Sunday, October 26, 2014

The World of Free - How Can Freelance Artists Survive in Modern Digital Media? Garrett Gilchrist Explains

Freelance artists, especially those just starting out, often feel like everyone wants stuff done for free. Unpaid internships, free work "to get your name out there", or payment deferred "until the project gets financed" - such are the perils of the modern digital economy. Garrett Gilchrist has been working as an independent artist, writer and filmmaker for twenty years, and is best known for his "Recobbled Cut" of Richard Williams' unfinished animated feature The Thief and the Cobbler. In this interview he talks about what is wrong with modern digital media, how the "World of Free" came about - and what can be done about it.

Illustration by Garrett Gilchrist. "From 'Heart of Earth,' by Mark Laporta,"

FLiP: Increasingly, freelancers are being asked to do work for free. When should artists work for free, and on what terms?

GG: Whether it's unpaid internships or spec work, any industry will take advantage of the young. They're full of energy and ready to learn. It's called "paying your dues." Anyone entering the workforce will have to deal with being exploited to an extent while you're learning a trade.

You can multiply that exponentially if you're an artist, or in any creative field - writer, actor, filmmaker, animator, singer, and so on. I will simply say "artist." Employers know that artists want to do what they love, and would happily do it for free if they didn't need to support themselves. Employers will take advantage of that. So will friends and acquaintances. Don't fall for it.

The "job" of an unpaid intern is unfairly weighted toward those who can afford to work for free. Those who come from money, or still have a strong support system via their family and/or college. It's an opportunity to learn, network and prove yourself, but if you're a working adult with marketable skills, not to mention bills and responsibilities, you shouldn't be expected to work for free.

Yes, there are circumstances under which it's acceptable to work for free. Creating art is a constant learning experience. You want to always be getting better and building your portfolio, and it's certain that you're doing your own original work, for which you're not being paid. You could learn by doing the sort of work you'd be doing anyway, for the benefit of someone else. You also want to be building your career and meeting people. But if you don't value your own work enough to demand to be paid what you deserve, no one else will value your work either. And any company that's established enough to provide you with connections and experience is established enough to pay you a working wage.

Artwork by Garrett Gilchrist

FLiP: What is wrong with the market - why are artists under so much pressure?

GG: My graduating class in 2004 left college to enter a working economy that had tanked entirely. Graduates couldn't expect a job or a living wage. Things have improved only somewhat since then. This has been a tough decade for just about everyone. And that affects the working artist quite a bit. Art is a luxury, not a necessity. If people don't have the money to buy merchandise just for fun, an artist won't do well at a convention, and won't have the money to go to the next one. If artists are trying to make a living by doing commissioned art, their immediate social circle might love their work and want to commission them, but not have the money to pay for it - not before paying for their own basic necessities first. That drives artists to set their prices lower and lower, and work harder and harder.

The work of an artist is routinely undervalued. This is highly skilled work which takes at least ten years of practice. I've had twenty. And yet like many artists I still have to fight for every dollar, and am continually paid well under minimum wage for my work. Some of that is my own fault. Like many artists I set my prices low and spend a lot of time on every piece, to the point where I might be getting paid $120 for 60 hours of work, or $2 per hour. And yet my prices for a finished piece are still far lower than others I see advertising on social media. I often see working professionals advertising that they will deliver finished work for $10, $20, $30, $50, or even for nearly-worthless social media "points." It's a race to the bottom. I am also doing my own, unpaid work on the side about half the time, and working - when I can - on my larger career goals. It's a recipe for disaster.

Artwork by Garrett Gilchrist

FLiP: Do you see the market improving for freelancers - or are things getting worse?

GG: An artist working today has been dealt a bad hand, but you play the cards you're given. People will always want art and entertainment - in a lot of ways it's a recession-proof industry. Yes, the individual artist suffers as the economy suffers, but that only means you need to change your approach and find the audiences and employers who are already looking to buy what you're selling.

