EXPOSURE & FUN - I'm an illustrator, should I work for free?

Pens don't grow on trees.......

Pens don't grow on trees.......

It’s very easy to say, “Don’t work for free”.  As an unknown illustrator it can seem the only way to get noticed when all of your attempts to get work aren’t paying off. But by doing a commercial project for a zero fee you’re not doing you, or the illustration industry as a whole, any favours. Attach value to your skills and knowledge and others will do too. 

This year I’ve been contacted numerous times asking for free work in exchange for exposure. They’ve seen my work in Accessorize stores, in Red Mag, or they've met me illustrating live for Clinique and have then asked me to do something for them for nothing. If I'm honest it makes me pretty angry and confused (as those who follow me on Twitter will know!) but more than anything I find it disheartening, and as a result it can really affect my creative work. But I have a strict rule, and that is that I don’t do corporate / brand work for free. As someone rightly said to me on Twitter, all free work gets you is more free work. The more brands that receive, "sorry, but I don't work for free" replies from illustrators, the faster they will start to plan their budgets to allow payments for us freelance creatives.



As you can see, this was a pretty popular tweet of mine......

As you can see, this was a pretty popular tweet of mine......

In the past I have on occasion vastly reduced my fee for a large brand, and have lived to regret it. One company in question wanted more and more for less and less. It got to the point where I was receiving messages via Whats App asking, “as a favour please quickly mock up this idea for us”, when the project I’d been paid to do had finished weeks before. I did the favour, I never got a thank you. I certainly learnt my lesson there.

Recently I was approached by a huge tech company asking me to deliver workshops for free. It’s taken me weeks to decide but I’m going to say no. Yes, something great might come of it….but also it might not. I have bills to pay, and sadly energy companies don’t accept flattery as payment…..(there’s some irony in the fact that if I don’t pay my gas bill I might die of exposure).

I've had my work shared by celebrities with millions of followers and been RG's by huge brands. Whilst it's welcome PR it's yet to lead anything (apart from lots of teenage fans messaging me to demand I draw them : ). So don't believe the hype too much! Make sure your focus is the quality of your work and your passion for it, not the fame you can achieve with it.

But all that said, if you’re desperate to do something in exchange for seeing it in print or to spy it on a feed you respect, then do it on your terms. Below are some of my ideas and tips.

Let me know what you think of this post  and if you have any further questions by commenting below or emailing me at info@missmagpiefashionspy.com







Contact a charity you’d love to work for an ask if they’d like to collaborate. You could illustrate an instagram post for Help Refugees, offer to decorate the window of an Oxfam clothing shop, create a fundraising calendar for your local Dog Shelter, design Christmas cards for Cancer Research. This way you’re doing something for the greater good but also you are getting exposure and new work for your portfolio. Take photos and screenshots and promote what you’ve done on your social channels.

One of the most successful campaigns I’ve ever been involved with was Style for Stroke, organised by the brilliant Nick Ede. Twitter went crazy when the T-shirt was launched and I felt proud to have worked with such a great team to raise funds. Just last month my Aunt had a stroke and I felt I in some way have helped towards the care of people in her situation. 

That said, some charities have budgets for promotional work - so don’t feel obliged. I’ve turned down two charity projects since August, and that’s fine too.

Style for Stroke Charity T-shirt

Style for Stroke Charity T-shirt



I didn’t really realise this until last year, but most small indie mags don’t have a budget to pay contributors. Once you realise how little advertising they carry you can see why they aren't exactly millionaires. They are often producing these editions for the love of it and really aren’t making much money. If you want to do something for exposure then get in touch with a little magazine you love, with some ideas that you think would suit their voice.


If you are going to spend time doing something for no guaranteed financial return then why not produce something of your own that you might be able to sell? Greetings cards, postcards, calendars etc can be produced and sold, or sent to potential clients as promotional gifts. 


If you have time on your hands and want to attract new work then spend time really looking at your social media strategy. Get really creative, paint something you love just for the hell of it and share the making of it on Instagram or on your blog. You never know who might see it and what ideas it might give them. As an example I wanted to get some work painting large scale on to windows. So I mocked something beautiful up on glass, shared it on my social channels and a couple of months later was paid to paint on a window at Bath In Fashion, whilst a large crowd looked on. Show people what you can do and then they will want to pay you for it!


On the two occasions that I’ve reduced my fee, I’ve still written my full fee on the invoice and then added a discount. That way if the client contacts you again in the future, you can point out that your fee was reduced last time. 


If you do decide to work in exchange for exposure or clothes or products then put it all in writing. Make it clear what usage terms you are giving them for the illustration. You still own the copyright so you need to give them permission to share the image as per your agreement, whether that be on social media / in print / on Snapchat. But in all honesty I would advise against giving your talent away for nothing. Stay strong, be positive, keep producing great new and unique work and you will be rewarded.