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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.