A gift of art


Dear Artist,

A subscriber wrote, “Recently I’ve been asked for a painting as a wedding present, as a birthday present, and as a keepsake. Of course all these requests, while flattering, take time or cost money. What does one say? I recently asked my brother-in-law to pose for me while we chatted over a beer. He was disappointed when I told him I needed the sketches. Am I obligated to give him one? My colleague asked me to paint her portrait. Thinking she meant commission, I said I’d love to but she thought it would be my gift for her birthday. What does one do?”


“Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney” 1916
oil on canvas by
Robert Henri (1865-1929)

We all have great stories like yours to tell. One time an old friend became weirdly excited about a painting he saw in my studio. He pleaded poverty, said he had always wanted one, and begged me to give him this particular one. I did. A month or so later someone told me it was in an auction in another city. Fun, eh? Then there was the time a dear friend told her new neighbour that I did “quite good” portraits and would come around and do hers at the drop of a hat. The new neighbour phoned me and asked if I could pop by. She had never heard of me, of course, and I decided to explain my price structure as soon as I arrived. She was pretty as a picture in her silky negligee, but when I told her my prices she threw me out. I felt terrible. I was, it seems, living off the avails of art.


“Dutch Girl in White” 1907
oil on canvas 24 x 20 inches
by Robert Henri

The secret, I found, is to take your generosity into your own hands, control it, and make it life enhancing for as many others as is practical. Heartfelt gifts can take many forms: A memory of a great trip. A thank-you to someone. A surprise or a joke painting for a friend or the friend of a friend. A fundraiser, a birthday, an anniversary. A painting of someone you really want to paint. Looking back at all the paintings and drawings I’ve given away, it seems to me they have provided me with the most pleasure of all — even more than my regular and sacrosanct “flow.” Actually, when you think about it, an artist can be fully employed just throwing the free love around. Employed, but impoverished. But when you give a work of art, you collect a friend. Try to do it on your terms and in your own sweet time. There are times when we seem too busy to give, but the day comes, and friendship can’t wait. I look at it this way: I work pretty hard, yes, but painting comes relatively easily and is also my gift. I get the joy, they get the painting, we get the friendship.


“Café Bleu, St. Cloud” ca.1895-99
oil on panel 8.6 x 14.9 cm
by Robert Henri

Best regards,


PS: “Art is the giving by each man of his evidence to the world. Those who wish to give, love to give, discover the pleasure of giving. Those who give are tremendously strong.” (Robert Henri)

Esoterica: In the case of sketches that you’re going to need — give the originals and keep photocopies. The works you give tend to be a specialized group anyway — they actually stimulate and round out an artist’s capabilities, testing new subjects and taking you places that you might not otherwise go. In this sense they are part of the learning curve. Also, “Art karma” is so real and reliable that it could become its own religion. For every freebee out the door there’s another work of art that sends a paycheck. Sometimes within minutes. Try not to miss the opportunities to give.

This letter was originally published as “A gift of art” on August 26, 2005.


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else.” (Georgia O’Keeffe)



  1. Please note- that when your art work is very labor intensive- so labor intensive that there is far less of it than for most painters- giving it away becomes far more complicated. And some people who want gifts think that their lives and yours are similar. A local museum staffed by volunteers- who are volunteers BECAUSE they don’t have to work for a living- kept asking me for a donation they could auction off- to make money for them. I gave. And then I told them just how clueless and privileged they were because they didn’t have any concept of what my life was like. They stopped asking.

  2. When asked for a donation I say this is what the work sells for. Anything you sell it for over and above this price you may keep but the base price is firm and mine. Solves a lot of issues.

    • Thanks for this excellent solution to a tricky problem.

      I’ve tried to solve the charitable donation issue by offering to display my work at the silent auction table but the item is not the painting but a coupon worth 50% off the price of any painting in my studio. One advantage to this is that I get interested parties to visit my studio. The other is I receive an amount equivalent to a gallery sale.

