How to be an artist on Tumblr.

20 Mar

So I got a question from an up-and-coming artist about how to market herself on Tumblr about a week ago, and some of you have gotten harried emails from me scrambling for answers and advice.

I found it ironic that anyone would ask me about Tumblr. I’ve been around from the days of IRC, and nothing has confused me more than Tumblr. As a medium, I don’t even think MySpace has gotten so much flak. John Allison believes it’s for looky-loo commenters that’ll never put money in his pocket. Kris Straub perpetuates the belief that its users nuke attribution with finger-wiggling glee (note this was in 2011, though).

From chainsawsuit.com by Kris Straub

“A Tribute to Attribution” by Kris Straub, 2011

I respect their views and their choice of where they do/don’t want to see their art, but the comments are condescending to a point that blocks out understanding of an audience.  If there’s anything graphic design has taught me, it’s that understanding audiences is always worth it. I’ve been using Tumblr for a while, and I believe:

  • Tumblr is neither good nor evil. It’s just a medium. And it’s big enough that there are just as many good communities as crummy ones who congregate on it.
  • …that said, you may have to redefine “community” a little to get anything out of it. For those of us who are used to forum-thread strings where you can react not only to the person who posted something, but to the other people commenting on it, it is downright frustrating. But once you accept that that’s not what it’s built for, it gets easier.
  • Buckets are the primary form of communication. I call Twitter and Tumblr “streams”. You’ll never step in the same water twice, and most stuff just floats right past you in moments. However, unlike Twitter, Tumblr has a bunch of kids at the end of the stream with buckets scooping out the water they like and redumping it in their tributaries so they can swim in it again with all their friends. This attracts people who are interested in swimming and bringing more buckets of that kind of water to each tributary.
  • For some people, Tumblr is the internet. There are some people for whom Tumblr is the first and best way of meeting strangers on the internet that they’ve ever used, and meeting strangers (let’s call this networking if it makes you feel less creeped out) is the first thing you’ve got to do if you want to have a healthy, balanced internet life. You might call that sad if you’re old like me, but really, we had more than our share of laughable internet tools, so I don’t think we can point fingers.

What makes a Tumblr Artist Successful?

Ava’s Demon, by Michelle Czajkowski

Given this, there is definitely a value to building a Tumblr audience with your art, and many artists have found ways to do so.  Ava’s Demon is tearing up everything in the Comic Mix March Madness competition. My friend Xella also pointed me toward Cloud Factory, a comic with 2,000 followers which hasn’t actually started yet. So something’s definitely happening there.  Tumblr is never going to be where you sell t-shirts or get ad revenue, but it might just be what funds your Kickstarter in 24 hours or less or fills your commission slots.

So how do you become a Tumblr household name? If I had to come up with a gauge of artistic Tumblr success, it would be:

  • Have visual impact that’s distinct beyond your signature at the bottom. If you saw 3 pictures from Michelle Czajkowski or Marlo Meekins on your dashboard over a span of three weeks, you’d be able to tell another one from a mile away. This is your identity on Tumblr as an artist, not your URL on the bottom or your signature in the corner.
  • Don’t be fooled by one-hit wonder posts. The numbers can be exciting when you become “Tumblr famous” and get a lot of reblogs, but think of it in terms of billboards. When you’re in your car passing a billboard, you don’t stop your car and interact with that company.  And after it’s been torn down, no one’s going to pass by your billboard again.  But they work on the principle that there’s 10 of them in a 5 mile radius.  So you’ve got to build another one. And another. And another. Think of The Hawkeye Initiative and Bitchface: The Masterworks. Like a good ad campaign, the message is similar post to post.  You know who it’s from.  And they’ve got the humor value that makes your friends want to rebucket it from the stream.
  • Create a fandom that feeds itself, even when you don’t. This is the golden fleece that everyone’d like to know how to obtain (and even the people who have it aren’t sure where it came from half the time), but if you can be awesome enough that people want to reinterpret your characters in their setting, you will get your audience just on buzz alone.

Bitchface: The Masterworks, which gives nods to the (obviously) sass-talking dames of classical art.

What do you think?

While it’s easy to make Tumblr a villain, the truth about Tumblr is that it’s working out for some artists, and we can only benefit from figuring out why.  I’d love to hear more about your experiences with promoting your own art with Tumblr, or other artists you follow!

(And of course, you can follow me on Tumblr if you like!)

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