The compensation question

Artists get asked for free work constantly. Only do it if you want to support the organization, because there’s no business advantage for you.
Glade, by Carol L. Douglas, watercolor on Yupo.

Where are you in this story?

When I first started working as a photographer, I was doing so many jobs for free. Nobody would pay me, but they’d offer dinner. Or drinks. Or publicity. Or experience. Or connections. Or insight. Even though I felt like my work was worth more, I never thought I was in a position to negotiate. I’d become so small when discussing compensation. I’d shrink. I needed everyone to like me. I assumed that if people liked me, they’d respect me. They’d treat me with dignity. They’d value my work. And they’d eventually pay me for it. But instead—they kept asking me back without pay. I think it’s so hard for creators to get out of that cycle, but my mom gave me the best line to use: ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t afford to do that for free.’ I still do free gigs, but only on my terms. Only if they provide value beyond a person’s gratitude. I’m never aggressive or mean. But I’m clear. I’m not sure what I’m worth to them. But I know what I’m worth to myself. And I want it put in writing. I’m still nice about it. I’m still polite. But I’m more dominant. Well, maybe not dominant. Actually, I will say dominant. You can still be dominant and nice.” (Humans of New York)
Every creator has found themselves running through this arc. Photographers and musicians get asked to perform for free, and painters get asked to donate work for fundraisers. It’s a great way to help the world, but it delivers absolutely no business advantage to you.
Glen Cove, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvas
If I like the organization, I’ll still send a painting, but I’ve also noticed that unless the organization is arts-based, my work often sells for a fraction of its real value. The non-art audience thinks they’re buying the equivalent of décor, and bids accordingly.
For several years, I sent a customized piece to a fisheries-conservation group I really like. My donations consistently sold for about a tenth of their open-market value. Finally, I realized I could help more efficiently by just sending a check.
The Dugs, Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard
That’s especially true because of an anomaly in our tax code. My cash donation is completely deductible; my painting donation is not. If I were to donate a painting by another artist, I could take a deduction (with certain limitations), but not for my own work. So, never donate work thinking you’re getting a tax deduction, because you’re not.
At the beginning of our careers, we usually don’t know how much our work is worth. The donation-auction can help create some kind of selling history. But setting your prices based on charity auction prices will keep them artificially low. You’re better off to set them using a repeatable formula.
Adirondack Spring, Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard. This is going to be auctioned to support the Gerhardt Neighborhood Outreach Center in Rochester, NY, on October 17.
Having said all that, I have a piece going up for auction to support the Gerhardt Neighborhood Outreach Center in Rochester, NY on October 17. This group provides a medical clinic, help with new babies, holiday baskets and backpacks for kids, transitional housing for women, counseling, vocational training, and a food pantry in one of the city’s bleaker neighborhoods. I’m happy to send them a painting, because I care about their work. If you want to know more about this event, contact Annie Canon here or at 585-288-0030.

It’s too soon to wipe that painting out!

We’re our own worst critics. A little time and you might realize that painting has flashes of brilliance.

Adirondack Spring, 11×14 in a cherry frame, will be available through a fundraiser for the Gerhardt Neighborhood Outreach Center on October 17. This is a mission that provides medical care, job training, after school care and more to the residents of North Rochester, and one I’m delighted to support. If you’re interested in my work and in supporting a great city mission, contact Annie Canon.
As I set down my brush after a long painting session, I have one of two reactions. It’s either, “meh,” or “that’s pretty bad.” All I can see at that moment are the ways in which the painting has fallen short of my inner vision. I don’t see the things that are going right, like audacious composition, new ideas, or bravura brushwork.
I’ve been at this long enough to ignore that reaction. I no longer question whether the work is good or bad. I just ask myself if it’s finished.
Yesterday, Ken DeWaardspoke to the Knox County Art Society (KCAS). He said that he takes plein airwork back to his studio and leans it face-in against the wall for a few days. Only after the struggle has faded from memory does he turn it back around. Then he can dispassionately analyze what it needs.
Fog Bank, by Carol L. Douglas.
The worst self-doubt happens when you’re in a plein airevent and your work is overlooked by buyers and judges. It’s very easy to think you’re painting terribly. This happened to me this year with Fog Bank. I was unimpressed with it, since it’s largely atmosphere and no composition. Three months later, I like the painting more than anything else I did at that event. My goal was to show the movement of a North Atlantic fog, and I think it worked. That nobody else was thrilled by it is immaterial.
I had a similar reaction to another painting in 2017, They wrest their living from the sea. At the time, I thought the whole thing was too fussy and overworked. But set against my intention, the painting is a success. I wanted to contrast the tiny houses of Advocate Harbour with the vast landscape in which its people fish and farm. There are times when skies arefussy and detailed. Sometimes we have to square up to that and paint them realistically, instead of stylizing.
They wrest their living from the sea, by Carol L. Douglas
My old friend Marilyn often wiped out paintings she didn’t like. “Another board saved!” she would say. I don’t do that. Even failed paintings tell me something about my process.
Sometimes a painting is uncomfortable to look at because it’s pointing the way forward. It can seem like an awkward outlier when you do it. Five years later, you realize it was a bellwether and the best thing you painted that year. You’ll blunt your development if you wipe out everything that makes you uncomfortable.
In students, this discomfort with change can result in paralysis. They fuss and get nothing done in class. If that’s you, try falling back on strict exercises that force you to stop thinking in terms of results and start thinking in terms of process. (I’ll get into these on Friday.)
Grand Bahama Palms, by Carol L. Douglas
The last painting in this post is one I did on Grand Bahama in 2017. There is never any guarantee that a moment of beauty will be there when you return. This young palm is in one of the hardest-hit parts of the island, and I imagine it was drowned and broken. If the painting survived, I hope it reminds the owners of the former glory of their patch of land, and is a promise that beauty will return soon.