Painting for exposure


Dear Artist,

Recently, I received an email from an Italian contemporary furniture brand. Sandwiched between complimentary remarks about my work, they requested I send some paintings to Venice for an upcoming photo shoot. “We guarantee you a lot of visibility, your credit will be printed on the catalogue and we will share with you the hi res pics. Also we will tag you in every social media platform where your artworks will be.” They signed off by dangling the names of their photographer and stylist and telling me to let them know if I was “in.”

Pasture (1958) cotton, 394 x 356mm by Anni Albers (1899-1994)

Pasture (1958)
cotton, 39.4 x 35.6cm
by Anni Albers (1899-1994)

I thought about writing back to ask them to send over some Italian furniture for my own upcoming shoot. This idea only occurred to me because I was already, this week, flush with positive affirmations. Had the coffers been low, as they’ve been many, many times, I might have jumped at the chance to work for free. It turned out just to be a bad day for the furniture people.

Even if I feel a little bit guilty admitting this out loud, just between you and me, I’m currently in the business of selling my ideas. This job requires a diligence to decline the multitude of offers to paint for exposure. After 27 years of working only in art, I still encounter the daily task of saying, “No, thank you.” So deep are the beliefs of many of us regarding the nebulous value of what we do, saying “no” remains a bit of an effort. Enhancing, at my own expense, the look and feel of someone else’s advertising campaign would sound absurd to the average bean counter but to an artist, at times, this kind of perverted applause can be enough to keep us working for free.

Open Letter (1958) cotton, 57.8 x 60 cm by Anni Albers

Open Letter (1958)
cotton, 57.8 x 60 cm
by Anni Albers



PS: “I paid too much for it, but it’s worth it.” (Samuel Goldwyn)

“No one can figure out your worth but you.” (Pearl Bailey)

Esoterica: Matt Dowling, Chief Executive of the Freelancer Club in the United Kingdom, says that the culture of offering to pay creative people in experience, prestige and exposure is so endemic it has its own acronym (PIE – Payment In Exposure) and Twitter handle (@forexposure_txt). When asked about whether working for exposure leads to paid work, Matt says it directly leads to nothing. In my own experience, I’ve noticed that people value what they pay for, especially in the passion-driven world of creativity where exploitation is easy. Matt warns that young artists assume working for exposure is a rite of passage in getting established, but seasoned artists will attest to these requests never going away. “Only take unpaid work,” says Matt, “if it’s for your mum.”

“The only way to maintain, much less increase, the value of your services, time and genius is to insist on their value whenever it is in question.” (CEO and Forbes contributor Liz Ryan)

Anni Albers in her weaving studio at the Black Mountain College (1937)The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“There’s no scarcity of opportunity to make a living at what you love. There is only a scarcity of resolve to make it happen.” (Dr. Wayne Dyer)



  1. I so loved this…particularly the mention of having them send you furniture. It reminded me of something your dad would say . Thanks for reminding us of our worth much appreciated!

  2. James Pannabecker on

    Musicians face the same choice, “exposure” in exchange for free performance. And those who rely on music to meet their bills often resent free offerings by musicians who don’t need the money. Perhaps artists (and musicians) who don’t need the money owe it to their dependent colleagues to decline the “exposure” offerings?

  3. Dear Sara,

    Thank you for sharing your path with us. This letter, along with many others, hit home. How do I valuate what at times is sheer joyful play and I think the real quandary, a window into my spirit? The quotes are brilliant, thank you for your work putting these gems together.

    Wishing you and all ( Robert too :) a lovely day and weekend.

  4. I think I might have counter offered with a rental fee and proposed that they pay shipping both ways. It reinforces the fact that there is value in what you do to all parties.

  5. The practice of PIE is rampant in the fashion industry. So many young wanna-be designers get caught in this sneaky trap, spending many sleepless nights sewing gowns for celebrities who practice this type of exploitation daily. They are under the mistaken impression that instant fame is theirs with Instagram hits. Reflecting the belief of the ignorant that if if you love to create you will do it for free.

