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Artist Perspectives: Spec Work

March 1, 2010

Over the weekend, I invited artists in the EFII Community to share their experiences with spec work in the Spec Work Confessional.

I was really happy to see a lot of artists step up and talk about their views and the ways that their particular stories affected how they approach the idea of working on spec.  With such a variety of responses to the question, I thought I’d highlight 5 of them here in case you missed the Weekend Forum.

Melanie Matthews:  A small local publisher found my work through my graduating class’s exhibition last year. Since then I’ve done some work for them on spec, sketches, roughs, colour character designs. I was a student when this all started so I didn’t know nearly as much about how the industry works as I do now. However, I wasn’t stupid, I knew that this was a reputable company, not some joe schmoe I’ve never heard of before.

If I had 10 years experience in the industry, of course they wouldn’t have asked me for this work. It bothers me a bit sometimes, as I feel my portfolio is proof enough of the quality of my work.  Today, I’m awaiting a contract from them to do a full children’s picture book. So it’s gotten somewhere.

At the end of the day it’s best to use your judgement, if the ‘client’ seems like a dirty scumbag who doesn’t want to pay you, then he/she probably is. I’d never do free work, ever, unless I thought it would truly be worth my while. In my case I’d met the clients in person several times, and I got advice from teachers and others about doing the work for them.

Kiriko Moth:  Spec work can have a very broad definition, depending on who you ask…

I have on occasion done free or extremely cheap jobs for non-profits, either because the organization or job itself interested me. One of those turned out to be really good exposure, locally.

I sometimes enter contests or challenges online, one of those netted me a job with one of my ‘dream’ clients. I’ve started submitting work to places like Threadless, which I also think of as a contest. (Though I’m very wary of contests that automatically claim the rights to all submitted entries – even those that lose! Don’t enter those!)

I sometimes do free jobs for good friends. Like good friends who work for extremely popular blogs that get more daily views than my website ever will. I actually approached THEM about doing the work for free the first time, and now I’m getting paid.

I don’t think all spec work is automatically evil. You have to know the spiel and you have to know what you’re getting into so that you can make an informed decision. And if doing low/unpaid work isn’t right for you, it isn’t right for you.

Eamon O’Donoghue:  About six years ago I got wind that my favourite TV show as a child was getting a DVD release. So I just started draw hat I would think would make for a good cover. I sent it off to the distributor and a few days later, I got to call that I will be doing the DVD covers to He-man and the Masters of the Universe. Off the back of that I then go asked to do Dungeons & Dragons and then Ulysses 31. Before I knew it I quickly became the DVD cover guy and I continue to do so with last week finishing off the lated Iron Man DVD Boxset for Marvel.

Not wanting to get tied down to one thing I turned my attention to pinups. So as He-man worked out so well for me. I decided to draw She-Ra and I put a lot of work on to her. I sent her off and I am now doing pinups on a regular basis for various companies and I just started working on Barbie for Mattel.

I can safely say that I am living proof of doing speculative work gets you work!

Kelly Dyson:  I’ve learned the hard way that the only real option when offered spec work is to turn it down, but even now I’m still tempted when I am having a quiet spell. I cringe when I look back to think how naive I was when I started out. I remember one particular occasion when a design agency in Manchester called me to ask if I would be interested in coming up with illustrations for some kind of events calender for a Jewish organisation. I went as far as brainstorming a few pages of ideas plus six or seven detailed roughs, and even ended up taking all of these and presenting them at the the design firm with a few guys sat around a table. I was under the impression that they were hiring me to do the work – but it became apparent that I was pitching for the job and there were other illustrator doing the same thing. I’ll never do that again I can tell you. Never even put pencil to paper until you have an agreement in writing, or you at least have a good level of mutual trust with the client.

Nowadays I’d much rather work on my own prints, posters or tshirts or whatever. It keeps me busy and keeps my website updated with new work.

PixelBoy:  Large ad agencies do “spec work” all time when pitching a presentation to a potential client. Usually, there’s a handful of agencies fighting for the new account and they will spend tens of thousands on their presentations. There’s no guarantee for the agency…and I’ve actually seen the winning ad agency steel concepts from the other pitches. Typically, this is an obtainable, reputable client for the agency.

As a single person entity or small business, most of us can’t take those risks. I’ve always been a risk-taker but I’ve also, made some mistakes along the way–especially with spec work. A good portion of my evil-doers are uneducated business people trying to create a children’s book or a new product. In reality, they’re looking for “anyone” to do the job for free. I’ve learned to talk about money upfront. I even have PDF sheets that I bounce to them explaining the process that I follow and possible price ranges. This saves me time.

I had a guy call me once to do character concepts for a Saturday morning cartoon project that he was pitching to a major network. The man had great connections and had been in the industry for many years. Of course, he wanted the artwork for free. After the big pitch, I never heard from him again. Uggh. But on the same hand I’ve done work for a small company at what I call “presentation costs”–lower than usual–AND it turned into a great paying two-year and still going project.

Thanks again to everyone who participated in the discussion over the weekend.  Be sure to check out the websites of the artists above to find out more about them!

