Yesterday, Mary Jean Mailloux of Oakville, Ontario, 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?”
Thanks, Mary Jean. 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.
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.
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.
Exchange of value needed
by Lou Glist, Houston, TX, USA
My view of this subject is that, for some reason, because an artist who has achieved a certain level of skill, the production of his work appears easy to do, and not with significant effort. His viewer seldom sees the years of consummate effort that goes into making an “easy” painting. Having the ability to do portraiture seems to bring out the “gimme” in those bargain-hunting interested parties.
This was brought home early to me when I was asked to do a portrait-caricature of a retiring employee. The person requesting the favor, not expecting to pay me for the job, was waxing enthusiastically about how they were going to get it framed and then presented. When I asked what they were going to pay for the picture frame, they questioned my question. A few words later, I told them that my work was not free and, although I was not intent on retiring from the fee I would charge, I did tell them that I expected them to pay me by collecting from each of the individuals who liked the caricature idea as much as they wished to give, but it had to be something. Value needs to be exchanged. That approach was established and it cleared the air for future requests. Isn’t there an old adage that says, “When we pay for something, we are really gaining something of value. And when something is free, less value is attributed to the gift and the giftor.”?
I’m not adverse to price reductions to friends. True friends know you are expected to charge for your work, for even they prefer to exchange value for value received.
‘Starving’ artist gives lots away
by Nakona Macdonald, Santa Cruz, California, USA
I myself am a “starving” artist, by choice in that most of my output is work which I choose to do, without thought of sale. This is by no means something which I am supremely proud of; most of the time I feel selfish, petty, self-aggrandizing, and poor. I do, however, give lots of my work away, as I have many poor friends such as myself, who cannot afford “art,” just as I can barely afford to keep making art. So I find it fitting, though I sometimes feel taken advantage of, or at least taken for granted. And yet what is visual art for if not for an appreciating viewer, regardless of monetary designs? Certainly this viewer could be the self, or a well-heeled buyer, but it is often a person without means to “buy” the beauty, or truth they see. I think a fundamental of art is that beauty and/or truth is rarely for sale, though we try and commodify it above all else. Look at our marketing methods. Attempts at “beauty” (perhaps a well-dressed beautiful woman) coupled with “truth” (she tells you how great this shampoo truly is). I think we have an obligation to try and increase the availability of beauty and truth, not merely enter the marketplace. In any case, thanks for giving away and encouraging art. If we hold too tight, we squeeze the life from our efforts.
Galleries prevent gifting?
by David Dunlap
I enjoyed reading A Gift of Art. I have always enjoyed giving away paintings to friends and family as Christmas or Birthday presents, housewarming presents, even as a thank you. However, now that I am being represented by a gallery, I am being told by other artists that I have to be careful and that I really no longer have the freedom to just give my work away anymore. Is there any way that you can please clear this up for me and advise what the proper protocol is?
(RG note) Thanks, David. The art of giving art is our business. Galleries don’t own us. We own ourselves. Let your light shine in your community and among your friends.
by Sigrid, Tampa, FL, USA
The biggest thrill I’ve had since I went “professional” is contributing originals (and more often framed giclees) to all my favorite charities for silent auctions. Last year I saw over $5000 go to worthy causes, which is far more than I could ever afford to donate. I am doubly blessed by giving (a contribution) and receiving (appreciation) at the same time.
Also, I have learned to be very cautious about art gifts to friends. When I explained to one relative that the “little” painting she wanted for her birthday was the time equivalent of mowing her lawn for a year, she was shocked. Most people mean to compliment us by asking for our work, but they have no frame of reference for the creative process. Our art may not be pearls before swine, but too often it’s fine jewelry in front of the cracker jack crowd.
by Barbara MacDougall, Paris, Ontario, Canada
With reference to A Gift of Art, I have a clear and much-stated policy that I will give a friend or family member one drawing outright, after which they pay the asking price, no discounts, for any subsequent pieces. Discounts cheapen my work in their eyes and the bottom line is they shortchange me. Birthday or Christmas gift hints are acted upon at my discretion. Additionally, absolutely no one gets anything for free at a show. Number one, shows cost big bucks to put on. Number two, if nothing else, during a show is most assuredly not the time for friends and family to wheedle, beg or snivel for a freebie — or for me to give away an artwork to someone within the hearing of potential paying customers. That’s really bad business practice. (And something people might remember when they’re haggling with a shopkeeper/vendor here or in a foreign market. Discounts are most often happily negotiated when there’s no one else within hearing.)
Art gift traumas
by Carla Sanders, Hope, ME, USA
Today’s Letter is cause to rethink giving art. I love the idea of art karma. It feels a much more exuberant flow. Thanks for the new fun ways of thinking about giving art. I have had my share of art gift traumas, such as the lithograph given joyfully in appreciation, and then I found it tossed in the trash. The gift that I have never seen in the home… regifted, hidden, yard sold? I have learned to make sure the person on my receiving list cares about art, and likes what I do. If not, then I make them jam, or a cake, or buy a gift certificate.
