Picking Your Projects and When to Work for Free

Posted: September 15, 2016 in books, Thoughts on art ministry and life
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YOURENOTCOVERAn excerpt from my book “You’re Not Creative, and Other Lies You Probably Believe About Creativity. Coming soon.

Part of all of this (picking projects) is picking the right opportunities. One thing you will find, especially if your dream is in the arts is there are a lot of people who will want you to do things for exposure, and no pay. Some creatives are against this completely. They point out, rightfully so, that you would never ask your doctor, your mechanic, etc. to do what they do for free in exchange for al the exposure you can give them. This is absolutely true, but I would also respectfully point out, that your doctor not only worked for free for a number of years, he paid tens of thousands of dollars for the opportunity. It’s called an internship. I’m not saying you have to be an intern, or that you have to work for free, but some experiences are worth their weight in gold. How many professional actors spent years working for free in community theater? How many writers give away tons of their work on blogs and other venues for the sole purpose of building they skills? I know this one has published thousands of posts for no other purpose than to help people and perfect my craft. The point is, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with working for free sometimes if it will help you gain the experience you need to get paid.

You should however have some guidelines:
Will this project help someone who needs help? The key word in this sentence is needs. Is this a real need or is the person trying to get something for nothing. If it’s just someone who wants something for nothing, I would avoid the project, to do anything else just supports bad behavior. As a rule, those who can pay should pay. One of the best ways I have found to get these projects is to volunteer. Look for a cause you believe in and offer your services. Look for someone who could use what you do and offer to do a project just to show them what you can do. Volunteer for your church or civic group, a community theater. Look for a genuine need and fill it, then record what you have done, and use that as evidence of professional experience when looking for paying work.

Do it for yourself. I create thousands of pieces of art for free. Well they’re not really free, they’re work I’ve done on my own projects. I’ve illustrated books, written books, designed t-shirts and other products and put them out there for the world to see. To this point most of them have not generated tons of sales, but I have a huge body of work to show to potential clients and they have fulfilled my need to create. They are also out there constantly generating some residual income. I love these kinds of projects, because they have to potential to sell 24 hours a day seven days a week in perpetuity and they also help me to improve my craft.

Will I be proud to have someone else see this. For a long period of time early in my career, I did quite a bit of work for a licensee of the Ninja Turtles. It was a blast but economically probably not the best choice and the client was really unpredictable. I made a lot of mistakes in this assignment because I had stars in my eyes and figured this would be the client to make me rich and famous. Nonetheless to this day, no one can take away from me that I once worked on art related to this amazing property, it’s especially great to reference when I work with groups of children and young people, not to mention people who loved the Turtles when they were young. In the long run, the experience was highly beneficial.

There was another time though, that could have been hugely detrimental. I was flat broke and struggling when I got a call. The company wanted a cartoonist to design a computer screen saver. The payout would have been $10,000. Needless to say I went on the interview. When I arrived at the company, the first thing I noticed were a lot of nude photographs on the walls. As it turned out the project was to draw 1,000 pornographic cartoons. I would love to tell you that I turned them down flat and walked out of there with my head held high. The truth is I left there trying to rationalize a way that I could take the project on without violating my principles. The bottom line was I really needed the money. I thank God (quite literally) every time I think about that project that my wife and my faith won the day and I did not take the project. Had I taken it, the money would have been spent long ago, but there would still be a pornographic project out there with my name on it, and I would be ashamed of it, not to mention it would be detrimental to what I am doing now. You can bounce back from a bad project but in this type of work, it can always come back to haunt you. Choose your projects wisely. Some things are worth more than money.

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