In this episode of Nela’s Art Chat I’m sharing a Neocolor II water-soluble pastel drawing process of a stylized red-haired lady in my sketchbook, while talking about balancing the roles of artist and content creator on social media.
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Full transcript is included below!
Tools used in this drawing:
- Hahnemühle Art & Report sketchbook (discontinued)
- Kreul matte gray acrylic paint (not shown in the video) + flat brush
- Derwent Studio colored pencil – Imperial Purple
- Caran D’Ache Neocolor II water-soluble pastels
- Pentel Aquash waterbrush – Large size
- Stabilo All black water-soluble pencil
For centuries before the internet became available to the average person, there was a clear distinction between producing creative work, and publishing or promoting it.
Writers, painters, musicians, directors, sculptors, and choreographers would spend months or years producing a new body of work in the privacy of their studio. Only when the work was ready to be shared with the audience, the creator (or their publicist) would make arrangements to announce the new project in the media, and give radio, TV, and magazine interviews.
While the artist was focused on their next big thing, they were not expected to be at the audience’s beck and call. There was a time to dive deep into their creative process, and there was a time for attention and conversation. If a music band didn’t release a new record for over 10 years, there was no way of knowing what was going on with them, and if there would even be a new record ever again.
Since creatives started using websites, email newsletters, and social media to keep their fans up to date, these two processes have blended together and it’s difficult to tell them apart. We’re expected to come up with morsels of content on a daily basis so our audience wouldn’t forget about us, because apparently everyone today has the attention span of a goldfish.
It may be different in other industries, but in visual arts and literature there is an expectation that we need to keep people engaged in between big releases, while creating said big releases at the same time. That is a significant burden for folks who don’t have a publicist or a marketing team, and do everything themselves.
Part of it is the time it takes to produce a weekly article, or a podcast, or a vlog, or a livestream, or a dozen images and thoughtful captions.
The other part is all the creative energy that is diverted from something important and substantial towards something ephemeral.
After two decades(!) of almost non-stop posting, I started to feel like I’m devaluing my art.
I don’t mean economically devaluing, like it’s not “exclusive” enough if I post it online, or anything like that. I’m not selling my paintings, so there’s nothing to devalue in that sense.
The type of devaluing that I’m concerned with is commodifying my art in order to receive units of attention. Turning “art” into easily consumable “posts” on a semi-regular schedule.
Basically, turning art into content.
I think there’s a distinction between art and content.
This video is content. I produced it with the aim of creating something useful and interesting for the lovely people of the Internet. I hope it will get views, comments, likes, and shares, so that more people can find it and enjoy it. I’m not receiving any monetary benefits because I chose not to monetize my videos. I hate video advertisements, I don’t want to force them on my viewers, and I hope that you appreciate the fact that I choose not to make money and allow you to watch this video uninterrupted. You’re welcome!
The artwork I created while recording this video is not content. It’s art. I didn’t make it for you, or for anyone else. I made it for myself. This artwork has intrinsic worth, whether I publish it anywhere or not.
Some artworks I choose to publish, some I choose not to. Since I stopped using Instagram, I scaled back how much art I post online. This has allowed me to disentangle “art” from “content” in my head.
I used to publish images of my art the same day, sometimes within an hour of creating it. Now I go weeks or months without publishing anything, even when I’ve been creating lots of work.
I have a healthier relationship with my art than I’ve had in many years.
I clarified for myself when I’m in the role of an artist, and when I’m in the role of a content creator. I do enjoy both, and I’m not knocking content creators. I just don’t want to be reduced solely to that role.
I know that my role as a content creator is more important to other people, because that’s what concerns them. Everyone watching and reading my stuff is asking themselves “What’s in it for me? Why should I care?” I get that. I’m doing that as well when I consume content.
But my role as an artist is more important to me. And for my own self-care and wellbeing (which I talked about in episode 7), I choose to spend more time creating art than creating content.
When I was younger I felt like I had to “give back” to the Internet for all the free educational value I received. I wanted to give back because I thought it was fair. And after all these years, I think I made a net positive, and I don’t “owe” the world anything else.
I owe it to myself to create the best work that I’m capable of, and this requires getting off the content creation hamster wheel. And that’s what I did. That’s why I stopped posting my art on Instagram, and I stopped trying to make a regular video schedule.
That’s why I decided not to start a Patreon, or any kind of paid community that would turn into an obligation to produce content, when all I want is to make art.
TV shows have seasons, but indie creators are expected to release content non-stop.
For most of us, the content itself is unpaid labor that we feel we must do, so we can grow an audience that would buy our paid work later. Some have monetized their content with ads and sponsorships, others use Patreon to get paid directly by their fans, but it is still work that may not really be our “big thing”. The dream project we’re really excited about—like a book, a music album, a feature film, an art show, etc.