Never given paintings away
by JMJ Jahn, Denmark
Your letter made me think, now what’s wrong with me? I have never given any of my paintings away, never. Well, I did give my Grandmother one, when I was 16, and 1 or 2 sketches to models that asked for them in Art School. Otherwise, never. For friends and relatives I give deep discounts or trade stuff. A camera they no longer use for a small painting lets say. I’m not selfish, I just let friends and family know that this is my profession and paintings are my product. How many would ask their friend the accountant to do their taxes for free, just out of friendship? Once your friends and family know where you stand on the subject then they are fine. Also artists are plagued by businesses and other locations to exhibit for free. I never do that (now). They need to agree to a certain amount of purchase, first. The ’60s are over and things need to be handled in a rather more professional way by artists in general. Also I never use my paintings as gifts. Somehow that seems wrong to me. I buy a gift, maybe someone else’s painting, but never one of my own. If I gave one of my own paintings and found like you did, that the gift was not wanted, then how does that reflect on the friendship? Best to keep all things separate. Less misunderstanding and more respect for one another.
Gifting under strain
by Dar Hosta, Flemington, NJ, USA
I am often asked to donate art or design and, like Mary Jean, sometimes feel overwhelmed by the amount of “free work” I accept. But, giving, or gifting, is very political to the artist’s career and I would agree with Robert that it is almost always ultimately positive. We cannot, however, give it all away. As they say, who wants the cow when they can get the milk for free? Here are some ways that I have learned to manage the gifting of art in my career:
1. Gift to friends when it feels comfortable and appropriate (a birthday, wedding, etc.), but then decide on a special “friends and family” discount that you will apply to other situations.
2. On the occasions that your list of other deadlines is too hectic to create an art gift, give a handmade “raincheck” card and disguise it as the receiver’s opportunity to discuss their particular color and theme directly with the artist at some future time after the event (i.e., “When you return from your honeymoon, let’s meet to discuss your personal piece of art work…”).
3. Barter! Everyone has something to give and many fine crafters I know are expert at this, trading things like pottery for jewelry. (My local area even has an “Art Swap” night before the winter holidays that is like a party for artists to trade with each other, thereby collecting special gifts for each other’s holiday lists.) But maybe, that friend of yours who loves your work, but “can’t afford it” has a husband who is an accountant and will do your returns for you next year in return for your painting.
4. When donating to organizations, pick only a handful that you generously support — perhaps that have some personal meaning to you — and then ask them to give you appropriate notice, especially if it is a yearly event, for the finished work. I participate annually in an auction for a foundation in which a good friend and fellow artist is both a sufferer of the disease and an organizational leader for their fundraisers. This year, I have been given 7 months notice, which should be plenty of time for me to get something ready.
5. If you absolutely can’t gift or donate an original, offer to donate a custom-framed limited edition reproduction. Many people don’t mind having a print because it is the image they are most interested in. As they say, beggars can’t be choosers!
6. Give until it hurts… but don’t let it hurt too much. Sometimes our bank accounts must guide us as to what to do. If your work schedule simply cannot be rearranged, or your finances cannot accommodate the material costs for free work at any given time, find a way to gently say no. Friends generally understand.
7. Give a miniature or an older piece. Free art doesn’t have to be the biggest and newest piece in your studio.
Ironically, I’d be willing to bet there are a lot of artists like me who often think, conversely, “I wonder if this person really wants a/another piece of my art as a gift…?”
“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” (Sir Winston Churchill)
by Dale Ducillo, Fairfield, CT, USA
I have as yet not sold a painting, but I have given away 6 or so to family and friends. Most people were appreciative, but two experiences ruffled my feathers a bit. I painted a watercolour of a friend’s house before she was obliged to build an addition for her ailing parents and take out a beautiful picture window. My art teacher at the time thought it was one of my best pieces to date. When I gave it to my friend, she said, “Oh that’s very nice,” and promply put it aside. I was truly underwhelmed by her response. A little gushing would have been nice. I recently visited a different friend and saw the watercolour I painted for her hanging in her back stairway, which is seldom used or seen by anyone. I suppose I should be grateful it’s hanging up at all, but it still hurts a bit. Do you think it’s just another example of being a highly sensitive person?
