Art and the Algorithm – Marianne Vander Dussen

Art and the Algorithm

Do you ever feel like you're playing a losing game when it comes to sharing your art on social media?

I do. All the time. 

If you want to find success as an artist, the unpleasant truth is that social media is a necessary evil. Is it doable without? It's possible, but infinitely harder.

I presently have a love/hate relationship with social media. I love it because it has allowed me to build my community (and write to all of you!) and is an excellent medium for teaching. Whether I'm using shorts and reels to teach concise power lessons, or long form videos on YouTube to educate on process, social media has proven to be an outstanding conduit for connecting with other artists.

Here's what drives me crazy about it: 

  • It's highly addictive
  • It feeds my FOMO (fear of missing out) and insecurities (why can't I create something as good as her?!) 
  • Content creation is time consuming and requires consistent output for results
  • I sometimes conflate my worth and skill as an artist with the amount of engagement that I receive

Of all of the problems that social media presents, I think that last point bears further discussion here on the blog, because it's intensely problematic for creatives.

Let me know if this sounds familiar: you pour your heart and soul into a painting. You carefully photograph or film it, do all the right hashtags, hit publish...and get dismal engagement. You immediately begin second guessing yourself, wondering if the piece isn't as good as you thought, questioning your abilities as an artist.

Or the opposite happens. You hit publish, the engagement is strong, and you suddenly feel like you're flying high and you've got what it takes to do this. Hey, you're viral and on top of the world...until engagement slows, and you've got to feed the machine again, or risk feeling obsolete. Now you're chasing the high of engagement instead of focusing on improving your craft. 

Now imagine that these two wildly different scenarios are for the identical piece of art, with the identical presentation.

I did an experiment with this. I posted a reel using a trending audio of me holding my peony painting and slowly turning it around. As of the time of writing, the reel has over 146,000 views and about 18,000 likes. Given the size of my Instagram audience (approximately 20,000 followers), I consider this to be highly successful.

So out of curiosity, I posted the identical video to both TikTok and YouTube Shorts. And you can probably guess what happened.

On TikTok, it did alright, with about 6,900 views (that's high, considering I never post there and I only have about 230 followers). 

On YouTube Shorts, it currently has 3,600 views, and considering that I have 32,000 subscribers, this is incredibly low. 

If I were to tether my self-worth as an artist to the performance of the same piece of content, I would be flying high on Instagram, doing so-so on TikTok, and an utter failure on YouTube. 

Which just goes to show you: we cannot waste our precious creative energy worrying about going viral. Instead, we need to direct our attention towards constantly improving our craft, using social media to find and connect with artists we admire, and focus on learning and growing as opposed to trending. 

If it feels like you're fighting an uphill battle on this, don't worry, it's because social media was designed to be addictive. The whole system is built to feed off of and profit from our insecurities. Regardless of how high your self-esteem is, social media has the uncanny ability to reach deep into your psyche and ensure you feel inadequate enough to keep scrolling.

For those of you who feel like you're in the same boat, here's a few tips to help feed the content machine while maintaining your sanity:  

1. Remember you're playing the long game. My longterm goal is to become the best possible artist I can be, to push my work to new levels, and to teach as I go along. It's not to become an overnight sensation on Instagram. When I remember that's the goal, the amount of engagement I receive on each post loses its power over my thoughts.

2. Install limiters on your phone. I'm currently using a paid program called Opal, but I probably won't be renewing. There are other free blockers you can buy, or you can also use the Screentime app from Apple if you're on an iPhone. 

3. Target your audience. My content is predominantly educational, because I'm trying to get my content to reach other artists who want to learn from me. If you're trying to sell work through social media, who is your dream buyer? What kind of content would they want to watch? Are there other artists with a style similar to yours who are successfully selling their work through social media? If so, watch what they're doing and use it to inspire your own content. 

4. Set timers while you're working to easily collect content. Every 15 or 20 minutes, grab 5 seconds of footage of a work in progress, or film the entire process as a timelapse. You can easily buy tripods or clamps from Amazon that hold your phone and make it easy to document your work. Once you have a library of clips, you can easily piece together content for a variety of platforms, and even though it's still time consuming (reels take me on average one hour to make) it's becoming part of my routine. 

5. Take a break, go for a walk. During the pandemic, I was walking in my neighbourhood almost every night, even in the heart of winter. It was like turning on a faucet of ideas, and I'd come home with flushed cheeks and an inspired brain. If you're having a hard time disconnecting, go for a walk. In nature if you can, but even if you're in an urban environment, just being in motion will help. 

What are your thoughts on social media as an artist? Feel free to let me know in the comments below!


  • Liz Baron

    Marianne, Thanks so much for the reel advice. I will give it a go!

  • Liz Baron

    Marianne – I’m so glad I found you thanks to Dina Brodsky’s email today using a reel of yours as an example of a post that went viral. I love your work and I already viewed a couple of your YouTube classes that are amazing! I also really relate to the message in this post and keeping the focus on improving my craft, above all. Having said that, I have not attempted making a reel of my art process but I am game to try. I bought a tripod for this use a couple of years ago but have not unwrapped it yet! I am confident I can take some video content of my process. However, I have no idea how to edit the clips and put them together in a finished reel. I know there are a lot of editing programs out there but could use a recommendation for one (preferably simple). Do you have any suggestions? Thanks for your help.
    Marianne Vander Dussen replied:
    Hi Liz!

    So for editing, I actually use Instagram’s in-app editor mostly, which I find very intuitive and easy to use. There are a ton of YouTube tutorials available on this. I also took Dina’s course which, when combined with observing patterns and successful reels of other artists that I admire, gave me an idea for the kind of template that I like to layer over my thinking when planning on how to tell the story. Truthfully, I think you just need to get started, especially if the tripod has been sitting unused for years. Step one is just to take it out of the box! Step two is to improve through quantity. My first few reels weren’t very good and were way too long. But after a year of doing that, even though I didn’t have terribly good results, I felt much more confident with editing and had lots of practice under my belt.

    Jenny Hoyos, a teenage YouTuber who averages millions of views per Short that she publishes, says the same thing: improve through quantity. Just do it, and you’ll naturally get better as a result. But if you wait until you’re confident, you might be waiting forever.

    I feel like I’m only just getting started and I still have so much to learn, but I figure things out by throwing myself into them and analyzing the outcomes. Give the Instagram reel editor a whirl and see what happens! I think you’ll enjoy it and editing/posting reels is actually now one of my favourite social media tasks, but it took well over a year of consistent posting to see some results.

    I hope you have fun! Stay in touch!

  • Jon

    Thank you for posting this – great advice for any artist

  • Peggy

    I’m so glad you mentioned taking a break and getting out into nature! I also come back full of inspiration and ideas. And I’m able to work more on a piece, whereas I may have called it quits otherwise

  • Marie

    Thank you for this post. Your advise applies to any creative outlet, not just painting. :)

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