Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Art for Exposure

By Justin Gerard

“I’m writing this totally cool book; I’d like you to illustrate it. Do you have to be paid, or will the exposure be enough?”

We were recently asked this question at a comic convention. Like many of you, I’ve heard this several times in my career and it still shocks me every time I hear it.

“Wait, you are wanting me to work …. for free? In the hopes that this mystery project of yours will be a New York Times #1 bestseller and I will somehow get famous for it?”

I find that it happens more often at comic shows. Perhaps this is because so many struggling artists attend and get artist alley tables in the desperate (and understandable) hope of being noticed by a publisher. And here unscrupulous people prey upon them.

Before I begin, let me clarify: This is not about all free work. There are certain times when it is right and good to do free work.

Briefly, a few examples of free work that are exceptions here:

A Charity or Cause
Perhaps it is for something you truly believe in and want to support.  (Like being asked to contribute art to the Society of Illustrators Microvisions show, the proceeds of which are dedicated to student art scholarships.)

For A Loved One
Perhaps it is for a close personal friend who you truly believe their book needs to be illustrated. Perhaps it is your mom, and you love your mom. (Note: These are almost always bad ideas to accept, but they are exceptions and people are absolutely allowed to do crazy things for their loved ones.)

For Your Artist Representative
An Art Rep is someone who you have agreed by contract to provide art for so that they can market you. In this case, you already agreed to provide art for exposure. But an art director isn’t trying to get you to illustrate his project. He is trying to put together your portfolio. He only makes money when you make money from actual clients. So this is very different, and until you get work, you should be doing everything in your power to improve your portfolio.

And this is also not about work where there is some form of profit-sharing being suggested.  That is a different article entirely.

This is about providing free work, given in exchange for the dubious promise of "exposure."

Here is a flow chart I have created so that you can decide wether or not a project of this nature is right for you:

Providing skilled artwork in exchange for exposure is an exchange of services. You provide art, and they provide marketing for you and your brand.

It is not that this is an inherently bad exchange, it is that 99.9% of the people who promise this 'exposure' cannot deliver on their end of the bargain.

Here is why you NEVER take these projects:

1. Someone who offers exposure for art does not understand the industry.  If they did, they would know that they HAVE to pay you. Someone who offers this will have NO idea how to get the project produced. And therefore won’t be able to deliver on their promise of exposure.

 2. Someone who offers exposure for art lacks the capitol necessary to produce and market the product towards a successful end.

3. Someone who offers this lacks respect for you and for creative professionals in general.
They will be miserable and extremely demanding to work with.

4. It is insulting to you and to creative professionals everywhere.
By taking the work, you are supporting an evil and manipulative market and furthering a corrupt mindset that devalues the art of illustration and dehumanizes those who practice it.

If you are still tempted, ask yourself:
Could you use the time you would spend on this project to do your own, much cooler project?
Could you use the time you would spend on this project to further you art education through classes? Could you use the time you would spend on this project to improve your portfolio so you have a better chance of getting ACTUAL, paying commissions?
Do you have even a shred of self-respect?

If you said yes to any of these, then don't take the project.

Keep this in mind: 
If their project is so great and is going to be so successful, then they can go sell an investor on it, and he can put up the money to pay you a fair rate for your work. Let the sharks handle that. You make sure you get paid.

What to do when someone asks you to do work for free:
Kindly, politely, educate the person that this is not how the world works.

Perhaps they didn’t mean to say something so horribly offensive to you.
Perhaps they didn’t mean to suggest that you give up 3 months of your life for no pay because they think of you as something inferior to themselves.
Perhaps they just don't understand art.

Or perhaps they didn’t whole-heartedly agree with the abolition of slavery.

So take a moment and explain to them that illustration is a professional skill, acquired through years of difficult training and practice. The execution of it takes time and great effort.  Illustrators are just like other professionals, and they expect to be paid for their work, and to work under similar working conditions of any other human being in our society. Perhaps when they understand that you are a working human being just like them, they will change and become someone who can support the arts in a more honest and helpful way.

NEVER take unpaid work for the promise of exposure.


  1. I think I understnad it all, and I have many times bin thinking about doing work for free (all i want is my name to be seen, so people could see I did the art), because I hoped it might get me noticed.
    But I know now, that i´ll never doo it.

