As an artist I’ve heard people say, “This would be great exposure for you!” Sometimes it might be true, but most times- not so much. I appreciate the fact that there are people out there that like my art and would like me to get more exposure for it, but there are times when it’s better to just say, “No.”
Recently I saw a local aspiring manga/comic artist post on Facebook some advice for other up and coming artists who want to make it in art. He said they should work for free to get gigs because it would be “good exposure” for them and a chance for them to “build a portfolio“. I had to respectfully disagree, and for several reasons.
First, I don’t care if you are doing your first art job or are a seasoned pro- get paid for your art. Every time you do art for free you are devaluing your worth and others as professional artists. And let’s face it- good art supplies, computer equipment and programs aren’t cheap! Get in the habit of being paid. Learning how to charge for your art, billing for it, and promoting yourself are all just as important skills to learn and develop for being a professional artist as learning new art techniques. You can be a great “drawer”, but if you don’t learn the business behind being an artist you’re not going to be a successful pro.
I got into doing sketchcards for the exposure, gaining a “Star Wars” credit, and getting paid to learn how to work with markers and try new styles and techniques. I was laid off from my graphic design day job designing monuments and tombstones at the time and it was a paying gig. The pay for doing each was little to nothing- honestly less than minimum wage (the money is in selling the artist returns- if you can), but I was getting paid to draw Star Wars characters for Topps! Both were big parts of my childhood. I got other sketchcard assignments and worked on Mars Attacks, Transformers, DC Comics, and monster card sets. All fun projects which got me drawing everyday, increased my art audience and fanbase, added some impressive credits to my bio, kept some money coming in, and even got me interviewed for a local TV morning show.
Is it okay to help out a friend, family member, or charity..? Sure, I do it all the time. What I try not to do is give my art away for free. There usually needs to be some kind of payment or trade involved, unless it’s something I really want to support, is a good friend in need, or is the kind of “exposure” I want. TV, radio, magazines, podcasts, and other media can be great exposure, so can big events.
I’ve done a lot of volunteer work and donations for charities. Back when I had a full time day job as a graphic artist or screenprinter it was fun to do the occasional art for charities. It could be a nice change of pace from what I did each day. I was named the Memphis Ronald McDonald House‘s Special Events Volunteer of the Year in 2001, and again with RMH ‘A-Team’ and Nightmarez/HauntedWeb.com co-horts Patrick French and Todd Patton in 2002. I was awarded a 2012 President’s Volunteer Service Award by Volunteer Northwest Mississippi, a volunteer center of the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi, in conjunction with the President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation and the Corporation for National & Community Service. So I’ve done a bit of volunteer charity work. Since I don’t have a lot of money to give I usually donate art, my art services, or my “free time” to help with working special events. When I got laid off a couple years ago and had to “freelance” (I hate that word, BTW), I had to repeatedly turn down any art jobs that didn’t pay something. I like to eat, having a roof over my head, having a car to drive, taking my wife out, and buying nice things. One thing I learned doing special events was that lots of other people were getting paid. Staff, event locations, and others were all getting paid. Each time I did something for free not only was I not getting paid, but some other professional artist might be missing a potential paying gig, too. Having to pay my bills with my art made me rethink how, when, what, and which charities I would (or could) donate to.
Now when I do something for a charity it’s usually a trade of some kind- tickets to the event, some sort of merchandise (tees, jackets, books, etc.), or other compensation. Occasionally I’ll give a discounted rate, but I still get paid. Some agree, and others pass- and that’s fine. Some charities are very appreciative, and others will try and take advantage of you. Know what you’re getting into on the front end when you agree to projects like that, and get everything in writing- even if it’s just emails. A saved email can help with any misunderstandings that can come up and save possible confrontations or bad feelings.
Want to draw some cartoons for sick kids or veterans at a hospital? Like to paint faces or draw caricatures to help raise money at an event? Great, do it. You’ll probably have an awesome time doing it and make somebody’s day. I’ve had a blast doing it in the past and love the “warm fuzzy feeling” from helping out others, especially making a sick kid smile. Nothing like it. Just know what you are getting into and try to have fun. Pick and choose and don’t feel like you have to say yes to every charity request. You can suffer burn out if you’re not careful, and that doesn’t do anyone any good.
