Is Social Media Really That Important For An Illustrator?

10 years ago, the way we communicate and promote ourselves online changed dramatically with the arrival of social media platforms. Love it or hate it, these have now become an almost integral part of our daily professional routine, and we have written about this in length in our handy resource

AOI Member Matt Griffin is a freelance Illustrator specialising in book covers, posters and cult films, with an impressive client list that includes Disney, Warner Bros, Arrow Films and Penguin. Like most freelancers, Matt uses popular platforms to promote his work and reach potential clients, and he recently approached us with this piece on the topic.

Like you (I’m guessing) I’m on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I also use portfolio / community sites like Behance and to a lesser degree, Artstation. I’ve tried Ello and that other one that everyone signed up to a few months ago and then left, but they didn’t stick for me. So for the purposes of this article, I’ll stick to the big three.

I don’t use them for personal stuff. I don’t post pictures of my kids (my wife and I decided we didn’t want them to have an internet presence until they’re old enough to make one for themselves). I don’t post pictures of my food or my pet (I only have a goldfish), and I don’t really engage in anything unless it’s related to my business. These sites, for me, are all about work. They are my marketing tools and my access to the wider art community. But for a long time now I’ve wondered if being on them is really that necessary. It’s rare that social media leaves me feeling really positive for longer than a millisecond. I think ‘Maybe I’d be happier, and more productive, off them?’; And so I thought I’d write about it, because I think it’s an important discussion for people in our industry to have.

Let me start with the positives.

Posting my work on social media puts more eyeballs on it. So it’s good for ‘brand awareness’, with some of those eyeballs belonging to potential clients. I have gotten work directly from posting on social media, so I have seen the benefits first hand.

Social media gives me access to my ‘colleagues’ in the professional art community. I have become e-friends with people whose work I’ve admired long before I held my breath and sent a friend request. I’m part of private groups of fellow artists who give feedback, advice and just generally talk industry stuff, which is hugely important for me as there aren’t many in my ‘physical’ social circle that like to talk shop with someone who draws for a living. It’s educational, often inspiring and just plain nice to chat with people who are in the same boat as you.

It lets me hear from people who like the work, and gives me a platform to maybe share some of the insights I’ve gained in 10 years as a freelancer.

Getting positive praise, in the form of comments or even just ‘likes’ on a piece you’ve posted makes you feel good. But, and this is where I veer into the negatives, that is fleeting.

Or the negatives….

It’s well documented that all of these sites were devised to hook you in with dopamine release rewards in exactly the same way casinos do. They don’t want to ‘connect’ people, they want to connect you to advertisers. I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy nut here, but this is sadly true. And so when you put up art and it gets loads of positive comments, you get a little rush of dopamine and you feel great – but not for long. And in what way does that rush service your art? Does it make you a better illustrator? Really, is it only beneficial to your ego?

I need to be clear: I am not preaching from an ego-less pulpit. I do this all the time – post work, then check to see the reaction. Over and over. And when the reaction is good, I feel great for a second. And when it’s bad, I feel crap for a day. That, to me, does not service or benefit a creative career.

Confession: in order to get the little dopamine fixes, sometimes I create work and then rush to post it. I don’t mull over the piece, take huge pleasure in taking days to perfect it, get lost in the art and then think ‘Oh right, I should probably post this.’ I used to. But not any more. Now my addicted brain tells me ‘This is good enough – post!’ even though I might feel I could do better.

Then of course, there is the time spent in the fruit machine of endless scroll, taking in snippets of information or inspiration that are easily forgotten, looking at other people’s progress and wondering when I’ll get there, wherever ‘there’ is. That’s not healthy.

Is it making me a better artist?

And so I wonder, more and more, is this helping me to become a better artist? Am I really fulfilling my potential? And if I gave up social media and instead filled my head up with books, movies, etc and made art again for the passion, the burning desire to get the cool stuff out of my head and onto paper (or jpeg), would I not improve and fulfil my ambitions so much quicker? And as for those ambitions, is it to have 50k followers, or is it to make really great work?

I haven’t killed my accounts yet, and I’ve been feeling like this for at least a couple of years. Another inner voice tells me it would be silly (and commercially damaging) to kill the eyeball-access my social accounts give me. And I’d leave the community I mentioned too. The voice tells me to keep them going and to try and lessen their importance – spend less time on them, stop caring if a post gains any kind of traction. Surely I can just manage my own brain and spend more time working? But, as a nicotine addict of 25 years, I can tell you it’s easier said than done.

