sarah donde instagram artist
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The Art of Being an Instagram Artist

Sarah Donde (@dondedraws) tells all on artistic entrepreneurship.

We all do it – we get lost in the spinning hamster wheel that is the endless scroll on our social media feed, whether it’s Instagram, TikTok or Facebook. Amid the never-ending stream of mindless content made to pacify us, it’s a balm to see an artist creating something, and getting the engagement and recognition they deserve. There’s something about watching the process of art being created, about connecting with artists not just through their work, but through their process and personhood, that so many of us are drawn to. 

So, what if you’re an artist, and you want to do the same? What does it take to turn your passion into a business? The reality is that now, to be an artist entrepreneur in the age of social media, you must know how to game the algorithm. Every platform is different, so today, we’ll be focusing on Instagram. 

Why use Instagram?

According to HootSuite, Instagram is the third most used social media platform in the world, tied with WhatsApp, just behind YouTube, and of course, the monolithic Facebook. It is, despite the TikTok hype, the preferred app of both Gen Z and Millennials, not TikTok. Two billion people are active on the platform, and 44 percent of those active users use Instagram to shop at least once a week. And 63 percent of users use Instagram to research and follow brands and products. And 98 percent of U.S. marketers use Instagram. Have I convinced you yet? 

To get a perspective from someone who has done the work, I sat down with Sarah Donde, an Instagram artist who used the platform to turn her passion for illustration into a full-time job.

sarah donde artist on instagram

Quitting the job that everyone wants

Sarah Donde, @dondedraws on Instagram, is a watercolor illustrator who focuses on finding beauty in the mundane. Her account recently jumped from 3,000 followers to over 40,000, thanks to her efforts, day in and day out. She began, like many artists do, working a day job in legal tech that she wasn’t happy with. But one day, she realized she was reaching burnout. 

Amidst rising burnout, Donde read “Love and Work” by Marcus Buckingham, a book centered around the idea of “red threads.” Red threads are the things you adore, the activities you do where time goes by without you noticing—something many artists are familiar with, often called a flow state. 

Art, Donde realized, was her red thread, and she took the plunge. 

Once you’ve landed a job at a legal tech company, the average person would think that you’ve made it – but not for Donde. So she quit her stable law firm position, began to focus on her painting and illustration, and started posting every day. She gave herself two months to do whatever she wanted, and if it didn’t work out, she would find another job. 

The algorithm chooses you

Initially, Donde believed as many of us artists do, that you had to be on TikTok to make it. So she began her social media career, made an Instagram and TikTok, and started posting on each every day. But the algorithm surprised her – after two months of posting every day, she ended up going viral on Instagram, not TikTok. So she switched gears, and started focusing her efforts on Instagram only. 

With her newfound reach, she began receiving requests for commissions, which prompted her to create a website and digital storefront. Her current schedule, as of now, is “two reels a week, and posting at least once a day, everyday.” 

“I kept going and it got to two months and I thought, ‘okay, now is the time I’m supposed to be looking for a job.’ But then I realized that I was actually making enough money to pay rent and live.” 

The post that finally made her not only go viral, but skyrocketed her growth as an Instagram artist, was a silly little “trade offer” video. She offered a few free drawings of new followers as forest creatures in exchange for a follow. Donde gained a whopping 33,600 followers from this one video alone.

Here are her insights on her success as an Instagram artist: 

