“I think you should just give me your art”

Maureen Frank wonders what to do with emails like this one:

I really love the “Hearts As One” mandala, and I was wondering if you know how I can get it without buying it.

Maureen Frank, Hearts as One. ©The Artist

Maureen Frank, Hearts as One. ©The Artist

Let’s put aside the “Oh, brother” response for right now. It’s a great question, Maureen. Your sensitive soul wants to help someone in need, but your left brain is going, “Hey! Wait a minute!” It might be akin to people always asking you to donate your art or talents to this or that cause. Listen to that left brain.

I asked Maureen if the email was signed. Nope. Nada. Notta name in sight. That’s good enough reason to hit the old Delete button. FAST! If people aren’t kind enough to sign their name, you have no reason to be kind enough to respond. That’s one of my first rules with responding to email. You must sign your name and address me politely.

I have learned to mostly ignore emails that ask for free consultations, free website or blog reviews, or that contain complaints about my fees. It’s hard to do, but I’ve found out that no response other than “Sure, you can have it for free!” will satisfy the person sending that email.

Here are the Rules

1. If someone sends you a special request and it is not signed, hit Delete.

2. If the request is signed and it looks like a real person, consider the tone of the request. For the question Maureen received (”How can I get it without buying it?”) I confess I’d be a little sassy if I could summon the chutzpah. I’d probably say something like “Well, you could steal it, I suppose. But that has the risk of jail time, so that’s probably not a good option.”

If the tone is nicer, more polite, you could say, “Gosh, I hadn’t thought of offering my work for sale without payment. Maybe we could work out a payment plan and you could pay it off in 6 months.”

3. If you know the person and you’re up for a trade, see what they have to barter with.

4. You can’t go wrong with sending the offending email into the trash and pretending you never saw it. Truly, do you think anyone who sends such an email really expects to get something without paying for it? No. And they don’t expect a response. Delete. Besides, you can always claim that you never saw it.

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39 comments to “I think you should just give me your art”

  • Alyson, I get many requests for free consultation from well-meaning artists. I usually reply that I don’t have time to answer questions for individuals, but offer them one line of advice. Since I don’t currently offer any individual consultation at this point – because I’d rather leave it up to you – it’s ok for me to send them one thought.

    I’ve never had someone outside of a fund raiser ask me for free art? As my successful artist friend, Monique Sakellarios, used to say, “I am not in the charity business.”

    Art supplies are expensive; so it art instruction. My goal is to pay for all my supplies and fees, and then make enough to pay the bills on top of that. If I were a millionaire by some other means, then I would give my artwork away. When organizations ask for outright donations of my work, I let them know I’ll be happy to write them a check – where I can easily deduct my donation. And that’s if I want to donate to that particular charity.

  • Like Lori above, I get emails every day from other artists asking me for advice on finding consultants, commissioned work and even asking my prices so that they can set theirs accordingly.

    The most blatant recent request for free art was from an art consultant that I hadn’t worked with previously. She asked me twice to send her existing work to show her client (on my dime). I said ok since it was going to be a decent sized project for a large NYC hospital. She then sent back the work, asking me to do a 24″x24″ SAMPLE in the colors of the proposed construction, since the work I had sent her didn’t match! I argued that a painting that size was not a sample, but an actual commission. She told me that she would have to “cut me out of the project” if I didn’t comply. I refused and haven’t heard from her since. I don’t think I would have wanted to work with her anyway, her demands were unreasonable.

  • While not a specific request for free art, I’ve had an art consultant ask for files for her database that are large enough to print 8x10s. When questioned, the rationale was that she wanted to be able print “samples” for her customers. Uh, I think not, those “samples” are something I sell!

    Another favorite: I’ve had other people approach me and ask “I love your work, but can’t afford it. Can you recommend someone who does something similar for cheaper?” Sorry.

  • Thanks for the advice on handling such emails. I really appreciate it.

    Based on the comments and similar experiences I have had, there seems to be this misconception out there that being an artist is far from being a ‘real’ job. As well as the ‘crazy’ idea that they are to be paid just as you would pay an architect, a plumber, a teacher, a doctor, or anyone else for that matter.