Where do you draw the line?
by Gilda Pontbriand
I love this sentence in your last letter and I wish it would be true for me: “I get the joy, they get the painting, we get the friendship.” Unfortunately, in real life it would read like this: “I get the joy, they get the painting; but if they don’t get all they want, you can kiss the friendship good-bye.” I have always enjoyed helping people and sharing my art so I have been helping fundraising events and friends for many years. This year, however, things went out of control when in just one week I got 3 calls. A friend doing a fundraising event wanted 50% of all the work I would sell during 2005 on top of the painting I had already donated. A magazine wanted to use one of my paintings for the cover and wanted not only the photographs of the painting, but the painting itself to keep. And last but not least, a “friend” who opened a restaurant and asked me to hang 14 paintings for the opening ceremony kept them there for over a year (as free decoration) and wanted to keep them for good. According to her, she was doing me a favour as it was very good for me to have the exposure. She would not give them back to me unless I paid her rent for using the walls for over a year (unbelievable!).
I agreed to share the 50% because it is to help leukemia research, I said no to giving my painting to the magazine and I had to call the police to get my paintings back from the restaurant. I ended up with two enemies out of three “friends” — I guess it is just another learning experience. I am still participating in another 4 fundraising events this year. Where do you draw the line?
Selling a painting feels good too
by Fay Lee, NH, USA
I give paintings on an occasional basis, such as Christmas, birthdays and weddings. I’m always interested in who gets the wedding gift painting should there be a split. I do this because I want to but there is an upside to giving as the painting is hanging in someone’s home, or office, and whoever comes to see that person will see it.
In visiting my doctor, when he found that I was an artist, he took me on a tour around his office and pointed out paintings which his patients had given him. I took this as a hint that I should, also, give him a painting but I just didn’t feel that I should do so as I really didn’t know him that well and felt that he could very well afford to buy one of my paintings. Then one day, after I had been his patient for over fifteen years, I was the featured artist at a gallery and he came in and bought one of my paintings. Yes, giving feels good, if it’s something that I want to do, but selling a painting feels good, too, because you know that someone likes a painting enough that they will pay for it.
Wouldn’t it be ‘loverly’?
by Cheryl Kline, Pacific Palisades, CA, USA
I can’t disagree with you more! Everyone has a gift. The salesman has the gift of gab, the model has the gift of beauty and we artists have our gift. My lawyer friends would never think of giving me a free contract negotiation… but they used to ask for free art. My realtor friends would never think of waiving their 6% commission but you guessed it… they used to ask for free art. Until I pointed out the fact that this is my business. Yes, I love my art, I’m passionate about it but the bottom line is that it has to pay the bills. I am not a kept painter and if my work doesn’t sell, I don’t pay my house, car, etc., or eat. I think it is arrogant for anyone to assume that we artists (who are usually at the bottom of the food chain) should give away our creations.
My gift of being an artist is not more important or more valuable than the gift my brainy investor friends have, and in a perfect world wouldn’t it be “loverly” if we could all just share our gifts for free?
Pleasure of giving
by Elaine Kimmelman
I couldn’t agree with you more about the pleasure of giving. I have gifted many of my paintings to my family and friends and feel we have all benefited. I receive feedback from mutual friends who see my work on someone else’s wall and many times are surprised that I paint. Since I have seven children living around the USA my paintings are shared with many.
Burned several times
by Karen Martin Sampson
Reading about the poor woman who has friends and family expecting to be given work was an immediate recognition of my own life. I used to give away virtually everything when I was young and pleased that people wanted my stuff. As I got a bit older, while in art school, a friend of my mother’s asked to buy a painting and when I asked $10 she thought it too much and refused! One man “commissioned” me to do a series of illustrations for a children’s book he was writing and walked away with my paintings and I haven’t heard from him from that day to this! (My parents tried to track him down to no avail). I was burned several times and even relatives who supposedly love me have often tried to get my work for free. They seem to feel that if you love your work and have fun doing it then it isn’t really “work” and therefore not subject to a fee. Even now that I am pretty established and receive decent prices for my work (I am now primarily a portrait painter) I get surprises. Last year a couple saw me work at an outdoor show and commissioned a portrait and I arranged a date to go over to their house. When I got there, all set with my portfolio and camera and lights the guy invited me in, sat me down and told me they couldn’t commission the portrait after all because it was an unusually hot summer and they decided to get central air conditioning instead! They hadn’t even thought to call me to save me the trip. (I didn’t express any dismay or annoyance, although I felt plenty… you never know, they might decide they can afford the portrait next year!)
I have and still do give away work when the spirit hits and it seems the right thing to do and that karma always comes back. Once, while I was a free-lance illustrator, a woman who had given me lots of work was having financial problems in her design business and, it being Christmas, I completed a job for her and when she picked it up I just said, “No charge; Merry Christmas.” She was stunned and grateful and later got back on her feet. I got some good jobs other places after that.
Art is to conceal the Art
by R. Kralik
You are correct in saying one should take control of one’s work and generosity. Mary Jean Mailloux of Oakville probably treats her work as though it is “just” a hobby. If art is her profession, then she would be able to state that her work is not free and due recompense is warranted either in funds, favours or barter. The simple query, “What do I get for my efforts?” makes people realize that your work has value. It is different if you choose to donate to a charity, which is better than paying for advertising, or if you choose to give a work to someone, which also has magnificent ripple effects.