  6. As an interesting counterpoint, when you look beyond the surface story/s of “Instagram Star blazes new path making millions online,” it often is because of a (free) placement of their art in a photo by an “influencer.” That actually works. If Brad Pitt buys your painting and puts it over his new alcohol-free liquor cabinet and tags you on Instagram it can change your life. Brad, I’m waiting! Over here!

  7. And yet national and international brands pay thousands, of no millions, of dollars to Hollywood to have their products used in movies. It’s called product placement and it is expensive. I don’t think Samsung and Harley Davidson even consider self-esteem when it comes to profit.

  8. The Other Side of Art (and Music)

    Music is my therapy. I try to play something every day, going back and forth between the guitar and voice, and the violin or viola. I think I’m searching for a wavelength, because I’ve been on it before, and I know how good it feels.

    There has been a lot of research on the healing power of music, but my experience has been more personal. When everything is in order, and the music comes effortlessly, it has the same effect as a soft breeze blowing through the air, releasing the tension that otherwise comes with the normal routines of the day. I have no idea what it sounds like to other people when I play, but that’s not the point; it’s more like a need to pull back from the chaos and chatter that surrounds us, and retreat into the comfort of listening to the sounds that rise and fall out of the silence that surrounds me. Peace and solitude are at once both a necessity and an objective, and the two seem to go hand-in-hand. That is not to say I don’t enjoy playing with other people, or getting up in front of an audience, it’s just that in my alone time, there is something about music that gets me through each day without getting lost in my otherwise confusing life.

    The same is true of art. I probably divide my time equally between picking up an instrument, and picking up a paint brush, but the effect is much the same. In painting, there is nothing to listen to but my own thoughts. I occasionally put on music, but I think I prefer silence. Like music, there is something to be found simply by listening, but what I’m listening to are my own thoughts. Sometimes I think the only distinction is that painting is more of a mental activity, and music is more emotional or visceral. Those are feelings coming out of me when I play, and decisions I’ve made when I paint. Whether or not they lead to greater exposure, or sales, almost seems irrelevant when I think of the personal reward from simply doing them.

  9. Hello, Sara. Thank you for this amusing recap of an unsuccessful sales pitch. I’m working myself up to say the n word at the moment and appreciate your affirmation of its value!

  10. John Francis on

    “I thought about writing back to ask them to send over some Italian furniture for my own upcoming shoot.” Terrific, Sara. This possible response to their request reminds me of my favorite episode of The Goon Show on BBC which featured Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan. In this episode, one of them is kidnapped and a ransom note is delivered with a photo of the captive. The Goons respond by sending the kidnappers a photo of the ransom money……

  11. Yup Sara,
    Great article!
    (Please send me contact info for the furniture company. I could use some new furniture. And would glad to expose it to my living room for free! They can even pay for shipping…lol)

  12. Betsy Glass on

    Dear Sara, Thank you for yet another great letter. What is my worth? Rubies…or rubles? What’s the painting worth? The canvas and the paint. How long did it take you? All my life. I laughed at your brilliant response to their request. You know the right thing to say! Best, Betsy

    • I have been waned by a travel company, making 1000 pieces of hand painted, silk screen scarves for marketing to travel agents in a travel show, and I got sucked into this project with the idea that this project is a great exposure for me, that was 20 years ago when I was not mature enough to say”NO, THANK YOU.” Live and learn.
      When can we learn to say No.
      Thank you for your message each week.

  13. Thank you for enlightening me as a new commer to selling my art and learning about my worth. Greatly appreciated.

  14. Thank you for this. Yes, it also reminds me of how your Dad might have responded! He had such a great sense of humor. I look forward to your letters every week.

  15. Thanks for this, and all of your terrific letters Sara. This one really hit home. I recall all too well that in my youth I would have leaped to take an offer like this ( though you can be sure it would be more on the lines of a paint-it-yourself line of furniture in the hinterlands). In the intervening years, I have not seen anyone in any profession or craft who has offered their services, purely for prestige and exposure.
    I don’t know why it is so hard for US to gain that level of worth, but your reminder is one I won’t forget.