    Maybe we need to start a major marketing campaign to educate the masses about art, its role in society, and the people who create it…just a thought.

  • I would immediately delete the annoying email, of course, but the issue is more complex than receiving a somewhat creepy email like this.

    I find it very hard to refuse a painting to my close friends and family, for example. Luckily most of them know how much time and work it takes (and how much time it has actually taken me to learn to paint like this) and have learnt not to ask me by now… Then again, every once in a while it happens… and even worse – they may actually offer to pay me some funny amount which would hardly even cover the cost of the materials. Finding the right words to explain and ultimately refuse an offer like that isn’t easy. It’s a tricky situation which can create a whole emotional drama.

    There are exceptions, of course, and if I feel like I owe a favour to somebody, or it’s a special occasion like the wedding of a close friend, I find that giving, or even making a work especially for that person often makes me feel great and is deeply appreciated by the receiver.

    As for charities, if I do care about the cause, and my work is going to get media exposure… well, then I’d seriously consider donating, yes.

  • Great story- some years back I had a solo show at a nice gallery in
    Chicago. After the opening the dealer called me to say he received a request from a person who loved a particular piece in the show who offered to pay 10% of the asking price. Obviously I told him no.

    A couple of months later I read in my college alumni magazine that this same would be collector had just given the college a multimillion dollar donation to build a new wing on a building, that would (of course) be named after himself.

  • My day job involves selling software to university students. It amazes me how often people expect to get Office, for example, for free. We offer significant discounts – over 85% off of retail price – and still students ask me how they can get it without having to pay.

    Art is the same way – people always want something for nothing. Then there are those who think if you love what you do, you should give it away! I realize that time goes into the money they’re paying for a piece, just like my time goes into my pieces.

  • Yeah, it’s true… people expect and try to get everything for free these days… it’s not specific to art. My husband’s a programmer and gets lots of request from people to help them customize old code that he had already released for free anyway.. So, effectively they can already use the code and now they want him to build their project for free too?.. (and everybody knows how much a freelance IT specialist charges, right). He tends to hit the ‘delete’ button…

  • One of my all time favorite songs is “Everything is Free” by Gillian Welch. It’s a post-Napster tune about making a living as a musician.

    I love it when she sings “if there’s something you wanna hear, you can sing it yourself.”

    Free advice for Maureen’s anonymous emailer… “You can paint it yourself.”

    Full lyrics here:

  • Thanks, Laura! I love it!

  • Walter Hawn

    I expect Laura doesn’t know that Gillian Welch’s lyrics are posted on that site without permission and with no payment. There is a notice at the bottom of the page that says, “All lyrics are property and copyright of their owners. All lyrics provided for educational purposes only.” The first sentence is not a proper copyright notice, and the second sentence is a license to steal, issued by and for the site owner. I could go on about the legal conditions for ‘educational use,’ but it is sufficient to say that those conditions are absent, here, since the site is obviously about collecting commissions from Amazon, et al., not about education.

    Here is a case of theft. Not even the courtesy of a larcenous request, but out-and-out appropriation of another’s property, for gain.

  • I think many people have been taught that exposure is good enough for an artist. An aquaintance of mine asked why I didn’t hang my extra inventory in a friend’s house. She figured people would get a chance to see it, and it would have more chance of selling than if it sat in my studio. I told her that I don’t even do that with my family members because then they’d never buy it. I would have lost out on several sales if I’d lent them the work. Once I explained, she understood and even ended up buying a piece of my work.

  • I love reading all of your comments everyone! I’m an actor, not a painter, but we experience the same sort of thing. I had to start rejecting my friends’ requests to perform for free because it was taking up too much time and causing me to miss opportunities for paid work – but making that decision was a game changer for me back in day. It’s amazing what happens when you just decide to do something!

  • Thanks for the tips on dealing with these kinds of requests. It amazes me that people even have the nerve to ask to get art for free. When these people go to a shop in the mall or the grocery store… do they ask for things for free? Probably not, so why would they think an artist would give their work away for free. What is it about artists that makes people think they can ask for freebies? Is it the online venue? Or do they not understand the value of art?

