How Artists Use Instagram
to Present and Sell Their Art
Instagram is a great place for artists to sell art. It's no panacea and it certainly doesn't work for all artists and all art, but like any other online platform, it has its protocol and procedures that generally tend to yield positive results. If your approach to making and getting exposure for your art happens to match up with what you're about to read, you may well fall into the category of Instagram artists who sell, many of whom sell their art quite well. For those of you who either don't yet have an Instagram account or who already do but aren't having much success, the following information will help you understand and implement an image feed that users will hopefully find worth paying attention to and following.
What differentiates Instagram from other social networking platforms is the pronounced lack of words; it is overwhelmingly visual and experiential. While on one level, words are essential to describing, explaining, analyzing, understanding and critiquing art, on another level, tons of people out there despise how they intrude on the pure art experience. Not only that, but all kinds of artists simply hate having to come up with verbal explanations for everything they do, and for every work of art they make. And all kinds of people who love looking at art also hate having to plow through tons of inscrutable verbiage in order to get to the prize-- the visual pleasures of the art itself.
The mobility of Instagram is another reason why it's so successful. The simplicity and directness of it all coupled with the instantaneousness of communicating whatever you're up to no matter where you are or what you're doing is perfect for today's hyper-connected on-the-move lifestyles. No need to go home and fire up the desktop or find the nearest coffee shop and haul out the laptop; everything's done from the convenience of your phone, posting as well as viewing. You upload the latest images of your art and your creative life, your followers get the experience of being right there with you, and the best part? You get instant feedback in the form of "likes" and comments, and often plenty of them.
But it's not all fun and games. Serious buyers, collectors and people who just plain love art use Instagram to find out which artists are making compelling work, how they spend their time and most importantly, follow and keep track of what kinds of art they post in order to see how consistent and productive they are. They can evaluate whatever art they look at without any pressure, without anyone yapping in their ears about what it means, why it's significant, why the artist is hot, why it's a good investment, why they should buy now, and on and on. In a sense, the platform strips away all the pretense and bullshit, and forces artists to make cases for their art with little or no hype, to connect with people on visceral fundamental levels and from there, present themselves in visually engaging ways. In other words, Instagram is the perfect way to display the full range of your skills and talents and show the world how committed and serious you are about being an artist.
Of course, fans who follow your feed are key to your success. For example, when they "like" certain images, their followers can see those images, and if they like them too, can decide to follow you as well... and so on. Word of an interesting or entertaining feed can travel lightning fast and you can attract hundreds or even thousands of new fans in surprisingly short periods of time. But simply getting more and more followers is not enough; you also have to keep them. The way you do this is through your story, your narrative. It has to be good; it has to get people involved and hold their attention for more than short periods of time.
Now if you happen to fall into that category of artists who think they have no story, as quite a few artists do, think again. Take a moment to reflect on what inspires you, how you decide what to make, how you prepare to make it, acquiring supplies or materials, where you make it, how you make it, how it progresses from initial idea to finished piece, and once you're done, what it looks like on display. That's pretty much all you need. Any artist can do this; every artist has a story. The only thing holding you back is your own imagination and ability to relate that story in pictures.
But you also have to be patient. Don't expect to thrill your fans right off the top. As with everything else in life, practice makes perfect and experimentation is a big part of that. So don't be afraid to continually test new ways and approaches of posting. If one doesn't work, try another... and another... and another. Sooner or later you'll figure it out, but you have to be willing to put in the effort to get there and occasionally embarrass yourself along the way.
If you're going to take Instagram seriously, posting pretty much every day is highly recommended, and anywhere from one or two images on up to a handful (but not much more than that). They don't all have to be art, but should at least relate to your art in one way or another and give followers insight into who you are as an artist and what you believe your work stands for. You also have to be making new work on a reasonably regular basis because that's what your followers really want to see. You're giving people a window into your artistic life and hopefully that life is a productive one. All kinds of people out there are fascinated with artists, how inventive they are, with the ways they live their lives, and of course with the art they produce. Keep them coming back for more with ongoing action and they'll become dedicated fans.