    But what about an aspireing artist, totally unknown but with ok skill´s, not the new HR Giger, or the new Frank Frazetta etc (At the moment ;-D ).
    But someone, who just want to able to say to a future work place, when he is done at art school (or what evers chool) that he has done some work here and there.

    And by here and there, I mean that he has written to an already established studio that he would do some, and only some work for for free, as long as he gets his name on it.
    Could be some entertainment studio, that is making games etc. a studio that is known of.

    In this way, a new artist can get some work out, because a studio might actually think ok, we get something out of this too.

    The only problem I see here, is that this might take the work from someone else, that would have bin paid to do it.

    I dont know, what do you think about this?

    Lets make an example:

    We have this girl/women, she´s at art school, and she really want to get some work out, but she cant seem to get it out, because there are others out there, that have done it for a much longer time than her, and because of that, they are just better.
    And the studios wouldrather pay to get the Pro do it because they know what they get 100%.

    But one day she sais to a studio:

    "I´ll do it for free this time, you can see that I have the skill´s to do a decent job"

    This might make the studio choose her, because she is ok good enough, and they get it done for free.

    Hope you understand what I mean :-)


    1. Hi Kim,
      I think I understand what you mean. I'm sure the illustration world is different but I have done this in order to get work in the games industry and it's very common. When I applied for positions where I didn't feel my portfolio was what they wanted I would offer to do an "art test" to show that I am capable of the role (or sometimes they would ask for one). I have done this a few times and it has gotten me the role. The company don't use the art test in their game, they just want to see your skills and if you aren't quite ready you will atleast have a nice new piece for your portfolio as you continue your search. This is very different to what Justin has been saying as we are talking about an actual job opportunity in a reputable company, whereas he is talking about opportunistic people preying on vulnerable artists who then can't deliver their promise of exposure/cash after the work is done. I would personally view an art test for a proper advertised role at a reputable studio as an acceptable reason to work for free.

    2. Kim, I got as far as, I just want my name and art to be seen by people. You can do that for yourself, for free. And in fact, that's what you should be doing. Posting your art to social media, getting involved with other illustrators, forums, whatever you can find.

      Networking will give you people that you can talk to, get idea's from, bounce idea's off of, and get information from. No successful illustrator made it without a network at the start.

      Put your own work out there, not someone else's, who once done, isn't going to really care about you after the project is done. They will take the work and promote it and themselves.

    3. I agree with Tim %100, you can do your own projects and even start a patreon or do a kickstarter to make little bit of money with your own project. You can't do that with some one else's project!

      Also if you are being successful with your own project Art Directors will see that and it will only help you get jobs.

      If some one elses project that you did art for goes belly up and no one sees it (which is more than likely) you are no further ahead.

  2. Great article. 'Sorry, I'm really busy working on my portfolio' is usually my #1 come back to shoot down these parasites.

    I'm entry-level as well, but this sort of thing has really put me off working in the local community where I live. No one wants to pay, or if they do, it is hilariously low ball. (No, I will not do a 20-30 hour painting for £50.) On top of that, they do not seem to realise that anything I were to do won't earn exposure outside of a community of perhaps 5000 -15000 people.

  3. There is a Twitter account (@forexposure_txt) that reposts all manner of insane "be my artist for free" requests from around the Internet. The level of delusion shown by some of these would-be entertainment impresarios, is matched only by their sense of entitlement!


    1. I liked the one where the writer said to the artist that he couldn't pay as he needed to make a living. Ultimate face-palm.

  4. Agree with all of the above! this is also a great chart, from the design world: http://shouldiworkforfree.com/

    1. Wow Lauren this is great! I feel like it says everything I was trying to say, only better haha. Thanks sharing it!

  5. Here is an explanation that anyone is welcome to give when asked to work for exposure:

    Exposure for artists is very useful. The right image in the right place can bring in more work.

    If I agree to work for exposure, just how much exposure are you going to give me? Will this project be advertised? Will my name/face with website be promoted in equal measure as the project? Can you provide me with a marketing plan? If you don't have money to pay me, do you have money to promote/advertise the project once it's done.

    If you don't have money to promote/advertise, how exactly will you pay me that exposure?

    Art is meant to be seen. Exposure is always included in the benefits I get from doing it for money. I don't even have to ask for it, because it just happens automatically. See what I'm saying? Exposure is always happening, whether it's part of the deal or not.

