Art is Not Free

It can take years to break through and become a master of your craft. So why do so many people equate art with little or no value when they want or need it? If you aspire to work as a professional creative or you currently are working in a creative field chances are you've probably met your fair share of those who think they can do what you can yet are still asking you to do it.

 The great irony being that they see value enough in your work to ask you, but not enough to provide value in return.

The Choosy Beggar Problem

Comic source

Are you looking for high quality artwork but don't want to spend much (if anything)? You might be a choosy beggar. Browse the subreddit of ChoosingBeggars and you'll often find a number of ridiculous requests from people online for art from a logo to a caricature...and getting  offended at the idea of spending money for it. 

If you want to become a professional 2D artist, writer, musician or 3D modeler, you better get ready for the beggars to come knocking.  And that doesn't exclude game development!

Early on in my career, I received numerous "profit sharing" requests from people thinking they have the next hit game idea (don't we all). All they wanted me to do is create the entire game, and they'd share the profits. Programmers can relate to getting pitched app ideas that are an alleged goldmine. The truth is, ideas alone aren't really worth that much, especially when presented without a professional pitch deck and business plan.  A great idea without action is dead in the water.

So why do people seem to equate creative fields with less value?

The Experience Dilemma 

First, there is a perception that creatives don't have big costs. That's because a lot of creatives' costs are not directly attributable to each project: a game developer already has their expensive hardware, the concept artist already paid for their high-end  supplies. However, artists need to recoup these costs and they have to price each project accordingly if they have any business sense whatsoever. And that's not to mention the cost of education and the time spent honing their skills.

Second, people tend to equate value with the time spent on completing something. But time isn't always the best measure of quality: a sketch might take me, an average illustrator, a full day. A master artist will complete it in an hour. Who's work should be worth more? 

You've probably heard the story of Picasso charging 5,000 Francs for a quick sketch. "But it only took you 5 minutes!" complains his outraged client. "No, madam," replies Picasso, "it took me my whole life." 

Whether true or not, this anecdote sums up the misleading "time-equals-cost" idea. 

It reminds me of my time working in IT. People would complain "My computer is down, what do we pay you for?" or, alternatively, "My computer is working fine, what do we pay you for?" People tend to think they can do your job when they see you do it and then say "that's it?". They forget the past failures and obstacles to overcome to get to the point where it was actually easy for you.

Paying the Happiness Tax

The happiness tax concept is also prevalent in creative fields, implying that because you enjoy what you do, that's already your form of payment. Game Developers, while paid well at times, tend to suffer from this. They work doing something they love, so it's often assumed they could get paid less. Game Development like many other creative fields can be incredibly rewarding, but can often times come with grueling work. 

Enjoying your work is great, and indeed, something we all want, but have you tried paying your rent with a 10/10 job satisfaction score? The highest quality work tends to come from those who really enjoy what they do. We need higher quality work out there, and that only comes from those who have a mastery of what they do. That often comes from dedication to sticking with something over the long term. Value of work done should be based on quality, not on the feelings of those making it. Should you pay more because I hate doing the work? It's the "feelings" based equivalent of using time to determine value.

Exposure Kills

Comic source

Alongside those who are not willing to pay or think things should be free are those who think "exposure" is a good substitute for money. Even if you don't work in a creative field we all know what this entails. It's usually something along the lines of "if you do this for me you'll get great exposure for more jobs". This also tends be an ironic inflation of people's perceived value of their "network". Often times the people that want to pay in exposure are the same types that are unknown and will probably provide almost no value in return. I've seen such ridiculous things as "I will expose you to my Youtube channel that has 1000 subscribers" or "If you do this piece for me for free I'll let all my friends know". The promise of a better deal in the future, because they sure won't pay.

Now are all "exposure deals" terrible? No. Most of them will be, but there may be that diamond in the rough that stands out that makes you say "I will do that for free, for that person/company/organization". Most of the time this will be something that the artist will determine, and not the other way around. Donating your time and expertise for a great cause is a worthwhile venture, but 99% of the time when someone wants to pay in exposure it's most often a raw deal with no value in it for you.

Artists like any other professional deserve to get paid. The same excuses and ridiculous comments people make about artists getting paid can be turned back around to those making the comments. Nobody wants to work for free, regardless of the field. If artists were not able to become paid professionals this world would be quite a bit less colorful and creative. Are you an artist that has a similar story to share? Let us know in the comments!

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  • smurfmier1985

    Great article!

  • josua92

    Not only are choosy beggars the problem. Artists were so poorly paid for centuries that the value of an artist today is still not considered worthy (or much). You can see even today great artists that are afraid to charge their clients high sums of money (even though they are worth ever penny). They sell themselves below their (true) value.

