“Expose THIS!” My True Feelings On Working For Free

A while back I posted my thoughts on working for free or “getting exposure. Today I saw a post on Facebook about it by a successful comics pro and actor I like. He was in favor of it for people trying to break into comics and acting. Well, I thought I’d remind you all what I think of the subject. This is a long post- but something I feel strongly about and hope it benefits any artists struggling with the topic of exposure. 

My advice is even if you’re not getting paid $$$ for your work make sure you are getting something to make it worth your time/effort/talent/materials- be it good exposure, experience, comp copies, event tickets, sponsorship acknowledgement, or other items. All artists should really learn the business side of art- pricing/invoicing/promotion, etc., and that also means learning what is good exposure for them. If you want to be a professional you need to learn the business of what your art is worth and how to get paid for it. That’s what I tell newbies that ask my advice. Learn to price, invoice, and promote yourself. It’s as important to being a working professional artist as honing their drawing or other artistic abilities. Unfortunately it’s not something many creative people are good at. I hate having to price and invoice, and hate having to follow up on unpaid invoices even more. Unfortunately it’s a necessary evil if you want to get paid for your work. Yeah, it sucks, but actually getting those checks in the mail is nice and will help keep the lights on!
Thankfully I have a day job that pays my bills and cover my art supplies so I’m able to say “no” a lot more these days, especially when someone mentions “exposure”. Doesn’t mean I’m totally against any pro-bono work, or even an occasional commission piece. I’m just able to not feel like I have to do the work and that’s very freeing. It’s been nice to work on pieces and projects I wanted to do. I choose when I want to expose myself or not- so to speak.
The exposure people always seem to have the worst timing, too. It really seemed like after I got laid off from a graphic arts day job and tried to freelance, a majority of the work offers I got were wanting me to do art for free. That’s not what the “free” in “freelance” means!
I occasionally do art freebies or volunteer for charities- but it’s very few and only for ones that I feel strongly about. But even some charities should be willing to pay- they do pay to rent an event space, pay employees, and others that don’t donate their goods and services. Even if they can’t afford to pay you cash, they should at least be willing to compensate you somehow- and not just a promise of good exposure.
Every artist needs to build up a portfolio of work. Back when I started it was a literal portfolio with pages to fill with my art, but these days it can all be digital. Many artists feel that they are obligated to do free art if they aren’t a “professional” and/or that have to pay their dues to make it. I think that’s complete bullshit. If I wasn’t getting paid, I always made sure I got comp copies for my portfolio or tickets to an event, even if it was for a charity. If someone isn’t willing or able to pay me I seriously have to consider just how professional their project is/isn’t. If I’m going to to a comic book or tee design for free, it’s going to be for me.
I started off my portfolio by doing designs for local musicians, sports teams, and radio stations like Rock103 and 96X. At the time I had a t-shirt shop and we printed many of their promo tees. When I designed their new 103 walrus logo and did the above design for 96X I asked for copies of any promo items they made. Ended up with a lot for my portfolio and it was a real kick seeing my work in record shops, comic shops, book stores, and other locations around town- and the country. Occasionally I’ll still see one of my tees, bumper stickers, or license plates around town.
Tim Spencer with Rock 103’s Wake-Up Crew morning show asked me if I and some of the local cartoonists with the MSCA would like to contribute to their website for a Funny Pages section. It didn’t pay anything, but Tim would put a link on his site to our site. At the time the 103 site had the most traffic of any Clear Channel station and surfing the internet was just starting to get popular and available for most people. Tim was the webmaster and would almost immediately post the cartoons as he received them, sometimes while on the air. I did a Wake-Up Crew webcomic, as well as some other one panel gag strips. It was a lot of fun and great exposure for our group while it lasted, but the pages with bikini girls and such got more and more traffic so it ended for us.
The first time I actually worked on a comic book years ago my friend Greg Cravens (one of the artists involved with the Rock103 Funny Pages) had a short deadline and needed help completing pages. He called a few of us up and asked if we could help Zip(atone) his pages. He offered beer and pizza and as he would complete the inks on the page he would toss it to one of us to add tones to the backgrounds. Even the writer was there to help. That was a fun night, and it was for a Planet of the Apes annual. The “Ramblings With Redde” book project was a paid gig- a little cash and some comp copies of the book. We ended up doing a couple book signings around town.

Other times our local cartoonists group would get together on the weekends and draw at a local coffee shop/bookstore or one of the members’ house. If someone needed help inking or flatting blacks we would pitch in while hanging out. I really miss that sort of sharing and camaraderie between artists. A lot of the gang these days around here either just don’t have time to hang out due to work and /or family commitments, or just like being secretive about their work. It happens.

