Working for Free

By Carolyn Edlund

Should artists work for free? There are a lot of people out there who seem to think so. This attitude hurts the business of art and can destroy self-confidence.


Free Art


The term “free” certainly doesn’t apply when it comes to the cost of getting an art education. College tuition costs at art schools are among the highest out there and yet job prospects are dismal, which begs the question, “Is art school even worth it?”

During college, if art majors do manage to get an internship, it will most likely be unpaid.

It’s no secret to most self-employed artists that starting a small business and getting traction is a major challenge. Money can be tight, so artists frequently look for suggestions on how to save.

Etsy once published an article geared towards artists called “How to Organize a Photo Shoot on a Tight Budget” (since removed.) It contained the appalling suggestion to get “student photographers to work for free, just for the experience” and then outlines a seven-hour schedule to put them on. This unthinking attitude suggests that artists eat their own, and have little regard for the value of other creatives.

No wonder artists learn from this type of behavior that their work is not valuable, and that they do not deserve payment.

To make matters worse, there is the never-ending parade of solicitations requesting artists to donate their work. I have some questions on this topic. Do the people requesting donations ever actually make a purchase from the artists they are soliciting? And do those people work for free themselves?

It’s hard to escape this unfortunately prevalent attitude, when even supposed job creators disregard the value of the work product that artists create.

As artists, we must have the self-respect and presence of mind to not buy into the widely held belief that art isn’t work, and that our time isn’t valuable. Don’t buckle under to pressure to give your work or time away for free. Honor your talent, your time, and your art, and don’t undervalue yourself. You deserve better.

Have you been asked to work for free? How did that make you feel? What was your response?


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  1. Wanting artists to work for nothing makes me so angry. Why do people think it’s OK to ask us to work for nothing when they won’t? I recently saw a new online magazine looking for contributors – they were willing to pay the writers, but had no budget for the illustrators (except a credit on the website). A web credit doesn’t pay for the rent, or food, or electric, or tax, or water, or transport, or materials… People would never dream of walking up to a stranger and asking them for a handout of hundreds or thousands of pounds – yet every time they ask us to work for free they are doing exactly that. I have professional qualifications in art and education, over twenty years experience, have exhibited my art nationally, my art book will be published later this year… and still people think it’s OK to pay me less than a sixteen-year-old in their first job. It’s not.

    • Jackie, I think the reason people ask artists to do things for free is because they think they can get away with it. We teach others how to treat us. It is a question of what we will accept.

      • I won’t accept working for free. Despite the fact that Art is my only true love I need money to live like we all do. If anybody asks me to donate art or work for free it will be a flat NO!

    • Felix de Quesada says

      In a market oriented economy art has no market or if it exists it is not a “free market”. The art market is strictly dominated by gallery owners and art dealers that cater to a very sellective group of collectors, decorators and merchants. Artists or “want to be arts” are not in the market unless for those with the right connections. There are too many people offering art to too fue buyers. On the other hand no one needs art. If you have a water leak, you need a plumber. If you have a wall you do not need a “1000 dollars” painting, you can get a picture for $100 or nothing.
      If you are dishonost enough and a good or mediore artist you may become rich if you can find some shady promotor that can build you up.

  2. I have been a “self appointed” artist since I quit my engineering job 1970. I will never regret that! And yes, myself and everyone I know has been asked and donated and given works. Exhibited for free all over including big corp lobbies. “Good exposure” is a common reason for not having a budget for art (while flowers next to, are bought at the best flower shop). But then, every job and profession has its down side; mechanics have oily hands, plumbers have wet feet etc. Simplistic, perhaps…. however, to give un-conditionally also have rewards.
    With my experience now, I suggest that you ASK for shipping costs, truck rental and any cost that is not a fee for you. People do understand that. Have a budget of time and $ per year to give. Set aside some works or prints for future donation (not your worst! and not your best either). Then give with joy!

    • Of course giving is good and, of course it should be done with a glad heart. Personally, I prefer to work with a charity on an on-going basis so that both artist and charity benefit from the relationship, rather than donating a piece of art and never seeing them again until they ask for another donation. Example: an artist can let the charity use their work to illustrate a newsletter in return for a brief write up. Or an artist could offer an Open Studio event to the charity, and donate a percentage of the profits from work sold. Partnership working is great, especially when the artist and charity have common themes. If a corporate wants to offer exhibition space in return for having art on their walls, that’s good too. Both parties benefit.
      What I resent is a corporate asking for work for free, or a small fraction of its value, when they will pay everyone else on the project a fair wage. Or a charity selling a piece of art for far less than it is worth – the charity gains some money, the buyer gets a bargain and the artist gets nothing except “exposure” which too often means nothing.
      Of course every job has its downsides – but oily hands or wet feet are inconveniences, not financial penalties.
      I’m simply saying that an artist’s work has value and should be treated as such, not exploited as though that’s an acceptable part of the job.

