Exposure Isn’t Payment

After receiving yet another request on Instagram for a free pet portrait–oh wait! Sorry, I meant a “pet portrait in exchange for exposure”–I felt like writing a post to vent a little. Maybe this post will make some of you laugh. Maybe some of you are fellow creatives and will nod sympathetically. And maybe this will be a teaching moment for others.

First and foremost: Exposure is not a form of payment!

Now louder for the people in the back…


Yeah there are always exceptions to the rule and I’ll get around to that, but first I’d like to discuss how often I get emails, Etsy messages, Facebook messages and Instagram messages proposing that I exchange a customized piece of artwork for limited exposure to a group of entities (often comprised of fake accounts, bots and other paid followers).


This is what I’d consider the $1 scratch-off lottery ticket of cheap advertising. The cost of creating and mailing one pet portrait is minimal compared to paying for a month-long advertising campaign on a popular pet-themed website. But one is almost a guaranteed increase in revenue and valid exposure to real customers and the other is just another crumpled up losing lottery ticket.

The other day I had someone like a pet portrait post and follow my business account on Instagram. Then they sent me a message asking me to paint their bunny. I already had a suspicion that they had no intention of paying me, but responded professionally with the usual information, requesting their preference for customizable options, giving current turnaround times and listing the sizes and prices for my portraits.

Big shock. They didn’t want to pay. After all, their bunny had his own Instagram account (existing for almost a whopping month) and was therefore important enough to warrant free products.

The individual refused to make a purchase and promptly unfollowed my Instagram account. And let that be a lesson to me for expecting someone who’s shown interest in my product to pay for it like a common customer.

Never Stay Dead

What “Exposure” Really Means

People wanting original artwork in exchange for exposure don’t so much slide into my DMs as swagger, because I sort of envision all of them as these plastic, selfie-stick waving, brand name brandishing, pseudo-influencers that know, deep down, that 87% of their followers are not valid accounts and were enrolled to artificially inflate their numbers.

Image result for the fake instagram account

That makes their claims of “massive exposure” seem so much more tempting. I mean, hey, they have 5,000 followers right? Surely that’ll amount to a sale or two.

But it won’t.

After you provide them with that free product, they’re writing your name on a slip of paper and dropping it in an auditorium filled with cardboard cutouts of the Kardashians and half-inflated, waving-arm tube men from used car lots.

Exposure to fake accounts doesn’t result in sales.

The Oatmeal

Knowing that the promised exposure is extremely unlikely to produce any business, that means that these people are not actually requesting a free painting. They are in fact asking me to pay them for the opportunity to bask in their dubious “popularity,” because making art IS NOT FREE.

The most obvious expenses are in production: paint, paintbrushes, paper, ink. I also need shipping material to get the art out: protective sleeve, rigid mailer, shipping label, do-not-bend stickers. Shipping itself costs money because, like all other businesses, the US Post Office doesn’t work for free. Let’s not forget the overhead needed to be in business: internet, work space, lighting, heating, water. Also all of the things I need to survive and function day to day: housing, food, clothing, transportation. Oh and let’s not forget time. Many people who work for a living are paid an hourly wage. With that concept in mind, I like to think that my time spent invested in creating a product is worth financial reimbursement. I know… I know… what a radical concept.


Keeping all of those expenses–both tangible and intangible–in mind, the exchange of products for exposure looks more and more like a scam. And the people offering the exposure know this. But it’s so much easier and more attractive for them to generously offer their bountiful harvest of prospective clients (just clamoring for the opportunity to throw all of the monies at me) in exchange for just one simple custom piece of art than to be blatantly honest in their exchange:

Hey, I think your art is cool and I want some, but I don’t want to pay for it because I’m an entitled asshole and I don’t value your time or effort. I’m also going to take this moment to remind you that you should be grateful for the opportunity to get your name out there even though I have no reason to believe that you aren’t already successful based on your talent.

TTYS – Someone of Absolute No Importance

But It Will Help Your Portfolio!

It never ceases to amaze me how none of the people who contact me for free work bother to do any research first. There are two kinds of customers that reach out:

The Real Customer: Wow! Your work is amazing. You must be so busy. I’d love to have a piece. Can you give me information on your prices and turnaround time?

The Un-Customer: You’re an artist, so you must be poor and desperate. I’ll take pity on you, but just this once. Don’t get used to this kind of special treatment, sweetheart.

Some un-customers claim that I’ll get “free promotion” through their social networks if I provide my services to them gratis. But, again, making art isn’t free. So that just demonstrates their lack of forethought and consideration.

Other un-customers really love repeating the phrase that they’ve obviously heard before: This will be a great addition to your portfolio!

