Getting Started on Instagram: Tips for Artists

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Getting Started on Instagram: Tips for Artists

If you're an artist -- I use this term broadly: creative, maker, crafter, photographer, etc -- new to social media, or have only ever used it casually and not for business, often times approaching social media can be very daunting. Where to begin? How do I start? What do I post? I often like to give the advice to start out by picking one platform and do it really well. For most people that make and create things, the best place to start is Instagram.

Instagram is a wonderful platform to build community, share what you're working on, drive sales, and make a space for yourself within your industry. Here are a few stats: has over 400 million active users, with 80 million photos uploaded every day. (Currently as of September 2015 there are over 400 billion photos on Instagram!) Instagram is also really easy to get the hang of, while it's not this simple it's pretty accurate: you point, shoot, and upload your picture. Out of all of the platforms, in my opinion, Instagram is the easiest to use immediately.

Let's discuss tips and best practices to get you started on the popular photo app. All of the below are just suggestions, you can pick and choose what you want to utilize, or use them all. The importance is that you create a feed that's unique to you.

Tips for artists getting started on Instagram - Example of Jen Hewett's account

Develop a Style

Instagram's profile page automatically shows the most recent photos in a 6-9 grid. As you start to build out your feed, occasionally look at your profile. Does it refelct a solid look? Does it portray your work and business in an interesting light? Would you follow this account?

This area should look as cohesive as possible, there's only a few seconds to grab people's attention and prompt them to follow. When people visit your account the photos and your bio is what they see immediately, they'll often scroll too. So make sure your most recent images tell a story about what you offer, and what followers can expect. Artist Jen Hewett's look (above) is incredibly cohesive, while still professional with a hint of personal. She shares images of her dog Gus, as well as works in progress, recent shows, and inspiration among other things. Photographer Isaac McKay-Randozzi's account tells you immediately what his work is about: his images are all black and white and portray a very clean eye from an urban photojournalist. 

Tips for artists getting started on Instagram - Example of Isaac McKay-Randozzi's account

Treat it like a portfolio

Many artists (especially photographers, like McKay-Randozzi above ) choose to use Instagram as a way to showcase their work and treat it very much like a portfolio. Specifically using it show their work and creative life (shows, jobs, process shots, works in progress, etc) and share very little personal photos on purpose.

Illustrator Chris Piascik does a great job showcasing his daily illustrations, and every now and then sharing images of his personal life. Some followers really love to see behind the scenes in someone's life. This is a totally personal decision, it's also your feed. Meaning you get to decide what's important for you to share. A smart way to figure out how you want to approach this is by setting goals before you dive in on social media.

Tips for artists getting started on Instagram - Example of Chris Piasciks account

Artist Lisa Solomon does a fantastic job of sharing her work and creative life while offering a peek into her personal life. She has made a personal decision to never show her daughter's face, but does a wonderful job balancing privacy while sharing moments that resonate with her followers.

Something that's great about social, is you can experiment and tweak as you go. Pay attention to what your followers respond to and engage with. They'll let you know what works and what doesn't. Instagram is highly engaging, likes and comments will... If you decide at some point you no longer want your feed to look portfolio-esque, mix it up!

Tips for artists getting started on Instagram - Example of Lisa Solomons account

Share your work and practice

Perhaps you don't want to have a strictly portfolio style account. I totally understand that. But please do share your work! And lots of it! People gravitate to artists and creatives online because they want to be inspired, they want to see beautiful things, and above all they admire you.

It doesn't only have to be finished work though. Share inspiration behind the work, your studio space, works in progress, art of yours that has found a home. Give followers a look into your life and work in only a way you can offer. That's why they follow you. Share products you're working on, or editorial work that has been published or even scratched. The sky is the limit really! You get to make the rules here, but always share your work.

Consistency is key

The most important thing you can do online is stay consistent. Like I mentioned above create a style that your followers will recognize you for not only visually but your tone as well. Stick to a steady schedule as well. I follow some accounts that post up to 4x a day and I absolutely love it, because I enjoy the content they post. But I have unfollowed accounts who flood the feed consistently with images I can't relate to. Find a happy medium of where you feel comfortable. While it may sound tacky to discuss this openly, many artists and individuals use their Instagram to find work and projects, so taking it seriously and outlining do's and don'ts is ultimately taking care of their business.

