On Art and Entitlement

Here’s a scenario that many artists and other creative people will be all too familiar with: You finish a project you were working on and you’re really proud of how it came out. You’re not sure what you’ll do with it yet; maybe you’ll keep it in your collection as a reminder of how much your skills are improving. Or you might have a go at advertising it for sale (not only is selling art a nice boost for the ego, but the money it brings in can be a good way to make your hobby self-sustaining). But before you can decide either way, a family member (or maybe friend), sees it and swoops on it, declaring “Ooh, I’ll have this!” and taking it before you can work out a polite way to stop them.

The first time this happens might not upset you that much. After all, if someone likes your work enough to want to keep it or display it somewhere, isn’t that a good thing? But gradually you’ll find yourself producing more and more good art but ending up with nothing to show for it, because you keep giving it away/it keeps being taken off you before you can do anything with it. This can be especially problematic if you are making art specifically with the intent to sell, as a lot of artists use the money they get from selling paintings and drawings to buy more art supplies so they can keep making art, or they may need that money to pay for bills, groceries and other everyday expenses.

A few months ago, I was asked to paint a small commission piece by a friend. I completed the painting, and the friend sent me the payment. On the morning I was going to post the painting, it was no longer on my desk where I had left it. I eventually found it on the fridge, where a family member had displayed it with a magnet, and once I removed it and posted it off, the friend who received it was very happy. Unfortunately the family member was not, resulting in this conversation…

Them: Where’s my painting?
Me: What painting?
Them: The coloured tree.
Me: It was a commission. I sent it to the person who paid for it.
Them: But you gave it to me!
Me: No, you took it without asking. It never belonged to you.
*followed by a lot of sulking from said family member who felt like I should have asked for their permission before sending off the painting that I had been paid to do for someone else*

So, there’s going to come a time when you don’t actually want to give a painting or drawing away for nothing, but you know there are going to be hurt feelings when you make this clear. Much of this will depend on the personality of whoever’s asking for the art; hopefully most of the time the worst that will happen is they’ll pout and sulk a bit, but some people really do not handle being denied things well at all and can get quite abusive about it. But whichever category they fall into, they are going to have to get used to hearing one particular word from your mouth: “No.”

It might help to think of it this way: Will anyone ever really value your art if you just keep giving it away? I do think a lot of the problem stems from the fact that people don’t view making art as ‘real’ work. While they wouldn’t hesitate to pay for a plumber to fix their toilet or a mechanic to fix their car, or to buy a dining set hand crafted by a woodworker, they view paying for art as a waste of money. They believe artists ‘don’t do any real work’ and therefore are greedy or selfish if they expect payment for what they create. They refuse to acknowledge the expensive canvas and paper, the various tubes of paint or boxes of pencils you had to buy, the hours and hours you spent not only creating the art but also practicing your craft, so they think that no matter how big or detailed or beautiful your creation is, they should either get it for free or for no more than the cost of a takeaway meal. But refining your skills and having to cultivate the patience and discipline required to finish a painting or drawing is real work, and you deserve to be compensated for it.

All of this isn’t to say you should never give away your art – you may occasionally give someone a painting because you think it’ll appeal to them, or maybe draw a portrait of their pet for their birthday or Christmas. You may even reach an agreement with a friend or family to give them a piece of artwork in return for them giving something to or doing something for you (I have traded artwork for churros and hot chocolate). But you should never feel forced to give it away.

Though it’s easier said than done, learning to say “No” to people who want you to give them your art for nothing is one of the most important skills you can develop. Unfortunately I don’t have any advice for you to make this easier, but I hope that after reading this, you will at least know that you are not obligated to give your art away for free, and that you should not feel guilty about expecting payment for your work.

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