  • The platform you’re most comfortable with is usually the one you’ll have the most success with. You have familiarity with the post structure, what works and what doesn’t. 
  • Protect your time. As a beginner artist and a team of one, she didn’t want to get addicted to another app. She only went on TikTok for posting, which affected the quality of her TikTok posts due to her unfamiliarity with the platform’s culture. You have limited energy, so direct it where it’s most needed. 
  • Gamify your posting. If you enjoy the platform, this is easier to achieve—figuring out the fluctuations of the algorithm can become fun, instead of a chore. Pay attention to what other artists are doing that’s making them go viral. 
  • Make friends with other artists. The advantage of using a platform you’re comfortable with is you’ll likely have more in common with those also on the same platform. The engagement you receive from a genuine friend shouting out your work is better than the engagement that some accounts with millions of followers have. 
  • Use trending audios, especially artist-related ones (remember the “I would rather you not like this post” one, anyone?) 
  • Don’t make the videos seem too perfect. Social media users are tired of perfectly crisp ads and clear audio. They want real, especially from an artist that they admire. Don’t be afraid to make an “imperfect” post. 
  • This is the tough one: use yourself as a promotional tool. YOU are the artist; you are as much a part of the product as the art itself is. Putting your face and your personality into your page helps your audience connect with you, and makes them more likely to want to support you and your work. 
  • Keep track of your messages. Answer promptly and professionally, build relationships with clients and build a good reputation as someone who is prompt and kind. 
  • Sometimes, you have to push through no engagement, especially if a life event causes you to fall off posting. Don’t give up! Your engagement is being decided by a machine with no knowledge of you, not by a person. You can game the machine. 
  • To make posting every day more sustainable, create a running note on your phone with quick ideas. 
  • Taking photos with your phone is okay! Just learn how to edit and frame them. 
  • Donde mentions that she paid for the blue tick early on, but isn’t sure how much this helped her – something to chew on. 

Connect with other artists

You can’t go it alone. Being an artist on social media is tough, and draining. Connecting with other artists, whether on social media or through events in person, is crucial. Make connections with people who are doing what you want to do. Donde shared that following the growth of her account, she is mutuals and friends with many artists that she’d admired in the past. They share tips, vent frustrations and even have a groupchat to connect with each other on how to improve their marketing. Again: this doesn’t necessarily need to be achieved over social media! Wherever you are, there is almost certainly a thriving artist community. Connect with like-minded individuals, and lift each other up. 

Building relationships with businesses – while following your vision 

One major breakthrough for Donde was when she drew an illustration of a grocery store in London. She was on a walk, just after quitting her job, and she was drawn to the way the outside of the store was arranged. So she painted it. 

She tagged the business in her post, and the owner saw it. They admired Donde’s art style, prompting their marketing team to reach out and ask her to work with them. The simple act of creating something that speaks to you and putting your work out there can create opportunities you never thought possible.

Splitting your time between work, art and marketing 

Currently, Donde is back to working a full-time job while also maintaining her social presence and her practice as an artist. She still makes a good amount of money as an artist, but for personal reasons, wanted to return to work as well. She describes the balance as “like spinning plates” – and says that she, unfortunately, mostly spends her time at work and on marketing.  

The importance of setting up a posting schedule, of planning what you’re going to post, and setting aside time for packaging orders, picking up prints from the post office and any extra tasks can’t be overstated. The difference between doing this kind of planning, versus not doing so, can be the time that you need to make new art to continue the cycle. Organization and time management prevent burnout

Price yourself what you’re worth 

Many beginner artists believe that they should price their work as low as possible to increase the likelihood of a purchase, but this actually isn’t true. It might seem counterintuitive, but lowballing your own work can turn others away. They see that you take yourself less seriously, so they take you less seriously, too. 

 Donde experienced this firsthand. The more confident she became in her work, the higher she priced it. And to her surprise, more people became interested once she began charging more. 

Her beginning price model for commissions was this: 

  • £18 ($22) for an A5 
  • £35 ($44) for an A4 

Now, the starting price for an A5 is well over $125 (£100), and an A4 can run you over $250 (£200), depending on factors like the timeline and subject matter.

She says that when her prices were lower, “people would be a bit cheeky and say, how about a little less? They’d barter with me. And now that my prices are higher, people don’t question it.” She even mentions that she needs to reevaluate her pricing again, and possibly go higher. 

Again: price yourself what you’re worth. When you charge lower amounts, people take you less seriously, and you’ll lose potential sales. People want to be able to brag about the art they have in their house. Art, if bought straight from the artist, is a conversation piece, bragging rights that they own one of your originals. 

