Natural History Illustrator: On being asked to work for free January 17th 2014

Story posted: Friday, 17. January 2014 by Lizzie Harper

Recently, a natural history illustrator (Claudia Hahn) tweeted that she’d been asked to do a load of work for a successful music company…for free.  What’s sad is that this was a very familiar tale, and I decided to write a quick blog this practice.

There are various times when I’m asked to work for free, or donate paintings.  Sometimes these are completely valid; I can choose to allow a charity I admire use of my illustrations and not charge them.  I will happily donate paintings to raise funds my kids’ school PTA (such as this salmon).

Salmon natural science illustration by Lizzie Harper

Other times, small businesses which are just starting out will ask for a reduction of rates, or to use a picture for free.  Again, I can choose to accomodate these needs or not; in either case I don’t regard these approaches as cheeky.  (I donated this hedgehog illustration to Ross on Wye's Festival of the Hedgehog for free use on publicity material).

Lizzie Harper natural history illustration of a hedgehog

Sometimes design companies will ask you to work for free, on the understanding that they’re pitching for a job, and if they get it then you’ll be given the contract and handsomely paid.  I don’t like this, and would prefer to be paid up front for what I do, but I understand it; the design companies are minions of larger corporations and they don’t get paid for presenting their ideas, so nor do the illustrators they rely on.

An example of this is work I did in the summer for Jelly, an excellent production agency in London (see below).  An unpaid week’s work for an animation idea.  It came to nothing, but had it succeeded I would have been paid a few thousand and had steady work for a month or more.  It was a gamble, this time it didn’t pay off, but I did the work for free knowing there was a potential reward.

Lizzie Harper prospective illustration for ad campaign

What makes me extremely angry, and what I find deeply insulting, is when large and successful multi-national companies approach you and ask to use your work for free.  This isn’t confined to the world of illustration; friends who work in journalism, music, fine art, and fashion have all been approached in this way, and have all been infuriated by it.  These big and profitable companies invariably finish their brazen requests with “there’s no budget for illustration, but we’ll credit you, and the publicity will be excellent for you.”  Well, let’s have a little look, shall we?

These large companies set their own budgets.  If there’s no money for illustration, then the fools should have budgeted it in.  It is their fault, and they should not be rewarded for bad planning by getting free usage of artwork.

Being credited for illustration is the norm across most areas of the industry, and you get credited for paid work too.  Do not try to act magnanimous by offering to acknowledge that the art work I’ve spent ages on is, in fact, created by me.

“The publicity”.  This is always the one that annoys me most.  It’s as if these companies are dangling an amazing and priceless opportunity, one worth far more than hard cash.  Get over yourselves.  Publicity is great, but in all likelihood the trumpeted “publicity” amounts to little more than your name printed very small somewhere.  And why on earth don’t you pay for the work, and offer the “publicity” as a bonus?  I find it impossible to believe that you couldn’t afford an illustrator’s fees.

There’s a fabulous rant by a musician (Whitey) on this exact topic; his email to an executive asking for free usage of his music sums up my feelings precisely.

I view these approaches as flagrant under-valuing of my illustrations and career, and know many colleagues who feel the same.  We spend years training to be illustrators, and it’s not exactly a high-paid industry.  I know we have the choice of whether or not to agree to these ludicrous requests, but I feel it’s undermining the industry as a whole, and illustration in particular.  It makes me uneasy, and unhappy.

What I would say to these organisations, and they are rife, is this, “if you value my work, pay for it.  If you’re not willing to pay for it, don’t insult me by expecting to use it for free”.

Rant over.

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Friday, 17. January 2014, 11:32:20 – Pat Zanger:

I SO agree with you! (And I hope that you told/ are telling anyone who makes this request what you've said here, in your concluding sentence, if it happens again -- which, unfortunately, I wouldn't bet against considering the arrogance & sense of "entitlement" some of these big organizations & companies have!). As a former journalist, my "work" belongs to the newspapers & magazines for which I wrote. Plus, most people aren't interested in reprints of arts & entertainment features & interviews. As someone also with some artistic background, I've encountered requests for "freebies". It took me a long time to say no (when that was what I was thinking) mostly because art wasn't my "career" -- I wasn't making a living from it. I applaud your post! (And I tried to no avail to share Whitey's music post with a nephew, who is a professional guitarist/ songwriter & who routinely encounters similar requests.)