  • Fantastic! This is something I struggle with because I often know the person. Recently a co-worker asked me about making them a custom costume. It occurred to me that she had no idea it would run in the range of $200 for time and supplies…she didn’t think I’d do it for free, but I think she figured it would be ‘cheap’.
    The struggle I’ve had is I love giving gifts and so I often undersell myself. *slaps hand* but you’re so very right and this post has helped me hugely in strategizing how to handle such requests.

  • With emails, I think the delete key is highly under-rated and under-utilised.
    These are easy; I won some money: delete. I won the lottery: delete. I have a long-lost relative: delete.
    These are a bit harder; They love it but can’t afford it: delete. They’s like a print of x: delete.
    These are the hardest for me; They’re running a charity auction: delete. A ‘friend’ is opening a shop/gallery: usually delete.

  • Heh, it’s a nice list, Cath 🙂

  • I don’t get as many requests for art anymore, but I always get requests for free-bees in my other work: therapeutic massage.

    I accept or decline depending on the situation. When I decline, I try to phrase it with, “Boy, if I was wealthy enough to work for free I would! Until then, I still need to charge for my work.”

  • I agree, the temptation would be there for me to write back: “Yeah, I wish someone could have drawn it for ME, too, but I had to come up with the idea all by myself and implement it – just like any other professional.”

    But really, I do think the best idea is just to delete it.

  • A small, respectful issue with # 4, which states: “You can always claim you never saw it.”

    I don’t think lying or deception is necessary. If I was approached about the email and why it was never answered, I would have no problem with being up-front about why I didn’t answer it. That I didn’t feel it was a valid request is a good reason. That I felt insulted by the email is another valid reason. If you don’t want to answer an email, don’t answer it.

    Another response that could be sent would be “Thank you for your kind comments about my artwork. I’m sorry I cannot offer my art for free. I need to make money on my art so I can do more of it. Thank you for appreciating all the time and effort that went into it.”

  • Alyson, THANK YOU for this post, especially the “permission” to delete messages of this sort. I try to be as professional as possible and have a hard time deleting messages without replying. I’ve done it a few times and have felt guilty about it, thinking that somehow it is rude and unprofessional to leave emails unanswered.

    But my feelings are the same as yours, and now I see that I don’t owe these boorish people anything. I get requests for advice all the time from young kids and other artists. I even set up pages on my website to give advice about how to become an equine artist. Still the requests come. I’ve considered charging for advice but haven’t implemented it yet.

    So many new artists think that there’s a quick way to become an accomplished artist. And so many would-be collectors seem to think that we create solely for fun with no need for income.

    I also get a lot of requests from school kids who are doing a project for some class and need to study an artist. They ask for permission to use my art in their report or to even copy it and ask very personal questions. I’m not comfortable with these requests and often view them with suspicion.

    What do you think? Is this phenomenon unique to us equine artists, or do other artists get them too? What do you do about them?

  • Wonderful comments and I read every one. I agree with Darla. Perhaps what one could do is have something written that is ready to be copied in as a response so as to not have to mentally deal with it each time it happens (hopefully not very often).
    I think we as artists are responsible for educating the public since they don’t get any real art education about the profession. AND I also think we help each other when we do something thoughtful but CLEAR in response to such a request for free work.
    I am thinking I would say ‘Since this is my profession and my life’s work, how would you think I could pay my bills?’

  • @Karen – I think you SHOULD start charging for advice. It makes replying to these requests easy, and it gives you an opportunity to make an extra buck!

  • I’ve been following your blog for some time now and I want to say how much I enjoy it. I started to follow it after reading your book I’d Rather be in the Studio, which after I read the first 5 pages I ordered. I also recommend its purchase to every other artist I know. I actually have taught craft marketing and it is, by far, one of the best art marketing books I have ever read. Also, because of your book, I have finally ventured into blogging (http://www.srobertsonpotterycom.blogspot.com/).

