Instagram Can Be An Artist’s Best Friend Or Worst Enemy
How my Instagram art account failed, and what you can learn from my mistakes
I started an Instagram art account six months ago.
After a year without picking up a colored pencil, I’d started taking art lessons with a local artist. The influence of a teacher was beginning to show in my work, and I was creating some of the best stuff I’d ever drawn. I’d never had an Instagram account before — not even a personal one to post sulky, black-and-white selfies on — so it was entirely new territory for me.
My desire to showcase my work to the world coupled with the success of my artist friends on the platform led me to give it a try. Not to mention, there are plenty of websites out there that are shouting about how Instagram is the next big thing for artists. You want your work to be seen? Forget galleries and exhibitions — all you need is a decent photo, a poetic description and plenty of hashtags.
Still, I was hopeful, but not gullible. I didn’t expect to become the next Banksy, but I figured that I could amass a small following, and maybe land a few commissions if I was lucky.
Unfortunately, I didn’t even meet my already low expectations. After a couple of weeks on the platform, I quickly learned that Instagram was a lot like high school. Either you were going to thrive, or you were going to fade into the shadows. It could be your best friend or your worst enemy.
Instagram was my worst enemy
Niches are my kryptonite
I noticed almost immediately that Instagram audiences loved niche artists. People who had a specific style and stuck with it tended to be pretty popular. If you were a color pencil artist, you only posted color pencil drawings. If you liked to draw digitally, your profile was full of exclusively digital art pieces.
It is possible for people to work with different mediums and still get thousands of followers, but I’d argue that it’s exceedingly more difficult. People like consistency, which isn’t a unique trait to Instagram, but it does seem especially apparent in the Insta art community.
I tend to believe the reason that so many artists grab a niche and stick with it is oversaturation. When you have millions of other people also trying to gain exposure for their work, the market quickly becomes crowded. If you want to stand out, you have to give people a reason to follow you. Users are much more likely to follow the “pointillism” guy or the “gunpowder art” guy than they are the “sculptor/painter/engraver”.
Although this isn’t a problem for established artists who have honed their styles, it was a big issue for me. If you take a look at my blog history, you’ll see that I tend to dabble in everything. One minute I’m discussing homophobia and the next I’m writing about the difference between lattes and cappuccinos. I approach my art the same way. While I enjoy working with markers and colored pencils the most, I’ve recently been experimenting with acrylic inks and I’m inching my way towards acrylic paint.
Experimentation keeps me interested in my work, but it results in a messy, inconsistent profile. My followers are spinning the wheel of chance — never knowing what kind of post they’ll get from me next.
Sporadic posting will slowly kill you (like it has me)
Instagram is a lot like Medium in the sense that it rewards high levels of activity. The more you post, the more followers you tend to attract. This isn’t a bad thing, but it can be tricky for artists who dedicate days or weeks to a piece.
Most of my artwork — that isn’t some doodle I scribbled in the margins of a notebook — take hours for me to complete. And, since I usually don’t spend more than two hours a day on a piece, that means I also don’t post every day. My itty-bitty pool of followers is only graced with a post about every two weeks.
This would be different if I had six hours a day to contribute to my art, but I don’t. Art is my passion, but it isn’t my job. Unless you’re able to commit a lot of time to building your Instagram account and constantly generating new content, it’s difficult to rise to the ranks of the elite.
Followers will jump ship like it’s the Titanic
One thing that really frustrates me about Instagram is the way that people interact with the platform. Everyone is obsessed with follower counts. I’ve noticed that a lot of users have adopted a specific method to do this, and it drives me crazy. Here’s what will happen:
I’ll post a picture of my latest artwork. It’ll probably have some pretentious title, and be riddled with hashtags to increase my chance of exposure. Within twenty-four hours, it’ll get 20–30 likes, and I’ll gain about four more followers. If I like what I see on these users’ profiles, I’ll usually follow them back.
The next day, I log in — only to find that two of those new followers have already jumped ship, and unfollowed. Obviously, they weren’t interested in me because they liked my art — they were really just after a follow-back. These users remind me a lot of gossipy high school girls. They’re nice to your face, but they’re waiting to turn on you the moment you walk away.
This phenomenon might not be as noticeable or irritating if you have thousands of followers, but if you’ve only got fifty or sixty, it’s a little frustrating. It’s one reason why Medium has been a breath of fresh air — people are less concerned with follower counts, and more interested in following content they enjoy.
Everyone wants to “promote” you, but for a price
Since I started my Instagram account, I’ve probably received at least three messages from different art accounts wanting to promote me. The first time it happened, I was thrilled. The account had their own art magazine as well as several thousand followers. Getting a shout-out from them might have been able to catapult me into the paradise fields of five hundred followers.
That heart-pumping joy lasted until I found out that this company would love to give me a shout-out and display my work — if I paid them $15 for it. And, I know that isn’t a fortune, but something in me balks at the idea of it. Had it been Taylor Swift or Grumpy Cat offering to promote me rather than an art account with 30,000 followers, I might have shelled out the $15.
A similar thing happened when another company DMed me, saying they really loved my work. They also had their own magazine and website, and they wanted me to submit pictures of my art to them for the opportunity to be featured in their magazine. Oh, and there was a $35 fee included with entry, too.
Which, there are plenty of contests that require entry fees, but its rare that any of those contests reach out and ask people to enter. If it was a really well-known, reputable company with millions of followers, I might have considered it. But, I’m not about to throw $35 at a company that I’m not even sure will actually consider me for their obscure art magazine. For all I know, they spend their time contacting hungry artists, profiting the $35, and never featuring anybody.
People trying to shout you out in exchange for money isn’t unique to Instagram, but that scam seems to thrive there because so many users are obsessed with their follower counts.
It hasn’t worked for me, but Instagram could be your best friend
I realize that, so far, this article probably feels like a downer to aspiring Insta artists, but there is actually a silver lining here.
Even with every obstacle I faced because of Instagram, the reason I failed as an artist on the platform was still my fault. At the end of the day, I didn’t invest enough time in my art account, and I also didn’t work around the problems of the platform.
There is a reason why you hear so many success stories from artists. A lot of people are able to use Instagram to their advantage, and it boils down to a couple of things.
I posted once in a blue moon, but if you can post at least almost every day, you will build up your follower base. It might not be a lightning-quick way to the top, and some of your followers might jump ship along the way, but honestly, consistency is key to keep people constantly engaging with your content.
Interacting with other artists
One mistake I made along the way was not integrating myself into the art community. I didn’t interact with other artists much, and in return, they didn’t interact with me. Liking, following, and commenting on other people’s work is a surefire way to get seen, and develop a core base of followers.
Creating work that people like
Even if you post a lot and integrate yourself into the art community, it’ll be difficult to get anywhere if people don’t like your work. This is a hard pill to swallow for a lot of artists because art is so diverse and personal, but it is the truth. One thing that does help is finding a particular style and sticking with it. If you can brand yourself as the artist who only does photo-realism or who only paints flowers, you’re likely to stand out more from the crowd.
Instagram is neither bad nor good for artists — it’s really what you make it. My lack of effort made the platform into my worst enemy, but if you learn from my mistakes, it could be your best friend.