As an artist today, you are competing for work and attention against the entire internet - that is, every other artist in the world. People browsing your work will see and appreciate that beautiful piece you spent a week or a month creating. But they'll appreciate it for a few seconds before moving on to something else. When you advertise that you're available for work, and set your prices, there may be "famous" names from decades past who are setting their prices at the same rate or lower. Even so, you need to have the confidence to get the paycheck you deserve.

Although we compete for attention, we aren't really in competition with one another - the success of one artist does not take away the success of another. Take jealousy out of your toolbox, except to the extent that it motivates you. Even in an economy like this, this is a world of abundance and there is a ridiculous amount of money out there for you to claim if you stand up and be as good as you can be.

There is a lot of truth to the stereotype that artists are sensitive types who don't stand up for themselves, and don't demand the sort of life they deserve. So many artists struggle with anxiety and the ghosts of their past, and think of themselves as damaged goods. I know so many talented people who live in fear and doubt, while the talentless march forward in full confidence. That inner critic - the voice that says, you're not good enough - can be very helpful when creating art. It's the voice that pushes you to do better, to keep learning and growing. But that voice can also stop artists in their tracks. Without realizing it, we internalize a lot of abusive voices - every employer or critic or friend or family member who ever made us feel like a failure. We laugh it off and ignore how much these moments really hurt us. But when it comes time to ask that we be paid what we deserve, we make ourselves small and settle for less.

Maybe it's to avoid a confrontation. Maybe it's because the person paying us doesn't seem to have much money either. But most of all it's because deep down, we don't feel like we deserve it.

Stop. Stop this. You know what your work is worth, you know how much time you spend on it, and you know what sort of money you need to survive. Too many artists think of themselves as children. If you're out of college, there is no parent, no larger force who's going to help you or stop you. You are an adult in charge of your own life, and you are building a cage for yourself based on your own limited view of what you can accomplish in life.

Artists who set their prices too low aren't likely to find themselves more in demand because of it. They'll attract children and cheapskates who don't value the work that the artist is doing. They will work hard for far less money than they deserve, and their work will suffer as their living situation gets more precarious.

While artists on social media undervalue themselves, in the world of the one percent there is always a demand for decorative art. Simple, minimalist pieces sell for thousands at the low end. It's interesting how this art world is almost entirely separate from the artists working on social media. And if you're doing artwork connected to a major film, television, game or music release, you can be assured that everyone else connected to that project is getting their paycheck, and you should too.

Artwork by Garrett Gilchrist

FLiP: What can freelance artists do to make sure they don't get exploited?

GG: Demand what you deserve. The world of a freelance artist is extremely precarious. I've had so many situations where clients refused to pay, or vanished without a word. I've worked for months to get paid what a "normal" job would pay me in a day. I've been lied to, lied about, manipulated, gaslighted, trolled, threatened and harassed. While the vast majority of my clients have been patient and lovely, the ones who won't be are tough to spot.

You'd be surprised at how apparently normal people can turn on you when there's a few dollars involved. Or even when you just become a threat to their egoes. People make up their own reality, and spin wild tales with no relation to the truth - in which they end up the victor, and you the mug. And yes, it's often the projects which pay the least which will give you the most stress and pain. So set the prices you deserve and act like you deserve it. Ask for the full amount up front, or half up front at least. If they can't pay you up front, they probably won't pay you when you're finished, either.

Get it in writing. Have a standard contract, and get the client to sign it before undertaking any major project. In those contracts, specify that you have the copyright to this piece of work and will only surrender that copyright when paid in full to your satisfaction. Put watermarks on your work, or only share low-resolution versions, and don't share the full-resolution, finished piece until you've been paid in full. Keep track of every hour you work, with a simple stopwatch application. Get paid for those hours. If they want changes, get paid for every hour and every change.

Follow your gut. Work for people who understand and appreciate what you're doing. Even if the pay is good, if something feels wrong about working with someone, walk away.