If I did kill my accounts, become a luddite and spend all of my time reading and drawing what would my alternatives be for marketing my work? I’ve made plenty of contacts now so I could do email I guess. But what about new clients? I have an agent, they could do it. Maybe I’m the only one who can answer this for myself, but I’m interested to hear what you think. What’s a healthier alternative? Or should I just accept that social media is an essential part of being a commercial digital artist?

I guess I just think it’s important to talk about it.

And then post about it on Facebook.

We loved what Matt had to say – so we asked him a few more questions ourselves:

We’ve noticed that you have set up a closed group instead of continuing posting from your Facebook page. Why this decision? 

I noticed more and more that I wasn’t getting any engagement on my Facebook page posts. At least, it was totally disproportionate to both the number of followers I had on the page and the engagement the same post would get on other platforms. I realised that this was because Facebook wants you to pay to promote your posts. So unless I was willing to do that, the posts were only showing up in a few feeds (as opposed to the 2,500 it was intended for). A fellow artist advised me to set up a group, as members of the group get a notification of a new post regardless of any algorithm.

I also thought (as it is a more private set up) I could try to create a more inclusive, conversational platform. I had grand visions of live chats, writing tips, live drawing, behind the scenes, etc. And I could use it to post kind of ‘exclusive’ stuff, like WIPs. But actually I can’t really guarantee posts in the group won’t get shared outside it – I don’t know everyone in it, and the consequences of having, say, a DVD cover revealed before the client did would be disastrous. And I’ve found the time to do the live drawing hard to come by. And also, if I’m honest, are there many people who are actually interested in that from me? Part of the whole group thing gives me the heebie jeebies – the thought that I would be blessing people with ‘exclusive’ access to me. Ugh.

I still would like the group to be more of a direct contact where I can talk to people interested in my work, maybe offer some tips or share thoughts on the industry. But really, so far, it’s just another place to post work and see who likes it. And has it yielded good results? Well it tends to be the same group of people engaging with the posts, so it’s not expanding my reach in any way. Maybe I’m just doing it wrong. I would like to change that though. If I stay on Facebook that is.

We see a lot of discussions about the industry between Illustrators on Twitter. Do you think this is a good platform to carry such discussions?

I think any platform that encourages discussion in our industry is a good thing. But Twitter is very public. Can you really speak your mind on a platform where anyone can see it? Maybe it’s just me, but I would always be wary about what I put out there. I always have the fact that clients follow me in the back of my mind. So for me, a private forum would be better. You can have a proper moan in a private forum!

For example, I find the bigger the client, the less likely they are to credit you. Those big clients have massive followings, and if they gave proper credit and tagged your handle, it would have great PR/marketing potential for the artist. Unfortunately that rarely happens in my experience. But I wouldn’t publicly give that out on Twitter, because those clients follow me, and I am not going to do anything to jeopardise repeat business.

What do you think is the future of the ‘big three’ (fb, twitter, IG)? 

I really don’t know! We keep hearing of the demise of Facebook, and I’ve written this article bemoaning it all, but I’m still on there. And the fact is that these days social media platforms are our shop window. If there was a platform solely for artists and art directors, where industry-related discussions can happen and generally connect the artists to the people commissioning the art, then I would be all for it. Maybe Behance is meant to be that, but I would love to know the number of art directors who actually use it. My feeling is it tends to be a place where artists admire each others’ work rather than the people who buy it. But I have had some work out of that too.

I think what we are missing is a direct link to the people who will pay us for our work. And also a place where we artists can talk with each other openly without fear of losing clients!

Another risk of using social media is that there’s more danger of having your work ripped off. It’s happened to me and many others: T-shirt companies flogging awful low-res versions (Teechip being the worst offenders), etc. It’s a risk we take in the promotion of our art. Some people watermark their work, but that ruins the image. Better to have a site where you just can’t right click the image or take a screen grab (and we know the tech is out there to make this happen).

I don’t think the future of social media depends on artists using it for their marketing. But I think we artists need to ask ourselves if we are using it for the right reasons. And I think a new platform just for us and our clients would be a great thing.

Let us know what you think! Send your thoughts over to us on twitter (oh the irony): @theaoi

Many thanks to Matthew for the article. Make sure to find him and his work online:

Instagram / Twitter / Facebook / Behance


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