How to react when an artist gives you an unsolicited portrait?
July 14, 2015 5:27 AM   Subscribe

Yesterday I was minding my own business, working on my laptop in a "McCafe", when someone approached the table and handed me a sketch (portrait of me) they had drawn. I thanked him and complimented the drawing. But how would you react?

I was "teleworking" at a fancy McDonald's that caters to the laptop crowd. There's typically 3-8 people on laptops at any given time. Anyway, a younger man (18-25 or so?) approached me with a piece of paper and it was a stylized portrait of me. Personally I thought it was nice and told him so -- thanked him -- then went back to working.

My wife thinks I should have offered to pay him. Or at the very least, offered to buy him a meal. The man was dressed "artistically" but didn't appear homeless or hard-up (groomed appearance, neat hairstyle, clean clothes). I can understand doing more if that was the case. But given the situation, I think offering money or food might have been insulting or going overboard.

The sketch itself is pretty good but it is a basic pencil design from a sketch pad. I am not much of a drawer, but I would imagine it took 15-30 minutes to do. So I don't think this is a big deal either way, but I would like to hear feedback on how I handled it.

If you were the young man, how would you want to be treated?
posted by 99percentfake to Media & Arts (30 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I would assume he's looking for money, and while inwardly I would be aggravated at feeling obligated to pay him, I would still do it. Probably $5.
posted by amro at 5:30 AM on July 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

Are you certain that he wasn't trying to pick you up?
posted by myselfasme at 5:31 AM on July 14, 2015 [5 favorites]

You handled it perfectly. Saying "thanks" is a courtesy but an easy one; strangers don't get to create obligations for you much exceeding that.
posted by ftm at 5:43 AM on July 14, 2015 [44 favorites]

Best answer: As an art student pushing myself to actually be able to draw people I would go to public places and draw the people I saw. If they saw me drawing them I would begin to feel weird about it and sometimes when I finished I'd tear the drawing out and give it to the person, kind of to be like "here, I'm not using your likeness for anything other than practice". But then I had a pile of sketches I felt weird about just throwing out of everyone who hadn't noticed me drawing them. I still have some of them and it still feels weird.

So it might just be that this guy is keeping up his skills but also not wanting to keep his sketches once he's done with them and will give them to the subject if they seem approachable.

Artists have to quickly get used to being really obvious about asking for money. If he wanted money, he'd have given you a price or asked for a donation. If he was trying to get you to pay him through psychic eye beams or whatever don't have any guilt about it; he needs to get better at demanding payment since that's like the #1 artist skill.

It's also possible he was trying to pick you up - a few of the people who I drew then decided to hit on me because apparently that's a thing, ugh.
posted by Mizu at 5:44 AM on July 14, 2015 [31 favorites]

I've had this happen to me, although it was an older person of the same sex as I am -- and who definitely wasn't trying to pick me up.

Believe it or not, some people just like being out in the world and giving small gifts to total strangers with no ulterior motive other than delighting others.

Your artist probably enjoyed handing you his sketch then himself disappearing, and is imagining your puzzlement and surprise with no small measure of happiness. He may even have chosen you because he thought there was less chance of your interpreting his gift as selfishly motivated.

Viva the true romantics. Seriously, how much more interesting is the world.
posted by amtho at 5:45 AM on July 14, 2015 [26 favorites]

I have been approached with a portrait like this and handled it exactly like you did.

It's kind of an unclear interaction (wants to get paid? just wants to share? trying to hit on you?) so the noncommittal "thanks, this is nice" is just fine. You received no other clues. You're not a mind reader.
posted by phunniemee at 5:45 AM on July 14, 2015 [5 favorites]

Also, I've been known to give small things to random strangers of all kinds. I promise I never expected or wanted anything in return.
posted by amtho at 5:46 AM on July 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

I would have been really freaked out if someone did that to me. I mean, really freaked out. There's nothing to stop anyone from sketching me when I'm in public, but the guy's basically calling attention to the fact that he's been looking intently at you without your knowledge. And there's the added pressure of "it's you, you should take it and feel flattered" and the possible "and you should pay me for this thing I made and you didn't actually ask for."

I don't know how the artist would feel, but I'd feel really put on the spot as the recipient. I'd have felt bad if I'd given him money and bad if I hadn't.

