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Should Art Be Free?

Denise has been studying and teaching art and painting for 40+ years. She has won numerous prestigious awards for her art and design.

My water pixie photo composite.

My water pixie photo composite.

Giving It Away

I used to teach watercolor classes for senior citizens in my community. My method was to come with the sample painting already done and the drawings ready for each senior student to paint with me. At each class, I painted one with them showing the step-by-step method I used to get the original we were all looking at. Because of this, I had several paintings of the same piece. More than once I had some elderly person stop me and ask if he/she could have my painting. When I told them yes and made a price of $10 they became alarmed and reminded me that they were seniors and art should be free. Sometimes they would counter-offer a price of $1 and I just refused to work that cheap. The paper cost me more than that in the first place. I’d rather take home 10 pieces of the same art picture and stuff them under the bed than to devalue my work that way.

“A primitive artist is an amateur whose work sells.”

— Grandma Moses (Anna Mary Moses)

Photoshop is not a free program.  This is a photo composite created with the aid of Photoshop

Photoshop is not a free program. This is a photo composite created with the aid of Photoshop

Not Thinking

I don’t think people think about what they are saying when they make the blunder to devaluing art and the life-long work of artists. Museums should be free but even museums have electric bills to pay and artists need to eat. We have rent and bills to pay for like everyone else. I can’t tell how often I have been told that a large company doesn’t have it in the “budget” to pay for an illustrator but if I will work for nothing I will get “exposure” from the work done for them. You can’t pay the rent with exposure. I don’t believe they don’t have it in the budget. They really want something for nothing and if they can get an artist to believe that lie, so much the better. I used to fall for this and I never received so much as one call back for that exposure.

Another Photoshop photo composite.  My grandson riding a dinosaur.

Another Photoshop photo composite. My grandson riding a dinosaur.


Many artists like myself, refuse to work for exposure anymore. It isn’t right to expect an artist to work for little or nothing any more than asking a doctor to work for peanuts, or for a lawyer to represent you for the price of Big Mac. Good quality work takes weeks and sometimes months to produce and our time is of value. We had student loans to pay like doctors and lawyers, so why not pay us what we are worth? I shouldn’t have to explain this over and over again, but many people just don’t get it. Art isn’t a hobby to me, it’s my life. I’ve spent 40 years honing a craft that is my livelihood. I don’t just do art and illustration for a hobby in my spare time. I do it daily because it is in the very fiber of my being and not to work on art to me is the same as not breathing.

My nephew photoshopped onto a dinosaur's back.

My nephew photoshopped onto a dinosaur's back.


Contests are almost as bad. Actually, it is a genius method of getting hundreds of pieces of free work with the promise that one will win a small prize or merchandise. We artists are asked to sign a document stating that the work done for the contest belongs to the company running the contest. That means ALL the participants have signed away their original work for basically nothing. It appeals to the competitive nature in us all but promises little or nothing.

A friend of mine entered one such contest and won first place. He was very excited until he went to collect and he found that the prize wasn’t cash but merchandise. That would have been okay but the merchandise turned out to be art supplies no artist wants. The canvases were of such an odd size that he couldn’t use them for anything. He gave them away to friends. The paint that they gave him was colors he would never have purchased because they were odd colors that are rarely used in realistic paintings. Needless to say, he was very disappointed. He won first place to find it was no win at all.

“Whatever the artist makes is always some kind of self-portrait.”

— Marisol

My Work On A Children's Book Page


It is that “art should be free” mindset that causes many people to take artwork and photographs from the Internet and use them without giving credit or compensation to the artist. My friends, that is stealing. All art is copyrighted even if they don’t place a watermark on the art or photographs. Contact the artist and ask for limited use of the art and you may be surprised that it is okay with us for a little or no fee. We want to know where our art is being used and not find out later that it was just “lifted” without our permission. I remember an artist friend found out from a friend on vacation that her artwork was seen on a billboard in Norway. What a surprise to find your art is being used by a big company and without your permission or compensation. That is illegal and artists are well within their rights to sue over it.

My computer costs money to keep working and replace when it crashes.  Created on the computer in Photoshop from a photo of my granddaughter.

My computer costs money to keep working and replace when it crashes. Created on the computer in Photoshop from a photo of my granddaughter.

Free Art

There is no excuse for stealing art or photography when there are so many good quality sites that offer art and photography free. One such site is Pixabay; another is Morgue File. Both sites ask that the user give credit to the artist or photographer but the work is basically free for use. Those are just two of the many sites offering similar deals for the small businesses and individuals who need low-cost work. With so many ways to get free work, stealing isn’t necessary. Also, if you can’t find anything that will work for you on any of the numerous free sites and need some original work done, there are many places where freelance artists make themselves available for the average person to hire. Fiverr is one such site and UpWork is another where you can find artists and photographers available for a small reasonable fee. You don’t have to be a big company to get our attention. We will work for anyone who offers to pay a reasonable wage for our work.

Limited Use

A small start-up T-shirt printing company who wanted to use one of my line art pieces contacted me. They wanted to use my art and offered me $35 for limited use for 10 years. I was more than happy with that and gave my permission. That, my friends, is the way to do it.

A neighbor girl posed for me to create this photo composite.

A neighbor girl posed for me to create this photo composite.

Final Thoughts

I don’t mean to be bitter or mean about the issue of copyright infringement. It happens and every artist has had some experience with it. What does make me crazy is when the average person doesn’t value my work as worthy of a little compensation. Do you have any thoughts on the issue of free art? I’d love to hear your insights in the comments below.


Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on August 14, 2019:


Haha, that's so funny. I've got to remember that and use it next time. Tell your son I think he is incredibly witty! Thanks for commenting, neighbor.



Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on August 14, 2019:

Love your pictures of children with dinosaurs.

My son is an artist, and when people mention doing something for "exposure" he says, "people can get lost and die from exposure."

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on July 29, 2019:

Ann Carr,

I'm so glad you like my illustrations especially the one of my grandfather. I'm sorry to hear about your experience with copyright infringement. It is distressing. Thanks for commenting.



Ann Carr from SW England on July 29, 2019:

You are so right, Denise! I agree with Heidi about writing too. I have come across someone who 'stole' my work and made a complete hash of it - that was distressing and frustrating as I could nothing about it even though I tried. It is a complete disregard of skill and the time taken, as well as being a gross discourtesy.

I good friend of mine is a wonderful artist and she spends hours in her 'shed' in the garden, creating all sorts of paintings in various media. She is modest and probably does not ask enough for her work but she insists on a reasonable amount for her time and materials.

It's all to do with self-worth and standing up for one's principles. Well done you!


PS: Your illustrations are great and I love the collage of your grandfather.

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on July 28, 2019:

Heidi Thorne,

What a good point about reviews. I always thought there was something wrong about giving books away for a review but just couldn't put my finger on it. You really hit the problem with it. It's also a good point to always give a review of a book. I need to start the practice because I don't always leave a review of a book I have read. Keep up the creativity! Thanks for commenting.



Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on July 28, 2019:

OMG! We could go on and on about this! Same problem for writers.

I don't work for "exposure" anymore. Even worse in my arena is when they ask for a barter deal. Ugh! Like the first-place winner who got only art supplies he didn't need, I usually ended up with nothing, while my barter partner got what they wanted for free.

Also, in the writing space, authors are so unaware of what they're giving away when they give their books for free to people in exchange for reviews. As an author, that's never worked for me. Plus, it's got "forced positive review" written all over it.

Because I respect authors and artists, I will buy their work. If they're offering it at a discount, fine, I'll take that. But I pay for the books I read and have made a commitment to provide a review for almost every book I read. Payment plus praise is what authors and artists deserve and need.

Thanks for bringing up this often difficult-to-address topic! Keep respecting your work!

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on July 26, 2019:


Everyone should live by the Golden Rule. It would solve so many problems, wouldn't it? Thanks for commenting.



Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on July 26, 2019:

Sometimes the people who ask for freebies may not know the value of the painting, and you are not wrong to teach them respect for your work. All artists, including writers have to show people how to value us the way we value ourselves. Set your standard and maintain it! The Golden Rule also comes into play.

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on July 26, 2019:

Eric, you make me laugh. Good point. I GET to do this every day!



Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on July 26, 2019:

Denise I always think that hooray for us. We get to keep on creating. What do they get to do tonight? Poor dogs. Great issues to present.

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on July 26, 2019:

Eric Dierker,

That is the problem. The little guy can't afford to sue the big corporations for obvious copyright infringement because they have a team of lawyers and we don't. It just isn't fair. Thanks for commenting.



Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on July 26, 2019:

Linda Lum,

Absolutely. Experience is so important that you have to have decades behind you before you feel you've really learned enough to be excellent, and that's what they want you to give away. I have a real problem with that. But it isn't only the general public. National magazines and publishers have the nerve to say they don't have it in their "budget" to pay an artist and want me to work for exposure. Isn't that crazy? It's an absolute lie, I think. Of course they have it in the budget. They want something for nothing. Thanks for commenting.



Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on July 26, 2019:


Oh it drives me a little wacko too but I just don't know how to educate people that they are taking advantage of the ones who need the support most. I found this place called Patreon where people support artists with a little a month so the artists, musicians, crafters and the like can just spend time creating. Isn't that a great idea? Thanks for commenting.



Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on July 26, 2019:

Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon,

Yes. That is it exactly. It is all about good manners. Is that something we have lost in America? Or is it just going the way of the dinosaur everywhere? I miss it. Thanks for commenting.



Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on July 26, 2019:

I get where you are coming from. It makes a lot of good common sense. I am blessed not to be in a situation where my work is not necessarily marketed. Just a blessing.

Your path seems a good one that folks should pay attention to. Trademarks and copyrights are fascinating areas. I hope the enforcement has been easier for the "little guy". I doubt it though. People, especially big Corps like to steal and enforcement is just too expensive.

Linda Lum from Washington State, USA on July 26, 2019:

You've found my hot button topic. No one gives a 2nd thought to paying an electrician, or doctor, or accountant but art is a "hobby" like stamp collecting?

And it's not just the cost of the paint and canvass. It's not just the hours spent in creating the painting. It's the hundreds of hours of instruction and experience (you learn a little with each piece, right?) you have acquired in a lifetime. Why should that be given away?

breakfastpop on July 26, 2019:

No, art should not be given away as though it were worthless. Artists are generally not appreciated until they are dead and become commodities. That drives me out of my mind. My home is filled with beautiful artwork that I gladly paid for. I can't begin to describe the pleasure these works of art give me.

Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon from United Kingdom on July 26, 2019:

I agree with you wholeheartedly on this. I know who it feels to have your work stolen by someone and have them pass it off as their own. I would never use someone else's work without the right permissions and I always credit them. It's just good manners.

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