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Working for Free as an Illustrator

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Excellent commentary for new illustrators about "working for free" by professional artist Socar Myles.
Posted with permission.

THINGS THAT ARE NOT THE SAME AS WORKING FOR FREE

Every time artists are invited to work for free, or for exposure, or for the chance to be part of something very special and wonderful (ahem), people like to defend the offer of, well, nothing, by comparing it to other things, which it is not comparable to. 
Here are a few of them, for easy reference:

Working for free is not like...submitting to the Spectrum annual (and similar publications).

Why not?  Because these publications really ARE used by creative directors looking for fresh talent.  I've been hired based on appearances in Spectrum, and so have plenty of people I know.  Submitting to annuals is a reasonable investment.  I know, I know, I haven't submitted to Spectrum in ages, but that's not because it didn't help.  It's because I was miffed about not getting my copies, but that's just me being curmudgeonly, and cutting off my nose to spite my face.  There IS value in annuals.

Working for free is not like...internships, student-teaching, apprenticeships, and similar on-the-job training programmes.

Why not?  Because many jobs REQUIRE on-the-job training, before you're allowed to do them by yourself.  On-the-job training is part of your education, not your working life.  You're there to learn, and if your placement is a good one, it can be incredibly instructive.  Furthermore, a good reference from an internship or training programme can be valuable, in the job market.  Sometimes, you may even be asked to stay on in a paid capacity, when your training or internship is complete.

Working for free is not like...collaborating with other artists and writers on projects you're passionate about, with no guarantee of compensation.

Why not?  Because when you're asked to contribute to a commercial project of any sort, someone is profiting from your work.  And it's not you.  When you collaborate with other artists and writers for the fun of it, or with a view to turning a profit eventually, either nobody profits or EVERYBODY profits.  Why on earth would you want to line someone else's pocket, while yours goes empty?  And why would anyone want to put you in that position?

Working for free FOR A LARGE COMPANY, OR FOR AN INDIVIDUAL is not like...submitting to small zines, which pay in copies.

Why not?  Because most small zines don't make a profit, or if they do, it's very slim.  They're pretty much labours of love.  They can't afford to give you much, if anything.  But choose your zine carefully:  some of them are widely respected, and can get you seen by the right people.  Others...well, let's just say they can't help you, and leave it at that.  If you're considering submitting to a publication that pays little or nothing, check out some back issues.  See if anyone famous is in there, or anyone you respect.  Google that publication, and see who's talking about it, and for what reasons.  Also, when you submit to a zine, you can often submit something you've already done, rather than creating something new:  that is to say, you can get legitimate exposure to the right people, for no extra effort, beyond the time it takes to submit.  Not a bad deal.

Working for free is not like...doing something you'd do anyway, for fun, and getting some added exposure for it.

Why not?  Because when you do that same thing for fun, nobody else gets to profit from it.  You don't have to give up any rights to your work, or allow it to be associated with somebody else's brand; you can save it for later, and maybe profit from it, yourself.  "Exposure" is a misleading currency.  Even if the project soliciting free work has a famous face or a large corporation attached to it, there's no guarantee your work will be widely circulated.  Even if it is, the bulk of the attention will not be on you or your work, but on whatever company, product, or famous face is being spotlighted. This is the age of social media.  If we want exposure, we can...ha, ha, ha...expose ourselves.  Let's flash the world, guys!  Yes, it takes work to get heavy circulation, but when you put in the time to advertise yourself properly, you can make sure the focus is on YOU.  And you can target that advertising to people who can help you, or people who'd appreciate what you do, or to whatever audience your heart desires.

Working for free is not like...cheese bites in grocery shops.

Why not?  (Are you serious, with that?  Well, yes; somebody was, at one point, which is why I'm including it here.)  Because the value of a cheese sample is, what, half a cent?  A cheese bite is not an entire meal.  It is not satisfying.  You eat a cheese bite, and you want a whole sandwich.  But to get at the sandwich, you need to buy cheese.  And bread.  And veg.  And whatever else you like on your sarnie.  Basically, a cheese bite is a teaser that costs next to nothing, and whets your appetite for a whole lot more than just cheese.  If even one person likes their cheese bite, and buys sandwich stuff, the promotion's a success.  If not, who cares?  Nothing of particular value was lost.  A free illustration, however, is worth quite a bit.  At least a couple of hundred dollars, in most cases.  And it IS an entire meal.  It IS satisfying.  The customer has what they want.  Maybe they'll come back for more, later--in fifteen years of professional illustration, I've seen this happen exactly ONCE, and most of the "paid" work given out as a result of free work was never, in fact, paid for, as the company went under shortly thereafter--but probably, they won't.  If you want to hand out free samples, they need to be equivalent to cheese bites, so, I don't know, send Christmas cards to your favourite clients, or something.  Include free doodles when you sign autographs.  But don't give out sandwiches.  ;-)