Over the years I’ve seen many creators burn out and drop their ambitious weekly (or daily!) publishing schedules. It was almost always presented with an apology like “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I won’t be doing this as often anymore. It’s unsustainable.”
I wanted to yell back at the screen: “Do not apologize! You were giving everyone a gift, and you’re allowed to take a break or quit whenever you want!”
No one is entitled to your free content.
You have the right to create on your own schedule. People who expect you to show up whenever they want it need a reality check. Online content consumers are spoiled by the content creators who are determined to keep up.
But few people can afford to be full-time content creators. And many of us don’t want to be.
Content creators are often glamorized, but it’s not a suitable career for everyone.
I know that it’s not a good career for me. The obligation to come up with fresh content every week kills my passion and motivation. The expectation of constant interaction with my audience would send me running for the hills.
Anyone who has doubts about their ability to sustain the demanding schedule of a professional online content creator should think hard whether this is what they really want.
I think it’s wonderful that there is an option for artists to be paid for creating content.
It’s great that people can have paid membership communities and share exclusive content with their biggest fans. I’m not judging anyone who chooses this way of making money. It can be great if you’re someone who wants to create more content, and would like some support from your audience.
We just need to keep in mind it’s an option, not an end-all-be-all for all artists. Just because it works for some people, it doesn’t mean it will work for everyone.
Save your creative energy for what truly matters.
Our creative energy often gets diverted from substantial projects towards ephemeral posts.
Some forms of content are simply not enough to contain what we need and want to create in the world. You can’t tell an epic story in a few thousand words. You need several book volumes.
A concept music album makes no sense if you drip it song by song over the course of 12 months. It’s a unit of art that can’t be broken down into 5-minute videos.
And even if you choose to release something episodically, you still need to edit it as a whole, to make sure it works as a whole.
So how do we create content while we’re in the throes of a Big Project?
I don’t think that we need to.
I know artists do it. We publish works in progress, or short snippets, or “behind the scenes”, or answer audience questions… We put up all this song and dance so our audience doesn’t forget about us—but it prolongs the creative process. Our audience will wait longer for our Big Project because we’re so busy keeping them engaged in the meantime.
I don’t think this is fair to the artists, nor to the audience.
I think it’s too much to ask of artists to keep people entertained, while they’re trying to focus on a challenging thing that few people can do like they can.
Some artists might find it genuinely fun and enjoyable, but I’ve heard from many that it’s “something you just gotta do” if you want to make a living. It’s just marketing. So let’s stop pretending that every single artist out there enjoys posting regularly on social media and would choose to do it as often even if it didn’t bring them any financial benefit.
Lots of artists feel like they have to do it because there’s not enough good alternatives. And even traditional publishers are now looking for artists and authors with huge online platforms.
It’s unfair. And it’s especially unfair towards people who are working a whole other job, and have limited time and energy to dedicate to their creative dream.
We’ve imposed the marketing standards of creative teams and corporations onto individual people with no support. And art is very rarely lucrative enough to be able to pay for an assistant or an editor. Fine art is greatly undervalued compared to design, development, or copywriting, so let’s not put all creatives into the same bucket and say it’s the same for everyone. Because it’s not. Fine artists are always forced to work harder than anyone else. I’ve seen it, I’ve lived it, you can’t convince me otherwise.
Let’s stop expecting artists to keep up with the trends of the attention economy. It’s a burden that lots of people are just not able to carry.
There’s a phase in an artist’s development when a quick feedback loop is helpful.
And there’s a phase when it isn’t.
We can learn and improve faster by receiving feedback. I’ve had tremendous help from fellow artists who were able to show me my blind spots, and I’m grateful for that opportunity, since I never went to art school.
But in the later years I found that the social media dopamine slot machine was impairing my artistic progress.
It’s hard to ignore the public response and not take other people’s opinions to heart. I’ve often been puzzled, and sometimes disappointed by the disparate response my art received. Certain artworks became popular beyond my wildest expectations, while others were completely ignored. If I did what the audience wanted, I’d be drawing things that other people loved, but that didn’t have any personal meaning to me.
That’s why I quit illustration. I wanted to find out what my art would evolve into, once I was able to completely stop caring about what other people wanted me to draw, and what style they wanted me to draw in.
A book I read a few years ago talked about this issue.
This is what I wrote in my article “How my 31 day social media fast went” after I’ve read it:
There’s an interesting idea that I’ve read about in a book by Mark McGuinness “Motivation for creative people”. In the chapter on getting back on your “path” after allowing outside influences to affect your art, Mark shares the story of a painter who had this problem.
