Working for Free, My Two Cents

              I came across this chart today by Jessica Hische and it struck a chord with me. We all know that the illustration profession is over-populated and that third level courses are churning out hundreds of talented graduates every year. There simply isn't enough work to go around which means that illustrators feel they have no choice except to offer their services for free (I think this applies mainly to editorial illustration). Being a newbie myself, I can totally understand this approach - you're hungry for work and trying to break into that particular field invariably feels like banging your head against a brick wall. If you have a few freebie projects under your belt, it might be easier to get a foot in the door to that proper, paid illustration job. But nobody can deny that it devalues the illustration market, and as a consequence, people expect to pay next to nothing for professional, high-quality illustration. To add insult to injury, illustrators are supposed to feel privileged for the "opportunity" to work for free, just for the love of it. People commissioning work know that they can easily find a hard-working, talented illustrator somewhere who will gladly do the job on the cheap.
             Nothing can incite a bout of bile-churning rage in creative professionals the world over like hearing these two words: "Good Exposure". But exposure doesn't pay the rent - there is no value whatsoever in "exposure" unless it is monetary value, and very seldom do small, free jobs lead to legitimate offers of paid work.

               I think that the writer Harlan Ellison sums it up nicely in this hilarious video. He makes a good point that when amateurs undercut professionals, it makes it harder for everybody because the value of the craft is driven down. He's talking about movies here, but the same thing applies to illustration and most creative industries. An article in a similar vein of placing a value on a creative person's time, was Josh Olson's infamous rant on the Village Voice,  I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script.
             I know that ultimately it's the illustrator's decision whether or not to do projects for free, but the truth is that it's a vicious cycle that affects the entire market. What I just don't understand is why it is always the creative professions that are so undervalued. We spend years honing our craft, practising tirelessly, acquiring expensive materials, and basically working our asses off until our portfolio is of a professional standard, then we give it all away for nothing. I know I've been neglecting my blog of late so hardly anyone will read this but I'll throw it out there. Any thoughts?
p.s. I thought I should add, doing freebies for friends is different, which I think is totally fine.

Update: Let me direct you to a brilliant blog post written in response to this by the not-to-be-messed-with Cassia Thomas!

Update no. 2: Another illustrator and mural painter has responded to this post and raised some interesting points about pricing and consumer expectation. Some artists and illustrators sell their work on places like Etsy at such low prices, it's difficult to compete.