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Inside TikTok’s hypnotic, colorful, and lucrative art world

Watch a painting made in 60 seconds.

By Lian Parsons-Thomason

In February, sketch artist and painter Brett Park uploaded a video to the social platform TikTok, attempting to emulate a popular trend of artists pretending to ruin their work by painting over a clear sheet of plastic covering the original piece. In the video, he swipes a red stripe of paint across a painstaking drawing of singer Billie Eilish — before realizing he has forgotten the plastic. Horrified by his mistake, he scribbles over the rest of the page in frustration.

The unintentional blooper made him a bit of a social media star. The video now has 3.1 million views and 13,000 likes on TikTok. To Park’s great surprise, his channel now has nearly 240,000 followers and a cumulative 8.1 million likes. Ruining his artwork proved to be an effective gimmick, which he repeated in subsequent videos.

“The response to that video was insane,” says Park, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Southern California who posts on TikTok under the username @thumbpaint. The comments were all about how shocked they were and how funny my dumb mistake was,” he says.

TikTok, the Chinese-owned video-sharing platform that swiftly became a Gen-Z obsession, is primarily known for its proliferation of catchy dance, comedy, and music videos, all with a run time of 60 seconds or less. It’s also proving an effective medium for visual artists to showcase their art. On other social media sites, “people try to display their most perfect, conventional self,” Park says. “TikTok’s posting culture encourages the weird, different, and quirky.”

Some artists have gained new customers from posting  TikTok videos; others are using it to learn new skills, build community, and in some cases, redefine what it means, for them, to be an artist.

TikTok is a huge and swiftly growing platform. According to documents filed as part of a lawsuit against the U.S. government in August, the app has more than 100 million active users. Just a year and a half ago, it had only 26.7 million.

“TikTok’s posting culture encourages the weird, different, and quirky.”

Brett Park (@thumbpaint), artist

The top users have gigantic followings. The most popular user on the app, with 86.7 million followers and a cumulative 6.6 billion likes, is Charli D’Amelio, a 16-year-old from Connecticut who primarily posts dance videos. The next four biggest accounts on TikTok have between 60 million and 43 million followers.

Artists looking to get eyes on their work can go big on TikTok; the hashtag “#art” has 97.8 billion views; “#artist” has 28.9 billion. Artists can amass followers quickly. Although graffiti artist @achesdub posted his first video in late March, he now has 1.6 million followers. Less than a year and a half after posting his first video, painter @jamesllewis now has 3.2 million followers and frequently hits several million views per video.

TikTok’s format makes it an effective vehicle for showcasing art and an artist’s process.“[An artist] might have made something very small, but it took them an intense amount of time and effort,” says Maayan Gordon (@worldofglass), a glassblower and marketing consultant with 2.1 million followers. The videos can “create awareness around the talent it takes to create these pieces.”

Creating posts — distilling a sometimes several-hours-long endeavor into under a minute, executing it live, and doing it constantly to maintain fans’ interest — is challenging. But it can pay off financially for people like Gordon, who says she has sold works and gained “potentially thousands” of new customers from TikTok.

Her videos are often informational, such as showing how still-molten glass can be cut with shears. They focus on close-ups of forming glass, stretched out like chewing gum to create spirals and curlicues. “[My TikToks] are geared toward people who are younger or generally uneducated about glass,” she says. “[I] make sure it’s PG for everyone.”

TikTok’s main feed is more random than Instagram or Twitter, which pushes user content mainly to followers. On TikTok, any and all videos can pop up on your feed. Users can curate their feed a bit more by following individual creators, liking or commenting on videos, or browsing related tags, but the control is still largely out of their hands. TikTok also has an auto-play feature, also known as the “For You Page,” which automatically rolls new content down viewers’ phone screens. This ensures that content constantly reaches new eyes.

Some artists have found that the need for engagement, intrinsic to success on a social platform — the more likes or comments on a video, the better chance it’ll be pushed to viewers’ feeds — enhances the typically solitary process of making art.

Harry Carrillo (@pg13pottery), a 21-year-old potter, takes requests for videos from his 1.4 million followers. “I realized pretty quickly that if I took requests, it would incentivize them to comment more,” he says.

Carrillo’s videos are mostly time-lapsed chronicles of the mesmerizing, meditative process of making pots and bowls. He also makes more out-of-the-box ceramic pieces, like the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants’ pineapple house under the sea. The videos feature the tactile sounds of Carrillo’s hands slapping the clay into shape, the squish of the water and clay mixing together, and the whir of the pottery wheel. The senior at California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo says his TikTok success has changed the very definition of what his “art” is.

“Sometimes I feel more like an artist because all I post is art, [but because] I don’t sell anything I make, my videos are solely for the purpose of being entertaining on TikTok,” he says.

A danger to that is the potential for burnout. TikTok is competitive, and getting more so as the platform grows. Artists often feel pressure to maintain a near-constant upload schedule. Art is time-consuming to make in the first place; this requires even more planning ahead and balancing with other life commitments.

“When I first started my account, I had around 95 followers, and never did I ever feel pressured to constantly create new content and be mindful of mistakes,” says Toan Truong (@toankotsu), a 21-year-old student at the University of California at Irvine who hand-paints characters from popular movies and TV shows like The Simpsons, Studio Ghibli, and Avatar: The Last Airbender. “Now, with my follower count nearing 200,000, that pressure has definitely started to settle in. This aspect is an inevitable part of sharing created content with the world.”

While the social media grind can be draining, it can also be enriching. Carrillo said he’s learned a lot from watching videos of his peers. He’s now in a group chat with 25 potters from around the world, all of whom he met on TikTok.

Gordon, the glassblower, shares the works of other artists to help them get more exposure. She says glassblowing’s role in creating functional items like scientific equipment has led to a competitive, fragmented industry. In her view, TikTok has helped to create a stronger community.

“[TikTok] is supportive, encouraging, and creative … it’s a little looser, with less judgment [than other platforms],” she says. “It’s like a playground.”

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Lian Parsons-Thomason is a writer based in Boston.

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