To separate the creation process from the process of publishing, Mark suggests putting your finished works into “cold storage” for 3 months, and not showing them to anyone else during this time. After 3 months are up, you can decide whether to publish it, sell it, keep it, or scrap it.
Nowadays I create most of my artworks inside sketchbooks, so for me this means not sharing each and every page once I finish it (which I used to do when I was still using Instagram). Instead, I scan it, edit it, and let it sit on my computer until I feel it would be a good time to post. I draw way more often than I post, and I pick only a few pieces to share. You might only see the rest if I do a video tour of a completed sketchbook.
This “buffer” or a “funnel” between creating and publishing gives me the opportunity to experiment in private, and settle into my style and voice before I’m ready to share it.
I changed my mind about experimenting in public.
Sharing my creative journey, warts and all, used to be a very important part of my creative practice. I think it gave me a sense of accountability and camaraderie. It was fun, until it stopped being fun.
I’ve become disillusioned by social media. I believe that social media exploits artists because these huge companies always receive far more value out of our creative content than we indie artists receive back. The game is rigged.
We get crumbs in return for offering up our heart and soul online.
We’re not only feeding the machine, we’re getting chewed up by it.
We’re expected to schedule our lives around producing content and engaging with our audience like it’s our job. I never wanted that job. You couldn’t pay me enough to be a full-time content creator.
I’ve become more protective of my art and my creative process.
I don’t want to turn it all into content. My art is real even if no one else sees it. I don’t need an audience. I don’t need anyone’s approval.
I may have finally overcome some of my approval-seeking behavior. I’m not saying that wanting to show your art is always motivated by desire for approval. Our motivations are complex. There’s nothing wrong in wanting for our art (which is an extension of ourselves) to be seen and accepted. But sometimes our lower impulses get entangled with our more evolved ones, and it’s good to be aware of which part is governing our choices.
If we’re experiencing a sense of rejection when we don’t get the response we expected, it’s a sign that our unhealed emotional wounds are in control.
If we’re experiencing unease at the though t of not sharing a piece of art online, this is a clue that we’re emotionally invested in the audience’s response. There may be some approval-seeking at the core of this. It’s worth exploring what’s really going on.
The reason I keep encouraging creatives to take social media breaks is that they give us clarity about our relationship with our art.
I rarely give black-and-white advice. There’s an exception to every rule. There’s an alternative for every best practice. But so far I don’t see any downsides, and definitely see many upsides to taking social media sabbaticals, especially for artists.
I practically grew up online. My independent life only started once I became a citizen of the internet. Online life is just a part of normal life now.
Unplugging from online media is akin to an artist’s residency in a remote location. Our routine turns upside down. We have more free time than before, and fewer voices in our head that are mudding things up. This allows us to notice more about our thought process and our environment. We notice stuff that we take for granted. It’s revealing and freeing.
We get more intimate with our art because there’s no one else to share it with. There’s something alive and fresh in having a “secret” creative practice.
Which definition of art governs your practice?
Definitions seem boring, but it’s interesting to question our own definition and what it means for our work.
Two different definitions of art (out of many possible definitions that exist) paint a clear difference in the approach to art making.
- Art is any artifact or performance that wasn’t created for a utilitarian purpose. (If it was created for utility, it’s either craft or design.)
- Art is a medium that transmits a message from the creator to the observer.
Artists that subscribe to the first definition may be more comfortable with the idea of not sharing all the art they create—or any art at all.
Artists that believe art is meant to convey a message to someone will have a difficult time creating in isolation. But we can look at this in a different way. What if the artwork’s message is meant primarily for the artist? What if we don’t know what the message will say until the work is done? Art can be a message from a part of us that comes up with all the great ideas and visions, to the part of us that’s trying to make sense of these images. (Proponents of depth psychology refer to these parts as subconsciousness and consciousness.)
And as any artist knows, some ideas need time to germinate and flourish. The first iteration of the message may not be complete. We may have to dedicate lots of time to refine it before it’s ready for publication.
There’s so much value in giving the individual artwork more time to evolve.
Many times I was pushed to publish my work too early by my own desire to share it with other people. I didn’t have a deadline—it was entirely my own decision. I would notice a day later that I needed to fix something, but the original image was already out there. I was shooting myself in the foot by sharing too early.
I learned that my creative process is not always done the moment I first think I’m done.
Sleeping over it, or setting it aside for a few days helps me see it with fresh eyes and notice things that I didn’t see while I was staring at it for hours. Or sometimes I just don’t know how to move on, and whether the painting needs anything else to feel complete. Younger Me would just call it done and move on to the next thing. Present Me knows that the missing piece will come to me if I just wait for a bit, and that the final artwork will be so much better for it.