It's a stereotype, but people who aren't artists often don't understand or appreciate the amount of work that goes into creating a piece of art. Find a client who understands that what you're doing isn't easy, and takes time and skill. Find a client who likes what you're doing. It's hard to tell what client will nitpick a piece to death and demand a thousand changes, but there are always warning signs. Do they send a dozen emails and freak out if you don't get back to them immediately? Do they see you as a different sort of artist than you see yourself? Do they praise you for things which took no effort, and attack you for good work you spent ages on?

Be wary of people who want you to do a huge amount of work and then put their own name on it. Be wary of writers who would have you illustrate an entire comic book for a low rate, or create a lengthy animation. There are a lot of small talents with large egoes. It doesn't take much time for someone to write a comic book or an animated piece which would take an artist months to complete. Would you be doing all the work, but still be seen as a smaller part of the process? Steer clear.

Find clients who have taste, and who ask for good work. Find clients who respect the artist, and are willing to pay you for every hour you work.

Artwork by Garrett Gilchrist

FLiP: What advice would you offer to young freelancers hoping to break into creative media?

GG: This is a job, and you are your own boss. No one is going to help you, or stop you from helping or hurting yourself.

Being an artist is a full-time job. An artist will think nothing of working twelve or sixteen-hour days, and fail to take into account that this is hard work that takes a physical toll. The artist gets exhausted, and will take naps and goof off and be unproductive, yet still have little or no social life. This is a recipe for a depressing life, especially when artists are primed to focus on their failures, and how unproductive they've been, rather than celebrate their successes, and how much they're learning and growing.

Artists can and should manage their time better. Five hours of productive work in a day should be considered a real success - and you'll find that those twelve or sixteen hour days only result in about five hours of real, productive work. Don't forget that there's more to life, and that no matter how rough things are financially, you have to look at the bigger picture of your life and career, rather than just live day to day for the next little job. What are your larger goals? How can you put time into moving toward those goals today? If you focus carefully on working five productive hours every day, you'll have more time to take care of yourself - your health, your fitness, your larger goals, your social circle, and your happiness.

You are your own best friend and worst enemy, and you need to get serious about this and think about this as a job. Be kind to yourself. Be a mentor to yourself. Be a boss to yourself. Manage your time intelligently. Unplug the internet. Get five hours of productive work done every day. Work regular hours. And then stop.

Be active. Be physical. Eat well. Sleep well. Love well. Get out of the house and do things. Take care of yourself first and foremost.

Love yourself. Love yourself first. Be proud of the work you do, and of how you're learning and growing. Be realistic about your own skills and what you need to improve at. Always be learning, and working on the things you're not good at, so that you can get better. Challenge yourself. Do it the hard way. Remember you're not competing with anyone but yourself. All you need to be is a better artist than you were last year - and I'm sure you are.

Believe that you deserve this. You're imagining your life a certain way. You know what you think you're capable of. Push harder than that. Try for a better job, a higher goal. Challenge the limits of what you believe is possible.

Remember that you have friends. Remember that you are not alone. Dedicate a few hours every day to those friends of yours. Let them know what they mean to you. If they're artists, let them know what their work means to you. The online world can be very isolating, and artists naturally seek to get attention and praise as a reward for their hard work. But getting recognition - and yes, fame - as an artist is a slow climb. You need to seek your happiness elsewhere first and foremost. A few likes on Facebook and Tumblr won't fill that emptiness if there's nothing else going on in your life.

You don't always have to go it alone. You can join forces with other people and create something larger and better than you could create on your own.

Artwork by Garrett Gilchrist

Doing fanart doesn't get you all that far. It can get you a lot of views and interest - within a particular fandom. But that interest doesn't tend to carry over to your work on other subjects. Fandoms don't need you - other artists will be coming along to do the same sort of stuff for a fandom hungry for content. It's about the thing they're a fan of; they're not fans of you. Doing fanart is good for exposure - if all you want to do is fanart. The artists who do best in fandoms are producing work constantly, and not being perfectionist about it. You also don't learn a lot by copying the style of something else. In a year you'll probably wake up and wish you'd done more work on your own projects, or work which had more variety in it. Instead you'll have work which was only intended for one audience, and might be unsuitable for your portfolio in general.