Format your bio

Instagram offers you 150 characters for your bio - take advantage of this by formatting your bio to spell out who you are. You can do this one of 2 ways: the first is log into Instagram on your computer and edit your bio from your desktop. Add page breaks, emojis, and spaces to give your bio a smoother look. Or the second way, is to use the Notes app on your smartphone; create your copy there then cut and paste in your bio on the app. Keep in mind that a formatted bio only appears on the app and not the desktop.

Tips for artists getting started on Instagram - Example of editing your bio

Hashtag, hashtag, hashtag:

Hashtags are a great way to gain more exposure for your images, and your account. When you add hashtags to the caption this automatically adds your photo to groups of other photos with the same hashtag. For instance a great hashtag is #wip - which stands for work in progress, many people follow this hashtag to engage with art and artists, and it's a great way to share what you're up to.

Using hashtags are simply a way for people to find images and new accounts to follow. They're also a smart way to get involved in conversations and find other people within your community. (I use the hashtag #YearOfMaking because of the current self-imposed project I'm doing, and I also love to check out the #watercolor tag where I have found many new artists to follow whom use watercolor.)

There are a lot of schools of thoughts around hashtags, but I firmly believe that the use of hashtags are a good thing on Instagram. They expose you to more people, and get your images in front of people who are looking for specific topics. It's entirely up to you how many hashtags you want to use. Instagram only allows 30 and only you can add hashtags to your images that work.

People can be pretty judgmental when you overload your image with hashtags, so I would encourage you to use them sparingly and succinctly.

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Build a community:

Something I really value about Instagram is the community I've created and become a part of there. Many artists I have spoken to feel the same way about the engagement they receive there as well. It's such an encouraging platform.

You don't need thousands or even hundreds of followers to have a strong, and loyal following. You can have a very engaged audience with only a small community. Don't let follower counts inhibit your posting.

Here are a few suggestions for building your own community:

  • Be authentic and honest with your captions and images, people like to follow real people!
  • Use hashtag searches to find like minded accounts.
  • Comment on people's images that you follow. (Otherwise if you're commenting on photos of someone you don't follow, it can come come over as a little disingenuous e.g. like you are trolling for followers)
  • Respond to comments on your own photos -- you don't need to respond to every comment, but do engage with comments that require a response. If you are in the tens of thousands of followers this isn't an option, nor is it scalable. But if you get a handful of comments that are genuinely engaged with what you've posted, reply. I always say to people in workshops who don't understand the importance of replying: "Would you ignore someone in person if they commented on something you made? No."

If you are looking for more information about building an engaged following read my post on Minted's blog Julep, 9 Ways to Build a Social Media Following.

Follow Industry Insiders and Peers

Along the same lines of building a community, stay in the know by following other artists and insiders within your field like publications, brands, art directors, etc. Ann Friedman recently said that she subscribes "to the garbage-in, garbage-out philosophy. If you’re not consuming interesting things, you won’t produce interesting things.” when referring to her own writing and the content she consumes. I think this can be applied to following people on social media; follow accounts that inspire and post content that you find engaging and that offers value. Don't follow people that bring you down, or whose feed's you don't enjoy.

Don't use Instagram filters:

I'll be the first to admit it, I was a serial abuser of filters from 2010-2012. I think most people were. But now I rarely ever use Instagram's filters. I do however use VSCO (more on that below) mood every now and then because they're great for adding a mood, but Instagram filters make images look dated, grainy, and obscure the actual image. If you really must use filters, do not use borders.

Do use their editing tools:

As Instagram has gotten older they've seriously improved the platform. It's no longer the basic photo app with a handful of filters. (Landscape and portrait images are now supported on the app, say goodbye to making your photos square for every single upload.) As the app has grown so have the ability to edit your photos. Instagram's editing tools are powerful and useful and can really make your images pop. Get to know them and how they'll make your images better.

Other tools for editing are Snapseed (iPhone/Android), Camera+, and VSCO. Not only can they make the difference in what a photo looks like, they also offer great cameras too -- so try shooting within the app. Experiment with different ways of photographing and editing -- you'll soon discover what you like and what works. Victoria Smith of SFGirlbyBay shoots all of her photos on the VSCO app, and most of the photos in her latest book, See San Francisco were shot on her phone!