I sometimes do still donate art to charities or events- usually prints I have on hand, or a limited run for the charity to sell like the one above to help save the Massac Theatre in Metropolis, IL. I do it to help something I believe in and I want to support. Make sure if you do donate art that you work out any reprint rights. Are you donating the image to be copied and resold as a fund raiser, are you just donating the original art to be sold as is, or are you keeping the original and giving them limited reproduction rights? Do you get any printed items in return? Like I said, work things out at the beginning and get it in writing. You’ll be glad you did.
For friends and family it’s usually some kind of trade- usually for services. I’ll help them with their project and they help me with mine- inking, coloring, cover art, pin-up, etc. I scratch your back, you scratch mine. Some people don’t like to return the favor, and those are the ones I no longer work with. I don’t always expect something in return- sometimes it’s just for the fun of it and helping out a friend in need, but it can’t be a one way street in their favor all the time. Ever had a friend ask you to help them move, but were too busy to help you when you needed it..? Pretty much the same thing.
One time, my friend Greg Cravens was cutting a deadline close and asked a few of us over to help finish his comic pages. He offered us beer, sodas, and pizza to help him finish on time. As Greg would finish inking a page he would pass it off to one of us to put Zipatone (film with dot patterns printed on it with an adhesive backing) down to shade the images. It was a “Planet of the Apes” annual and I got to work on the splash page. We were all working as fast as we could cutting and placing zip down, but we also were cracking jokes and having a good time just hanging out. I learned a lot from that jam session about using shading to help create depth or mood. It was my first time to work on a comic- and an Apes comic at that! It was a fun night of comics and camaraderie and a great example of friends coming together to help a friend meet a deadline. I always enjoyed times like that.
I do art and logo design for free for my wife Nicki from time to time when she needs it- mostly because I love her (and she lets me sleep in the same bed with her), but also because she repays my help by building my websites and helping me keep them updated. She doesn’t draw and I’m not a webmonkey so it works out good for both of us, and I can gain good husband points…always a good thing. I know living with an artist isn’t always an easy thing for her. 😉
I feel one of the other things about doing art for free is you are helping to train people to not pay for art. I’ve had bosses “throw in the art” or “wave the art charges” for customers, and then turn around and tell me they can’t afford to give me a raise or afford new equipment and art supplies. They were training their customers to not pay for art, and would continue to do it over and over again. If we had to pay a company to do some Photoshop work on a project it would have cost our company $25-75 an hour, yet I couldn’t get it through their heads to charge it when we did the art for our customers. Not only was I not working for free (definitely not making $25-75 an hour), but they could make additional profits for charging art fees. I have been guilty of doing art for free for a chance to get a portfolio piece out of it or help a charity, but most times my company got to do the printing on it and I’d get a commission for bringing in the orders. Yeah, technically I occasionally did what I bitched to my bosses for doing. I was young and stupid once- so sue me. Just don’t make a habit of it yourself. 😉
When I was starting out I did a lot of art to “build a portfolio“, and building a good portfolio is essential if you want to be a professional artist. You need something to show potential customers what you can do, but don’t just give away your art to build a portfolio. Even if I did it for free or at a discounted rate, I did get something in return- copies of the finished product for my portfolio (tees, CDs, posters, books, comics, mugs, etc.), the job of printing the items, and/or invited to events. If someone promises you something to use in your portfolio make sure you get it, and make sure you get credit for doing it. What good is doing a portfolio piece you can’t show? I’ve been hosed on a few projects- no credits, signature cropped out, no finished items to show for it, bounced checks, and more but you live and you learn. Thankfully I’ve had more positive experiences than negative ones in my career as an artist. (The CD art above was a good portfolio piece and a positive experience.)
