I don’t know why, but people expect you to make art for free. And it is really annoying, and sometimes insulting. This is a fairly well known problem in the art community, but I don’t think it’s gotten a lot of attention outside of that group. Occasionally someone like geek culture icon Wil Wheaton will speak out about it, or you may see something viral like this video that show’s how absurd it would be for non-creative professions to be treated the same way.
But the problem doesn’t get much exposure beyond that. And it is a very real problem for anyone hoping to have a profession as an artist, writer, musician, photographer, actor, or any similar creative field. Companies don’t want to pay you on the premise of you getting exposure, and people think nothing of trying to take advantage of you and ask you to perform for them for free.
Recently I started an Etsy store based on drawing pet portraits for people. I did this because I saw that the pet drawings I had done before had brought real joy to their owners and I wanted to do that more. But I’m no saint, I also did it because I saw an opportunity to make some money with my art in a relatively untapped niche market.
I also started a Facebook page to help promote the store. It has been a fun way to connect with pet owners and gauge the overall opinion of what I was offering. And that aspect has been pretty successful. But there has also been a very negative, annoying trend. People sending me photos of their pets and expecting me to draw them for free.
I’ve done everything I can on the page to make it clear that it links to a store where you can place your order, but people still seem to have a difficult time with the concept that I expect to be paid. When someone sends me a pic of their pet I politely compliment it and give them a link to the store letting them know how to place an order if they’d like me to draw it. And almost without fail they say “thanks” and that’s the end of it. One person asked “Does it cost money?” then after taking the two seconds to click the store link wrote “Of course it does…” I don’t know many online stores that sell free things.
Another person wrote a comment on a post where I offered a 15% off code and linked to the store “I’m not paying that!” First of all, why tell the world about something you aren’t buying? When I asked what they thought a fair price was they said “a few dollars”. Yeah, I’m going to spend a legitimate full hour or two drawing your pet, then pay to buy you a canvas and get it printed for a couple dollars. Because my time is worthless and I want to lose a bunch of money for canvas material and printing service on every sale.
What started this culture of artists not being paid for their work? That’s hard to say, and I don’t have the answer. It’s not something I’ve researched, but I think these are some factors. Art can be something that is hard to put a monetary value on. And unless it is being used in advertising or bought for an art collection, there is no monetary return on investment. So I think that causes some people to devalue it. Artists can also be pretty insecure people that have a hard time attributing value to their own work in the first place, which can easily project onto others. Art jobs often don’t have traditional career paths you can follow, which complicates things when a lot of your success is just dependent on people actually getting to see your work, let alone like it.
So it’s kind of a tricky situation, and I do think there are times when it is a benefit to the artist to work for free, but by in large I think they should expect to be paid for their work, and people shouldn’t just assume that an artist will work for free. So please don’t expect an artist you know or meet to just give away the skill that they’ve been working hard to hone and perfect. Art really isn’t that easy, if it were you could just do it yourself and you wouldn’t need an artist in the first place. So treat them with some respect when you approach them about getting some art for yourself or your company.