Why you need to pay your artist / illustrator / designer / creative

Don’t ask us to work for free… just don’t

Don’t ask us to work for free… just don’t

Today I was asked to work for free. It’s not the first time, and I’m certain it won’t be the last time. I wanted to share with you - dear readers, what it is we creatives go through, often on a daily basis. And if you are an artist considering working for free, perhaps I can share some words of wisdom. If you are someone with a creative project and you need an artist and you are considering asking them to work for free - firstly - just no. And secondly - read on… please.

Here’s how the conversation generally goes:

The intro:

They generally open with a compliment, telling you how much they love your work, then they tell you a bit about their project and how awesome it is. This is the pitch, it gets you all excited, perhaps someone wants you to work for them. Yipee!

The Catch:

They want you to work for them, because they love your work and you’re amazing etc etc, BUT they can’t pay you, they don’t work, they make no income (those last words are a direct quote from a recent request to work for free) …

BUT… here’s the clincher…

When the book/video/magazine (whatever) is made, you the artist will be credited, you will get a percentage of what the book makes, which is great advertising for you, you could end up with loads of work (another direct quote) and if all goes well, they have other creative projects in the works which of course you can create artwork for and we will all makes lots of money and our coffers will be overflowing with gold…

Let me break this down for you:

The ‘I can’t pay you’ sob story:

Ok look, here’s the thing. If you’re considering approaching a creative and wanting them to work for free consider this. That person has spent months, likely years honing their craft, they have invested likely thousands in the software and hardware they use to create their work whether it be digital or traditional, not to mention the life-time of practice that has taken to get them to that point. We all know the “starving artist” trope, and the struggle is real, it is not easy making a living as a creative, so why then is it ok to ask said starving artist to work for free?

And secondly, why is it my problem that you are not making any money? That’s your problem. I - and many artists like me - have put so much effort into our careers, we work our hands to the bone to follow our dreams and gain paying work, why should you not do the same?

Think of it like this:

Would you go into a shoe shop and tell them you can’t afford to pay for the shoes you like, but you will wear them out on the street and tell everyone where they were bought and floods of people will come and buy your shoes? No. You wouldn’t… unless you’re a Kardashian.

Here’s another example in case you’re not getting it: Some plumbing breaks in your house, water is flooding everywhere, you call in the plumber who can fix it, and you tell him you can’t pay him but you will tell everyone what a great job he did. At the end of the day there is an intrinsic cost of making shoes or doing plumbing and likewise there is an intrinsic cost of making art.

I’m a digital artist, my laptop cost me £1500 to purchase, I pay £10 a month for the software I use, I just spent £400 on a new Wacom tablet, I pay rent at my studio, I pay rent at home, I pay for super-fast internet so I can put my work online. This is the cost of me doing business. I’m not even going to get into the cost of buying canvases, decent paints, brushes, scanners, frames - I’m hoping you are catching my drift by now.

The “this project will makes tonnes of money and you will get loads of royalties” pitch:

To be frank, if this were the case, you would have asked me to work for you with a fair rate of pay and I wouldn’t be typing this article. But if you’re an artist being tempted by this argument let me put some points forward:

By putting your work in their hands for future money that doesn’t yet exist, you are hoping that this person:

  1. knows how to market the heck out of their project

  2. knows how to promote their work in a meaningful way (not just to their friends) and reach the millions of people that they claim they will reach

  3. knows how to approach potential publishers in a professional capacity and can pitch their project and your work and sell the project to them and negotiate royalties for all concerned

  4. actually can create something decent - your illustrations might be epic, but if the writing is poor or flawed or just doesn’t make sense than what?

That’s a lot of question marks and frankly the time spent on said creative project would be better spent sourcing paying clients who actually care that you can pay your bills at the end of the month.

The future effect

So what happens if you do go ahead and agree to work for free? Unless you know that person and have access to them in person - how do you know what they are doing with their project? What’s the timescale? When will they be marketing and promoting the work? When can you expect all your royalties to start rolling in? And what about new work? So say the project does go really well and they do start to make money - do you think they will be willing to pay for your services again? Surely since you were willing to work for free the first time you’d be willing to do it again. Especially when they find out how much it actually costs to illustrate a book/project.

In conclusion

if you’re considering asking an artist/creative to work for free - even if they’re a student and just starting out - DON’T.

If you’re considering taking on free work - also DON’T - there is paying work out there. By agreeing to work for free you are feeding the belief that artists/designers/creatives should work for free and making it difficult for the rest of the creative community by setting expectations so very low. If your work is good enough, there are people out there who are willing to pay for it. Go find them.