Is there such a thing as “good exposure” for an artist? Sure, lots. With the internet and social media you can “expose yourself” online. Others can share that exposure, or create some for you which gets shared. “They told two friends, and they told two friends, and so on, and so on, and so on…” Marketing and promoting yourself and your art is another important skill to learn as an artist. I’ve had some great opportunities for exposure and not only benefited from it, but was able to help out others doing it. Many times made a few bucks off of it. You have to pick and choose wisely.
Here’s a good example of that sort of thing. I’ve donated art to The Orpheum Theatre in Memphis, TN for several of their charity auction fund raisers. Sometimes I’ve donated canvas paintings from one of my previous art shows, other times I’ve painted one of their blank canvas chairs. Each time they’ve either given me tickets to the auction (worth $150.00ea) and/or tickets to a play or summer movie at the Orpheum. I love this theater and enjoy visiting it any chance I get. Always a good date night for me and the wife.
The past 3 chairs I’ve painted for them have been featured center stage at the auction, and have raised some big bucks. My name is not only in the program book, but on the big screen and announced as the chairs go to auction. The people who go to these auctions are people with money and like to spend it on art. When I tell folks that I’m an airbrush artist many immediately think of ’80s t-shirts and ’70s vans. It’s not always considered “fine art”, and many folks think the airbrush does all the work. Not much more respect when I tell folks I’m also a cartoonist. “Oh, you draw funny pictures. Can you draw me a Garfield?” Ugh…
My relationship with the Orpheum Theatre not only gave my wife and me a chances to dress up like adults and enjoy good food and an open bar, but also got me and invitation to do a one man art show to sell my art, promote myself (had business cards and postcards with my website address on them to hand out), and have my airbrushed and cartoon work looked at as fine art in a respected space. It got my name and art out in front of people who like buying art, plus a post and link on their website. It has helped me build a name and rep around town…great exposure. We also got to see “The Addams Family” musical for free one night during my week long art show- bonus!
I’ve also done art shows at Theatre Memphis. Lots of folks seeing my work for about a month and did a reception for each show. Both shows there were very successful, a lot of fun, good exposure, and Nicki and I got to see a couple plays for free.
One art project I worked on that I didn’t get paid for was a webcomic I did for The Wake-Up Crew at Rock103 in Memphis back in the ’90s. It was totally a “do it for the exposure” type of thing. Tim Spencer who was part of the Crew and Rock103’s webmaster contacted me and some of the other Mid-South Cartoonists Association (MSCA) members about submitting comic content to him for a new “The Funny Pages” section of the 103 site. I hadn’t really done a lot of gag cartoons or an actual comic strip, so it was a good challenge for me and a chance for “good exposure”. At the time Rock103.com had been touted as the most visited Clear Channel website with highest number of hits of any of their radio stations. Tim and The Wake-Up Crew regularly mentioned The Funny Pages during their morning show and we had links from their site to the MSCA site and members’ own pages. We had a link back to them as well. It had between 1-12 different cartoons on the page, was updated pretty frequently, had a huge archive, were some of the first webcomics online, and lasted for about a year or more. It’s a shame it didn’t last longer, but was a good beneficial relationship for all of us while it did.
A lot of times when I get asked to do art for free it’s by a writer- usually an unpublished one. They sometimes think I should be grateful to be asked to illustrate their project for free, or they promise back end deals of payment or profit sharing. They think it’s going to be the next New York Times best seller, and tend to get a bit offended if you don’t think so. I’ve almost always said no, but one project (above) I agreed to do for a reduced fee. The author was funding it herself, I hadn’t done any book covers or interior illustrations, I dug the title, was promised copies of the finished book, and was asked to do book signings- which turned out to be a lot of fun. I don’t know if it turned out to be a success for her, but I got a kick out of seeing it on the book store shelves from time to time. She did follow through with everything she promised and I had fun illustrating it. It’s out of print as far as I can see, but was one of the first print on demand projects I ever worked on (or heard of at the time) and it’s still listed on Amazon.com.
