How Far Should We Go for Art?

By Karen Middleton in Art Business Advice > General Art Advice

As artists, we often put everything we have into our work. But here is, perhaps, a cautionary tale. . .

After going several hours out of my way to collect a commission brief, I was enthused to get back home, spend some time gathering reference materials and get stuck in.

Commissions like this were few and far between, so I tried not to worry about a contract that wasn’t forthcoming or a budget that “had yet to be determined.” It was work. Great!

The request was to produce twenty-four 12×12 inch sketches, and thereafter full colour artwork based on those sketches. I also needed to create separate artwork for 3 pop-up pages (and figure out how to engineer the shapes to pop up!)

My traditional, coloured pencil, hand-rendered style was chosen for the “lovely details” it had, and they wanted it in every piece of this project.

The deadline? 4 weeks.

Sketches were relatively easy, but at that time I wasn’t experienced in scanning and sending work digitally. There was an unnerving wait for approval (had they gotten through, even?) then the inevitable adjustments, re-scanning, and further waiting for final approval.

Some two weeks later the tension was mounting, but I was finally cleared to start the colour work. The hours at my board gradually increased, as is normal with many occupations, but before long it was looking more and more necessary to do nothing but this commission if I was to meet the deadline.

Soon, in fact, I reached 20 hours each day at the drawing board, and with just a few days left before the deadline my daily routine was 22 hours.

All manner of normal everyday obligations were put aside. It was interesting to see how much I was able to manage without sleep, how better my hair was without being washed and how polite I managed to remain in the lengthy post office queue each time I was required to post out the originals.

I do remember, though, literally falling asleep whilst typing what turned out to be gibberish emails. I appealed to the agent for a few extra days, but was reminded other artists were managing OK (two of them created simple vector style images) and that I needed to come through for him because the printer “liked my work the most.”

It was during one of those mornings, around 1am, when exhaustion was forcing me to wrap up for the night, that I noticed one of my legs was looking larger than the other.

I didn’t want to call the doctor, as I knew it would hold up my deadline, but since a relative had recently passed away from Deep Venous Thrombosis (essentially a serious blood clot, of which this was one symptom) I didn’t fancy taking a nap either.

So I called, and was asked if I’d been on a flight recently. No, I explained, but I had been at my drawing board for 20 hours a day almost three weeks running.

I was told to get to hospital straight away, yet before I went, I texted my agent to let him know about the (hopefully slight) delay. I even called the client in the US, because I was so afraid of letting them all down and wanted to make sure it would be all right.

Two days later after a lot of forced rest and some anti-DVT shots I managed to plead my way out of being kept in hospital for a week (still thinking of the deadline, of course) and was advised to stay in bed for a week with my leg up.

At this stage I appealed to my agent once more for a little more time, and after finally believing I wasn’t simply stalling, I was given an extra week to finish. (Which I did. And I won’t go into all the trouble I had trying to get paid. . .)

My point is, we all know that no job is worth dying for, and certainly not one that isn’t viewed as a high risk, but even 7 years later if I was given the chance to do a job like that again I’d still have a strangely overwhelming urge to accept it.


Because for some reason it’s standard belief (even among artists!) that we should be thankful for any paid work we can get. . . even when it’s low pay and long hours.

If I need a serviceman urgently in the middle of the night, or round the clock for 4 weeks, I know there’s going a be a minimum cost (a high cost, probably) and it’s accepted. By everyone.

Yet traditionally, artists haven’t been afforded the same belief. We’re expected to work for next to nothing.

After my life-threatening experience, I’ve come to think that even if it’s not in our nature, we must begin to demand the respect we deserve. There is such a thing as going to far for art. . . and I’ve been there. Don’t let it happen to you as well.


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