  3. I can never understand why people get their panties in a knot over this. What is the big deal if people ask you to do something for free? Do you really seriously think that doctors, lawyers, plumbers, teachers, etc, etc, ETC never give their time for free? Because I personally know a lot of them that DO.

    I think the problem is NOT that other people don’t value artists time, materials, intellect, etc, It think it is that some artists are insecure about themselves. I used to be really offended when I was asked for freebies. There was no way I could even THINK of donating to all that I was asked to donate to. If an artist knows their own value, they quit operating at a loss and eventually are in a position where they CAN give more. I still say no to most but when I am able to give to something that I believe in, that is a beautiful thing. When I do not want to, I simply say no and there is never a need for anger… or even a need to give a reason for the no.

    Next time you feel you are undervalued, take a moment to see how often you do that to other professions. I have, on occasion, grumbled about the cost of certain work that was done for me but when I tried to do it myself, I found out that I was guilty of the same undervaluing that I had consistently grumbled about.

    In the beginning of my career, I took the “appalling suggestion” to do some work for free. I’d be hard pressed to count the number of great jobs that it has led to- not to mention what it did for my self esteem and portfolio. I felt fortunate to have had people be my guinea pigs.

    I say, as artists, we must have the self-respect and presence of mind to not buy into the widely held belief that art isn’t VALUED. I am going to tell you, my art is NOT work. If yours is, maybe you should find another occupation. I heard my pediatrician quoted as saying something like, “I get paid to play with kids all day.” I know for a fact this man does some work for free AND has a humongous house.

    Besides, why would someone else’s opinions or requests determine my value? Why would someone else giving their art devalue mine?

    • Hi Linda, I think perhaps your answer has more to do with semantics rather than the actual giving of free work and time. You say you would not donate work to something you “don’t believe in,” which I gather is your way of policing what you will and will not do.

      Take a good look at the Etsy article in the link. The purpose of the article is to instruct artists and craftspeople how to get good shots of their work – on the cheap. The suggestion is to get something for nothing from a photography student by using the excuse of “giving them experience” and then outlines a seven-hour project to put them on. This is using people. Pure and simple. That is appalling,

      I was a self-employed artist with a production studio for over twenty years, with studio assistants (who were never asked to work for free) and ran it as a business. Yes, I worked, and I’m proud of it – and it was a profitable one. If you feel that people who acknowledge that they work are invalid, in my opinion, that’s silly. It brings to mind the quote “If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life” but the truth is that if you are an artist and a business person, you must sell your work and bring in an income. Many artists struggle with this.

      When society has the view that art is not valuable enough to pay for, they take advantage of artists. When artists allow that to happen, they put themselves in the position of not being able to earn a living. How many artists do you know who are earning a full-time living supporting themselves that “give it all away?” I know hundreds of self-employed artists personally, and every one of them gets paid.

      Whenever you decide to donate or give work away, do it because you feel strongly that you would contribute money to that cause anyway. Do it because it moves you personally, and it supports something you truly believe in. But giving work away for free just because someone who wants something for nothing approaches you, doesn’t work for me.

      • OK Carolyn, I actually signed up for the blog because a friend told me about artsyshark and I wanted to submit my art. When I went to the site, it said to sign up for the blog to be notified of future calls. Being new to the blog, I just now looked and YOU are artsyshark. I guess I kinda effed myself, huh?

        Anyway, my point was not to argue. My point was that there is no black or white answer to your original question, “Should artists?” The answer is, “If they want to and If it works for them.” I am an absolute authority on what works FOR ME. That is all. I don’t see a reason for people to be angry if asked to work for free.

        I am so sorry that you interpreted what I said as wanting any artist to “give it all away.” Actually, I go to schools and occasionally organizations/guilds to speak about the myriad of ways that artists have gone about being fabulously successful. The reason I do this is to show them that “starving artist” is not the only paradigm available to them if they have artistic talent. Sometimes I get paid quite a lot to speak. Occasionally, I do it for free… and that does not lessen the value of my message just as the amount I get paid does not make what I say true.

        • Linda,

          No artist is ever penalized in any way for having an opinion. I love a spirited discussion, and knew going in that this subject would raise people’s hackles because it’s a subject that invokes passionate response.

          I still believe that this is a question of semantics. If you want to contribute to something, contribute. If you want to give things away, do it. I have gifted my time and my work as well, on my own terms, and usually when it is unexpected.

          But I have a big issue with an Etsy vendor who intends to sell their work and make a profit by using a photography student for free work. Etsy is all about helping artists earn money and make a profit. But please … not at the expense of another artist.