I'm glad it was a pleasant experience for you, though. Don't worry about what you should have done; you were fine.
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:48 AM on July 14, 2015 [15 favorites]

Best answer: I would probably smile and thank them, but inwardly I would probably also be mildly creeped out. "You've been staring at me for how long?!" This is why I never show people the sketches I've made of them, and I will stop mid-sketch, forfeiting the practice, if they start to become aware that I'm observing them.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 5:56 AM on July 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

Being unsolicited, you are ethically expected to pay for it. In my case, I almost never carry cash, so even if I really liked it I wouldn't be able to pay for it. I would probably have done something like say "This is great, I love it! You are really good, but I don't have any cash on me so I can't pay for it" and then made a gesture to hand it back to him. That way if he is expecting payment he can take the drawing back, but if he is not, he can confirm that he just wanted to give it to me.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:56 AM on July 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I'm seconding the idea that he was probably sketching for practice but did not want to keep a picture of a stranger around, and I think that's commendable. He was being nice by giving you the sketch, you thanked him, all of that sounds fine to me.
posted by Too-Ticky at 5:58 AM on July 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

A man was doing a similar thing at a place of business when I was in high school - except he was a photographer, taking pictures of women and offering them prints - and he was kicked out of the business and charged with some sort of harassment crime. This is a thing many people would find disturbing. I'm one of them. You don't owe him anything.
posted by something something at 5:58 AM on July 14, 2015 [5 favorites]

Being unsolicited, you are ethically expected to pay for it.

are you sure?

because "if you asked for something, you should pay for it" also seems to be true to me.

and if both of those are true, then whether you asked or not is apparently irrelevant. which means that "you are ethically expected to pay for it" (with no qualification) is true. but that is clearly not true because there are counter examples: sometimes people give things for free!

so something in that chain of reasoning seems to be wrong.
posted by andrewcooke at 6:15 AM on July 14, 2015 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I sketch people in public and am always trying not to be that creepy person who is sketching strangers (which is easier for me as a small white woman than it is for my friend the average sized white man) and I've also been sketched by strangers, including on the bus. I think you handled this fine, and I think that the artist just wanted to give you the sketch. Some people do that as a way of making the whole "yes I'm in public drawing you" thing less weird.

If he were trying to pick you up, he would have hung around and tried to make some kind of small talk or otherwise made the interaction more awkward and more of an interruption to your day.

Similarly, if you had offered to pay him he may have thought you were trying to pick him up, when he just wanted to have a weird art moment.
posted by bile and syntax at 6:20 AM on July 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

andrewcooke: "Being unsolicited, you are ethically expected to pay for it.

are you sure?

Oops, typo. Should be "Being unsolicited you are NOT ethically expected to pay for it." We should really have an edit window or something.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:21 AM on July 14, 2015 [8 favorites]

I will confess how soppy sentimental I was in my thirties. I used to by a single rose and then walk around South Beach using it as a radar antenna trying to find who to give it to. One time I gave it to a homeless woman. One time to a waitress who I saw was crying. One time to a happy couple. It wasn't a pick-up, it was just a thing. If the artist wanted more, he needed to communicate this.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:34 AM on July 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

Another anecdata point, this has happened to me a couple times and I just thanked them for the picture and that was all. You don't need to pay them or even engage past that.
posted by fiercecupcake at 7:33 AM on July 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

I don't think you were obligated to pay anything. This is a relatively well-known hustle, usually the pictures do not take anywhere near 30 minutes to complete. The artist gets to draw, you get a picture to take home if you like it enough to pay for it.
posted by stowaway at 7:40 AM on July 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

That has happened to me a few times in my life. I think "Hey Thanks. Nice job" is fine.
posted by ReluctantViking at 7:46 AM on July 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

Being unsolicited you are NOT ethically expected to pay for it.

Yes, quite this. In fact, this sort of hustling behavior is so common that it has a fancy legal term: officious intermeddler. A classic example would be the person who rushes to clean your windshield while you are stopped at a traffic intersection and then expects payment. Like the example given in the linked Wikipedia page, if while you are away on vacation someone mows your lawn, paints your house, or digs you a swimming pool unsolicited, there is no obligation to pay this person.