    I know you want to get your project going. So I'm going to give you some direction, based one experience. Do some research on your project. Talk to people who have done similar works. Get their advice on how to do it professionally. In most cases, if it was a collaboration, all parties had a vested interest in the project, and equal share of the rewards.

    If they didn't, they figured out how to raise the money to pay a person for their time.

    Good luck.

  6. It's like asking a plumber to fix your leaky pipes for free and expect him not to be upset. No one would ever do that. Just as the plumber recieves money for his services so should any self-respecting artist (Besides certain situations as mentioned in the article). As artists we offer our services and market our products to gain a profit just the same as any other person would working in any other field. It amazes me that there are people who would take advantage of artists in such a way. I think it shows how little they understand the industry and have little to no respect for the art and the artist.

  7. Justin, What are your thoughts on the difference between working for exposure and doing 1 or 2 samples for free in order to land a potential project? Good idea or no?


    1. Hey Will,
      This goes along a bit with what Tim and Danielle were discussing above. (And they are absolutely right in their responses on it!) This type of spec work is something you have to carefully weigh to see if it is right for you, and it can absolutely be a good thing for getting started in the type of work you want. The difference though is this: Doing spec work or samples is generally done for a reputable client that YOU have researched and know to be legitimate and WANT to work with. It is not some crooked, opportunistic shark who has approached you and is looking to use you as slave labor for his personal project.

    2. Yeah, that's exactly what I've been thinking. I've recently been approached about a project that involves doing samples, and it's the kind of job that I really want to do on a regular basis, so the incentive for me to do the work is fairly large. Great blog post! It's always good to hear input like this on the professional side of the Illustration world.

  8. When one considers working for exposure, it's really legitimacy they're after. Exposure is free. Just post art on the internet. It will be seen by many more people than if it's on some product that someone has to pay to look at.

    If it's legitimacy you want, do good work and pretend you know what you're doing.

  9. Nice! Love that flow diagram :) Thanks Justin.

  10. We have a saying in the Rocky Mountains:

    "Up here, people DIE from exposure."

    Great article, and I like the charts too. ;)

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. Instead of taking on work FOR FREE for someone who ultimately expresses that your work has no value... put all that energy FOR FREE into a portfolio piece that really speaks to what you truly want to do, and really knock it out of the park.
    Hey, they both pay the same... However, one devalues your talent, skill, and time; the other uplifts your spirit, hones your skills and helps you to be more connected to your passion. It also gives you the chance, when you DO meet a great potential client with that 'dream gig' to step up and say "Yes! This is what I really love to do! Take a look at this here..."
    What kind of additional work do you think the freebie would lead to? Probably more freebies, and more headaches.
    Which one is more likely to attract the type of work that you REALLY want to do?

    1. Not to mention there are a plethora of ways you can monetize your personal work (selling prints, merch, Patreon, Kickstarter) that you may not be able to with these 'death by exposure' gigs, either because the specifics of the art doesn't have wider appeal than the client or because you're contractually limited from doing so.

  13. Thank you, Justin, for an amazing overview of this all too common problem.

  14. That is an excellent flowchart!

  15. As a self-emplyed (freelance) animation artist, this is a reality people I have been confronted to... along many people in my profession. I put lot of effort trying to explain that to people who seeks animator or to other animator. Very good job at dressing the picture of reality concerning all this. I think you did it in better words that I do. Thanks alot!

  16. On this note, please stop participating on CROWDSOURCED ART AND DESIGN COMPETITIONS. Aside from being free work, it is very disrespectful to your profession… not to mention, the patron and consumer.

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  18. Very timely topic. Every work you do should have a value. Otherwise you wouldn't know how much your own work worth. This simple flowchart illustrates it at best. However it s better to draw with proper flowchart symbols Thanks!


  19. It seems to me that what people are talking about when it comes to an "art test" is analogous to an "audition." Which happens in the performing world all the time. BUT, an audition is showing someone your work -- not allowing them to film it and put it in their production! Which is what you're doing, if you create a piece of artwork for someone to show you can do it -- and then let them use the artwork for something.

    1. There's a lot of debate on such 'spec work' and plenty of people won't do it. Others will, depending on the client and project they're auditioning for. The key considerations tend to be (a) is this a reputable client and a lucrative project, and (b) the art test should be something they can't use for the project unless they do hire you.

  20. I know this kind of "exposure", in the end it proves to be as worthless as the little voice in your head told you it would be.


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