My take can be summed up like this, 'If I were a dentist, would you ask me to work for free?'
However, you know I'll never be able to leave it at that, so in addition to what Sheena's said...
My advice to people serious about breaking into illustration is, never work for free. 'Good exposure' is the reason the client will give, but here's how I see it, the only time you might, might, might get good exposure out of something is if it's a huge campaign for Coca-Cola or Mars- someone astronomically mega huge like that... And if that's the case, do we really think they can't afford to pay you???
The arguement I hear from illustrators is, isn't it better to be working for free than not to be working at all? Short answer is; No. My gut, heart, and every fibre of being adds, HELLLLLLL NO!!!!
If you don't have work, it's better to work on honing your technique/developing your portfolio than to work for free. Working on technique and portfolio development is work that's never finished, and has more chance in benefitting your overall career, and getting you the sorts of paid work you would like to do. Far better than doing a brief that's not 100% you... for nothing.
Any contact that won't pay is not worth having.
I might also add that the smaller the job, often the bigger the stress from the client. And why should this not be true. They've already proved they don't value you by asking you to work for free, haven't they???
Work on spec is *slightly* different. I've been asked by a number of publishers to provide character sketches or work up an idea more before they commit. As the equally lovely, Faye Hanson, remarks (in reply to Sheena's post) we deal in idea's, and sometimes it's often necessary to provide tangible evidence that you not only get a brief, but that you're also 'the man' for the job. Often times in publishing, even if your editor/art director believes in you, the project will be passed by folk who don't know you or your work (and who may not even be hugely visual) before it gets the yay or nay. Working on spec i.e. for free is part of the process of getting commissioned (unless you're Quentin Blake, I'd imagine...?)
Although I recognise working 'on spec' as a part of the process, I recommend exercising caution. And this is where things get slightly hazy. There's a big difference between doing a couple of quick character studies, or marking up a clear storyboard, and doing months of work for free. However, you do have to set your own limits a little.
When I start to worry a line is being crossed, I ask myself two questions;
1. Do I think the client is being reasonable i.e. did I deviate from brief in what I offered/was I not clear enough with what I produced? etc. or do I think they're taking the p*ss?!
2. Am I doing work I'd be able to use to send out to other clients/put in my portfolio, or do I essentially feel I'm going around in circles without creating anything new or useful?
I feel I should point out that the designer/editor you're working with often does not deal with the money end of the situation... or they've been working on other things and haven't realised how long you've been deligently slogging for nada. They're not all ogres!!! But, whatever the reason, particularly if points 1 and/or 2 have been overstepped, you should NEVER feel bad, gently raising the issue of cash. In fact, you should never feel bad about raising the issue of cash period!!!
So, how does work on spec differ from regular work? Work on spec is preparatory or sample work used to gain a commission. Never do work on spec for a client you suspect has no intention of offering you a fair package at the end (if, for example, they've taken other people you know for a ride). If this spec work is not used, you have every right to take it to other clients. Regular work is producing a final project for a client. Once it's done, it's done. Let the regretting begin!
I'm not glossing over how hard it can be to stick to your guns. Especially when you're living one lot of beans on toast to the next and desperate for work, but I am BEGGING with you to consider these things. And never be fooled by anyone into thinking working for free will fast track your career.
We all want to make a living doing what we love. What would happen if none of us charged?
And don't even get me started on copyright...
I strongly advise anyone who's starting out (and doesn't have someone experienced to ask) to get a membership to The AOI. And I know the AOI will HATE me saying this, but even if you get one membership between a couple of you to begin with, it's better than not seeking good advice at all. I know it costs money, but the information you'll be able to gain will pay for itself, monetarily as the jobs mount up.
Also, if you're a fab artist, but too bashful to get your head around the business side, DO get yourself a good agent.
And....are the above couple; bad clients, or initial character sketches of an evil aunt and doting circus master from the book I'm attempting to write....?
Err, anyway, if any of this read's like a complete rant you can blame Sheena!!!