Visual Storytelling with Instagram: Make the most of this marketing tool

instagram marketing
The Runway, 2016, Holly Nichols. Markers and Digital Media. Copyright © 2017 Holly Nichols Used by permission of the artist.

Imagine this: You share your fashion illustrations on Instagram as a way to document your progress. It’s not your day job, but you dream that someday it might be. Then one day, the Metropolitan Museum of Art asks you to sketch the outfits of guests at a party celebrating The Costume Institute exhibition.

Sound like a fantasy?

Maybe, but that is exactly what happened to Boston artist Holly Nichols (@hnicholsillustration,, who combined her love of fashion with art after graduating with a BFA in studio art. Now with over 675,000 Instagram followers, opportunities like the Metropolitan Museum and A-list corporate clients seek her out for their marketing campaigns and live events. She’s also landed Fashion Week deals, a signature line at Saks Fifth Avenue, Apple Events, and many online sales through marketing her art on Instagram.

If you thought that Instagram was just a platform for millennials to share sexy selfies and photos of the food they’re eating, you’re right about that. However, with over 700 million users, it’s rapidly becoming the perfect platform for artists to market their visual content. Instagram is a popular marketing channel for brands, especially in the beauty, fashion and luxury items industries, which means it also attracts art collectors.

To use Instagram for marketing your art, you need to be strategic about what kinds of photos you share to attract collectors. For example, Nichols rarely shares photos of herself. Rather, she illustrates her life with illustrations of young women who look like her. These fantasy girls and their glamorous friends go to parties, shop and bake. To share photos of places she’s visiting, she holds up cut outs of her girl illustrations in front of the real life backdrops of Rockefeller Center and the Eiffel Tower. She’s very strict about only sharing art on her feed, so these “multimedia” shots became a means to share where she travels while incorporating her drawings.


Beloved and internationally recognized fine artist Lisa Congdon (@lisacongdon, also credits Instagram for helping build her brand. Congdon is best known for her colorful paintings and hand lettering. In addition, she works for clients around the world including MoMA, REI, Harvard University, Martha Stewart Living, Chronicle Books and Random House, among many others.

“I would not have the success I’ve had without Instagram,” Congdon said. “It used to be in the old days you needed an agent or gallery to help promote your work or help you to navigate your way through the world of art and illustration and to build your brand. But social media offers a way for people to build their own audience. I’m a good example of that. Having a large Instagram following has, over time, led to countless sales, a long client list, gallery relationships and collaborations that continue to sustain my career.” Congdon shares photos daily with her 158,000 followers.


You don’t need a million followers to experience success on Instagram. Your marketing success will favor quality over quantity. To build your following, post consistently, use niche hashtags such as #fashionillustration and engage with your followers. It will take time to build your audience. The artists interviewed here have been working at it for many years.

“I think that most artists who have large followings on Instagram have a few things in common,” Congdon said. “We post interesting images and content regularly. We share ourselves as real people. We share bits of our lives and our creative processes.”

Blenda Tyvoll (@blendastudio,, has more than 6,000 Instagram followers. “It’s so easy to get discouraged if your focus is on the number of likes and followers you have, thinking you need to grow to be seen,” she said. “But concentrating instead on telling your story through photos and adding enticing descriptions will get you the best results.” Many successful Instagram posters use the platform as a form of microblogging.

Make an Insta-Story

One of the biggest changes Instagram rolled out in 2017 was Instagram stories, also known as Insta-stories. These 15-second videos, which appear on the top banner of the platform, give these posts added visibility and disappear after 24 hours. It may seem like a negative to have your videos disappear but that has two upsides: expiring content will trigger your fan’s “fear of missing out,” and because the posts disappear, you can share a personal view of your life that may not “fit” into the regular, carefully plotted-out Instagram news feed-because it only lasts a day.

Although some content shared on Insta-stories might appear on the regular feed (such as work in progress shots), most successful Instagrammers understand that the stories allow fans to live vicariously. For example, Nichols posts her fashion illustrations on the Instagram feed whereas in her Insta-stories, “I can weave in a bit of my personal life, or highlight things as they happen such as sales, product drops in my shop and art supplies I’m loving.”

Tyvoll gets even more personal with her Insta-stories as she visually narrates her life in rural Oregon, invoking nostalgia for bucolic life on a farm. In her Instagram stories, her grandchildren play in fields and braid daisies into their hair. On the permanent posts, you’ll find paintings of the daisies in her garden along with ethereal trees inspired by the natural beauty of her home state. Tyvoll said that her consistent branding is part of her overall marketing strategy, which has garnered her opportunities in Country Living magazine and on set designs for the TV shows Just Add Magic on Amazon and Girls on HBO.

