I am often asked will I do an art piece pro bono? It's a tough question to tackle depending on who it is coming from...
Unfortunately in this scenario, there’ isn’t a master one-size-fits-all answer.
Obviously, there will always be charitable organizations and other groups and individuals more than happy to use contributed artwork for fundraising purposes and I feel artists should be open to the idea of donating for a good cause when they arise, but for this article lets step back and cover in more detail another angle to this imposing and often asked question, but first...
What Is Pro Bono Art?
Pro bono art refers to undertaking professional artwork voluntarily without charging for your talent, skill, and time. All sorts of professionals do pro bono work for charities, non-profit organizations, and other organizations doing public service, but that’s not the point of discussion here.
These days, its become a common practice for someone to garner professional level art by seeking service for free by explaining to the artist that they will get lots of exposure of their work.
In theory this may sound good, but I have learned that this usually turns out to be less desirable in the long run and most likely a red flag to be aware of.
I say this cause I have been down this road far too many times. it typically begins when someone enthusiastically asks me to create an original piece for free and in return I will get lots of potential exposure because they have lots of social followers that could turn into future work. If only it was that easy, but let's be honest, it never is...
Or you will find that friends and family will expect free, or highly discounted art because they know you. Avoid, Avoid. Avoid.
Why You Shouldn't Accept Pro Bono Requests?
For several reasons, doing pro bono art can be damaging for you.
If you are professional artist like me, who lives and breathes fine art and paintings are your main source of income, then doing pro bono art must be avoided for the simple fact that it doesn't financially make it logical to survive.
I know most don't understand the simple concept that an artist like a plumber, or an electrician make their living off of their trade. They assume that creating art is fun and is typically considered to be just a hobby, or at best a "side-gig" because it's not normal "work."
Let Me Be Blunt
Wanna get on my shit list, "tell me my art is just a hobby... but for now, I must digress.
As an artist you need to be aware that by allowing and doing free/pro bono art for someone will ultimately cost you and here's how.
Whenever you create an art piece, you naturally are going to invest a lot of time into it. By booking up your calendar time with "free" work you are taking up valuable time available for paid work.
Damaged Professional Reputation
If you tend to do a lot of pro bono art just so you can get recognition, it can backfire easily. People interested in your art may wait until you give away again, or make an offer that is so cheap that you're not really making any profit off of your craft.
Devaluing Your Talent and Work
When you accept a pro bono offer and give away too much work, there is a good chance that it will eventually devalue your current work for sale, or hinder work you have sold to clients who have invested in you as an artist and this will harm their investment too. Protect your past client's investment by maintaining value in your work and yourself as an artist.
When to Offer a Discount
However, I will state that doing pro bono work isn’t always harmful. Being selective and donating art for a good cause to a chartable event for example would be a time that I would consider satisfactory for a pro bono deal, or discount and this could even be considered a tax write-off if done correctly with the right organization and let's face it we can always use a tax write-off as independent artists.
Let’s say you are a skilled and experienced artist with a vast portfolio, then being too affordable should be avoided. Often, family and friends will expect a discounted price from you, which they mustn’t. Your family and friends must be the first ones to support you and buy your stuff at regular price.
If you are a beginner with a limited portfolio; striving to expand, then offering a discount to generate more clients can be a useful approach, but discounts should only be offered to organizations doing public service and using your artwork solely for fundraising. This type of pro-bono work, will also provide great satisfaction to you as well plus it tends to look good when listed on your vitae.
But, I wouldn't provide pro bono art for a client who intends to use the art for commercial purposes by making money off your art. Defiantly be clear about commercial art and the rights you are allowing to a buyer, or you may find yourself in a sticky situation down the road.
How Much to Ask for Your Original Work
When assigning a price on your artwork, you need to take a few factors under consideration. These factors include the size of the painting, material used, and your experience as an artist. If you have more experience and your artwork is exhibited frequently in shows and exhibitions, or you have garnered notable awards, you can set higher-end prices and expect to receive such fees.
Also, take into consideration the prices of your art pieces that have recently sold. I personally adjust my prices on my original art about every eighteen to twenty-four months. My quotes are based on size and my experiences as a professional artist. I do often make special arrangements for clients if they express interest in ordering more then one original piece.
For example I have a current client who has ordered ten portraits from me over the next year. Because this was going to be a good commission that kept me busy for a year long period I decided to offer said client a nice discount. So as a client it never hurts to ask an artist what they are willing to do.
Buyer May Exploit Your Desperation, So Be Careful About How You Communicate
It should be noted that sounding desperate for work will allow the buyer to exploit you. Don’t be so desperate for work that the buying party knows as this will be an open invitation to try and trick you into free, or discounted work you don’t want to do.
Only accept work that you are truly interested in. Your passion for a subject will come through naturally where if you are not interested you may find yourself struggling to finish said piece, or even start.
The key here is to communicate to a client from the get go that you are a professional, and expect to be treated like a professional and not a desperate student willing to accept anything. Be confident about your work and talent and you will find that others will naturally take you serious and most likely won't try to screw with you.
Don't be afraid to set boundaries. Establishing boundaries let's the client know you are serious and that you know what you are doing. Never undersell your artwork and be clear about the minimum prices you offer on your artwork.
Protect Your Art
Protect yourself and your art. Look for ways to exploit yourself, but only if you are getting paid. License your art for commercial use.
Make sure clients understand commissions are for private use only. Commercial use requires a much higher fee. My commercial use fee is typically three times my private use fee. Of course these details are all negotiable with a client.
If you are an aspiring artist, or a beginner, you will most likely find that you will get many pro bono art requests. Being a beginner, it’s tempting to accept such requests, but it’s also not difficult to avoid them.
If you’re savvy and confident about your work and your skills, then learning to avoid these dire pit-falls will save you in the end and provide for an overall better experience while creating your art with passion.
Until next time, be savvy, be positive and create some amazing art.
P.S. Good clients pay full price upfront and leave complete creative control open to the artist. Bad clients will complain about price quotes and expect creative input and most likely desire lots of revisions.