Shop Talk

RB Artists On… Working for Free

For last week’s Open Discussion, we posed a question that constantly crops up amongst artists and creative types, “Should You Ever Work for Free?” Once again, RB artists turned out in droves to chime in on the controversial subject.

Some of you (most of you) said a definitive “heck no!,” while some of you fell onto the opposite side on the fence. Some of you had a more nuanced position, suggesting that occasionally, working for free, or “for exposure,” might be the right move, especially if you’re a brand new artist.

We rounded up some of the best comments that perfectly highlight the thoughtful community we have here at Redbubble and to provide a great resource for those of you who are wracking their brains about whether they should take that illustration gig for little to no pay becuase it will simply get their name “out there.”

"Space Girl" by Bryan Collins

Against “For Free”:

Amy-Elyse Neer:

“when my landlord lets me live here because it’s great exposure for him to house an artist, and requires no rent from me, and when the grocery store will just give me free food because it’s an honor to feed my artistic ass, then sure.

I was asked to do a sign once for a business, and they said, when I told them my rate,

‘Oh we were hoping you’d just do it for free, for the exposure.’ I told them ‘Oh so can I have this product for free?’ ‘You mean in trade for the sign?’ ‘No I mean straight up can I have this for free… think of the exposure, all my friends will see me with it, I think it will really help you out if I take this for free.’ ‘But we sell those… I mean that’s what we sell… oooooh…’

They were fine with my rates after that.”

© Janis Zroback:

“In one word.. no…if it’s a charity I will donate money but never art work…people might buy the work to support the charity and it simply ends up in someone’s basement…the idea that you would get exposure is erroneous…in my experience at charity auctions no one pays attention to the artist, nor do they promote you afterwards…
I have given my paintings as gifts to friends and family but I don’t consider that as working for free…my plumber, electrician, doctor, would be appalled if I asked them to do work for free, so why on earth should I?
Also the idea of donating something that isn’t my best is appalling…I throw those away…”

Sorcha Whitehorse ©:

“Hmm.. Not getting paid makes me not want to work. Funny That! Working for free for charity is fine, the very laudable definition of Charity, to give freely. Working for free with friends, fine if it’s an agreed mutual benefit. Working for free for a profit making enterprise is foolish, and uh well nobody does that, except for slaves. It’s exploitative and shows a lack of respect for our work and us, an underlying assumption that what we do is a given, a mere talent that requires no skill or education, easy come, easy go. I know alot of people given their education, cars, houses, money,careers and they certainly don’t expect to work for free. Equal value – equal worth, insist on it or be satisfied with receiving nothing in return for working hard, being committed, skilled, unique and valuable. You should be treasured. Art makes the world go round! xx”

Virginia McGowan:

“Any time I have given a painting away, and maybe even done one for the person for free, I have found it has been discarded after a while, anytime I have been paid ,the people still have it.”

© Cindy Schnackel:

“Occasionally, other professionals donate time, like doctors or dentists donating their expertise to some medical cause in a poor country. However, you don’t see their patients then expecting free service because they gave it away in some other country on one project. With artists, people are coming to expect it to be free or cheap all the time.

Part of the problem may be corporate budget cutting, A larger part of the problem is that there are a lot of artists who do give it away, and not just for the occasional charitable cause, but to commercial interests who should definitely be paying. The idea you can do it “for exposure” is usually a hollow promise. The company/org is unlikely to do anything to promote you and may even make it hard or impossible for anyone to find out who did the art work. Better to give only to charities you know and believe in, without expectation of getting anything in return, whether you give money, art, or your time. That way, charity and business are kept separate, with no illusions.”


“I don’t take “exposure” as a payment. I really don’t. Think about it – you’re not guaranteed to get the exposure you’re expecting to get from it. You could get the exposure but nothing out of it (meaning people see your stuff but just yawn and move on, because that’s what a lot of people tend to do these days). Getting paid – whether it’s in money or some physical compensation – at least guarantees you get -something- for your time. Something -real- and concrete. “Exposure” doesn’t guarantee anything, so I don’t and never take it as a form of payment.”

