Insta-famous for her bold paintings of a diverse range of nudes, Sophie Tea tells Talenthouse’s Megan Graye about how she made a living through selling art on Instagram and the importance of community, while sharing her advice for breaking through in a saturated market.
Speaking to me from a Sydney hotel on her last day of quarantine, the Manchester born Sophie Tea is surprisingly bubbly, despite admitting she’s really struggled with the solitude of her two weeks in isolation.
Minutes into our chat, it’s easy to see why Sophie’s love of people has been one of her many contributors to success - even through an online medium. Not only has she earnt herself millionaire-status through selling her art online, but she’s also amassed over 200k followers on Instagram - a community which feels a lot more personal than it may seem.
Sophie’s Instagram activity genuinely feels like “the real” Sophie, an honesty that she says has been fundamental to her success on the platform - and a coping mechanism for when she starts comparing herself to other artists on the platform: “I am guilty of sometimes fixating on a certain artists or certain creatives and feeling like, oh God, I'm not doing enough. And then I think, stop it, you are your own magic! If you are your true authentic self online, people can see it and people love it. It doesn't matter how weird you are, just be consistent.”
How to build mass trust and connection online:
The connection with her followers hasn’t just translated into art sales, but also placed her in the more abstract space of empowerment on social media. In her last collection of works, ‘Send Nudes’, Sophie collaborated with her followers to create beautiful colourful paintings, asking them to send in their naked selfies for her work to be based on. With over 1,000 nude pictures sent to her by the next morning, (and many of them received from people who’d never even sent pictures like this to their partners), it’s clear that the trust between Sophie and her community is second to none - something that’s reciprocated from Sophie herself, being one of the first artists to launch a monthly direct debit allowing her customers to pay over time for their work, even after receiving it.
As someone who admits she’s never had a good relationship with her own body, celebrating and painting a diverse range of women has always been important to Sophie, and receiving the variety of bodies in her inbox was just the beginning of a project that really came to life.
The ‘Send Nude’ collection even extended to live shows, with Sophie painting her art directly onto women’s nude bodies before they walked down the catwalk. “They’re some of the strongest women that I've ever come across,” she says “Breast cancer survivors, trauma survivors - I painted a woman with self harm scars all over her body. There were colostomy bags - all sizes, all races, disabilities, and amputations. It's honestly one of the most eye opening things and it makes you think, God, it's just all about the relationship you have with yourself. That's the important one.”
A lot of art around women’s bodies is created by men and over sexualised, whereas this felt extremely powerful, says Sophie. For many women, this was the first time they’d ever sent a nude to another woman - and Sophie tells me that they spoke of how liberating and empowering the experience had been. Instead of being sexualised or judged, the environment was elevating. I find this trust between artist and community extremely fascinating and unique - and can’t help but think this loving and nourishing space that Sophie has created has contributed to the success of her work - and is admittedly art within itself.
Turning social media ‘likes’ into sales:
Growing her business on social media, Sophie started out painting commissions for her friends and family, continuously sharing her work on Instagram and eventually selling through the platform. Having gradually grown such a large community online over the years, I ask her how her social following translates to sales and if people are really putting their money where their likes are:
“They absolutely do. If you're getting people engaged and interested in talking about it, then the sales will come. I mean it’s just business savvy. I've always gone after the stuff that I knew would be very engaging content wise, it's absolutely been a priority of mine”
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With Sophie clearly financially successful from her work, this value she has on engaging a community struck me, as notably the majority of her followers will love her work, but not all of them will be able to afford a piece of art. Given this, perhaps the best measure of her success is more accurately considered through social count: “I'm probably more proud of when our social media followers go up rather than our turnover. That's because I understand the longevity of those followers. I know the foundations that I've put in, I've built them there on that platform for the right reasons. So, I have a little number in my head of how much each follower is worth to me every single month.”
Accepting Instagram as a modern gallery:
Sophie admits that gaining popularity as an artist on social media hasn’t necessarily translated into respect and recognition from the more traditional art world: “There's an elitist art world that you have to know certain people, or go to some art school or be in curated shows of which I will never, ever be accepted into. And I think I still have a chip on my shoulder about that - I still want to be accepted by those prestigious people in the art industry because I know that I never will be.”
But as we continue our chat, it’s clear she catches herself on her internal critic, continuing:
“If I wanted to, I probably could sidestep to get a bit of recognition in that area - but I would isolate and alienate everything that I built, and who am I at the end of the day - what is my brand? It's about inclusivity - it’s about first time art buyers. I need to stop comparing and stop trying to be in a crew that I actually was fundamentally against in the first place.”
Sophie believes social media has made the art world more accessible for everyone. “It's changing the way artwork is bought. I would also say you have more freedom as an artist - you can put anything you want out at any single time. With galleries, you work towards deadlines, or shows or trends - but artists just have so much more control over their lives now! I did all this from my screen!”
But what advice does she have on how to stand out in such a saturated market? “It's constantly changing and the algorithm is rewarding you for different things, so swat up on it! I read something the other day, saying that trends are trends for a reason, follow the social trends and then you'll get more engagement.” Sophie also recommends a website with transparent prices, and creating demand through regular drops of work that are limited, utilising all Instagram’s features (like stories and countdowns) to drive excitement in the run up to the release.
Thinking long term, Sophie's on a mission to be the size of “a Dior”, making investing in art comparable to buying a designer bag. But the main goal is simply to continue creating: “I paint so I can make money so I can paint more. I just want to have the freedom to continue to do this.” Sophie wants people to feel understood when they see her work, and with a loyal community and huge following on the rise, it’s clear that it’s working.