I think you reacted fine. I would like to think that the young man was simply doing a small kindness for a stranger. I just want to know if the portrait was good.
posted by Tanizaki at 7:56 AM on July 14, 2015 [9 favorites]

Please give complete strangers a chance to not be duplicitous or creepy. Just give them the benefit of a doubt -- act responsibly, be careful, but try not to automatically assume other people you don't know are trying to take advantage of you.

Otherwise, the world will gradually become worse and worse as trusting, and being trustworthy, start to seem more and more outside the norm.
posted by amtho at 9:22 AM on July 14, 2015 [4 favorites]

I would be a bit annoyed actually - the same as if someone photographed me without my permission. I certainly wouldn't pay for it. I'd probably be so taken aback that I would just open and shut my mouth like a goldfish and mutter something like "That's nice!" and then be full of indignation once he had gone and it was too late to say anything.
posted by intensitymultiply at 9:33 AM on July 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

Geez, I'm surprised at all the cynical reactions here! This happened to me once--a woman came up to me at a coffee shop and handed me a picture she'd drawn of me. I was delighted and thanked her.

The end.
posted by HotToddy at 10:22 AM on July 14, 2015 [5 favorites]

This happened to me once on the NYC subway and I liked the picture so much I used it as my Facebook photo for a long time. I just sort of laughed because I was surprised and said "Oh, nice drawing, thanks!"

Agree that it's really not necessary to assume that every stranger is trying to take advantage or be a creep, sheesh.
posted by holborne at 10:53 AM on July 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I work in animation and my artist friends and I frequently go out and cafe sketch, just because it's good for keeping up the observational drawing skills. I'd say you were definitely under no obligation to offer him money or food--unless you just liked it that much and wanted to strike up a friendship or something. He probably just gave it to you because he was practicing drawing and thought you might like it. I don't think it was a hustle, or he would have stuck around. The way you handled it sounds polite and perfect.

I'm more surprised that he came up to you at all, since he definitely runs the risk of people reacting like they are in this thread. Not everyone likes being drawn, and usually I try to be discreet. If I get the staredown or someone looks angry, I'll switch to drawing someone else. In my personal experience if you're getting drawn it's not because the artist is creepin' on you, it's that there's something really striking or visually interesting about'd make a good subject. I'd only give a drawing to someone if I notice that they're really interested and responding positively to being drawn, and even then I would wait for them to approach and ask.
posted by sprezzy at 11:50 AM on July 14, 2015 [4 favorites]

Say thanks and then go back to what you were doing.
posted by Justinian at 4:07 PM on July 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

He didn't ask for anything, he wasn't being creepy, I would take it in the spirit it was intended - as a gift, and reply just as you did. Actually, I'd be delighted, but that's because I'm an artist myself and I think there should be more of this in the world, but understand that not everyone feels the same way.
posted by Jubey at 4:27 PM on July 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I sketch in public regularly as just a way to keep my drawing skills sharp(ish…) and to pass the time. Sometimes if I think I've gone a particularly good likeness, I'll ask if the person wants it. I don't expect any payment — it'd be like expecting payment for absentmindedly whistling a tune. I generally try to avoid letting people know that I'm drawing them, if only because more than once I've had other people want their pictures drawn, which rapidly exposes the very limits of my drawing talent.

You're not expected to give anything, in general. Sometimes sketch artists will set up and riff on tourists, in which case they're trying to draw you in. You have the same obligation as with other advertising — you don't have to pay McDonalds for the smell of their Big Macs.
posted by klangklangston at 5:59 PM on July 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If this had occurred at a popular tourist spot, I'd think he had some kind of angle but in a McDonald's? Your reaction was perfect.

I occasionally try to practise public sketching but have never approached the subject of a drawing. Some of these reactions confirm my worst fears.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:04 PM on July 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all for these responses. I will mark everything as a favorite and mark the replies from sketchers as "best answer(s)". Maybe I should have typed "tip" instead of "pay" in my question, but I think everyone got my meaning. I didn't feel pressured or threatened, or that it was a sexual overture or the beginning of a confidence scheme. Basically I thought it was a good sketch of me and a nice gift but not a big deal either way.
posted by 99percentfake at 12:04 AM on July 15, 2015

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