A lot of artists and other freelancers have opinions about “working on spec,” that is, doing work without compensation in hopes of obtaining a job or some other benefit in the future. Some maintain it’s a necessary evil in the industry, some believe it’s a good way to get exposure, and some urge you to avoid it like the plague.
So, which approach is best?
My answer is “a little of all three.” (Okay, a TINY bit of the first two and a LOT of the last one.) How could all three approaches be valid, you ask? Let me explain…
Spec art as part of your job
There are two circumstances that I would condone spec art as part of your job as a freelancer. The first is in the dreaded “concept stage.” During that stage, arguably, you may be doing a lot of work that does not end up being used. Fortunately, you can easily avoid all that work falling into the realm of “spec art” by anticipating the need for it and charging accordingly if you have a flat fee, or recording it faithfully if you have an hourly fee.
The other circumstance would be work you deliberately do to try and win a specific client. Many clients don’t merit this, but there will come a client that you will gladly do a fantastic piece purely to show them. This is speculation, all right, but it’s highly targeted to one person (or company) and you will have hopefully done your research well beforehand. My only caveat is that you should do your absolute best work if you take this route. That way, at worst, you will have a great portfolio piece.
Notice that in neither instance did the client ask you to work for free. In the first one, the client has already hired you and you have proceeded to the concept stage. In the second scenario, the client does not know about you yet and you are wooing them. NEVER DO FREE WORK FOR A CLIENT unless you have your own personal reasons for doing so. Good clients will not ask for this, and bad clients will ask for it and go on asking for it for the duration of your relationship.
An exception to this would be spec art as a charitable donation. But you’re arguably being compensated for this because it has given you the opportunity to do a good deed or aid your community.
Spec art for exposure
This one is even more narrow. There is literally only one reason you should ever do this. ONE. You should only take part in a contest, or answer a call for entries with a huge pool of applicants, or do free work for a zine, or similar, if the contest or project perfectly aligns with something you already planned on doing for yourself.
That’s it! That’s the only reason you should ever do this. There are so many other superior ways to get exposure that there’s no reason to fall for the “do free work for exposure” line. However, if you already wanted to do a specific piece for yourself, and you find out you can enter it in a contest or zine, go for it. IF the contest doesn’t have unreasonable rules about the ownership of your art. Check this thoroughly. In many instances you would get far more exposure from being free to promote your work as you see fit, rather than having to adhere to the rules of some contests.
Besides, if you slog through a theme that doesn’t interest you at all for a contest or zine, the judges will smell your insincerity a mile away. (Trust me on this one *cough*)
Avoiding spec art like the plague
This is the approach you should probably take a good 95% of the time (or more). In the majority of instances, people asking you for spec art are are up to no good. Your time on this earth is limited and priceless, and if you are not spending it working on either 1) personal projects with a personal meaning for you that give you pleasure and fulfillment or 2) work in which you are fairly compensated for your time and opportunity costs, you are wasting your time. Worse, you’re wasting your time on behalf of clueless or unethical people who will not appreciate your sacrifice.
You don’t want this.
To summarize, it’s best to only engage in spec art when the work is something you already planned to do for yourself. And you should NEVER agree to work for free unless you wish to make a charitable donation of your work. That way, you can’t get burned, you won’t be wasting your time, and the resulting pieces in your portfolio (whether they accomplished your goal or not) will be representative of you.
As always, these are my conclusions based upon my personal experiences of what was worthwhile and what wasn’t. You might have had a different experience, so don’t hesitate to tell me your ideas in the Comments!