Why are Artists supposed to donate their Work?

February 22, 2009

In January I received a letter that read like this:

“Hello Petra!
I think that this painting is one of the most beautiful paintings I have ever seen. I really don’t think that enough people in our world appreciate the beauty and complexity of a nautilus. The only artwork I can find of them is either paintings of their empty shells, or artwork that is actually made up of their shells! 😦

I was wondering if you would be offended if I were to use a printout of your artwork as a rough base for my tattoo? I swear to you, I would buy it if I could, but I barely have the 300 dollars it will cost to get the tattoo, though your painting is very reasonably priced. I’m just a kid with no money. 🙂 I wouldn’t want to rip off your art without asking you for it, but I find it so amazing! I want it to be a part of me forever. So would you be very bothered by this? If so, I would never touch it. But if not, I would really really appreciate it.”

The art piece she was talking about was this one:



My answer to her was this:


first – thank you very much for your compliment on my painting. Regarding copying my painting for a tattoo I am afraid I must say “no”. Please consider this: the painting is an original and the person who is going to buy it wants to have an original, a unique painting. It would be unfair to give away the image for other purposes. I have to work hard for a living and paying the bills. It is not easy. How would you feel if someone asks you to give away part of your income just because s/he loved something so much s/he could not afford her/himself?
Also – even if you had bought the painting – you would not be allowed to use the image for a tattoo (copyright) unless you bought a licence for it if the artist would be ready to sell a licence. Just for your information.

I am really sorry to have to tell you this. If I could paint just for fun it would be a different issue. But I have to earn money for my bills as everyone has to do. I hope you will understand this.

Kind regards,


Now the tonus of the next answer I received from this person became really nasty:

“Well Petra, the thing is, if you search the internet or any common tattoo magazine, there are many people with recreations of famous artwork on their bodies. Be it the Mona Lisa, or Van Gogh’s starry night. There are also thousands of brand name tattoos: i.e. Cadillac, Hello Kitty. It is actually not against the law to use someone’s artwork in a tattoo. Most tattoos are not original artwork. How would a tattoo artist make a livelihood if he could not give people what they ask for? It’s not like me, or any of these people are trying to profit off of your artwork. Like, “I show off the tattoo I got of your painting for a living now. People crowd around to see it.”
I was simply asking you to use your painting AS A BASE (not copy it) because I couldn’t find any better ones at the time. But currently, I have contacted another artist whos nautilus actually has a lot more depth and detail than yours. Your nautilus actually looks quite muted in comparison. This artist has jumped at the chance that millions of people will get to view her artwork on a regular basis. I find it unfortunate that I was so polite to someone who is clearly your standerd, internet-sales based, starving to death artist who is actually pigheaded enough to think that her artwork is worth fighting for. You clearly just need the money.
Good luck.”


I did not answer to this any more.
The point of this all and why I am posting it here is that I am really angry about the fact, that always artists are thought to be the ones to have to “donate” their work, be it for a private purpose, be it for charity or any other support. What is it that artists have on their forehead:

hey folks, I am not worth to be paid for because I’m only a sucker, hey guys you can taka ma work for free – it’s of no use anyway – I don’t need to eat and pay for my rent…

Everybody is being paid for her/his work (unless you really have another income and can work on voluntary basis). We all know what we have to pay a lawyer, doctor or any other consultant for their hourly efforts. A whole lot of money even – not just pocket money.
Some time ago I asked an interior company for permission of using one of their photos as a backdrop for a post on my blog, a tiny image from the internet with a bad resolution even. In return I offered them links back to their company, mentioning on my blog – we all know what advertising is worth – they wanted me to pay 95 bucks for one image! Well – I said thank you – no thank you! So why for heaven’s sake am I supposed then to give my work away for free?

In the case above with the tatoo, a “kid” wrote me, telling me she had no money to buy my painting – but she had 300 bucks for a tatoo. Besides all the silly things she said, I found out that she was going to use this tatoo professionally – i.e. that another “tatoo artist” wanted to make money with an original design by me but I was supposed to “donate” that design. How stupid did she think I am?