Sandra Chung:

“I’ve given my time and product to charity causes and events, but some have taken that to mean that what I do is free at all times. I had a city council approach me to use one of my photos for holiday publicity for a ‘photo credit’. Politely told them I am a working photographer, and I quoted them very reasonable rates, and they decided to go ‘another way’ aka found someone willing to do so for a photo credit (and their photo credit was so small, font size 4 if that, and other professional photographers who knew which photo of mine the city council wanted showed me, and were shaking their heads at the ‘meh’ one they opted for instead.)

A friend once asked me to do an all day photo shoot for him for nothing. His reasoning “It’s not like it costs you anything. All you have to do is push a button.” He seemed so annoyed with me when I reminded him of the money spent on classes, tutorials, workshops, equipment, travel, software and all the other things that ‘didn’t cost me anything’.

Working for free or for a photo credit is ok if you’re just starting out, but not if doing so takes a job away from a working photographer.

And to those who choose to get someone willing to work for free or just a photo credit; most of the time, you get what you pay for.”


“…doctors, lawyers, plumbers, etc. aren’t expected to work for free so why should artist or other creatives? I don’t mind donating my time or skills to a charity I believe in, but that’s different than working for free for a for profit company. The only exception to the working for free rule is if you are able to use your skills to get something you need. (Example: Photographing a mechanic’s shop in exchange for them working on your car.)
Sorry, but exposure doesn’t pay my mortgage!”

Sandra Hultsved:

“I’ve worked for free for bands that said they don’t have the budget to pay me yet, one said that if the work turns out good they would pay me then and of course the good old “it will give you exposure”. What can I say, I was very naive and agreed to it. It was my first job, still I was very professional and wanted to do everything right, made sure to write a proper contact and everything. And I worked too many hours on their cover art, since I at least wanted it to be good enough for my portfolio, plus made the design of the booklet. I was very happy with the work and they were as well, but then it all turned into hell. They remade my whole design of the booklet and made it look so amateurish and ugly. I got very upset of course, how cloud they just remake everything I’ve done and done well too. But they didn’t care. I at least got my name off the design credits, but my artwork is still there and I can not use it for exposure or portfolio, cause it’s nothing I want to be a part of with their ugly design. It stood in the contact that they would at least credit me every time they showed the cover artwork in a magazine or on their website, but nothing, not even once!
And the other times I’ve worked with bands haven’t gotten any better than that.
My lesson learned here is, always take charge of the work, cause you never know what will happen to it, they might not even end up using it…(but that’s an other story).”

"Invictus" by Donald Cameron

For “For Free”:


“Actors will perform for free for the experience,exposure & the possibility of getting paid work. Therefore,I don’t see anything wrong w/artists doing the same.”


“Sometimes being a artist, is just that. Being a artist that loves the fact that you’re able to express you’re self through different medias.
If you love the things you’re blessed with, then sometimes it’s even more rewarding giving it away, for the pleasure of letting your expressions wander the world on their own feet.

But we all are slaves under the dollar sign, and need to put food on the table.
Free or not, it’s up to you.
And what you need.

Often a simple “i love your work” is more valuable than a dollar in the bank…”


“there are more forms of payment than money no matter what the interpretation get yourself out there make yourself feel good just don’t be trapped and used negative energy is what it is”

"That's Life." by Ena Bacanovic

It’s up to you, but be careful of the “vicious circle”:


“You can consider ‘self-interest’ as a form of payment –
it can be money, but it can also be experience or working on particular projects you
believe in. HOWEVER, every exception you as a professional might use to justify working for No Money can also be used by others you’ll later be competing against when you actually want to get paid for your work but others are willing to do it for free. It creates a vicious circle that has few winners…”

Free is okay…for now:

Kevin Exley:

“I’m still aiming to get to the stage where I get paid for my artistic endeavours, and Redbubble should help with that, but I’m lucky to have a job that can cover my rent etc.

With regards to working for free however, I will do bits of illustration for close friends. I have some friends who are in various bands, and the way I see it the more exposure they get from gigs etc, the more my work gets seen and noticed. Especially as they can act as travelling salesmen when out on tour, selling cd’s, posters etc with my scribbles on.

Working for people that are close to you, there will always be a certain sense of ‘mates rates’, but as people who know you well, I find there is a greater appreciation for what actually goes into making the artwork, and as such, I’ve been repaid in kind.”

So what do you think about working for free? Is it worth it? Is it a waste? Is it insulting? Does it matter? Let us know in the comments below.


View additional posts by Jen Durant

Jen Durant

Redbubble Artist Relationship Manager