      In practice, however, these sales are not satisfying nor do they tend to earn much $ for the organization. Silent auctions are mostly viewed as an opportunity to buy stuff at bargain prices and bidding rarely matches the value of the auction item. There’s nothing more dispiriting than showing serious work to a gleeful silent auction “winner.” I’d much prefer to write a check!

      But I believe your approach is much cleaner and more sensible. Reducing the value of our artwork doesn’t serve anyone. Maintaining that value allows me to write bigger checks and gives me the satisfaction of giving what I want and can afford to give.

  3. Right from childhood, my mind was conditioned that art is God given and selling it is bad karma, so i never pursued studies in Art, instead whatever i created, i gifted. for career to earn livelihood, chose different profession. But later on it became clear that there is nothing wrong to earn your bread and butter from selling paintings. But till today i love to gift my art to freinds and relatives.
    and have found out that anything given free looses its value in the eyes of the benificieries and they just dump our valuable creations in corner, which if sold can earn them thosands of rupees. so sometimes we lose our friends after gifting them our art.

    • Vasundhara Koppolu on

      Our responsibility ends with the act of giving. We have created a good deed and a good karma. What others do depending on their level of growth is their action and their responsibility. As they say when once the arrow is released we do not know where it hits. It is also true that we should be aware of the worthiness of the receiver. But for a giver it is such a joy always to share and let’s hope this feeling is treasured. Any kind of charity or giving is a noble action.

      • A quick story about giving. I once donated my entire art book collection (five large boxes full) to my old art group. My intention being that the group could add the collection to their library for the members to borrow and all enjoy. What actually occurred was quite the opposite, the books were put out as a free for all and consequently they disappeared into members private collections for good. I was miffed but learned the valuable lesson that once something is gifted we loose control of what happens next.

    • Gayatri Mehta I too have joyfully given a few paintings to friends and relatives over the years, when they have expressed a sincere desire. Painting for a cherished friend is truly a labor of love, and often the moments of creation, and the happiness of the recipient are ample reward.

      However, I too have found that a work without a price tag does often lack value in the eye of the beholder.
      More painfully, with the years, even dear friendships can be transitory for many reasons, leaving you clueless as to the fate of friend or gift. Taking good photos is a must for your records. As a plus… It may enable you to recognize your work at a yard sale. j/k ; )

  4. This essay is so timely and the sentiment expressed helps me tremendously. I have been thinking, in the recent past, that I am ready to give pieces of my art. The supportive thought is the “giving in my own time” part.
    I have been giving pieces to charity each year since I got back into painting but have felt the notion that I should not be expected to be paid for my work, by friends and family , is not a very friendly one.
    Thank you for sharing this.

  5. For many years, I made elaborate embroidered-and-appliqued waistcoats. There were two rules – you could not ask for one, if you did I never gave. And if you offered to pay I would refuse, too, as anyone who could afford one did not deserve it, and anyone who deserved one could not afford it. I made dozens of these, all with a lifetime guarantee. Almost all have been back now and again for repairs, all seem to have been treasured. The only one I ever sold was trashed.
    I prefer no payment to a paltry sum, but I am not inclined now to offer items for auctions, raffles, and tombolas, unless they are small and not very valuable. And sometimes a small amount makes the “buyer” appreciate an item more than than a free gift..

      • Marsha McDonald on

        I don’t get that either? Anyone with money who can pay your price, doesn’t deserve to own something of yours? That’s an interesting concept?!

      • Marsha McDonald on

        I don’t get that either? Anyone with money who can pay what you believe the art to be worth, doesn’t deserve to own something of yours? Hmmm……

  6. Michelle Nettleton on

    My friend taught me to paint when I was in my twenties. She painted for pleasure and gave her work away. She made other things that she sold. She explained the ins and outs of the value of ones work. Since then, I used my talent and energy to pay for my passions. In other words I needed to finance the many ‘hobbies’ I’ve enjoyed over the years. So, getting payed for my endeavours is normal and it all started with my friend’s advice, “People will value your paintings more if they have to pay for them.” From the very beginning I let all relatives and friends know that my work was for sale. At times, I’ve given paintings away as wedding presents etc. I’ve found that they that receive a gift are much more excited about it than I ever expected and that makes me happy.