Look, Becky, rather than telling me how to do my job and how to increase my customer traffic with your air-headed suggestions, why don’t you take 30 blessed seconds to look at my website and realize that my portfolio is bursting. I have painted over 2,500 custom pet portraits. But please, do educate me on why I need to paint your nondescript Yorkie for free as an opportunity to grow my business.

Honestly I despise how many scammers assume that every artist is struggling. And based on that assumption, they target us as easy to exploit. The nature of artists is desperation in the scammers’ eyes.

The problem is that many artists who are just beginning to sell their work are a little lost as to how they should promote themselves and are genuinely looking for opportunities to showcase their talents to potential customers. If you are one of these artists, don’t fall for the scammers. You will give away all of your art and be left with empty promises of exposure that lead to nothing. Do extensive research before offering free services!

Don’t Work for Someone Who Doesn’t Value Your Effort

I get a lot of repeat customers. That’s awesome. It’s validation that my work is appreciated. I also get a lot of referrals. Someone’s friend or family member got a painting done and now I’ve generated 3 new customers from that one happy customer.

That’s what real exposure looks like. Actual paying customers who are pleased with their purchase and share their happiness with others.

If someone wants to trade your hard work for a shout-out on a social media platform, that person doesn’t value your work. They don’t think your talent and effort warrant equal compensation. And if they don’t think your work is worth the price that you charge, then why would their followers?

Likes don’t amount to sales. They might indicate engagement on a post, but there’s a very big step between double-tapping a photo and actually clicking on a link, going to a website, contacting the artist, negotiating terms and completing a sale.

One of my all-time favorites was this guy who asked if I might like to paint his dog in exchange for a mention on his blog. He was very impressive with his presentation, offering to provide analytics on his blog’s followers and reputation. Then I opened his blog just to get a feel for it.

Wow, Chad, congrats on quitting veganism. I found your last post delightfully littered with misspellings and unnecessarily confrontational. But, hey, it got 7 likes and of the 2 bloggers who commented, only 1 attacked your post. And you did respond to her very angrily, which shows that you have spirit. Well, by golly, you’ve got yourself a deal! Because if a pissed off ex-vegan can’t sell my artwork on his floundering blog, I just don’t know who can!

If someone really likes your work, they will pay you for it, whether or not they intend to share it with their friends, family and/or followers. End of story.

It’s Not Free, It’s a Donation!

I get three types of donation requests:

Legitimate: About 10-15 nonprofit organizations (typically animal shelters or rescues) reach out to me each year asking for a donation. These requests are personalized and are coming from someone who took the time to look at my shop and see what I sell before requesting a specific item. They generally are for auction-type fundraisers and are tax-deductible. I occasionally donate art to these requests.

Legitimate but Impersonal: Sometimes the nonprofits that reach out to me are just sending me a pre-formatted letter. They’re generically asking for an “item” or “product” to raise money for their cause. I typically don’t respond to these because it’s so impersonal.

Not Legitimate: People that want free art know that asking for “free art” sounds tactless. You know what sounds much better? “Donated Art.” Though it’s funny how often my “donation” is not going to a charitable cause and is therefore not tax-deductible. In fact, the “donation” seems to just be a painting of that person’s dog for personal use. Although sometimes the “donation” request comes with a description of the worthwhile fundraiser it’s being donated to.

I’m very sorry to disappoint you, Becky, but I won’t be donating a custom painting to be auctioned off to raise money for your 19-year-old sister to go on a detox luxury cruise so she can find herself. Best of luck, though.

The Exceptions

I mentioned it earlier, but yes, there are totally exceptions to all of this. Sometimes the exposure being offered is legitimate enough that it’s worth a little free work on your end.

I’m not talking about the imbeciles that send you Instagram messages. I’m talking about non-douchey offers from established, professional entities that can definitely benefit your business.

For example, not too long ago, a writer from BarkPost contacted me asking if I wanted to be included in their article featuring 9 Etsy pet artists. A lot of dog owners are familiar with BarkBox and since I had contacted them years prior to get an estimate for a monthly ad being run on their site (and found it to be WAY out of my price range), I jumped at the opportunity. So, in this case, I painted a free pet portrait for real exposure. And yes, it definitely resulted in sales.

If you’re looking for legitimate exposure, make sure that the partnership is mutually beneficial. Use companies or organizations that have some level of recognition so that you know you’re going to be seen. Don’t let some nobody act like you owe them something and don’t let anyone make you believe that your work and your skills aren’t worth payment.

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One thought on “Exposure Isn’t Payment

  1. Charlee: “Our dada says that as soon as he started reading this he was thinking of that Oatmeal cartoon. And then there it was.”
    Chaplin: “I wish I could just think about oatmeal and then it would appear.”
    Charlee: “Why would you want oatmeal?”
    Chaplin: “Well I don’t. But if it works for oatmeal, it would work for cat food too, right?”

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