I’m not against quick pieces, loose sketches, and playful experiments. It’s all great. But for someone who tries to create detailed and atmospheric surreal scenes in my art, the habit of rushing to publish was impeding my ability to actually produce the best work I’m capable of.
I’m aware that I’m speaking from a place of privilege, since I don’t depend on my art and writing for income.
I purposely chose a lifestyle that suits me better. I chose what felt “easier” to me, because when I did try to do it the hard way, it ended up hampering my artistic progress and killed the joy of making art.
I’m lucky to have another fulfilling creative career as a designer and educator that pays my bills, so I can experiment with my art and writing and not worry about monetizing it. This allows me to give the middle finger to social media algorithms.
I don’t want to create for the algorithm.
Algorithms are optimized for short-term pleasure. They want short, funny, shocking, surprising, entertaining. My work is not like that. It’s slow, contemplative, long-form, meandering. It will never go viral. But I’m happy to see that people still find value in the content I published years ago—even a decade ago.
Algorithms change, but the human desire to experience something real is everlasting.
I know it’s true when I read a book by a Roman emperor who’s been dead for two thousand years, and realize he had the same problems I did.
I know it’s true whenever I visit an art museum, or an art show.
I know it’s true whenever I watch a “classic” movie that I somehow missed when it came out.
Real art is timeless.
We understand art much better when we know the context around it, and what it’s responding to, which art history is all about. But certain qualities of art transcend language, culture, and time. Older art is not “better” or more valuable than current art, but we can trace back what makes old art compelling in our current time, and think of ways to apply that in our own contemporary work.
Technology will continue to develop, and it will continue to demand more from us artists.
Are you prepared to give even more of yourself in exchange for attention?
Or are you already feeling burnt out by the current state of social media, and considering scaling back?
If you’re in the second group, I want you to know that you’re not weird, and you’re not alone. Your feelings and your needs are valid.
Sometimes we fear how our audience will react to us taking breaks, or quitting a certain channel altogether. This fear may be warranted, because certain people in our audience can feel entitled to our free labor. But it’s not us who are in the wrong. We get to decide what type of labor we’re willing to give freely, what we will charge for, and what we’ll keep for ourselves. No one else has a say in how we spend our creative efforts.
So don’t fear. People’s reactions to you taking care of yourself are their own issue to handle.
If you’re going to be a happy artist for years to come, your wellbeing and mental fitness are your top priority.
Invest time in creative practices that nourish you.
Stop obsessing about turning everything you do into content. Get used to creating in privacy. Start curating what you share with others.
Develop deeper creative practices that allow you to mine the depths of your mind.
Be braver in your creative experiments so you could come up with even more original ideas.
Share when you’re ready, and not a minute sooner. Even if it means you don’t update your feed for weeks or months! What does it matter?
Who will be remembered 20, 50, 100 years from now?
Will TikTokers, “IG reelers”. YouTube and Twitch streamers hold the same level of regard like old timey movie stars, or famous authors, composers, or painters?
Will people re-watch this old digital content with the same interest that we watch old classics today?
No one has the answer to that. We’re all just placing bets that are mostly informed by what people around us are doing. The problem is, those people don’t possess some secret knowledge. They’re betting just like we are. Some of them are thriving. Others are struggling. And most of them won’t admit when they’re struggling, so everyone thinks they’re successful.
In the absence of knowledge, trust your own desire.
- If creating content fulfills you, keep doing it!
- If it used to fulfill you, but now you’re growing tired of it, take a break!
- If you always felt like creating content was a chore, you don’t have to do it!
The biggest strength we have as creative people is that we can do things differently from everyone else. In 2017. I wrote an article called: Marketing is an art form: Creative rebel’s guide to self-promotion. It talks about content marketing essentials you might be familiar with, but I also wanted to show “weird” examples of artists who broke through the noise by doing something no one else did before.
365-day projects and daily vlogs are super common now, but Lisa Congdon and Casey Neistat did them before anyone else, that’s how they got so famous. Extraordinary creatives don’t just follow in other people’s footsteps—they create new paths. But in order to figure out what the new path is, we need time and space to just breathe and think. The social media noise can hamper our ability to do that.
I’m still figuring this out myself. But I trust in my ability to come up with a way to share my work that respects my needs for privacy and deep focus, and still provide some form of interesting content to others.
Don’t worry, I’ll keep making new episodes of Art Chat, just not as often as people might like. But I do have new episodes in the works, so I hope I’ll see you again in the next one! Bye bye.
P.S. Here’s a more in-depth article I wrote on this topic: Creativity in digital isolation
About Nela Dunato
Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.
On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...
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