I’ve asked some of my artist friends, “How do you handle someone asking you for free art because it would be “good exposure for you” or you’d get paid “if/when” the project makes money, and is it usually charities, businesses, writers, or others who usually ask that question?” Here are some of the answers I got back…
Illustrator, art director, and bass player Bob Kimball said:
“Being asked to donate to a charity is fine, but being asked to work for free is another matter. With a charity, all proceeds go to the cause. If it’s a ‘for profit’ venture and I’m being asked to work for free, the answer is no. I usually just say, “I can’t work for free any more than you can”.”
Illustrator and syndicated cartoonist Greg Cravens told me:
“I don’t seem to get much any more. I have a pile of work that people usually have a hint about before they talk to me- and I just look too old for people to honk about ‘exposure’ and ‘experience’ to. I volunteer to donate stuff now and again, and people seem grateful. Otherwise, the only time I’ve had people ask me to do something for nothing has been when they honestly feel like they’re offering me something. One woman was certain that her book idea would sell well in the stores who’d already agreed to sell it. I pointed out that nothing was certain, and that I didn’t want to be a business partner with her. She hadn’t actually understood that offering to let me roll the dice alongside her on how well the book sold made me a business partner. Once that was clear, she did pony up some front money. Good thing, too, ’cause she never got the book to press.”
Illustrator Nathan Thomas Milliner replied:
“How do I handle people asking me to do free art for them with promise of “great exposure” and a percentage “if and when” there is a profit? Basically “NO.” I tell them that I am a working professional artist in high demand who is paid well for this trade that took me 30+ years to master and for every unpaid job I take I have to turn down a paying job. I have a family and bills to pay and this is not a passion project or a hobby for me as it is for you. I have stacks of IDEAS and projects I want to do for myself so working on your idea and project for free doesn’t make sense. Your project will not bring me exposure and I hate to tell you that your indie comic book/graphic novel will NOT make money. Not enough for me to EVER get paid. That is usually it–they want a graphic novel. I tell them, “You understand that a graphic novel means a year of my life drawing it?” That means I put a halt on all of this big, high profile, paying commercial work I am doing now so that I can spend a year unpaid, drawing EVERY DAY with the hopes that maybe I get a check for a couple of bucks when the book makes a profit in 10 years. I’m actually not that blunt with them. I understand having a dream and how hard it is to get something like that going. So I am very supportive and easy with them. But I wish people would appreciate what artists do for them and their product (how important it is to selling it) and that we should be paid for the work. And most of all, KNOW who you are writing. I would never in my right mind write a known, working pro artist asking them to draw a graphic novel for free. Its an insult and just plain dumb. Sadly a lot of us have to do work for free or nothing in the beginning and it never goes away even once you have made something of yourself. They will still always want the art for nothing. After all…it’s not work because we enjoy it.”
Illustrator Billy Tackett told me:
“I tell them sorry, but I have a very large mortgage payment, car payment, electric bill and that I’ve developed a taste for expensive craft beer which I need money for pretty much immediately! Or, if the person is being rude or insistent I have this one chambered: “Sure, I could do your project. But the problem is that I can do it whenever I don’t have a paying gig in progress. So, you’re lookin’ at a deadline of anywhere between 6 months to 8 years before I get started. Will that work for you?”
If I’m approached by a charity that I want to help out I will offer to let them use some existing art if possible.
I suppose word has gotten around that I’m an asshole or something because I haven’t been approached with this “too good to be true offer” for a while. The guilty parties for me were bands for the most part.”
“I usually get asked that by people who have never been published. I just say ‘no”.”
My fellow artist who was giving out the “do it for the exposure” advice meant well. He was just trying to go a good thing and help out young artists. He was probably given the same advice from someone when he was starting out. The problem is he was misinformed (or maybe taken advantage of…) and doesn’t have the experience behind him to know better. I later saw his Facebook thread on the exposure subject had been deleted. Shame- I was hoping to use some of my posts in this blog! Oh, well…
So there you go- my opinion and the opinions of some fellow artists I respect on the subject of free art and exposure. Goes for free music, photography, etc. I hope this blog post helps artists with how to handle the exposure issue, and I hope it helps the public to understand we don’t want to be “starving artists”. I can’t get corndogs on my good looks!