Art Competitions

April 12th, 2013 | Posted in General

My pal Stephen Silver, who if you are not familiar is a well-known animation character designer, illustrator and cartoonist, has been on a real tear lately trying to educate young or inexperienced artists looking to make a living with their work about not giving it away. If you follow his twitter feed or visit his YouTube channel you’ll find many videos where he dispenses some passionate advice about not falling for attempts to get you to do work for little or nothing when you should expect to be paid fairly. One of his biggest pet peeves is the “art contest”, where some entity stages a competition of sorts where the end result is their obtaining the rights to some creative works for little or nothing that they can then use for their purposes rather than paying a professional to create that work.

This is nothing new, of course. Even before the internet became THE INTERNET there were art competitions where those putting on the contest would charge an entrance fee, and then pocket a nice profit thanks to the difference between those collected fees and any prize money rewarded. Often the fine print would grant them the copyrights to all submitted artwork, so they could then publish a book of the work and possibly profit from its sale as well. These days the internet makes such a thing so much easier and cheaper to do, so the web abounds with these kinds of contests. Mostly they are harmless insofar as there are no ramifications beyond the awarding of a few places and maybe a book of the work that probably isn’t going to sell anyway. These are not the kind of competitions Stephen is railing about.

The more disturbing ones are a fairly new type of “competition” that is becoming more and more prevalent…those instigated by actual publishers and companies in lieu of hiring a professional to do the work in the first place. Stephen points out many but here are a couple of examples:

Book publisher Watermelon Books has a contest looking for a children’s book illustrator. In fairness to them, the artists who submit retain the rights to their artwork (except for allowing it to be published on Watermelon’s website and FB page), so they are not looking for ideas or work for free. The “winner” ends up with a contract to illustrate a children’s book, but there are no specifics other than they are to receive a royalty for the book. What percentage? Not specified…could be well below the going rate. No advance? Apparently not… it is typical for an author and/or illustrator to receive an advance against sales, and a royalty after a certain breakpoint of sold copies is reached. Not getting that advance is the same as agreeing to work on spec… in other words for nothing if the book does not sell. Publishers take the financial risk on book publication, not the artists.

Yoplait yogurt has a contest of sorts where they are looking for animators to make pitches for 30 second animations about why their yogurt is so delicious. There are very little details here… do you get paid for the animation if your pitch is one of the 40 chosen? Doesn’t say. Even if you do, is it a fair payment compared to going rates? Even if so, Yoplait is not paying anyone for the concepts here, they are soliciting free concepts, something that is a big part of the process of advertising. In fact, it’s the concept you really pay money for… the execution is peanuts in comparison. This is very disturbing as Yoplait is a very successful company and can easily afford to hire ad talent and animators to do this work.

This one isn’t about illustration but video as art. Gordon Joseph-Levitt is involved in creating a new TV variety show where they solicit videos from the internet and use them for the program. Again no details I could find, but one can assume there is no compensation involved.

There are many other examples, from magazines having cover “contests” where they pay little or nothing for the final art they use for a cover, to companies staging competitions to create whole ad campaigns. I can see this becoming bigger and bigger in the near future.

So, why all the competitions and contests, and why do artists participate when they should know they are often being exploited? The answer to the former is the phenomenon of internet viral exposure as much as getting work done for free or cheap. Companies are recognizing that there is enormous value in anything that gets buzz on the internet, and competitions and contests gets the internets a’talkin’. That’s the kind of advertising exposure that costs millions on TV or in other traditional avenues. Secondly, companies are also recognizing that artists/creatives that do professional or near-professional quality work are willing to participate in this, so they end up with professional results in whatever endeavor they are undertaking but avoid paying anywhere near professional rates. Win-win for them.

The latter part of that question: why do artists participate when they should know they are often being exploited? Lots of reasons. The main one is the oldest one: those who do participate are usually up-and-comers looking to “break in” to the business, and have nothing to lose in doing work for cheap or free. Steve really rants about this, and how much of a disservice it is to the artist who is devaluing their work. That’s very true, but not from the young artist’s perspective. Steve is talking from a position of experience where he commands top dollar for his work, and rightfully so. He can also afford to turn down jobs that don’t pay his rates, and that is a great place to be. It’s a place that up-and-coming artists would love to be in, but aren’t. I am lucky to be in a similar position, so why I agree with Steve that doing things as participating in such contests devalues one’s art, I get that those who don’t have paying clients lining up will do it in hopes that the paying clients will follow. I would never advise anyone to participate in such competitions or to work on spec, but I would also not hold is against anyone who does.. at least someone who is not an established professional. The sad part is that doing this so very seldom does pay off in that hoped for gateway to paying work, but it is hard to tell young artists that and not end up sounding like someone who is angry they are “stealing work” from professional artists by doing doing this kind of thing. That is really not the case. 99% of the time these competitions are being done by entities that would not be legitimate clients anyway… those looking for something for free usually do so because they aren’t willing to pay for it, meaning they would not hire an illustrator regardless.

What really bothers me about these kinds of competitions are the ones conducted by companies like Yoplait…companies with plenty of cash flow that should be hiring professional creatives to do their work. If enough of those start going this route, there will be both a drop in the amount for work out there, and likely a drop in the fees paid for that work since internet competitions seem to be becoming legitimate sources of professional end results.

Just some of my thoughts on these issues. I appreciate my pal Stephen’s passion for art and the industry.



  1. Bill says:

    Enjoyed the article, and I have been through, and am still experiencing, the same attitude, from friends, and relatives, to “just doodle some ideas down” and see what happens, on business cards, menus, etc. I guess it’s the idea of wanting to be validated that gets us into these situations.
    I checked out Steven Silver’s video, and wonder if you would endorse, buying his posing books for the iPad? They look pretty cool, but I need some coaxing to spend $9.99 on something I can’t flip through.

  2. Jon Herman says:

    Excellent piece, Tom! The plethora of “contests” and lack of paying work is depressing for those of us still trying to break into the field. Add to that the absurd webpage I found this morning where an internet magazine is accepting cartoons and will pay for them, but each submission will cost the cartoonist $20! What bovine feces. I wish there was a way we could get more artists to boycott stuff like that.

  3. Justin Contois says:

    Great article Tom. I have noticed the same thing. I have a profile on that does these type of contest and the companies or the people involved in the contests who can pay top dollar only end up paying the winner of the contest no more than $500 to $3,500 roughly. What’s more frustrating is that they usually pick someone’s work that is more than amateur. I stopped participating after two contests.

  4. Anton Emdin says:

    Great post, Tom. I feel very strongly about this, too.

    I guess the only saving grace is that there is little to no collaboration, so a ‘client’ hasn’t got as much input as they would on a natural project. Most of the bigger companies I’ve worked for want a LOT of input and there is a to-and-fro that just isn’t there with a contest submission.

    I think that if young artists want to build up their portfolios, they’re better off doing so with personal work. Very few commercial projects end up as cool-looking – so unless it’s a very big brand, there’s no point.

    My two cents, anyway.


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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