    On this topic I could probably rant for hours. In Canada, professional artists, without other jobs, typically earn income at poverty level, yet we are always the first group that people turn to for donations of work and time. I have long since learned to say no to donations of time and take a long hard look at donations of work. Typically, if the work is to be auctioned, I only participate in artist friendly donations (where the artist receives 50% of the sale price), for causes I am interested in. For straight donations, I look at the benefit to me in terms or personal or professional gain. For instance, I recently donated work to a volunteer fire department because without my local fire department I would be down one very important exhibition/sales facility and will be eternally grateful.

  • For those who get requests from students who need do do a report on you – I know these invariably come at the wrong time. Whenever I get these, I am SO busy, I have to admit I sort of cringe or sigh – but I stop myself and do a reality check – What an HONOR it is for a student to do a report on me! Me! OMG, me! Can you imagine, can you remember the days you could only dream of that?!? I love to encourage young artists, and wow, looky here – free advertising on top of that! If a question is too private, just say so, kindly.

    It’s similar to an epiphany I had about 2 years ago. I was bringing groceries in from the car. Bag after heavy bag. And I started griping about it, that I had to lug all that stuff in the house. Then it hit me that I was BLESSED to have this burden I considered so terrible. Stopped to think about how many people would just LOVE to have my “horrible problem.”

    I was recently asked to judge visual arts entries for a contest at a local school. At first, I wonder where I will find the time, but I will MAKE time. What an honor. I will probably be asked by more schools, and I have decided I will just limit this to 2-3 schools per year, and once I hit my quota, I will recommend other artists they could ask.

    I just say, let’s work hard to carve out a bit of time for young artists – all students for that matter. Inspire them.

  • Darla,
    Love your attitude!

    Good points. Just ignore the link.

    With care,

  • When I get contacted from someone asking detailed questions or making requests such as review my work, website, blog, etc., I send them a link to a page where they can purchase an email or telephone consultation and an explanation that I strongly urge artists to not give their work away, even to family. To the pushy ones, I let them know there is an old publishing saying, “A cow that is good enough to milk is good enough to feed.” And, I tell them my first lesson is free, which is to never give away something for nothing. Depending on who was doing the asking, I think turning the tables is always fun and with the right person, perhaps profitable. That would be to ask, “What can you do for me to make me want to give it to you?”

    Still, I think there are cases when using “Free” can make sense. I had a recent post titled, Does Free Art Make Money or Sense. Here is the link to it: http://www.artprintissues.com/2009/09/does-free-art-make-money-or-sense.html

  • Artists please be CAUTIOUS many of those requests from “school children” doing reports about you and asking for personal information are nothing more than phishing scams.

    If you feel you must reply please just send them to your bio and artists statement that is on your website. Do NOT give out more personal details.

    Any adult teacher should know better than to ask students to contact someone over the internet and start asking personal questions.

    It’s a sad fact that we have to be so skeptical but we do,

  • Photography Links – October 9, 2009 « Photo Notes: Photography by Patty Hankins and Bill Lawrence

    […] Art Biz Blog has Responding to Someone Who Doesn’t Want to Pay for Your Art […]

  • Jan, this is the sort of thing I’ve wondered about. I’ve also wondered if this is a way to get us to agree to the use of an image so that they have “proof” if ever questioned.

    This is a quandary for me because, as a horse crazy youngster, it would have meant the world to me to actually talk with a real equine artist. I hate to be a curmudgeon, but I agree that we have to employ a healthy degree of skepticism when viewing these sorts of requests.

  • Karen,

    There are too many of these requests being sent to artists for me to believe that they are legitimate. At one artist forum I belong to (approximately 150 artist) these requests come practically daily and many of the members receive the same request from the same person on the same day….definitely phishing.

    Students (real ones) usually don’t realize that they shouldn’t be copying the work of a living artist. I’ve heard many accounts from artists of people informing them that they are copying their work(as students) and then having those copies turn up in local art shows and galleries. Not good!

    Artists are often very giving people and it is hard for us to be more business like to protect our work and ourselves. I think it’s something we must learn to be aware of and have strategies to deal with the situation as Alyson has pointed out.

  • Regarding requests for information and phishing … often the “students” try to find out your place of birth, pets, and other things that are commonly used in security questions.