Besides the issues of copyright infringement she would step into – because buying a painting does not mean that you can do with it what you want – the whole argumentation was childish and immature of course. Too many contradictions which I do not want to discuss here.

The main hook (the story itself is more or less marginal) is the issue with the donations from artists and the common expectation of the public that especially artists are supposed to donate their work (I was naive enough to have done this a couple of times – some of those donations I regret deeply because I fell into the common traps – some of those I do not regret – they really did achieve what they were supposed to).

Maybe someone could explain to me why this is – I mean – why are artists specifically supposed to donate their time, work and money?




10 Responses to “Why are Artists supposed to donate their Work?”

  1. Diane Says:

    I have to agree with your point of view. I think you should stick to your guns about “sharing” your imagery. You worked hard to create it and others should respect this enough to be willing to pay for your creation. This “kid” could have at least offered to pay something for a copy of your image if they couldn’t afford an original. Good point made about he/she not having enough money for the artwork, but yet being able to afford a tattoo. Definitely a “kids” point of view. May I suggest, if you haven’t already, sign your work and add a copyright symbol. It may not protect you completely, but does act as a deterrent.

  2. On the Money Says:

    So common in many of the creative disciplines … People even think we will settle for less money because we actually like what we do … (I am a writer, photographer and part-time doodler …)

    I like your work.


  3. vyala Says:

    Thank you Diane for your comment. I am glad that you see the same way. Not everyone shares this opinion.
    Btw – all of my work is signed and copyrighted. I don’t do it though any more on the images on the web – copyright signs can be removed easily anyway. Or they are so big that it disturbs the image. So why bother about it. I am not very much worried about the theft of a low resolution image anyway. I would be getting angry about the theft of my designs and/or any commercial usage.

  4. vyala Says:

    Haha, thanks for your funny comment, Russell. Actually I think you might be right considering that many people hate what they are doing or have to work for. So we are the lucky ones, we love what we are doing – and now we should be paid for it on top of that? Nayyyy – that’s just not just 🙂

  5. D L Ennis Says:

    Oh, how I know the feeling! Everybody wants you to give them everything and they always have a sad story about having no money! I sell quite a lot but I get more request for me to give them my work than I can keep up with…

  6. vyala Says:

    Hi Dennis, thank you for stopping by. I am really fed with people’s impression that single artists are supposed to give everything away but that no-one has the idea to ask a company or at least the top managers for giving away their work – LOL. Strange isn’t it?

  7. Kunal Says:

    Thanks for sharing this. It’s not just that kid… a lot of grownups think artists hard work can be just asked for free! And I don’t blame them. With their boring jobs what more can they think of?!
    I appreciate your not replying to her last mail…. I may have given her a piece of her mind….. and trust me with that kind of attitude she will get it sooner or later from someone!

  8. vyala Says:

    Kunal – thank you for stopping by. It is sometimes really frustrating how the work of full-time artists is perceived – as if our work is less valuable than anyone else’s…

  9. lek borja Says:

    this bothered me, that people don’t understand what artists have to go through to exercise their passion as a career, as a means to make a living.. i think what’s in discussion when it comes to “donating art” is the emotion tied to it. people assume you would give it for “free” because they assume you would be more than willing to share this “emotion” it gives them. If someone was close to you, you would create things for them for free- if you love someone enough, you would be more than willing to paint for them, photograph or write poetry for them. I think this is the common understanding or misconception about art: that because art brings a sort of experience to someone, they only see/feel that experience has no price. (And this is the great thing about artists- They are able to take their audiences in all kinds of places by inspiring thoughts and emotions). No one really knows or has any idea about the business side of it because society is only exposed that idea.

    i’m accepting submissions for a magazine promoting the self, diversity and breaking stereotypes. if you have any questions about submissions or would like more info., pls. send an e-mail to personal.zine@gmail.com

  10. I noticed that your blog is having some maintenacne problems. When I was here yesterday I encountered 404 error in Why are Artists supposed to donate their Work? Images and Imagination, but today everything seems to be in perfect shape.I couldn’t agreed with you more! Bookmarked!

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