“Insta-stories is my favorite part about Instagram because uploaded content disappears after 24 hours making it a great place to play around, to get creative with what you share,” Tyvoll said. “I like to give little glimpses of behind the scenes in my art studio and things that make me happy like morning walks in our woods, the flower garden, Georgie my dog and our cat. Plus Insta-stories is perfect for sharing art-related events around town.”

What I find works best with Insta-stories is alternating between snapshots of what is happening in my life and quick little videos where I just talk into the camera. Those with “mature” faces might be interested in a special phone case I purchased called Lumee. Lumee is actually an attachment that goes on my iPhone. The iPhone case has a built in ring light that gives a flattering glow to the face when creating selfies for my Insta-stories. The Lumee light plus the right filter is better than Botox. I’ll go “face to camera” on my Insta-stories, narrating what I am working on. This gives an additional touch point for my followers to feel connected to me because when I make eye contact with the camera, they feel I’m talking just to them.


If you peek at my Instagram newsfeed (@schulmanart), you’ll find paintings of watercolor animals, portraits and experiments with mixed media. Like the other artists interviewed here, I work hard to stay on brand. Being “on brand” means that if someone were to glance at your “grid,” or the 16 pictures that show up when they pull up your Instagram, your images would communicate what kind of art you do. It would feel like a cohesive color palette and a good representation of who you are as an artist. That’s why inserting a photo of your lunch into the news feed is a disconnect when telling your story as an artist. Of course, if you paint food, or you’re a food blogger, then of course food posts are expected in the news feed.

On the other hand, your lunch photo is fine for an Insta-story post. Insta-stories also allow me to show my sense of humor. For example, on the Instagram news feed, I have shared watercolor paintings of cats and chipmunks, whereas on my insta-story channel, you can watch a quick video of my cat chasing a chipmunk while I cheer on the chipmunk to “run for its life.”

My cat, Ebony, became a recurring character on my Instagram while I still stayed on brand and kept the focus on the art. For example, I’ll post a photo of Ebony in my studio or in front of one of my paintings. But I don’t overdo it by never posting her more than once every 10 photos or so.

Congdon’s dog also makes a cameo on her newsfeed. A photo from October shows him in front of her blue studio door next to a bright orange pumpkin. Although the photo does not show her art, both the composition and color palette reflect the look of her signature style.

Blenda Tyvoll also thinks of her feed as a curated collection of photos. “When posting to the grid, I put a little more thought into how each photo is edited and cropped to make it as eye catching as possible. Does the overall grid of photos look appealing as well as each individual photo?” she said.

When deciding what to post, think of your posts as falling into about 7-9 categories. Your categories could be your art, works in progress, art in situ, your studio, your subject matter, photos of you working in your studio or your studio pet. You may introduce other subjects, but make sure they relate to your art or life as an artist.


Although the pictures tell a story, captions are important for helping your followers understand your message. “At heart, I am a storyteller,” Congdon said. “My work, even the more abstract work, is narrative. I always want my work to communicate something. I always think, what am I trying to say here? I am famous for starting Instagram posts with the words ‘True story:’ followed by a picture and words that illustrate a lesson I learned or something cool (or hard) that happened to me.”

Does storytelling come naturally to Tyvoll? She said: “I listened to my mom tell us bedtime stories about her life as a little girl growing up in a close knit extended family. From the time she was old enough to hold a camera she was taking photos and making scrapbooks and albums with her photos. Instagram is like a digital version of a scrapbook or photo album.”

Whenever I struggle over what to say in a caption, I pretend I’m writing a note to a friend and focus on what I want them to know about my art and my life as an artist. This helps me write with warmth and humor. Whether you’re marketing your art through emails, Instagram or the next social media platform that comes along, always imagine that you are talking to one person.

This one to one connection is what makes Instagram special. Use it as a marketing tool to help you share your art and tell your story. We’re so lucky to be living in this age where instant communication with thousands of people around the world is possible. And if all the reasons in this article weren’t enough to convince you to try out Instagram, I suggest you check it out simply because it’s fun.

Miriam Schulman embraces her creative life with gratitude in New York’s backyard. Her watercolor and mixed-media paintings have been seen on NBC, published in art magazines and home decor books and collected worldwide. You can follow her artistic journey on instagram @SchulmanArt. She also coaches other artists on how to build their internet brand to sell more art. For details, visit