  4. As I read this I was thinking that my grandfather who was a dentist at a time and place where some people
    had very little, he would accept food or any little thing people were able to give him as payment. I myself have often asked for free advice from lawyer, and physician friends etc. Haven’t we all?
    Recently I made three free portraits that introduced my work to a whole number of people, and got me nine commissions within a month! ( a number that might still grow) As most artists I struggled with the ‘value’ of my work for a long time. Now I think that it is up to us ,the artists, to determine the value of our art, and to have a marketing strategy. Whether we give art for free must be considered seriously within the context of our marketing/promoting plan.

    • Well said, Annamaria. I like the way you are thinking about a marketing strategy. And I totally agree that within the context of a plan, you may create work that is given away, with the understanding that it will result in sales.

  5. The prevalent attitude toward art (especially women in the arts) is that art is not a legitimate job or career choice. I’ve been told by FRIENDS that my work concerns are trivial compared to what they are doing; that my art friends are trivial; that what I ought to do is get a “real” job and join the rest of the human race.

    What they tend to forget is that art is a business like any other, that artists need to breathe air, drink water, eat food and pay bills with the same sort of stuff that everyone else does.

    • This is what we love about you, Terri! Your message is important, and so supportive of artists. Working for free disempowers the artist. Being paid, and being paid well, is encouraging, empowering, and validating to artists. Your “friends” may even sit up and take notice!

  6. I refuse to work for free unless it’s a charitable cause where EVERYONE is donating their time or talent. Case in point, doing set design and painting for theatrical productions where I know all of the proceeds are going to the local food bank. The director, actors and everyone else is donating their services so in this case I don’t mind. I also will do a service trade with other businesses if they have a product or service I’m interested in. I trade a dollar for dollar value and if they have a problem with my price then I move on. I don’t discount my services because I know what I’m worth and refuse to devalue myself as an artist and art in general.

    • I think this is a good reminder of just how generous artists are – among the most giving group on people on the planet. Which is one reason I love working with artists so much! They give willingly to other artists and also make the world a better place.

      Barter can be a good way to use your work without giving it away. It also reminds you of the value of your work, and that is has value, and is desirable to own.

  7. I think we have to realize that most people are ignorant about the arts. All we have to do is say no. I’m never offended when people ask because I realize this. I am totally guilty of discounting my commission work (not giving it away for free tho)…but I am learning more every year to value my time and my skills and myself as well…it’s all a learning experience for me…and that’s the important part. I do donate a lot of my art to animal causes, not expecting to get future sales from it but because I want to help as many animals as I can, and my art gives me that opportunity.

    • I think the fact that you are so talented does give you a unique opportunity to help. Have you experienced any sales from being associated with charities?

  8. Well, this one has gotten quite a response!

    I was asked recently to donate an original painting for a charity event and asked if the charity would consider a 50/50 auction of the work, or purchase it outright for the auction. The person immediately became aware of the nature of her request, admitted that she hadn’t thought about it “that way” and dropped the subject. I did tell her at the end of the evening that I hadn’t said “No”…but I haven’t heard any more about it.

    I don’t count that as a victory. I’d be more pleased with a 50/50 offer for donated work…Alas for the vagaries of our culture.

    • Very interesting that you got that type of response, James. I would think that any charity would do better with a 50/50 split than with nothing – and artists would be more apt to participate in the future. But the very fact that there was no thought whatsoever given to the fact that the artist is really footing the bill was an insult.

  9. I had no website anymore, can’t afford it. Paint and donate, telling myself what do you expect, here they call cooks artists, chefs, being rich restaurants owners is not enough, now they are ARTISTS. Jodi Aries, the murderer, do some drawings, so now she is “talented” artist also. I am losing hope. Dena

  10. Dena,
    To lose hope—a tough statement because it calls so much into question. Being an artist is no more fulfilling than being anything else…
    Hopelessness is a spiritual condition, but so is hopefulness. (Consider what it would mean to be full of hope!) Fulfillment is a spiritual condition. So is discouragement, encouragement, or joy, peace…
    What spirit expresses itself in joy, hope and peace? Which one by despair and frustration? What spirit is expressed in a person’s artwork? I know that when my work is expressing joy, vitality and exuberance, it doesn’t matter who else is doing what! I am encouraged by my own product, creating independently and am free indeed! Not everyone likes it, wants to show it in their gallery, or buy it. That is okay.
    Hope is a precious and amazing thing. It abides right there between faith and love. Feed hope with the things (faith and love) that can’t be tarnished by rejection, market pressures, even success.
    You have a great gift: a means of expression! Search for its root, seek to express it most purely and watch how what others are doing fades from influencing you in any way.
    Let them succeed, but pray that it doesn’t affect them like someone who has won the lottery!

