Learn the 6 ways Instagram transformed this artist’s career — and freed up more studio time.
By Dina Brodsky
I remember the first time I heard of Instagram. It was a 12-year-old student of mine who described it as “Facebook, but without all the useless words.” I was completely repelled by the idea of not only Instagram but social media in general. I felt like it destroyed our long-term attention span, and I could predict just how addictive and overwhelming it would be. What I couldn’t have predicted was that Instagram would wind up completely transforming my art career. It would lead me to the life I’d always wanted: a financially secure existence where a majority of my time would be spent in the studio, painting.
I first started experimenting with Instagram because I had been told it was a good strategy for artists to supplement their website with less formal process images. At the time, my first son was a newborn, and my studio time was basically nonexistent, as was my sleep. I spent a considerable chunk of every night rocking my baby to sleep and browsing Instagram as a way to occupy my mind.
I was posting photos of the miniature painting project I had started before becoming a mother, and the images weren’t getting much of a response. But I liked seeing what some of the artists I knew were doing in their studio, discovering new artists and galleries, and feeling like I was staying connected, however vicariously, to a life that I felt very remote from at the time.
An “Aha!” Moment
At some point of my sleep-deprived browsing, I came to an epiphany. The art that was getting the strongest response on Instagram wasn’t necessarily the best art; it was merely art that was presented in context and gave you a feeling of being part of the artist’s studio practice. I took some context shots of my own work, posted them on my account, and expected slightly higher engagement. Instead, my account exploded. It started to consistently trend in the hashtags I was using, hitting the explore page, and getting picked up by huge art influencer pages, which exposed my work to an international audience at a size I could have never dreamed of.
Once I realized that Instagram wasn’t random or chaotic — that it was, instead, an algorithm, and, as an algorithm, it could be understood and used — I began to dig deeper into understanding it. Instagram is famously vague about its algorithm, so there wasn’t much information available online. Most of the people that claimed to be experts in social media didn’t seem to know any more than I did. Most of what I learned was intuitive.
I experimented with the presentation of my work and the format of the post, and researched the correct hashtags for my work. (As it turned out, the library job I held while at university proved absolutely invaluable in understanding how hashtags work and finding ones that were the right size for my account.) I never changed the way I worked, or what I painted; the only change I made was in how to present the work correctly for this particular platform.
Instagram gave me opportunities that I could never have imagined. All of a sudden, I had an audience far larger than the audience I would’ve had if my work was hanging in a gallery in a crowded thoroughfare. Eventually, I began to make sales directly through Instagram and established relationships with collectors and art writers. The next time I had a solo exhibition, all of the press I received, as well as a large proportion of the sales, came from Instagram. That was when I first understood what a powerful tool I had discovered.
A Virtual Business Card
Instagram, when used correctly, gives artists the opportunity to take control of every aspect of their art career without having to rely on galleries as gatekeepers. Instagram became a combination of my website, my mailing list, and an artist business card that I could exchange with a fellow artist, or drop into a gallery without being invasive. Eventually (through Instagram) I found two galleries I work with at the moment that I fully trust. They have been incredibly insightful and imaginative in finding exhibition and sales opportunities for their artists. Those few years without any gallery representation gave me a chance to take control of my own career, and that feeling has never disappeared.
More Studio Time
And, all of a sudden, once I became more financially stable, I started finding myself with more time to do what I wanted to do: paint, and spend time with my children, rather than worrying about my finances and working multiple part-time jobs. And that has been Instagram’s true gift. I think of it as a virtual studio assistant that does all of the marketing, branding, and networking for me, leaving me with more studio time than I’ve had in years.
As an unexpected bonus of understanding how Instagram works, I actually spend a lot less time on Instagram than before. I embrace its value as a tool. But I’m also cognizant of its addictive qualities and its ability to distract us from what truly matters: being present in the moment, in real life.
After a while, artists and gallery directors started asking me for advice on growing their own audience on the platform. I learned more about aspects of the algorithm and how they work. Because understanding the Instagram algorithm was so transformative in my own art career, I became passionate about teaching others to use the same tool. I eventually created a class called Insights for Artists, which breaks down the current algorithm, hashtags, presentation, influencer marketing, and everything else you need to know in order to find an audience as an artist.
What Comes Next
I was recently reading an autobiography of one of my favorite authors, Martin Amis. He was talking about writers during a time of revolution and how they have to keep an eye on “what goes, what stays, and what comes next.” The quote struck a chord with me since it could apply to a time of great change, which is what this past year, 2020, has been for all of us. And, possibly, for artists, what goes might be the art market as we knew it. So many galleries that were struggling anyway have not survived this year or might not survive the following one. Crowded art openings and art fairs might also be a thing of the past for a while (as will getting on an airplane to go to Art Miami because that’s where the rest of the art world is).
What stays is art. People will keep wanting to make art, learn about art, collect art in a way art itself is more important now than it’s ever been. As for what comes next, we don’t quite know yet. But it might include a major shift in the power dynamic between artists and traditional gatekeepers, which isn’t a bad thing. It is more important than ever for artists to take and retain control over their own career. And Instagram has been an amazing tool that helps achieve this goal.
6 Instagram Tip for Artists
1. Present your work in context.
Remember that the ideal presentation on Instagram is different than it is for a website. It’s “messier,” and more engaging. The ideal Instagram post makes a viewer feel like they’re in your studio, looking over your shoulder.
2. Keep in mind that a lot of your followers are there to learn from you.
Think of some your posts as mini-tutorials, which break down a part of your process and take people through it step-by-step.
3. Note that hashtags are both chronological (“recent”) and algorithmic (“top”).
The optimal number of hashtags is 5-7 per post. They should be relevant to your work and proportional to the size of your account. That is, the smaller your account is, the more specific your hashtags need to be; the larger it is the more general they can get.
4. Post at a time of day that your followers are most likely to be online.
This varies a bit for each account, but 7 am to 9 am and 7 pm to 9 pm tend to work well.
5. Vertical images have the best track record for engagement.
When it comes to the orientation of your Instagram posts, horizontal or landscape-oriented photos have the lowest rate of engagement. Next in the lineup are square images, and the very best-performing photos are vertical or portrait-oriented images.
6. Remember that Instagram should be a tool, not an addiction.
If you feel it is interfering with your studio practice, take a break from it for a bit. Keep your phone out of your studio, and do anything else you need to do to control it.
Dina Brodsky is a contemporary realist miniaturist, painter, and curator based in Boston, MA. She has taught in several institutions including the Castle Hill Center for the Arts, the Long Island Academy of Fine Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Brodsky leads Insights for Artists, which breaks down the current algorithm, hashtags, presentation, influencer marketing, and everything else you need to know in order to find an audience as an artist, and Instagram For Artists, a workshop helping artists learn how to use Instagram for marketing their art business. A recorded version of the Instagram for Artists workshop is available here. See more of her work at dinabrodsky.com and on her Instagram page, @dinabrodsky.
You may also like:
- Dina Brodsky’s Art Bound podcast episode: Art in the Digital Age
- Instagram for Artists: Why Hashtags are Important
- Make Your Artist Website Work for You