Spec art - a Big No No - or is it? Many organizations , like the Graphic Artists Guild routinely advise to "Just Say NO to Spec Art!" On the surface I whole heartedly agree. But I think there needs to be a distinction made between Bad and Good spec art and how to tell one from the other.
Good Spec Art.
Now there's nothing wrong with a potential client asking to see how you would visualize their concept - asking for and paying for it with a fee. Since they're spending money they tend to really narrow the pool of illustrators and there is a good chance that there will be a paying project in the future with them.
There are even some fields where creating spec art is the norm. When I first freelanced for greeting card companies I would submit 3 - 6 finished art for greeting card designs. The companies provided potential freelancers with art specs. Example: size 5 x 7", schedule for reviewing art for birthdays, Christmas, etc. They did not review sketches or samples that were not formatted for cards. They just wanted to see your available to be acquired art. it should be noted that the companies rarely approached artists to do spec. Rather it was the artists researching the companies to see how to submit art. Yes they bought some and did not buy others. True to it's name it was a speculative endeavor - but if you were interested in freelancing for Recycled Paper Products, Inc and other card companies back than that was the game. I believe it still works the same but I have not approached them in recent year.
Anytime you create a manuscript/picture book dummy, visual activity for a magazine, etc. you are creating spec art. You're taking a gamble on creating your project and submitting it to the right place. The distinction is that it is a self-generated project and most likely some of it makes for nice portfolio pieces.
There's also a gray area. About a year ago I attended a seminar where the Guest speaker a prominent editor from a kids publishing house. Mentioned that he was looking for illustrators for the following manuscripts that were already under contract. He gave out a brief synopsis of each picture book and invited us to submit appropriate samples. Now if you just happened to have art that fit - great. BUT what if you didn't but wanted to be considered. Your only choice would be to create spec art -assuming you had the time. Which is what I did - with eyes wide open that the odds were against me. Did I get the contract - no. But I did get portfolio pieces out of this endeavor as it filled a gap. Maybe next time - I'll be able to just send a sample.
BAD Spec art the kind you should always say NO to - is usually requested by someone else as a sample to show how you would approach a project.... and if they like it ... you get the job, contract etc. The problem is that they are not just satisfied with looking at the samples in your portfolio that already show that you can do "it". What they want is art specifically created with their specs for free. You are handing them a free layout, sketches, finished illustration etc. In other words a cattle call that rarely results in getting the job. Now if you have cute mice in your portfolio, why should you draw 1 more cute mouse in a flamenco dress for said person/company. Yes this is a request for spec art I actually received after I sent them to my animals portfolio and even sent them lo-res jpg samples of my illos of my mice in various outfits. In this case if you did honor the spec request you would not even get the benefit of having a nice new illos for your portfolio because it would not add anything new to it. As to getting the job - most of the time it never materializes.
The keywords here are requested, Free art and self-generated.