What’s your experience with spec work?  Please share your thoughts in the comments section of this post.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 1, 2010 4:14 PM

    Thanks for giving us this opportunity to speak up–apparently we’ve been waiting for it.~Bernadette

  2. March 3, 2010 12:32 PM

    Spec is just wrong, because the word spreads and now everyone wants your work for free as much as possible. Big and small companies. Ad Agencies pitch all the time, true, but when they get a project they earn an incredible amount of money. If a client wants to see what are you capable of they should just refer to your portfolio. I have heard so many times “Well, you draw cats very well, but I need to see if you can draw dogs. Can you do one?” Please!
    And most of the fashion magazines and websites do it as a rule. For a certain very expensive magazine, collaborators (photographers or illustrators) have to do a 6 pages editorial with the given theme. And maybe, if they like the work, it will be featured. No money for you. It’s quite a relevant magazine, but I find it unffair, it´s expensive to buy and it has lots of adds. This happens with many many many mags. Another very hip mag asked for only 2 pages done “exclusively for them”, and if the editor fancies the images “maybe” it will be featured. They always said they “had to do the same”, or they “don’t make money with the mag”. I wonder how the industry survives, then, and how magically one day someone started paying them, honestly.

    Same with lots of competitions. You do a special work, one or a series, and if you are selected you will have the possibility of being featured in their fantastic book if you pay like £100 for the page space. Or even worst, your work will just be featured in their website. I certainly got lots of advertising by winning competitions, and lots of visits in my website. But, how many jobs? Did I earn more than the money invested? I know like 3 big annuals that work like this.

    I am still in my first 5 years of fighting to be an illustrator, but if I have to work for free there are two simple rules:
    1- I have to be certain that the work will be published, in paper, nationwide. Not in a website.
    2- I only do the work I want to do to have something worth showing. No money? well, give me fun then.
    What bothers me a lot is that you are not told this at uni, and on top universities often make good business out of making you pay incredibly expensive fees for a course that is not always all that it promises….
    …Certainly, is anyone surprised everyone keeps asking illustrators to work for free?? People say “Hey, there are hundreds of artists starving out there, why paying them if we can get the work for free?” we are the silly cows here. Everyone is taking money out of us!
    The small company doesn’t pay because they don’t have money.
    The big company doesn’t pay because you have the privilege and opportunity to be featured by them.
    Is your plumber fixing your toilet for free? No! Well, try to sell a mag of black text over white background. Let see how it rocks. Oh, wow, is not selling? What I do happens to be really useful? Increases sales? Makes you look glam? wow, so it actually IS necessary. Like a toilet! ha.

  3. March 3, 2010 12:33 PM

  4. March 3, 2010 11:04 PM

    Adrianacolourpiano: You should never HAVE to work for free, don’t think of being printed or having fun as payment. My personal rule about free work is that it’s always my CHOICE to do it – and therefore my own fault if I do get burned.

    Just because I will do a volunteer job for a non-profit (one of my past clients is a local org that helps victims of domestic violence) doesn’t mean that the for-profit company next door is entitled to free work from me. If they have the gall to act so entitled I’d probably tell them go screw themselves.
    It’s like donating money to charity. Just because you donated to the Red Cross, does Pepsi-Co come knocking at your door looking for a handout? If they did, would you write them a check or slam the door in their face?

    I don’t do unpaid work that random strangers approach me with. If I have some extra time, I’ll go to an organization I’m interested in supporting and offer my services. If I see a want ad from a non-profit looking for help and I’m really interested and have time, I’ll offer. If there’s a contest that interests me and the terms are fair (ie: I keep ALL my rights and they can’t use the work unless I get paid) I might enter.

    Good friends and established clients who bring me offers of volunteer work will be considered, but not someone I’ve never met or heard of emailing or calling me out of the blue. That’s almost always an immediate no.

  5. March 4, 2010 4:38 AM

    Hi Kiriko Moth,
    Thanks for your comment. I know I shouldn’t, I know I am being a bit hypocritical by following my 2 rules… I should not do it at all. Just saying that when free work is the rule, well… it’s difficult. Really these 2 rules I was told in a talk at college, and I found them useful.

    I graduated from my Master in Illustration in June 2008. I did some paid work, but that is rare. I have done free work for big websites, and now for a nationally printed magazine. That is it. I will not do Spec Work any longer. And I don’t care if Vogue themselves ask me to do something, if it is for free, I won’t.

    It surprises me that most of the people talking here is saying that doing spec is not that bad and can lead you to get work. Why not telling that to a banker? or a lawyer?

    • March 4, 2010 2:03 PM


      There are different types of spec work, keep that in mind. Vogue is not going to email you and ask you to do free work – they are a legitimate paying market, and they aren’t going to hurt their own reputation by trying to cheat you!

      Lawyers do free work, it’s called ‘pro bono’ – that’s when they offer their services to someone who is legitimately in need but cannot pay – not someone who wants to make a quick buck off of their kindness and naivete.

      Technically, ‘spec’ work should be limited to describe work that is done on speculation ie: someone brings you a job and says they’ll pay IF they make money off your work. Or maybe they’ll pay for the next job. You should NEVER take a job like that.

      On the other hand, going into business for yourself, you’ll do this all time. You draw a picture and make prints and hope that it will sell and make money. It’s spec work, but you’re working for yourself. Or you might partner with a pal, or group of pals and do the same thing.

      We tend to use the term to describe any job that doesn’t pay, or is only for promotion, which isn’t quite right. If you go into a job knowing it doesn’t and will never pay, it isn’t really speculative, it’s flat out volunteer or pro bono work, and you need a reason to be doing the work for free. Is it for a cause you believe in? Is it for a friend who will do something for you in trade? Will it drive 10,000 new people to your website and get you few more print sales?

  6. March 4, 2010 12:30 PM

    I’m a bit late to the party, but I think there is decided difference between spec work and pitching an unsolicited idea, as described above by Eamon. In the latter your chances of getting paid or benefitting from “exposure” are significantly higher.

    In the case of pitching an unsolicited idea, your work is at least going to be seen by some one in a position to hire you. In a way this falls more in line with promoting yourself. They may have no interest or use for your idea, but at least you end up on their radar.

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