So, here are some more examples of what has been good and bad (or no) exposure for me in the past…
I’ve done art for the Orpheum Theatre’s annual art auction. It has been a great event to be a part of. My wife and I get tickets to the event (sometimes extra ones if I donate higher $ art) which has free food, open bar, music, and a chance to go backstage and have an adult type of evening. We’ve also won some great items in the silent auction. 
The event has also literally put my name and art in front of folks who were spend a lot of money on art. Sometimes my art was center stage and it and my name were on a huge screen during the live auction. That’s actual good exposure- AND getting a fun night out to boot. I’ve had them send me free movie and play tickets to the Orpheum from time to time, too. That’s always a fun surprise to get in the mail and make great date nights.
It was also great to see the new performing arts building open the auction was raising money for. The Halloran Centre for Performing Arts & Education is next door to the Orpheum and we artists got to take a tour and have a pow-wow with the head of operations to discuss our opinions of future fundraising and events.
They have let me and others have solo art shows and group art shows in the lobby where we got the majority of the money for art that sold. I felt like I was part of the Orpheum family and that what I was doing actually made a difference for the local visual and performing art communities while exposing people to my art- and occasionally making me some money. Unfortunately due to health problems and work I haven’t been able to be a part of the auction for the past two auctions, and I miss them not doing the painted chairs anymore.
Several years ago in October I did a Sherlock Holmes art show in the lobby of Theatre Memphis. It was well received, had a fun opening reception, we got free tickets to the play, and I got a mention in the GO Memphis! section of the local Commercial Appeal newspaper.
I did notice that there was no mention of me or the art show in the show’s program- my name only appeared on the info cards I had placed beside each painting. Not a big issue, but would have helped with exposure for me.
A couple years later they asked if I would like to do another Halloween themed show and design their poster/program art. It was for Young Frankenstein so I said sure! I did a “Frankie Goes To Hollywood” art show, and we got tickets again.
This time I noticed that there was not only no mention of me and the art show in the program, or any art credit on the posters/postcards for the free illustration I had done for “exposure”.
In fact- the graphic designer who basically just typeset the poster got art credit in the programs and on the poster, and my subtle “Lin” signature on the sleeve had been cropped off. Not great exposure if you don’t get credit– especially if someone else does get implied or outright credit for your work.
I did get one of my paintings shown in the Memphis Flyer newspaper, but my signature still didn’t appear in the newspaper ad because of the cropping of the image.
I had a fun time, it was a successful art show, and I was really thankful for the opportunity to have my art on display and for sale in such a great traffic spot. I’m not angry about the situation and the theater has always been extremely supportive or me and other local artists. It just wouldn’t have cost anything extra for the theater (or graphic artist) to give me art credit.
Like I said, I had a great time seeing the play and having an art show opening there, but as far as it being good exposure for my name as an artists- maybe not so much. Definitely was a learning experience. I would have been part of a show last October but my compressor died on my while working on a painting. Maybe I can do another one there someday. I do like the space and folks that run it. Been a while since I’ve done a show.
In all honesty, when it has come to quality exposure for me and my work, I have to thank my friends in the media. I sent John Biefuss at the Commercial Appeal a copy of my press release for my one man B/W Monsterpiece show because I knew he was a monster fan and might be interested in attending. I didn’t expect him to walk the press release down the hall to the editor of the Go Memphis section of the paper. One morning while waiting on my breakfast order at a fast food restaurant I flipped through the newspaper sitting there and saw a photo of me behind one of my paintings! It really surprised me. That was great exposure, and I had an awesome turnout for the show. Andrew Smith (AKA “Captain Comics) also worked for the CA and was a great person to send press releases to. Get to know the local media folks.
Sending out good press releases is essential for getting exposure for yourself and events. It’s not that hard, and really doesn’t cost you anything these days but some time, research, effort, timing, and a little creativity. Just remember to cover “who/what/when/where/why/how much” and keep it simple. There was a time people would actually write a story based on your press release, but these days it seems like the media just likes to cut/paste- and even then they can get things wrong. If you ever want to talk self-promotions and press releases hit me up at an MSCA dinner meeting or other event. Happy to talk shop and share any info I know.
Being available to do TV appearances for local cons or events is another way to get great exposure- just be prepared to get up REALLY early and wait. 😉
Oh, definitely get a website and learn how to use social media effectively. Be the master of your exposure. You may be surprised at what can happen for you. 
I was really surprised by the RSVP Magazine feature on me, and the double page spread that Airbrush Action Magazine ran on me in their Readers Gallery. I’ve had some of my work featured before, but usually only one or two pieces in an issue- this was a real shocker. David Fisher, one of the publishers of Amazing Figure Modeler Magazine, had seen my work and met me at Wonderfest. He later asked to run a couple pics of my Monsterpieces in their readers gallery- one of the few times they have that weren’t model kits or sculptures. It was really an honor.