    Just on the outside chance that someone is sincere (if I answer at all) I answer in the vaguest terms. I was born in California. I am inspired by nature. I like to paint everything. If they can use that to steal my ID, they are damn clever.

    I like this thread about people asking for freebies. I have donated four paintings to charities this year and when I turned down a fifth request from an artist group that I’m a member of, I got a rather chilly response.

    I have offered time payments on several occasions to people who wanted a painting but couldn’t pay for it all up front. It’s worked out well on both occasions. Happy me to have sold to them, and happy collector. Twice I have given permission for people asking to use my design (for free) as personal tattoos (and I got to see pictures of the results.)

    I’d hit delete for someone who just wanted my art for free “just because.”

  • Sometimes when we get a request for either a commissioned piece or design work, I’ll hear a disappointed “oh, I don’t have a budget for that much money!” after I’ve given the price quote.

    The way I handle it: I offer to refer them to an artist that’s still in art school (I know dozens) or someone who is just starting out and will charge less.

    As for the large number of artists e-mailing for advice on painting techniques, I send them a link to our DVD that they can buy. It answers all their questions. That’s why we made it – so that we wouldn’t have to answer 20 e-mails a day. (And earn a little $$$ too.)

  • At a show recently, a “gentleman” came over to me after staring intently at one of my paintings. He said,”that painting really speaks to me, but I never get emotional about these things. I’ll bet you will take less for the painting”

    When I told him I wasn’t sure what less meant, and that I only dealt in specifics, he went away only to reappear in my email box that evening.

    He wanted 50% off and said that he purchases a lot of paintings and sculpture and doesn’t see why he shouldn’t get the gallery price. The temptation was too great to ignore him, so I wrote back that I would sell him the painting at 50% off if he could, 1. provide me with a brick and mortar place to hang several paintings in a place where the art-buying public would see them. 2. Do a reception for me and invite everyone he knows that would conceivably want to buy art. 3. Send promotional materials to his entire art-world email list. and 4. Send me an occasional (or more often) check from the ongoing sale of future paintings…..since that is what a gallery is supposed to do. What I really wanted to say was, “I purchase a lot of toilet paper, but I don’t feel entitled to a 50% discount”…..and Safeway would probably agree.

  • Lauren

    Just recently I have been trying to work out why I am selling lots of art but not making any money…. I am underpricing my paintings, and I realised the gallery was making more money from the commission than I was getting from the sale after expenses. I’m the one one works the hardest and only the gallery and the buyers were benefiting from that. I realised that my art is truly valuable, my paintings will last you a life time and I realised living with my own paintings on my wall how often I see them and enjoy them and how much nicer the house looks with them up. Paintings are amazing things that take a long time to create, unfortunately they are also expensive items. So many people would dearly love to buy a painting (genuinely) but really can’t afford to.. so I guess that’s why so many people “beg” because they genuinely would love to buy it. Art so transends money on so many levels, it’s just a joy to own. It’s a shame that the majority of us can’t afford to purchase the art we love, but in order for us to keep creating we need to have some money for the work we do. I know that for me time spent working is often time spent away from my kids, is it fair to them to give away my work for free? No. I’m working to save for their future education.

    Perhaps we do need things like greeting cards and small print options for those obvious heart felt art lovers who just can’t afford to own the original they love so much.

  • […] response to my post about how to respond to people who ask you for your art for free, Alicia Leeke was reminded of a newsletter I wrote about soliciting donations. After reading that […]

  • Jan & Karen B.: Excellent point about “students” phishing for personal details. I haven’t heard a lot about this, but sounds like it’s worth a blog post.

    Barney: I love this! “I tell them my first lesson is free, which is to never give away something for nothing.”

    Maria: Referring them to another lower-priced artist is a perfect idea. They will definitely be able to see the high value of your work when that happens.

    Nancy: Love it! Did you ever hear back from him?

    Lauren: Many galleries do a lot of work (and have high overhead expenses) for their artists, so I hope you’re not discounting all galleries.

  • Brenda Zacha

    I am looking for someone to buy my paintings of movie art. I have actors like Tom Selleck, Robert Duvall, Wes Studi, and Jason Patric; a not too bad likemess.