  7. I love this article. I do like to get paid. Payment says, “I value your work enough to sacrifice for it”. That speaks more loudly than any compliments, which are always free and freely given. Although, I do appreciate the compliments and look forward to them. But I do give art away all the time when it makes me feel good to do so, or for strategic business and marketing purposes that I think, although risky, will expose my work to a larger audience. I also loan work so that I can get it back.

    When someone is willing to pose, I’ll take reference photos and ask them if I can use them in perpetuity, and I’ll give them a less expensive copy in return, I might even give them an original if they make a good model. In some cases, I’ll try to raise money for public art, or ask for help in raising money, at least enough for expenses. I’ll also barter and put requested pieces on layaway. Whenever I give something away gratis, I do so without any strings and they can sell it, give it away or generally do what they want with it, but if they ever decide they just want to throw it away, I ask them up front just to give it back to me.

    The key thing for me is to be kind to people while making sure that expectations are clearly understood (sometimes in writing). If something can’t work for me I won’t do it. But that has never happened. There always seems to be a mutually beneficial exchange of some kind to be made, even if only good karma in the circumstances that karma is needed.

  8. Thanks very much for sharing this.

    One thing I find is that you meet up with an old friend, and almost the first thing they say is “I still have that lovely painting you gave me.” (I usually have to be reminded of what it was though.)

    I enter an art show each year, and often the same person buys my little watercolour sailing ships. I met her once and she said “I love your paintings. I hang them all in the bathroom.” (So my paintings are hanging in the Loo, and not the Louvre; but one step at a time.)

  9. If you value your work then have a business plan and you can expect to be paid as any other professional does. Don’t waste valuable time feeling you are obliged to explain why you should get paid, Move on to a client who appreciates your work.

    • You are so right, Alison! Too often people think we’re ‘just playing’ or attending to a hobby, when in fact, we are serious professionals with something of value to be sold. An occasional gift or donation is one thing, but too often a neighbor or relative assumes if they ask for an original work it should be free. If one is in the business of art, this model won’t work! Would they expect their doctor, auto mechanic, carpenter etc. to provide free services? I believe in karma, but also need the funds.

    • Well stated. Any professional like an accountant or doctor or lawyer certainly expects payment, and we pay gladly as we understand their value.

      My sister artist and I have done trades and we proudly hang each other’s work on walls, any room but the loo works great to have lots of art in to enjoy and that art gets viewed a great deal.

      Still, my oil paintings take me a long time sometimes and I don’t want to part with them. To feel my art is valued and appreciated I like to get an award once in a while and a buyer is much valued to me.

  10. I have sold some of my oil paintings and I have given some to friends. Some of the painting that I sold I practically gave away. I have donated paintings. I was painting as many as 40 oil paintings a year and then about 4 years ago I got burned out stopped painting. That has been my MO in art. I get into a place where I will paint one after another for a few years. Then something in my soul leaves me and I can’t paint. If I try to force it the work will not fill that space where I can create art. So I stop painting. Then out of nowhere my soul make contact with my desire to create. At this time in my life I can feel that need to create coming back. It isn’t totally back but I have pulled out my easel and am going to start painting once again. I have an oil painting that I plan to do that I will be donating to a charity in London for children in September. I think it is that I have so many things that I have to do for other people that it sometime drains me. Any way I will be getting back into the studio soon.

  11. Everyone has contributed very valuable experiences. I consider myself a professional painter and keep a log of my hours, including reference searches, sketch preparation etc. For commissions I state a ballpark price which can be modified up or down as I progress which the client knows. About halfway I request a deposit after I have emailed the current image to the client for their approval. I make any changes or corrections they request. If I spend 50 hours to complete a piece, I consider my time worth $25 per hour and up, depending on the complexity, size, etc. That’s just an example of how I value my work. I do not donate original paintings, but will donate a professional print nicely matted and framed for a worthy cause. I am in a ‘downsizing’ mode at present and have given original paintings and prints to my family members. I have also given framed prints to special people whom I treasure who appreciate my work. As to silent auctions, even with a ‘minimum bid’ I have seen artwork sold for whatever …like a $400 piece with a $200 minimum go for $25 because no one bid on it. In that case, the artist should state they want it back if the minimum bid is not met. Again, the public needs to be educated about artists – as stated above – other professions do not donate their services, and artists should not be expected to either.

