To Share or Not to Share

© John Shelley

 One of the dilemmas faced by illustrators is how much of our work to share on social media. It’s the big wide world of the web, our friends and followers are out there, eagerly awaiting our latest post of finished artwork, work-in-progress, sketches, experiments and doodles. And then there’s the potential clients who scour social media searching for their next hot illustrator, we need to show them what we’re up to! .....Or do we? (By John Shelley)

Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, Tumblr…. All those platforms, all that audience! With a myriad choice of places to post our work online there barely seems enough time in the day to create the art in the first place. So we have to ask ourselves...

Is all this sharing actually doing us any good? 

PRH Senior Art Director and blogger Giuseppe Castellano (@pinocastellano) has sparked a Twitter debate after writing about the down-side of Instagram for illustrators in this thought-provoking article. The crux of his argument is that some illustrators are fixated with ‘likes” and “hearts” to the detriment of their development, sharing their work on Instagram as soon as it’s created, with just enough panache to garner lots of thumbs up from their followers. But Castellano believes addiction to online back-patting is harmful to progress, in that it drowns the voice that pushes you to improve, it prevents us from polishing the work to a superior or more finished state.

"This false praise hardens in our creative veins, blocking off any true sense of self. The truth is that we aren’t as good as we think." (Giuseppe Castellano)

There are cases of illustrators (and writers for that matter!) who are bolstered by hundreds of ‘likes’ from followers online, but then come crashing to earth when they discover the real world of book sales to be a far, far tougher thing to crack, as the work has to stand up in the cold market of the street.

Social Media can be very misleading. Lots of ‘likes’ doesn’t necessarily convert to lots of book sales, or even an increased number of commissions. Equally, the people who might buy your book in the real world may not be the same as those who follow you on Instagram. It could be argued that no self-respecting Art Director would go looking for their next star illustrator on Facebook, though there are undoubtably illustrators who have been commissioned on the back of their Instagram output.

Social Media has a role to play, the problem is that spreading an image across platforms via Hootsuite isn’t the same as placing it in a portfolio, or on a gallery wall, or (of course) getting it published. It’s a transient statement, not a landmark, and yet once it’s shared, from the artist’s point of view it’s public… the impact of revelation has gone, an impact that in itself can be quite limited to who's online at the time. In order to make a lasting impression on our followers (commissioning editors or book buying public) we have to keep posting regularly… fresh images, all the time. So that’s lots of impacts, a pea-shooter pop-pop-pop of images, which we hope adds up to a public platform that might persuade someone to eventually employ you/buy your work.

In this scenario there’s no room for stepping back, for contemplation, for sedate evolution, it's quantity over quality. Also there’s the temptation to tailor your work in a way that’s designed to garner ‘likes’… to be fashionable, pander to your public and actually lose control of your creative individuality.

  “It can definitely aid in boosting visibility in the field for sure! But I also think folks should be aware that creating art just to share can be sabotaging. 'Oh, these people like it, I’m done!"" (Diandra Mae @DiandraMae)

Publishers have mixed views towards illustrators sharing forthcoming books on social media. Many editors would prefer artists keep things under wraps so that the book launch fuels the greatest bang - an explosive BOOM! announcement on the Net, rather than the piecemeal pop-pop-pop of little reveals. But equally we have to build an air of expectation. Reveals and trailers of new releases can be very effective, provided they don’t give too much away.

Personally I’ve no problem posting drawings from life; urban sketches of the world around are transient images of transient scenes and people. But when it comes to development ideas, sketchbook explorations and (gulp) finished artwork from forthcoming work projects, I’ve become a little more wary of late. Some of those sketches might be the kernel of some new direction or piece of artwork. Once I post a sketch online it’s out there, the statement has been made (albeit in rough form), warts and all, it’s less likely I’ll take it forward to a more polished step. Sketchbook ideas are explorations for potentially new work and directions and I’ve become careful of sharing these.