Also, a note to all artists who believe they have to work for free, or for exposure, just to get a toe in the door: 

Cracking into the illustration world is difficult, but not THAT difficult.  I promise you, you don't need to do that.  You really, really don't.  You might have to brace yourself for a spot of rejection, but if you keep approaching companies which regularly commission art that's similar to yours--that is to say, companies which are buying what you're selling--sooner or later, you'll be hired.  In the meantime, keep expanding that portfolio, and use social media to spread the word.  And keep your self-esteem up.  If other artists can become successful without coughing up free work, why not you?  Are you worse than they are?  Are you too lazy to promote yourself?  Of course not.  Be proud of what you do--and if you want to do it for free, at some point, make sure you're doing it for a good reason.  Charity springs to mind, or, y'know, a present for your mum.

Original source:
http://socar.deviantart.com/journal/Things-that-are-not-the-same-as-working-for-free-355663647
#1 - February 22, 2013, 08:21 AM
« Last Edit: February 22, 2013, 08:23 AM by TanjaW »

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Wonderful information, Tanja! Thanks for sharing it.
#2 - February 22, 2013, 08:37 AM
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The great character designer Stephen Silver has recently done a series of posts and podcasts on this subject over on his site: http://stephensilver.blogspot.com/. Why corporations who make loads of money actually attempt to solicit this work for free by using such idiotic and ridiculous reasons as posted above is beyond me. It's also sleazy and disrespectful to artists.

Great topic Tanja. Thank you!
#3 - February 22, 2013, 12:25 PM
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My son is a professional illustrator, and the number of people (family, acquaintances, and total strangers) who approach him with "the chance of a lifetime if he'll just illustrate for free" never ceases to amaze me.

Thanks for the post.

Laurel
#4 - February 22, 2013, 02:00 PM

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Yes Pons! I'd like to give a plastic surgeon the chance of a lifetime to make me absolutely georgeous . . . think of the ladies I'd send to him. I'd like to give the grocer the chance of a lifetime to give me free food . . . think of the customer's who'd come their way when they see those lucious grapes in my fruit bowl.

Uncle Zebb's neighbors niece, well her dead komodo dragon will make a great addition to my portfolio. (I'll try to make it look lively).

It's a bit sad with businesses soliciting free work . . . seemingly somewhat encouraging, only to get professional services under the guise of extra exposure.

Thank you for the post Tanja.
#5 - February 22, 2013, 03:08 PM
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Excellent post, Tanja.
#6 - February 22, 2013, 03:41 PM

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Good reminder. Thanks for posting, Tanja! This makes me think of a certain commercial project going on right now ...
#7 - February 22, 2013, 07:49 PM
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Great post Tanja ! 
#8 - February 22, 2013, 09:24 PM

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>Working for free is not like...internships, student-teaching, apprenticeships, and similar on-the-job training programmes.<

Tanja, terrific post!!! I always found the above argument, comparing working for free on a writers manuscript, to a "learning" experience, laughable!
In all the other cases, there is a professional guiding and training you. You apprentice as a plumber, an electrician, working with a plumb or electrician. Intern to be a doctor, you are working with medical professionals. To draw for free for someone who has no art training, is NOT in any way "on the job training", any more then when you draw all by yourself, to add to your portfolio. Where do people get these ideas!:)
Sad thing is, I have heard new Illustrators say just this. "I know the work is for free but it will be good for my portfolio". They have hear this from the person that WANTS the free work and somehow they believe it. Why, why would you, young Illustrator, think this is any better for your portfolio then if you just challenged YOURSELF to Illustrate some classic or some story of your own!!!!!!
#9 - February 23, 2013, 05:46 AM
« Last Edit: February 23, 2013, 05:50 AM by christripp »
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Thanks for sharing Tanja!
#10 - February 24, 2013, 02:09 PM

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Thanks a lot for posting this, my illustrator for my kids book, and long time personal friend will definately benefit from this. I just went to the spectrum website and that seems like it could really open up some doors for her. The art is fantastic as well. Ive done many free catering & event planning jobs for free in the past and I wish I would of read this sooner. Cheers !
#11 - February 25, 2013, 09:22 AM

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