Freelancing: is it ever OK to work for free?

Sometimes, says Lizzie Mary Cullen, it’s absolutely fine! But most of the time it’s not

If someone puts a gun to your pet rabbit and says: “Do me a free drawing, or the bunny gets it”, then it’s okay to work for free. When I was starting out I did a job for an actor/musician. He has over a million Twitter followers, so it was pretty good in terms of exposure. I was proud of the work I did. However he’s a friend, and I’m not sure that I would have agreed if I didn’t know him.

There’s a key difference between doing stuff for free for yourself, and giving free shit to a massive corporate client. In 2010 I held my first solo show in aid of The Big Issue. I gave away all proceeds, because I wanted to. I didn’t approach another illustrator or artist and say, “Hey! Give me some free stuff to give away!” It was mine, and I wanted to do it.

If you’re approached about a job and it’s for charity, what every illustrator has to understand is that people working in charities get paid. All the employees, the printers who print the promotional material and the graphic designer who puts together the promotional material get paid. Everyone. Except, of course, a young illustrator who doesn’t know better.

In a situation where you’re asked to donate your skills for an entirely good cause, first make sure that everyone is working for free too and no-one’s making money from it. If that’s the case and you want to do it, just make sure you’re committed from the outset. This is your time you’re using, and a little job may turn into something huge that devours hours before you realise it.

Don’t do it just because you think it’ll be good for your rep or press file. We all know how it is: there will be changes and modifications to your artwork. If you’re doing it for a good cause, you’d better believe in it, or you’ll end up resenting the whole process. Plus you should never end up out of pocket: if you’re donating your hard-earned skills for free and paying your own expenses, then you’re a gibbon.

I’ve only been an illustrator for about three years. I’m still pretty green in many ways. But over the last year or so I’ve become a lot harder. I’ve worked for free in the past, but I’ve learned that you have to put a price on your skills – and keep to that price. If you don’t, your industry will suffer as a result, and in the end it’ll come back around and bite you in the ass.