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Ask the Art Professor: How Do You Explain to Potential Clients That Artists Need to Be Paid?

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ARTIST COMPENSATION
Andrew Unangst via Getty Images

Question:

I've been getting into Illustration and Motion Design, and one of the hardest conversations that keeps coming up is about money. Or really, people assuming you'll do something "for your resume." I think there must be some business textbooks out there repeating "You can get artists to work for free, it's great for their portfolio." It's easy to shoot off an angry response, but in real-world situations, you may not want to burn bridges, or the person asking may not really understand just how uncouth what they're saying really is. Do you have any advice about how to tactfully explain to people that we need to be paid for our time, in a way that builds understanding?

Answer:

I get emails all the time from people asking to use images of my artwork for free. Most of the people who ask are independent artists or people from small nonprofit organizations. People have wanted to use my artwork on T-shirts, a band's album cover, book covers, textbooks, and much more.

At the beginning of my career, I figured that these requests were simply another opportunity for me to get exposure for my artwork, and that it would be no skin off my back to grant permission. At the time, I reasoned that any method of getting my artwork seen by other people would be a positive thing.

The problem is that once you grant permission for someone to use your artwork, you basically lose all control over how your artwork will be used. This ranges from people making adjustments to the color and contrast of your artwork, as well as cheapening your artwork by placing it into the context of poor graphic design.

Several years ago I allowed a small record company to use one of my images for an album cover. The image they wanted to use was one of my oil paintings of dark, shadowy figures standing in a very sparse, empty environment that was nearly all white. The record company was very polite and seemed legitimate in their endeavors. They would credit me in the album and also link to my website on their blog. I gave the record company permission, and then later they asked if they could change the color of the background in my oil painting to a dark blue.

Stupidly, I didn't think it through and allowed them to make the change. Eventually the record company sent me the finished CD. Looking at the image on the CD cover, I was mortified. Between the dramatic color change and the large, intrusive text that was splashed across the image, I felt like it wasn't my artwork anymore. A similar situation came up when I once allowed my artwork to be on a book cover. The designer changed the color of one of my ink drawings from dark brown to bright orange and peach.

I can say that over the years not a single one of these "opportunities" has ever provided exposure that has benefited my career. If anything, it's done more harm than good because the presentation of my artwork was so bad or my artwork was changed beyond recognition. In the end, the result of allowing others to use your artwork for free results in no money, zero positive exposure, and the high possibility of your image being manipulated beyond recognition. There are essentially no advantages for artists in these situations; it's entirely a losing proposition.

Today I never allow anyone to use my artwork for free. When I do get these requests, I don't bother explaining to people that artists need to be paid for their work. I write back and politely state that I cannot allow use of my images without compensation, which usually ends the conversation very quickly. No one has ever offered compensation after their initial request. It's a waste of your breath to explain why artists need to be paid for their work. After all, if they're unaware enough to be asking to use your artwork for free in the first place, it's likely that a lecture from you isn't going to change their mind.

"Ask the Art Professor" is an advice column for visual artists. Submit your questions to clara@claralieu.com.