them your style already. Someone is buying your skill, your talent, your time, and what they believe that you can produce. So if they ask you how you would solve their problem or create for a specific project, you can tell them, okay, so the charge for concept work is X and for the whole project is Y. But if you choose not to do my concept work, all rights are retained by me.

Nikki

2:33
Totally, you don’t get the rights until the entire project is completed and I sign them over to you. So what’s another clear no, Laura?

Laura

2:42
Okay, so maybe somebody approaches you who has, let’s say they’ve written their first children’s story. And they think that you are the perfect person to illustrate it. They have zero budget, and they think that you’ll make millions on the story. But they have no money up front, no relationship with a publisher, and there is no guarantee that the book will ever see the light of day.

Nikki

3:05
All right, so how do you handle requests like that?

Laura

3:09
Well, I would thank them for thinking of me, and that I’d love to know more about their story or their character to see if it would be a good fit with my style. And let them know that there would likely need to be some payment for concept art on the front end.

Nikki

3:23
Well, unless it turns out that their concept is something that you’re totally passionate about, and you want to partner with them and you’re willing to share both the risk and the possible reward.

Laura

3:33
True. But I also think it’s great to have information in writing up front, some form of a contract for any project like this to be just completely clear on how things should work between the two of you.

Nikki

3:46
Oh, absolutely. So another thing that’s talked about all over the place, in terms of art and design is doing it for the exposure.

Laura

3:55
Yeah, this is becoming more and more prevalent with social media, right?

Nikki

4:01
Mm hmm.

Laura

4:01
There’s so many companies that approach artists, they want their artwork in exchange for free product or the big E – exposure. But if we take ourselves and our career seriously, accepting these offers likely devalues our artwork, our products, and it basically leaves us with no cash in the bank. I mean, if you were a plumber, a decorator, a tradesman, you would not be expected to provide free work or have people asking for it. So why are we repeatedly asked this question and expected to do it?

Nikki

4:33
I know, would you ask your doctor to examine you for free and only pay him if he could cure whatever he found?

Laura

4:42
So how do you respond to someone who asks for your artwork in exchange for exposure?

Nikki

4:48
Well, I might tell them that as much as I’d love to do their project, this is what I do for a living and I need to get paid for the work that I do. I can’t exactly pay my mortgage or electric bill with exposure.

Laura

4:59
Right. If it’s a company I’m not interested in, honestly, I would probably not respond. If it’s a company that is someone you’d like to collaborate with, I think you could thank them for their interest, let them know, you’re unable to do the project for exposure. But if they have a budget for their project, you’d be happy to discuss the opportunity further with them.

Nikki

5:20
Totally.

Laura

5:21
And I think this goes hand in hand with pricing. So if your pricing is extremely low, it lowers expectations of what the standard baseline should be; it basically weakens the market for the whole industry. And I think a lot of people when they’re just starting out, don’t realize this. So everybody should just go grab a copy of the Graphic Artists Guild Pricing Guide, which was just updated this past year.

Nikki

5:46
I already got one.

Laura

5:48
Yeah, so did I, I got the updated one. And it’s a huge manual. Like, I don’t know, Nikki, it’s like, what 300 pages or something.

Nikki

5:54
All I know is it doesn’t fit on my IKEA bookshelf.

Laura

5:59
Well, it does a really great job of providing pricing guidelines, and standards for all types of illustration, graphic design, and surface design work. It even has sample contracts in there. So it’s a really great resource.

Nikki

6:13
Great resource

Laura

6:14
And we’ll be sure to put that in the show notes.

Nikki

6:16
Alright, so another way that people ask for free work without really asking for it is through contests, like design contests for logos, or tshirts, or any number of things, where you do the work in hopes of winning and getting your art put on products, or published in books. And while I might occasionally enter a contest where I’m submitting work that I’ve already done that fits the guidelines. But doing something specific for the hope of winning a contest is doing free work.