My friends Tom Dees and Derric Curran at Fox13 TV in Memphis had been known to call me up and ask, “What are you up to?” whenever they needed a light features story.
They’ve done news stories for “Good Morning Memphis” about me drawing Star Wars sketchcards, Superman tees, or even airbrushing. They were a lot of fun to do, and I had lots of people tell me they saw the segments that morning or when they repeated them at noon or the later broadcasts.
It’s also worked out well for them- not only getting someone to fill in last minute for a cancelled subject, but getting some news awards and nominations as well.
I met both of them back when I was volunteering for the Ronald McDonald House of Memphis, but really got to know them at the Nightmarez haunted house (later Haunted Web Of Horrors) (that’s me in the clown outfit) when they came out to do a story. They loved clowning around so much they started volunteering at the haunt in the clown room. We all had a blast!
I enjoyed volunteering at the haunt. At first it benefited the local Ronald McDonald House, and later Youth Villages of Memphis became it’s charity. I acted and did art and construction for free for several years, and later Patrick was able to compensate me some for my artwork. I didn’t look at this event as good exposure- more community service, but it did end up leading to great exposure in the media and at a couple one man art shows in the haunt’s lobby. I also ended up making a lot of connections and friends.
I did sketchcards for a several years, and even though the companies paid little to nothing for me to do them me selling my artist returns made it worth it, and sometimes I would get a free box of the cards. Because I was freelancing it was extra $ coming in, got me some cool property credits (Star Wars, Transformers, DC Comics, etc.), and kept me drawing every day. Was fun and exciting to get paid to draw some of my favorite subjects, and even if it wasn’t always a lot of money I got paid to practice drawing.
The sales from my first artist returns helped pay for our wedding at a time when money was extremely tight for us. The collector card market really got over saturated, the companies got slower to pay, some would “lose” my returns, deadlines got tighter, and they became such pains in my ass that it wasn’t fun for me anymore. I just didn’t have the free time after work anymore, so to keep my sanity I had to quit doing them. I did come back to do a dozen cards for a SPACE card set so I could draw space monkeys!
Most recently I did a couple murals for the Tunica Humane Society in northern Mississippi. All of our cats are rescues (that’s Jarael, Harley Quinn, and Lex in the painting) and I love to support animal shelters whenever I can- either by donating a few bucks, some supplies, or doing some art. I really enjoyed painting at the Tunica shelter, and expected nothing in return, other than getting to play with the kitties some while I was there. When I was done with one mural, they asked if I would be willing to paint a few more things in the room. I had been having fun painting and playing with the cats, and the shelter had been super nice about asking me to join them for lunch so I said sure.
During the second mural I asked my wife if we could adopt one of the kittens there named “Poppy“. She had been my constant companion while I was painting in the cat room. After some discussion Nicki agreed, and that following weekend she met me there as I was finishing up the painting so we could do the adoption.
I wasn’t expecting it, but Sandy the shelter director waved the adoption fees for us! Now Poppy is known as “Lena” and the little nugget is a big part of our family. 
These days I only do art that I’m interested in doing and I set the price and/or terms. I rarely do commissions because they just aren’t worth the hassle to me. Everyone thinks they’re an art director and I just don’t have the patience for that anymore. I draw/paint/design what I want, when I want, and if someone wants to pay my price- fine. If not, then I’ll donate it to a charity auction like HEROES, the Orpheum, or shelter events down the road. I would rather enjoy something I do for fun, than being miserable and suffering through a paying gig- and definitely not for one that doesn’t want to make it worth the effort, stress, and anxiety. Yeah, it’s easy for me to say “no thanks” to many projects, and it may be really tempting for some to do free things for the exposure or experience they feel they need. I get it, and don’t begrudge anyone for it. It’s just not for me most days. I also don’t like to devalue art in general. It’s bad enough now that people think they should get art for free just because they can download something off the internet. Working artists don’t need me or others lowering what the public thinks original art is worth.

I guess all this is to say there are times to do things for exposure and times not to, but if you do make sure it’s worth it to you and that you’re getting credit for your work. Again, it’s not good exposure if no one knows you did the work- or someone else gets the credit. Saying “no” to exposure gigs can be a good thing. Knowing when to say yes or no is going to take time and experience. It’s going to be your decisions as an artist- whether you draw, paint, dance, act, sing, take photos, or have other creative abilities. 

Make yourself valuable, and don’t be afraid to make money with your abilities. Most of all, don’t devalue your work or let someone else devalue it for you.

Be a professional if that’s what you want to be. Otherwise, just have fun with your hobby.



PS: Here are a couple other of my blogs on the subject…

Why I Charge What I Charge   

Southern Exposure- What’s Good Exposure And What’s Not

“Expose THIS!” My True Feelings On Working For Free
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