Choosing a selling platform 

Once she went viral, Donde had to choose a platform for her shop and website. There are so many to choose from: there’s Etsy, Squarespace, Shopify, even Redbubble. Donde went with Shopify. 

Shopify is the best choice, in her opinion, because it’s the choice of many artists, and it’s not inundated with cheap Amazon products being sold as “handmade” like Etsy is. The downside is that it’s $25 a month, and the platform takes a cut of each of your sales. The advantage is that you have access to templates and time- saving measures that make setting up a site for your business quick and easy. 

She also supplements her income with a site called Kofi, a platform that allows supporters to “buy you a coffee.” They can donate an amount of money that you specify as the price of a coffee – usually $3-$5 (although yes, I know, Starbucks is much more expensive).

Legal stuff – the artist’s nightmare 

The main drawback of social media is its main pull—it is a public platform, and a fairly lawless one at that. Donde shared her troubles with theft in the early stages of her business: 

“When I had 2,000 followers, something would go viral, and then someone else would share it to their story and say to their own followers, should I make T-shirts of this? And I had to message the person, and say, no, you can’t.” 

Back then, she didn’t have the protections she puts in place for her work now. She watermarks everything, and makes sure that her captions specify that if you use her image, you are subject to copyright. She has language on her site specifying her rights as an artist, and she has boilerplate forms for each commission she does. This language includes things like specifying that when someone commissions a piece, they are just buying that original piece. They are not buying the rights to that piece, i.e., the right to reproduce and use it for their own purposes. 

It does help, of course, that the job that she left was a job in law, so she knows how to scare off the vultures every artist deals with eventually.

Dealing with harassment 

The trade-off for her, ahem, trade offer post, was many of her new followers didn’t actually read the caption. She specified she would choose 15 people to draw as forest animals, but because many didn’t read her caption, she received an influx of angry messages from people demanding their art piece. 

This isn’t the only thing she’s had to deal with. Now that she’s gone viral and put her face out there, she has to take safety precautions. She does get weird comments and creepy DMs, but you “have to decide that it’s not gonna bother you.” 

She shares a few tips for safety, especially as a female artist: 

  • Keep your personal account and your art account separate. 
  • Do not –ever– post where you are while you’re there. Do so after, so that no one can follow you there. 
  • Make sure there are no identifying markers for where you live in your posts or photos. 
  • Set up two-factor authentication for everything.

Are you ready? The paradox of “readiness” 

I know this is something you’ve heard before: don’t wait until you’re ready. Just do it. Don’t wait until your art is perfect, or until you have the perfect tools. This is Donde’s advice, as well.  

“Climb over cringe mountain. Who cares if people think it’s embarrassing? Maybe people will, but that probably stems from a place of them being too scared to do the thing they’ve always wanted to do.” 

I agree wholeheartedly with this advice. However, I have some advice of my own: you can feel it, in your heart, when you’re ready as an artist to expand your reach. If you have social anxiety, start small, on a low- stakes account, and get used to showing your work to the world. Get used to putting your face out there. Exposure therapy for the anxiety that comes with putting your life and work out there is the only solution. 

Don’t give up: post like you have a million followers already, and people will start to believe you. 

“If you’re posting and you’re shy or not confident, people can tell. If someone isn’t confident, it doesn’t bring joy to watch.” 

Take pride in your work, and people will take notice. 

To see more of Sarah Donde’s work, check out her website

And if you’re interested in more insight from creative entrepreneurs on social media, we have another interview with a successful artist (this one on Facebook!) here

About the author

Danny Bolter

Danny Bolter is a nonbinary writer, editor, and artist. They began writing at the age of seven when they realized that they had more to say than they could ever possibly verbally express; and they began editing at the age of sixteen, when their online friends needed some fanfiction fixed up. Bolter calls the greater Boston area home, along with their muse and nemesis, their cat Coco Puffs.

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