Morals are Magic: When should you turn down an illustration job?

Illustration by Genie Espinosa

Artists and animators on the gigs they couldn't ethically accept.

An illustration of an inverted pyramid caused some offence on Twitter last week, accompanying as it did a conservative-leaning article discussing the hierarchy of society possibly being remodelled in the name of social justice.

The surrounding furore was a timely reminder that it's always worth knowing exactly what you're illustrating for, be it a column, campaign or chapter book, and whether the gig aligns with your personal, political and religious beliefs.

Image: MarkLB for Getty

Some may say that's a luxury for a freelancer, and some creatives last week did sympathise whether the artist in question was too hungry to have turned down the job.

Not a clear-cut issue then, but is anything? The world of professional illustration is no exception, and recent events suggest it's time to make that confusion clear to those new to the business.

It's alright to be conflicted, it's alright to take a stand, and it's alright to turn down a job. The illustrators below will confirm all this as they explain the gigs they rejected in the name of plagiarism and capitalist queasiness.

International Rip-off Day?

It seems the forthcoming International Women's Day isn't entirely encouraging solace or good faith. Let Genie Espinosa, the gargantuan-talent behind an amazing spate of recent editorial wonders for Time Out and It's Nice That, explain first.

"The most recent one was a huge sports brand trying to hire me through an agency to design a limited edition sweater for their woman collection," she writes from Barcelona.

"It was supposedly for a new female clothing brand and they were going do a massive party in NYC – but the agency said they weren't going to pay either them or me."


Say what?! How did Genie respond to this brazen rip off?

"I replied saying that it was a bit of a shame they’re promoting women but not paying them, and that they should pay, give sweaters for free and invite me to the launch party!"

"I also reject all projects which seem to me as sexist on the brief," she adds.

Illustrator, taboo-tackler and all round hero of our hearts Hazel Mead has their own horror story to tell.

"An email appeared from a very exciting client, a huge global name, asking for an illustration for International Women's Day," she begins. "They wanted to post the piece on their socials, as well as have me post the piece on my social media. I have an audience of 139k IG followers, so am fully aware that companies want to use me as a marketing tool. I have been advised from other illustrators to charge much higher for this request, as the nature of the request then ventures into advertising territory.

"I asked what their budget was for the piece, rather than revealing my rates as I didn't want to quote too low and give them a sweet deal. I was thinking a similar-sized company had paid £1k for a similar request, so I was considering something in that ball park for sure.

"I got an email back and I audibly gasped: $75!!! I felt physically sick. I was in shock. Even as an insecure, desperate student I had charged triple that for my first commission.

"I was in a state of shock and anger, but the overriding feeling was sickness. I am an established illustrator with a sizeable following; it was for a multi-billion pound company and it was in celebration of International Women's Day – a day celebrating and supporting women.

Hazel at work

"All of these factors combined made the whole situation incomprehensible. I didn't see it coming. It was a slap in the face; a reminder that people don't value creatives' time and skill at all.

"I'm fast but this piece would have taken two days. Less than $30 a day? Are you kidding me?! I had to stop myself from sending an angry email right on the spot and told the comms person that I was in shock, needed to process the situation and would get back to her with my thoughts on Monday."

Good work, Hazel. It does seem International Women's Day is becoming International Rip-off Day.

Bad Business

Here's an example of knowing your client inside out. Talking to us on Twitter, the über fab Clay Disarray aka Lizzie Campbell was once approached by a duck-focused organisation for a gig.

She was ready to foot them a bill until realising all was not as it seemed.

"At first I was really excited as I thought their remit was purely conservation (dream gig tbh!)" she writes. "But further research showed that they like shooting ducks too?! I just couldn't take it on."

Good on you, Lizzie. It would have made you as sad as this cat of yours below.

Want Some Studio
– aka the poppin' pop artist Marco Bevilacqua whose Trump gif you see below – has similarly disliked a company's ethics.

"I turned away a job for a tobacco company doing website illustrations that were supposed to help them recruit their next generation of young employees: from scientists to marketers etc.

"It helped that the pay wasn't amazing and it was a ridiculous turnaround time, but still, after seeing a lot of my family pass away due to smoking related-illness, I just thought I couldn't do it."

Delightful doodler and designer Geo Law has also blown smoke in the face of Big Tobacco, saying: "I once turned down a mural for an event at the offices of a tobacco brand. I couldn’t see myself feeling comfortable drawing inspiring things and inspired quotes from their staff and company ethos and such."

Fellow illustrator and mural magician Laura Sorvala did the very same thing for the very same brand. "I was contacted by an agency to do a live illustration gig for them; asked for more details and then it clicked who it was. I asked if it was them and the agency contact sheepishly admitted so.

"I said 'No thanks' on moral grounds. I think the agency were trying to hide the client on purpose."

Geo Law

Morals are Magic

"On the subject of ethics," writes lush London illustrator Pete Reynolds, "I have turned down a big project in the US when I was asked to replicate someone else's style. I would always turn those down!"

Pete has kindly passed on the email he sent to this naughty client, writing:

"I’m afraid I am going to have to decline your proposal. I sought clarification because I wasn’t sure you were really asking me to copy the style of someone else. I’m afraid that this isn’t something I am comfortable with getting involved in.

"I do not criticise you for using a free (illustration) site like this... That said, I’m pretty sure the only reason an artist would give their work away for free (though I wish they wouldn’t) is because they are hoping you will ask them to produce follow up work… (but) paid.

"Perhaps therefore you would be better off approaching this illustration website for the originator's details? Or perhaps you have already.

"May I suggest you start from fresh, with a new (paid) illustrator and a consistent style throughout?"

Needless to say, Pete didn’t receive a response.

Multi-talented cartoonist and illustrator David Ziggy Greene has also stuck to their principles when proposed.

"One set of jobs I turned down were for advertorials in a well-known events magazine," he tells us.

"Having done some interesting stuff for a few years on the mag, it felt too dirty to be told more and more that they wouldn't use my illustrated stuff unless it could be linked or tied to something that could sponsor the space I was taking up.

"I feel illustrations should be worthy enough to have their own space without selling out."

One anonymous artist meanwhile gave us this response following our shout-out:

"Following designing decks for a skateboard brand," they write, "a different company got in touch about me doing a series of stickers for them.

"They were a series of sort of in-jokes within skateboarding which would have been quite fun to work on; however one of them required me to design a sticker which would say 'Scooters are gay', which I was deeply uncomfortable with.

"I turned down the job as I was concerned that even if I said no to designing that, it would go to a different person who may be fine with it, and I'm not comfortable with my work being associated with a brand that doesn't understand that damage that can be done using that word in a negative manner."

Image: Frank Ramspott for Getty

Well done for taking a stand, dear illustrator! And also well done to book cover artist and picture book illustrator Sally Barnett for sticking to their morals.

"I have turned down a job for moral reasons," she tells me. "It was a children's book that two people wanted me to collaborate on and it sounded exciting. But the more they talked about its meaning, the more I realised that it conflicted with my own faith.

"I had to turn them down to protect my own faith but also so that I would not upset friends who had the same faith as me. That and the fact that they wanted me to fully illustrate the book as well as co-write it, but it would have been split three ways if we made a profit from selling the book."

Well, that's just plain wrong we think.

Related: 11 companies who are trying to exploit designers, artists and photographers

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