  • Jere Haapaharju (swikni)

    Good stuff here

  • Thibaut Bourbon (tbrbn)

    Great articles, can very much relate to the exposure part :D

  • Omar Domenech (dostovel)

    Funny this came out today, since yesterday was specially frustrating in this regard. This happens to me a freaking lot, specially the place where I work at. I'm hired as a graphic design artist, but they know I can do 3D render, animation and VFX, so they're always pressuring me to do everything from graphic design all the way through the whole 3D pipeline and still get it all at a graphic design salary. Yet, I would do it all, if only the monetary compensation would come accordingly to the volume of extra work it would be . There's no explaining to them that they're different things and that 3D has taken me a lot of time and effort to learn.

  • noise

    dostovel The hardest thing, it seems, is for artists to learn how to dig in their heels and say "no."

    If your employer keeps insisting that you do things outside of your original job description, you should tell them "sorry, but if you want all of those extra things, either pay me a higher salary, or hire a second artist to do those things."

    If they refuse, start looking for another job.

    Honestly, you should probably have feelers out to other companies already, since companies that underpay employees aren't known for their loyalty.

  • crew
    Jonathan Gonzalez (jgonzalez)

    Wow looks like a struck a chord. Seems like we all have experience with this.

  • Christina McKay (chrismckay)

    A great article!
    Unfortunately, it's not only the customers who make life difficult for us, but also other artists who set their prices far too low. Astri Lohne has summarized this aspect in a video. It's about painting, but I think you can say that about many other artistic areas including 3D.
    Another experience I've had: Customers think the software does the work for me. That becomes quite clear with painted pictures. I often work on a picture that I paint with realistic materials for less time than on a picture that I paint digitally. Digital painting tempts you to make more and more changes and improvements. You also have more possibilities to make corrections. As a result, my digital pictures are much better than those painted with real life materials. Nevertheless, the customers appreciate this less. They pay the price for a RL picture without batting an eye. With digital pictures they often start to negotiate down the price.

  • Omar Domenech (dostovel)

    nnoise I have said no for years and earn some hate along the way for it. I've hold my ground, since I've seen over the years how people get used. They only ONCE do work outside their tasks and above their pay grade and that's it, before they know it, it becomes the thing they do and salary stays the same. By the time they complain it seems as if they don't want to do "their job".

  • crew
    Kent Trammell (theluthier)

    aangryman540 Ooo that looks like a good talk. Thanks for sharing!

  • Brandon Ruffin (bruffin776)

    theluthier It's a very informative talk. Watched it recently.

  • Brandon Ruffin (bruffin776)

    aangryman540 You deserve a big cookie for posting that video lol Love it!

  • LJ Simpson (ljsstudio)

    Great article. Definitely struck a chord! The hazard of "exposure deals" especially. Even if one of these results in more work, it is often very hard to get a fair rate on future projects, most notably if these clients mention their rate with those referred customers.

  • crew
    Jonathan Gonzalez (jgonzalez)

    ljsstudio Yes it's true. The kind of people that offer "exposure" usually hang around with similar people so you're going to get referred to others who think exposure deals are perfectly fine.

  • anarchymedes

    chrismckay I can't speak for artists, but in software development prices and wages go down because of the immigration issues, among other things. To put it simple, some people are willing to slave away just for food - and for a dream of permanent residency. A dream which, of course, their 'masters' don't have to fulfil at the end, saving money on cheap slaveforce.

  • thleosw

    Yes, I totally agree, but the few times I have been asked for some art I almost felt embarrassed asking to be paid for it. I can't speak for everybody of course, but for me is a mix of "what if I am actually not good enough" and "I don't want them to think I am overestimating myself"

  • Keith (keithc)

    A lot of good responses here. In the Indie Game developer World, I see similar things.

    Another problem comes from undercutting artists, from Countries where a living wage is FAR less than others. They can afford to work for less.

    As to artists who aren't sure of their work's worth; I would suggest bouncing you work and WIPs off of Communities such as this, as well as those more centric your field (ie, game art, architectural design, vfx, etc.).

    Great article and conversation. Thanks!!

  • Alan Anderson (awa)

    It's been a dilemma for years. Design vs Marketing types.
    Check out

  • Allen Grippin (toomanydemons)

    After many years in the industry, I've learned that there is no real money in 3D art. A hundred times more artists than there are job openings, and freelancers can only make a little extra cash on the side. It doesn't matter how good you are, though you might get insanely lucky and land a real job... .I wouldn't shoot for that though. 3D art has become recreational and there are so many fancy tools to do it now. So since I can't sell it, or do anything with it, but I still enjoy it, I've made it free.

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