It's easy to feel that you're not catching a break. That "it's all about who you know" and that you don't "know" anybody. But a more accurate version of that statement would be that it's all about who knows you, and thinks you're good at what you do.

It's easy to feel that no one is watching. I assure you that is not the case. When you create work on the internet these days, there are always a lot more eyes on you than you think. They see your work, and they keep on scrolling - until you do work which really means something. Something more than just a pretty picture. When you're really ready, those eyes - and those friends of yours - will be there to support you. And you should be there to support them. You get much farther, much quicker, being interested in other people than in trying to get them interested in you.

Alternate paid work with your own work. Do the work that's most important to you, because people can tell the difference. Do the sort of work that drives you, that defines you. If you're expecting your work to be valued simply on its technical quality, well, there are lots of artists with a strong technical ability. There will always be artists who are better than you at some things, but there is no one better at being you. Think about the larger meaning behind your work. Do good work, yes, but do good work that could mean something to people. Do work that could help and inspire. It has to be about more than you. If the message is only, "look at how good an artist I am," that's a pretty thin message, and a pretty thin way to be living your life.

Have you noticed that you'll happily do free work when you're doing it on your own terms? When it means something to you? When it reflects an exploration of your own art style and worldview, or reflects how you grew up, or has a sentimental meaning to you beyond that?

It's easy, when you're not making much money, to be scared into submission. If you haven't paid your bills there's a metaphorical gun to your head that causes you to think only in small, short-term solutions. But you need to be looking at the larger picture of your life. There are seven days in the week, and "someday" is not one of them. If you've worked your five hours in a day, you can still be working toward a larger goal.

Artwork by Garrett Gilchrist

If you're scared, if a worst-case scenario is running through your head, it can help to really examine that scenario and ask, "what's the worst that could happen?" Let's say you weren't able to find work this month. You weren't able to pay rent. Would you be homeless on the street? Probably not. Probably, there's a friend somewhere who could take you in and help you out. Maybe you could borrow some money from someone, and get back on your feet, and keep looking for work. That's a setback, yes, but it's not a nightmare. Your worst fears of failure may not really be the end of the world. Realizing that can take a lot of stress and pressure off, and lead you to make smarter big-picture decisions. People will respect you more as an artist when you do the bolder, more personal work you really want to do. As Benjamin Disraeli said, "Life is too short to be small." And there are big opportunities out there if you have the confidence to look for them. Make time to do that.

Focus on your revenue streams. What are you actually doing to get your name out there and make money? Many small sources of income can add up to genuine financial security. Think of things you can do today that could make you some amount of money with your own work. Make the time to contact people about your larger goals.

Pay very close attention to how you're branding and presenting yourself, on social media and your own website, if you have one. Decide how you want to be seen and sharpen that image. Be yourself, but also be the best version of yourself you can be. Be confident about your talents and what you can do for people. Every post you make on social media is an opportunity, and people are watching. You are talented, and have a service you can provide as an artist. You need to present your talents so that people notice them at a glance, and understand your work in the way you'd want to be understood. Present yourself so that when people are looking for an artist, you're the first person they think of. Keep your embarrassing moments private. You can be real, you can be honest, but be careful. The world is watching.

I'm struggling myself. I certainly don't have all the answers. Every piece of advice I've given here is one I've broken in my own life. But every day is a chance to start again. Every time we fall down the mountain, we learn something about how to get up again. I would tell you "don't give up," but if you're an artist you couldn't give up if you tried. So I'll simply say, good luck.

You can see more of Garrett's artwork and projects at

No comments:

Post a Comment