4 Artists Share Tips for Using Instagram to Grow Your Art Practice

Eli Hill
Apr 10, 2019 9:53PM

Alexa Meade, Alli Harvard Gets Pink Outlines. Photo by Jenna Carlie. Courtesy of the artist.

If used wisely, social media has the power to create community, provide a kick of inspiration, and help us visualize what we find important. But for artists who want to gain visibility or grow a following on social media, using such apps and online platforms can quickly become a source of frustration and isolation. To help, we spoke with four artists and one social media expert about how artists can use their social media habits to strengthen their art practices.

Use Instagram for more than just posting images

All of the artists noted that Instagram was either the only social media platform they use or the one they turn to the most. For illustrators, designers, and contemporary artists alike, Instagram is a visual playground for publishing images of artwork, connecting with other artists, and mining inspirational fodder for art.

Emma Kohlmann, an artist based in rural Massachusetts who creates colorful, figurative paintings and drawings, said that by following museums and unofficial archives on Instagram, she happens upon new content she wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. Meanwhile, Elise R. Peterson, an interdisciplinary artist and children’s book illustrator who is based in L.A., uses the platform to get her work in front of the eyeballs of people she admires––such as Thelma Golden, who approached Peterson at an event to compliment her work after first seeing it online. And for Katherine Bradford, a beloved contemporary painter who splits her time between Maine and New York, going on Instagram is a way to reconnect with other artists after spending the day alone in her studio. “The reason I pay attention to my Instagram account, both what I post and what I look at, is curiosity and a desire to learn,” Bradford explained.

Focus on engagement, not your follower count

For some, likes, follower counts, and comments can become a source of validation. But if artists view these interactions as qualifiers for their artwork, they may be headed in a self-destructive direction.

“I try as much as possible to not look at my social media, though it may sound counterintuitive,” said Alexa Meade, a visual artist with over 224,000 followers on Instagram who is known for painting directly on people’s skin, within elaborate, brustroke-filled scenes. “I try not to internalize it too much, because whatever I make in this world, I don’t want it to be geared towards how many people click a button.” For Meade, and others, sharing artwork that they feel strongly about personally is more important than reaching any set number of followers.

Hannah Ray, a social media specialist who works with individual clients as well as publications like Vogue, echoed Meade’s sentiment. “Having a large follower count almost never equates to actual influence,” Ray explained. Instead of focusing on growing your following, she suggests that artists focus on developing a stronger connection to the audience they already have by considering who follows them, and how they can stay engaged with them.

“If you have a baker with 11,000 followers getting 11,000 likes on every post, this is way more powerful than a lifestyle consultant with 500,000 followers who are so disengaged with their content, they never see their posts, and therefore are speaking to almost no one,” Ray said.

To start engaging more genuinely with your audience, Bradford suggests that artists leave thoughtful comments on each others’ posts—beyond rote phrases like, “congrats” or “beautiful.” Bradford and Ray both suggest that artists promote other artists on their feeds, too. “Focus on the real people who are jazzed about what you’re doing—interact with them in DMs, comments, follow and like back—be as interested in their real lives as you want them to be in yours,” Ray added.

Be honest

Another common piece of advice is to try not to take yourself too seriously on social media. Though it sounds cliché, giving your audience a true look into your life is one of the best ways to connect with others online.

“Be honest about where and how you’re making work,” Peterson offered. “I show that I have my son in my studio a lot, that I have to take breaks to watch Motown Magic with him or go on walks; it all relates back to being honest.” In addition to showing how she balances her creative practice and parenting, Peterson also posts in-progress shots alongside images of finished projects.

Recently, she’s been working on a large installation project that involves sculptural techniques she’s using for the first time. Upon showing her latest process shots and videos, followers have sent many excited messages, curiously wondering about the strange foamy material she’s been using. “I love that!” Peterson said, “because I feel the exact same way with this new process.”

Consider the details of your posts

While Peterson warns against taking yourself too seriously, she advises that artists use a strategic approach. “If you’re posting because you want people to see the work, then pay attention to when people are the most active on your page,” she said. To find the best times to upload, Ray recommends switching your Instagram settings to a business account. That way, you’ll receive basic analytics for each of your posts.

In addition to monitoring ideal posting times, another key aspect to pay attention to is the quality of your image. “I do pay a lot of attention to getting a good image,” Bradford explained. “The advice I’d give for an artist who’s just starting out on Instagram is this: If you think of Instagram as a trade newspaper, then you want to post something in it that’s worthy of a newspaper.” Bradford advises asking yourself if you think the content you’re posting will feel important or interesting enough to others, and if the image you’re sharing will stand out and tell a story.

Bradford also highlighted several bothersome Instagram behaviors that she advises artists avoid: the misuse of hashtags; posting poor-quality images; and posting a lot when you have an exhibition, even though you typically never engage with social media.

Meade noted that artists should also avoid posting in the style of an “influencer”––for example, posting videos of themselves “vlogging” to their audience, or asking questions in the caption of their post to gain more comments—as that can distract from an artist’s practice. “Every time I see an artist employing those types of tricks, it makes it harder for me to actually look at their art,” she said. Like her peers, Kohlmann noted her appreciation for artists who use social media to foster community, instead of simply blind self-promotion. “It’s not just about you and your exposure,” Kohlmann said. “It’s about learning about other people’s practices and how you relate to them.”

Eli Hill