My latest sketch (censored)
A lot of social media sites have extremely dodgy copyright terms, Instagram in particular. If I post final artwork, or even Work-in-Progress, I nowadays tend to take scrappy iPhone snapshots that would not hold up as useable artwork scans in their own right. Once the book is released or about to be released though, I'm happy to post on my website or Blog (though not so much Instagram) - we need to promote our new books!

On the Plus Side 

(Instagram is) “not an end and be all in itself for artists, but I like seeing streams of people ACTIVELY MAKING & SEEING” (Rachelle Meyer @FeathersChapman

Before I put everyone off posting artwork online, let's not forget the benefits. We're artists! Of course we want people to see what we do! Sharing artwork undeniably adds to our image as illustrators. It shows the breadth of work we create, it shows that we’re progressing, busily working, and publishers love to see that! Sketchbook ideas show that we are more than just the work in our portfolios and published books. We have breadth.

The key is to do it in such a way that we don’t become obsessed with the responses - we are in charge of what we post and when, not the voracious beast of social media.

 “It's important that we draw for ourselves rather than recognition on social media. That's not to say we shouldn't share our work online. Just make sure we're not stagnating our improvement with the desire for likes and RT’s” (Lee Robinson @CartoonRobinson

Also, it’s great to have deadlines. Having a platform to focus our sketches etc. encourages us, it pushes us out of procrastination to do things and explore new directions. If you like a weekly or daily challenge, try #Colour_collective, #ShapeChallenge or #PortraitChallenge (the latter two started by Sarah MacIntyre), just three of the many illustration call-outs on Twitter. These are instant-response challenges so are not designed to show our best work, but as a shake-up and community art-game, they can definitely help us to loosen the creative juices.

“Personally I use Instagram to throw concepts out into the ether to see how it performs. A bonus for most illustrators that work in isolation, social media offers a feeling of community” (Keith Frawley @happyidiots)

Admittedly I'm not much of an Instagram user (@studionib), but do use Twitter and Facebook. A while ago I posted a personal “Sketch-a-Day” exercise on my blog and Facebook for 2 months, which gave me the raw material for several later exhibition images. It really worked because it was finite (I stopped when I’d had enough), and I was exploring areas that were different from my regular commissioned work, it was a personal adventure. So sharing is good - as long as we are the boss, we do it for ourselves and our development. And let’s face it, it's good to have a few pats on the back - us lonely studio-bound illustrators need an ego-boost from our peers occasionally!


John Shelley is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures and co-coordinator of the Central East Network. He's illustrated over 50 books for children, many of them published in Japan where he lived for many years, and the USA. Picture books releases in 2016 are Will's Words: How William Shakespeare Shaped the Way You Talk (Charlesbridge, USA) and Yozora o Miage-yo (Fukuinkan Shoten, Japan). Twitter: @StudioNIB  Official Website: 


  1. Thanks John for articulating some pros and cons that often swim about at the back of my mind when I post. I find it works best for me when I see it like a fairly arbitrary game to dip into when I feel like it. It can be stimulating to meet up with and admire the work of supportive communities online, plus the odd call out gets me digging through work buried in my archive when I don't have time to generate something new. This, along with seeing the work in a different context is also can sometime help me get a new perspective on what I'm doing now.

  2. Those are good points Bridget. I have to admit I've yet to understand the attraction illustrators have for Instagram, I don't really see much in the way of community there, just myriads of people clamouring for attention with hashtags, but apparently there are ways you can tweak it to broaden the impact of posts. I agree it's something to dip into, but not get trapped in the deep end.

  3. Thanks for this, John. Social media does not come naturally to me at all, but I go through streaks of pushing myself to post. I don't think I'll ever do it regularly enough to feel like a part of the online community, though. There just aren't enough hours in the day! And I really prefer to socialize in person. Guess I'm revealing my age with this attitude. Ah, well.

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