Before you ask an illustrator to contribute free art to your good cause…
Like many other illustrators, I get asked for free art a LOT. I suspect I may get asked more often because my illustration process tends to look quicker than some other illustrators, and I sometimes give some of my art away on my social media.
Here are some things to keep in mind before approaching an illustrator for a donation of art:
Respect their time. Give as many specifics as possible in your initial message upfront rather than expect them to ask all the questions.
Just because some of us tend to draw more quickly than others does NOT mean it’s easier for us to illustrate books. I tend to redraw my sketches and early line art many many times before the final version. It also doesn’t mean that we value our art less than someone whose process tends to be slower-paced. We put just as much thought into layout, pacing and arc.
Don’t underestimate the costs of time and focus. For me, it’s not just the time it takes to draw art meant for an auction, but the planning/thought, the time it takes to properly package up the piece, figure out the correct postage or taking it to the post office (and my neighbourhood post offices are in pharmacies that also do COVID tests, making me much more careful about how often I do this).
Make your request personal. Include the illustrator’s name (correctly spelled), explain why you are approaching them. Make it clear you aren’t just sending out a form letter to all the children’s book illustrators you know, that you actually do like them and/or their work. Whenever I get a form letter request for free art that begins “Hello,” or “Dear illustrator” without including my name, I usually assume that it’s being sent out to MANY illustrators on someone’s mailing list. Ditto for social media posts that tag me along with many others. Not only is this bad etiquette, but it means that anytime someone responds to the group thread, all of us will get notifications.
Ask them privately, NOT on public social media. I hate being asked for free art publicly on social media for many reasons. Just a few: (1) It makes me feel like you’re trying to guilt-shame me into participating. (2) If I say yes publicly, then it increases the possibility that others will figure it’s ok to approach me the same way (which makes it more likely that I’ll say no). (3) When I have to decline publicly (so often, requests come from people who aren’t following me, which means I can’t easily send a private message), sometimes people react badly.
Have a plan for promoting your art auction/event OTHER than relying on illustrators to promote it. Have your plan ready before you approach an illustrator, and let them know details. Are you actively promoting through social media, interviews, in-person events, partnering with an established charity or literacy organization? Do you plan to highlight the illustrators individually? How many at your organization or school or library are helping you?
Think about whether you are going to impose geographic restrictions, and make this clear. Mailing art from Canada to the UK is much more expensive than mailing to the U.S. Are you restricting buyers to just your own country? If so, and especially if the illustrator is in another country, let them know. As a Canadian with many Canadian followers, I have a soft spot re: donating to causes with a Canadian focus. If your online art auction is closed to Canadians, please let me know ahead of time.
How will the art be displayed? Ideally, the artist will be able to provide a good quality image. If not, make sure you have the ability to take one yourself, assuming the art is being sent to you. A bad photo of art will not only turn off potential bidders/buyers, but it will reflect poorly on the artist. I once donated a piece of original art, covered packaging and mailing costs to the organizer myself, even provided an image they could use — only to find that the photo used in the gallery was poorly exposed, blurry, with inaccurate colors.
Think carefully about what happens AFTER the auction, and make this clear. Are the illustrators responsible for packaging and mailing the art to the buyer? Will they be compensated for postage/handling? If so, do you have an idea of how much this will be? Larger pieces may require more expensive postage/handling. What about insurance? What if the art is damaged en route? How will you handle the refund to the buyer? In my case: I really, REALLY dislike admin hassles (having to chase down buyers myself and find out their info, back-and-forth admin, filling out forms and having to figure out what taxes to charge and how etc etc) – it’s the main thing that has kept me from making my art and prints available for sale in my own shops. I admire creative types who are good at this or enjoy it.
How will the illustrator be credited? With their name linked to their website? A bio? Will their name be included on a donators’ list on your website, or promoted some other way? Being able to share specific info will help the illustrator know that you respect them and their work, and are not just viewing them as a source of free art for your cause.
A side note about sending books and art via snailmail:
I can’t speak for everyone, but sending books and art by snailmail / surface mail is much more of a hassle these days than before the pandemic. One reason is postal delays: I’ve have a package sent via Canada Post take THREE MONTHS to get to the U.S. I just checked the Canada Post site now, and they still have a delay warning at the top of the website.
Also, sending a book via snailmail usually costs me almost as much as the book itself, sometimes more. I also need to find packaging that I trust will keep the book intact through the Canada and U.S. postal systems, and this also costs me money. Please be aware that in most cases when people are asking me to donate a book to help their school or library, it usually ends up costing me at least CDN $50 (my cost for the book, packaging, postage and handling) as well as time/focus I could be spending on my own work. Because of this, I limit the number of times I say yes every year.
Biggest piece of advice:
If they say no, it doesn’t mean that they don’t care about your good cause. Be aware that the illustrator is likely being frequently asked to donate their time and art and expertise to good causes throughout the year. If you reply with a passive-aggressive email hinting otherwise, they are likely to remember this next time you approach them.
Any other advice or tips? Feel free to post below; I’ll leave comments open for a few weeks, just in case.