Laura

6:49
It is. And the other thing about those contests is it’s really important to read the fine print on the terms and conditions of the contest you enter. I’ve seen multiple contests in just the last two months that have granted the company exclusive rights to use entries into their contest for any purpose that they want, even if you’re not actually selected as the winner.

Nikki

7:13
That’s insane.

Laura

7:15
It’s kind of is.

Nikki

7:16
It is. I mean, some contests are actually legit and pay the winners well, but a lot of art contests are just companies trying to get free work, exposure for themselves, free advertising by using your designs that they don’t pay you for. And they often have terms that are really horrible for artists.

Laura

7:34
Yeah, for sure. So another way that artists get asked to do free work is by donating art to auctions, charities or fundraisers.

Nikki

7:45
Yeah, absolutely. And while this might seem like a great way to support something you care about, it can be a lot. I live in a small town where there are more nonprofits than there are artists. And although I love donating to causes and organizations that I really care about, I’m asked a lot. And while I’ll occasionally agree to an outright donation, sometimes you hit your limit. I mean, artists gotta eat right? And drink bourbon. So my solution to this is to offer to donate a percentage of the proceeds, instead of just handing over my work for free.

Laura

8:29
That’s a good idea. So that it’s sort of a win win situation between the two of you? Now, I’ve also heard the suggestion to give yourself a budget of exactly how many pieces or designed to you’re willing to donate in a given year. So then you can respond to someone who’s asking you for a donation that you’ve unfortunately met your limit for the current year, but it could be possible for the future. Also back in Episode 17, on taxes for artists with Hannah Cole.

Nikki

8:58
And definitely listen to that. If you haven’t already.

Laura

9:00
Yes, please do. We picked up some really helpful tips. And one of those was the fact that donating your art to charity does not actually give you a tax benefit. If you’ve already deducted the supplies.

Nikki

9:14
Which is bullshit by the way.

Laura

9:18
You can’t actually get the value of the painting as a deduction. So donating to charity is a great way to get some PR if the event is well advertised, but otherwise you aren’t able to get a financial benefit from it the way that people who donate like money and cash can.

Nikki

9:33
Right.

Laura

9:34
So those were several examples of why you might not want to work for free and want to avoid certain situations. But Nikki, where does it actually make sense to work for free?

Nikki

9:44
Yeah, Laura, there are some cases where it’s really in your benefit to do some work that you’re not necessarily getting money for. One reason I would decide to work for free would be to get experience doing something I’ve never done before. So as we said in a previous episode, I’ve been doing web design since the dinosaurs were carving HTML into stone tablets. If I were just breaking into it now I might offer my services to a friend or a local nonprofit to get some professional experience.

Laura

10:17
Right.

Nikki

10:18
Or another example, I would love to paint murals, but I don’t really have any to show. So I might agree to do one for free in a public space, or a friend’s home or office to get some great visibility and photos for my portfolio.

Laura

10:33
That’s a great idea to use it as a portfolio expander. Even doing contests like Spoonflower and Minted could work really well for that. And something similar that I’ve done in the past is to offer free scholarships to my Copic 101 live workshop. And I did this for a few reasons, I did this to support my local Irving Arts Association, that is awesome. But I also wanted to introduce people to Copic markers without them having to make a huge investment because they are pretty expensive to buy.

Nikki

11:04
So that’s like a drug dealer giving somebody their first high for free?

Laura

11:10
Totally, and alcohol ink is my drug. But they were expensive. I wanted students to have an introduction of them without having to outlay all that cash. And if they decided that they really enjoyed working with them, then they would go take my paid classes.

Nikki

11:26
So you created a bunch of addicts.

Laura

11:28
Hey, it takes one to know one.