Being open, honest and giving is another essential part of getting "likes" on your posts and growing your fan base. Don't be afraid to show people where or how you work, and images of art in process. Let them in on what you do, how you do it, and don't obsess that someone might steal your secrets or ideas, or copy whatever you're doing and make one just like it. You don't have to tell absolutely every last secret, but people genuinely appreciate being able to see the world behind the art. If you want to be stingy or proprietary about how or what you post, Instagram is not for you. New followers come as a result of sharing in unselfish ways. Give people what they want and the "likes" and comments will pour on in. At some point, they'll start spreading the word about your posts by adding names of friends (@person'sname) to their comments in order to call attention to what you're doing, and even encourage them to follow you as well.
Once you get the hang of things and start posting regularly, an ongoing documentation and account of your artistic life begins to unfold. If you stick with it over time, your photo stream ultimately evolves into a journal, record or diary of where you've been, where you were headed at various points in your life, and all this richly illustrated with images of art you made along the way. As for your followers, the platform is a great way for them to take time out from whatever they're doing, instantly tap into your ongoing saga, and catch up with you as well as their other favorite art and artists-- all this without any obligation, interaction or other requirements to slow them down. For you and your followers alike, you can easily and effortlessly connect with each other and expand your networks the world over. It's all right there for the taking.
Artists and collectors will tell you they love Instagram because they can see lots of art all at once without having to wade through tons of non-art-related posts, videos, news stories, discussions, announcements and so on like you have to on sites like Facebook or Twitter. It's instant visuals and plenty of them. Artists can see who's commenting on their art, quickly check out anyone who makes interesting remarks or observations, see what those people's feeds look like and who they follow, and decide whether to follow them, contact them or maybe even follow some of their followers if they're engaging enough. Not only is communication fast and easy, but artists are able to make genuine in-depth connections that often end up playing out in real life.
As for the commerce part, sales are being made at a variety of price points, not just for a few hundred dollars and below, but well on up into the thousands... and beyond. In addition, artists are getting commissions, invitations to participate in shows or exhibitions, offers to use their art for commercial purposes, and more. Interested buyers usually begin by direct-messaging artists about specific works of art. If the artist isn't familiar with a potential buyer, they can look at that person's posts, see who follows them, who comments on their feeds and what they have to say. In the process, they're able to decide if or how to respond, and assuming the conversation continues, they typically go back and forth with each other by email and eventually move on to the specifics of the sale.
Now here's the important part. Any artist who wants to sell their art on Instagram must be prepared to sell just as easily and immediately as they post. In other words, you have to know exactly how much you want for it, how payment is to be made, how it will be packed and shipped, and respond to any other concerns that buyers may have. Things happen fast here; the last thing you want to do is slow the momentum of a potential sale with uncertainty about how to proceed.
The pieces you have for sale also have to be updated regularly, usually somewhere else on the Internet like on your website, a group art website, or another social networking page. New works have to be added; sold ones have to be removed. Some artists have PDF files that they email to interested buyers showing what's for sale, and also updating them on what's been happening in their careers. Others post art for sale on e-commerce sites like Big Cartel or Shopify. Paypal is another a great way to securely pay for art whether the buyer has a Paypal account or not. Since Instagram only allows users to have only one web link, a number of artists have that link go directly to a gallery page or wherever their art is for sale.
So there you have it. Used effectively, Instagram is not only a great way to get your name and art out in front of the public, but also to get that art into the collections of people who will love and cherish it for the rest of their lives.
Thanks to Ferris Plock, Amandalynn, Porous Walker, Bunny Reiss, Scott Hove and June Leeloo for their generous assistance with this article.
If you're interested in consulting on any aspect of your art or art career, you're more than welcome to call me at 415.931.7875 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
(art by Wanxin Zhang)
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