  11. This is a place for all Visual Artists to come together

  12. Hello, speak your mind, I like that compared to usual comment tab. Ok first never give up hope, there is always options for anything in this day and age. When you realize this the world is a amazing place. Next donate or not donate is the question is some problem. Dont if you do not feel right about it, and that goes for anything. Business is just that and as life is life. I will say its the best medicine for a troubled heart and can do wonders for you if the cause is right. There are lots of pros to donating here and there, but not to every person that wants a bargain artwork. I apologize this is not in uniform as I am on a phone. Of course giving something away thats worthless defeats the purpose, so yes time,material and service is usually worth something. Its a label toward artist that we are bums and our work and time isnt worth a wood nickel. A misconception the world holds up to us even those that know better. O well so what. Know you are devine and worth what any is worth as a person and what you create can be worth what its worth. More later Im sure. Happy creating.

  13. Terrence Howell says

    The old saying, “there is no free lunch in this world” is so true. Why waste a God given talent, unless you are
    donating your talent for the church, as your 10% tithe. Just since the year started I have been asked to donate about $1300 worth of time and talent to a national organization, who has a huge Hollywood movie star who sponsors and donates to this organization. I haven’t even reached my little 15 minutes of fame yet. Unless you are bartering for a special need of yours, or giving to the homeless, then don’t do it. Remember to get a deposit on the front end, for what ever project you are working on, because people tend to get amnesia when the time comes to pay for the project.
    God Bless and Happy Painting

  14. I’ve had to deal with this all of my life. If I’m not being requested to work for free or donate my work with out even a small percentage gifted back to me, then I’m being asked to work for “cheap” or barter. And this has extended into my day jobs as well, because of my “art background”. My reply is often something along the lines of “The gas station and the grocery store have not lowered their prices.”

    One thing that made me cringe recently was that in an effort to promote my current project – a membership art and cultural travel online social networking community – I was targeting emails to University professors in hopes that they would only pass on the link to the site to their students. I was astounded when a University Professor emailed me back saying that she thought my project fantastic(!) but would only pass on the link to her students if I offered memberships for free – and she went on to explain how poor art students are.

    That made me look back at my own art education and realize how dysfunctional the current system is – setting up a poor or slave mentality within the educational system. Professors themselves need to be re-educated! Of course it probably has stemmed out of the days of guilds, patrons, and expectations that a family member (Vincent and Theo symbiosis) would support us.

    • Kimba, You are exactly right – and I don’t find it hard to believe that the art professor tried to take advantage of you herself. Colleges don’t (with very few exceptions) teach their students how to be in business as artists. And the teachers themselves are often oblivious because their income comes from the school, or they are making practically nothing on their own work.

  15. About 10 years ago (right before I went back to school to get my BFA in graphics), I was drawing portraits for a living. I was using a time consuming technique (pointillism) and charging $50 a head. I was at my mother’s one day and one of her health aids was there. She was asking me about my portraits and asked how much I would charge her to draw her grandson. I proceeded to tell her $50. Her eyes got big and she asked me, “Do you really feel comfortable asking that much for it?” I just looked at her and said, “Look, it takes a minimum of 15 hours to complete a drawing, which means I’m making a little over $3 an hour…would you work for less than minimum wage??” She didn’t have too much to say after that.

    I still do portraits with a new technique called Digital Oil Painting. People still want them but some still seem appalled when I give them a price. But I’ve learned to stick to my guns, and it has panned out for me for the most part.

    • Victoria,
      Thanks for sharing your experience. Your story of educating your customers about your technique, expertise and time is an excellent example of how to speak about your work. Although, I wouldn’t want to think you are making only $3.00 an hour!

      BTW, you tried to attach an image, however this editor is not set up to accept them.

      • Carolyn,
        No worries! This was when I was just getting back to my art, before I went back to college (as an adult learner) for my degree. Since then, I’m much more educated and my hourly rates are much ‘healthier’. 🙂

  16. I just want to encourage all artists to do a Business Plan. Make a call to your Small Business Administration, usually an extension office of a local college or university…it is surprisingly creative. Over the course of several weekly meetings (mine took six weeks) you’ll be asked to do several things like: tally your assets; your monthly living expenses (such as car payments, rent, utilities, entertainment, etc.); the cost of producing your work (including studio rent, utilities, your art supplies, framing–they’ll spell it out); you’ll write a narrative explaining your product, its place in the market and how it relates to the competition, and you marketing strategy. Then you’ll project your income for 3-5 years…amazing! Just do it. Afterwards, you’ll understand what you need to charge, and WHY! And that rationale is power. You’ll be able to justify your price matter of factly, and perfectly legitimately…you’ll also know when you can donate, how much, or if you can trim the pricetag, and by how much. It is so good to know, and be at peace with the numbers!


  1. […] and publishers and broadcasters can demand low, or no, pay from the labor force. As pointed out by Artsy Shark it even comes from artists even devaluing their own work. […]

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