  16. I enjoy reading your weekly articles Sara. I had similar offers from other countries and I never replied to any of them, I sometime wonder if I missed a great opportunity to expose my art or, I did the right thing not to respond. “

  17. Right on Sara! Scams are so prevalent that sometimes I think I should cancel my e–mail subscription but then my inner self says why should you punish yourself that way when pressing delete is so easy and final! Love your letters Sara!

  18. sad but true; that most people think nothing of putting down cash on junk, but can’t pay the artist, who’s art they just raved about! it really has taken the wind out of my creative enthusiasm.

  19. Great post as always, Sara, thank you- and , many creative ways to solve this “problem” SKIP VAN LENTEN thank you for your words, too… I too feel this way, only for me it’s painting gardening cooking. If the magical combination added “walking on a beach” walking to the beach…walking without the disruption of road dust and traffic…
    that’s my best version of my artistic life. … happy creating to you all…..(enjoyed your art work, too) and ALLAN O’MARRA , thanks for the laugh out loud! :) Nailed it! (I also enjoyed your work)

  20. This reminds me of the many years I did commercial art. A non-profit or some small mom-and-pop would want an inexpensive illustration for a one-time flyer. Later I’d find my design had been used for a logo or re-purposed in some other way for years. It’s a sad commentary when written contracts are needed for even the most minor jobs, when verbal contracts have gone the way of horse and buggy. I resist getting into politics over this, but there’s the reality of people in power giving the example that anything goes when the goal is winning.

  21. I certainly participated in this PIE and also in undervaluing my work to sell— in my first couple years. Thank you for this solid reminder that to do so can hurt all artists.

  22. While it was a compliment to you that the photo stylist was considering how your work would fit in to a nice furniture ad, it was pretty inconsiderate of you and your art and life effort. We don’t want our work to be a back drop to someone else’s business campaign. When we awake and go to the easel, what artist would say, let’s paint us a great back drop today so someone out there might somehow find and notice this piece?

    We need to stay true to our work and it’s value to us, like wise Pearl Bailey said, above.
    Blessings to you, Sara. Good reminders to us all.

  23. I recently was approached with a pitch to lend a painting to a successful realtor in Venice, CA for a marketing letter . Her agent called it a “collaboration” repeatedly, assuring me that many very wealthy people would see my name on the bottom and leap at the chance to throw money at me. She was very persistent and so was I in calmly telling her I needed to be paid a licensing fee. My usual rate would’ve been $150. I was so peeved at her attitude that when she relented, I charged 250. Sweet irony. She wasn’t even spending her own money.

    Some day, when asked to do this, I may deliver a rehearsed speech: “When you go to the doctor/mechanic/plumber and get the bill, do you call up and say, ‘Instead of paying this bill, I’d like to have you give your service for free, and in exchange I’ll tell everyone I know what a great doctor/etc you are!’ ”

    Thank you for this letter, Sara. It’s very to the point. All artists should Just Say No.

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Featured Workshop

Andrew Gifford: Plein-air oil and acrylic workshop at Marouatte Castle, France
July 27, 2019 to August 2, 2019


Learn the secrets of landscape and cityscapes from master UK painter Andrew Gifford, color mixes, techniques of layering and glazing different brushes and palette knives to priming and grounding boards. He will demonstrate how to paint from an early sketch to the final piece in the many stunning locals of the region = all while you live in a genuine castle and eat like royalty. 


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Robert Genn (1936-2014)

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Robert’s technique includes a tradition of strong design with patterns of color and form, with a pervasive sense of personal style. Grand themes are transposed onto small panels and larger canvases in a manner similar to members of the Group of Seven. Most of Robert’s work is in acrylic. He has also done considerable work in oils, watercolour, and silk screen printing.


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