    • I donate at least to two favorite charities per year. Silent auctions are usually a disappointment!
      People expect bargains and don’t appreciate the value of original work. So this year I will put in the first bid on my donated piece and if the price stays at that bid I will gladly give them a check and get my work back.

  12. Give away your art if you want to but get covered for the framing at least then you can do another art work! I’ve been paid in art supplies to support my habit!

  13. So many average people think of art as a commodity they can purchase, like a piece of furniture. Even if they buy art from galleries, they don’t usually meet the artist behind the work. People often don’t know the time and sweat that goes into making the art piece. (Maybe that is why we so often hear the question, “how long did it take you to paint that?” which is a legitimate question.)
    So when I donate art to a worthy cause, it is usually a framed print, not an original. I am giving the cost of the frame, mostly, and happily. People who buy from silent auctions have never become my collectors or followers, even if I donated an expensive original.
    People who really appreciate my art are ones who have purchased it. I’m happy when they do, because I can keep painting!
    I have gifted a lot of art to family and close friends. When people truly appreciate the art, I see it in their homes.
    Gifting small prints has been a good way for me to get feedback on how people value the images, which has always been a mixed bag. I’ve learned not to give art to acquaintances (like as a wedding present or host gift) unless they have previous interest in my work, because those are the only instances I did not receive thank yous, and ended up feeling diminished. Art is so personal, and we have to protect our emotional attachments to our work. I have found other ways in life to give.

  14. Robert and Sara, Thank you and I have LOVED ThePainter’s Keys since 2014. Which brings the question of finding a
    post dated November 27, 2015 titled YourVisible Instincts List….I am painting with gray a lot and I copied it but only have the first page. I to am really struggling with mixing colors to make gray.My series “Gray Matters” may have to change…to “Mud Matters”Please advise. Thanks in advance


    • My advise is to mix greys only from complements like red and green etc to avoid mud. Gamblin makes some lovely shades of grey called Portland but I have not tried them.

  15. My art is usually done on canvas and the work has stacked up over the years. For every painting I’ve sold, I probably have three or four that just sit in the closet or the garage. The ones that have been stacking up, I give as gifts and the people I’ve given them to are appreciative of them. It makes me feel good to know my paintings are hanging on a wall in someone’s home giving them whatever pleasure they can derive from them rather than collecting dust. So what if they auction them off or sell them? The minute I let go of them, they have a life of their own. My time, my effort, my money all went into my paintings because I love to paint. No other reason. I didn’t set out to become rich off my talent and I would paint anyway even if I never sold a single canvas and I am materially poor. So why not give them away, barter them away, or sell them? After I’m done with them, they don’t hold any interest for me other than a record of what I’ve done. The ones that are records of events, happy memories, or I just love a lot, I keep for myself and my children.

  16. One solution an artist friend of mine had was to say, “I know because you admire my art you’d want to pay me more than I’m asking, and because I want to please you, I’d like to give it to you with a big discount. Therefore, why don’t we just agree on the price I have on it.” (or, something to that effect). Mainly I say if you want to buy more than one painting, I’ll give you a ..% discount.

  17. I do love Robert Henri! He was my idol for a long time, one of them. I too paint fast but not as fast as he did, nor as well. I always miss the paintings I sell but never the ones I give away. Usually give to fund- raisers. Or the kids. I think that some folks are being a bit bold to ask for one, as if it cost you nothing to make it. I mean the time, energy and the study and sometimes the framing. Especially if they know you are working that way for a living.

    One of my friends has given me a few studies. I am now embarrassed and need to curb my compliments since she will give it to you at the drop of a hat! And she is really good! First was a demo. I offered to buy it and she put it in a frame and mat and gave to me! Surprise! I still keep it on my wall.
    Donna Veeder

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