Nikki

11:33
All right. So volunteering for a good cause, or helping someone you want to support can also be a really great reason to do something for free. As an example, a few years ago, I came across a Kickstarter campaign for an app called AllGo, where overweight people rate the comfort and accessibility of places that they go to, so that others know what it’s like. As someone who’s had issues in the past with airplane seats and fitting into restaurant booths and chairs. I thought it was super cool. So I offered my assistance to Rebecca Alexander, who is the founder of AllGo, and whatever way I could help. I said, you know, I love your cause, I gave her a few dollars. But I said, you know, I don’t have a ton of money to contribute, but I love what you’re doing. So what can I do to help you? And she actually came back to me and asked me to draw a few of her high profile supporters for an article on the website Pop Sugar.

Laura

12:31
Cool!

Nikki

12:31
And I was thrilled to do it. So I drew authors and activists, Roxane Gay, Samantha Irby, Jess Baker, the Militant Baker, and Julie Murphy. And I felt really great about supporting a cause that I believe in, I got some additional experience drawing portraits because I hadn’t done a lot of those. And I was published on a very popular website and got a lot of eyes on my artwork and a great piece for my portfolio.

Laura

12:58
That’s awesome. And it’s really a great example of how you were able to do something you were passionate about while also getting really great PR that would not have been possible otherwise.

Nikki

13:09
Absolutely. So that’s one of the few examples I can think of where exposure works. That in the fact that I wasn’t asked to do something for free, but I offered my services.

Laura

13:22
Right. So I know in some cases, nonprofit organizations or companies don’t have money to pay you outright, but they are willing to do some kind of a barter or trade. Now in general, I’m not a huge fan of this. But I think that there are instances where it could make sense.

Nikki

13:39
Oh, yeah. So for example, your favorite restaurant wants a mural, but they don’t have a lot of cash. How about an equivalent amount of credit for food that you would have paid for anyway? Or a fundraising event needs a logo design or some illustrations for merch, maybe they can give you sponsorship credit and have your name or logo printed on their tshirts, their ads, their signs and banners.

Laura

14:02
Those are some great examples. And it actually reminds me of Lauren Hom of Hom Sweet Hom, who is an amazing lettering artist. She actually got her start doing chalk lettering boards for local restaurants, and got massive media exposure for them that launched her entire career.

Nikki

14:19
What she did was she went into a restaurant and said, Hey, I’ll do this chalk lettering board for you in exchange for a meal. Yeah, that’s awesome. So Lauren, if you’re listening, we think you’re awesome and we’d love to interview you,

Laura

14:32
We would. Okay, Nikki, what are our key takeaways today?

Nikki

14:36
All right, first, you might think that offering free work will prove your value and that people will pay you the next time. But more often than not free work leads to more free work.

Laura

14:47
True.

Nikki

14:48
Why would someone pay you when they know that they can get your work for free? Why should they value your work when you’ve shown that you don’t?

Laura

14:56
Right. And artwork may be fun and you may love doing it, but it’s still work and you should be paid for it. And there may be instances where you decide that it is in alignment with your values and your goals to do free work for charity or to trade for something of value to you.

Nikki

15:13
Like bourbon?

Laura

15:15
Not exactly what I had in mind, Nikki, but maybe for you.

Nikki

15:20
All right, now it’s your turn. Have you been asked to do work for free? How did you handle it? Let us know in the Startist Society Facebook group or on Instagram @startistsociety.

Laura

15:31
If you’ve enjoyed today’s episode, follow Startist Society and leave us a five star rating and review. Reviews help us reach more Startist like you and keep us inspired to continue creating new episodes.

Nikki

15:44
For today’s show notes go to startistsociety.com/freeart.

Laura

15:49
Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week.

When you purchase something using the links in our resources section, we may earn a small commission with no additional cost to you.
We only promote products and online shops that we use and love!

pinktop

Join Our Facebook Group

Join the Startist Society in our Facebook group where we go deeper into the topics from each episode, share more about what we are working on in our creative businesses and help keep each other accountable.

pinkbottom