When asked about my work, I respond with a few pointed questions of my own which immediately indicate the potential depth and scope of such an undertaking. It not only blows away the uninterested seekers of something for nothing, but educates them in the value and significance of my work. As a result, people who were casually uncommitted are bitten with a passion for a project because they finally undersand the process of commissioning work.
Commissioning a work requires close collaboration of patron and artist. They must develop what was once a dream, an idea, into tangible reality; in the process an intoxicating synergy is unleashed. I’ve had patrons who returned annually with ideas to discuss with me; they reveled in the process that eventually gave birth to a work of art. For the patron, the satisfaction is in transforming the cerebral into the concrete. For the artist, it’s the thrill of venturing into unknown territory, to fathom foreign notions, interpret rationale and produce something dear to a person’s heart. It’s something that goes down in history; something that is treasured for its essence. Neither could have done it alone.
So the artist’s attitude to his/her own work is the start. Once you can view the significance of your work in the “grand picture”, monetary, historic or artistic value is more easily perceived. Even though you might complete a work “effortlessly” in moments, it may have taken a lifetime of study and practice to do so. Remember the Latin: Ars Est Celare Artem: the Art is to Conceal the Art.
Serendipity of choices
by Mary Timme, CO, USA
I loved what you had to say in the Esoterica section of the current letter, about making photocopies and giving away the originals. It made such sense it was a slap-to-the-forehead moment followed by the “Duh! Why didn’t I think of that? What a dumb bunny. Scheesh, Mary, it isn’t rocket science!” sort of reaction. But it pointed up, for me at least, the serendipity of “choices.” That same day I’d gotten in the mail my ‘free’ prize from another artist that I’d ordered some ‘product’ from — it really enhanced my Xmas giving by being a whole gift in itself — and another ‘freebie’ of a sterling charm because I’d ordered during the time she calls happy hour. Great to receive. Of course the next thing I got in email wasn’t what I’d wanted, a polite turn down from a gallery, but it was part of the day, and in previous emails they’d warned me this could be the case of they didn’t think we were a ‘fit.’ Perspective is everything as I’m writing this and listening to Beethoven’s Rage Over Lost Penny.
When I give something I’ve done to a friend, I make sure they know what is going on and that I can enter the item into shows for a two-year time and include the work in my portfolio as being in the private collection of… If someone asks me to teach something and I don’t know them from Adam, I immediately tell them my charge for instruction per hour. When I give people something I’ve done it always profits me in some way, not always monetarily at the moment, but as something wonderful in the future or in someone else interested in my work. And what a great ‘double’ payment when someone comes up and says, “I bought… and I love it!” or even better, “Do you have something similar I could buy?” What could be better? I’ve always found that the people I least expect are the most appreciative and those who I thought were friends are the ones who twist the knife they’ve inserted in my back. I think it is the way of the world. Don’t get upset about it any more than you have to, just keep on keeping on.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.
That includes Norma Laming, who wrote, “I have had artist “friends” in the past who tried to make me believe that if an artist gave any art away no one would ever take that artist seriously, and so the artist would never sell any art. I still gave away what I wanted, but felt uncomfortable about it. Now, I’ll give and feel Great about it!”
And also Sybil Mitchell, who wrote, “We are all asked again and again to donate artwork… many people use artists to help raise money. Several times a year I am asked to donate paintings. I have set a limit of two donated paintings a year (for me, that’s two weeks of my time/income plus framing cost). When organizations have received my limit I smilingly explain my policy. I know of no other group of people, except possibly the very wealthy, donating two weeks income.”
And also Colin McCabe, who wrote, “I have no regrets donating my paintings to organizations for fund raising. It bolsters my ego to think that my art is good enough to use for that purpose. Of course I have to agree with the philosophy and objectives of the group. My art has become known to a wider clientele and new sales have resulted. Of course as a retired pensioner, I do not depend on my art for a livelihood.”
And also Dorit Pittman, New Orleans, who wrote, “My father once told me that if you give away a painting such as a donation to a fundraiser (or as a way to promote yourself), always give your best. My tendency when asked for a donation was to give away a “dog” but when you think about it if you have a ready-made audience you had better give your best.”
And also Jeanne A. Smith, who wrote, “I think that we do have to take control of our lives and check in with ourselves every time someone requests a piece of our work. It has to be whatever works within our own schedules etc., etc. However, I do believe that the more we give, the more we get. There is a great Power that runs this Universe and when we are in the “flow” of that Power, both mentally and emotionally, then all that we give comes back to us multiplied; our work is Joy and Life gets a whole lot easier.”