Steve Lewer has been drawing since he was 12. Now an ICU nurse in Melbourne, Australia, he makes RPG- and D&D-themed pixel art to unwind. Occasionally, he would charge $10 or so for a commission. Then he took his work to Twitter

“Twitter has been responsible for the majority of all the commission requests I've received,” he tells me. “I started off doing $15 drawings of D&D characters and now have reached a point where I can charge up to $300 for a piece.” And while he does not take commissions very often, because of his full-time job and the labor-intensive nature of his art, he credits this career boost to Twitter, not Instagram, Tumblr, or TikTok.

Open Twitter on any given day and you'll find that visual art generates engagement. On May 8, @frivolousknight, who has north of 11,000 followers, posted a pixel-art portrait of an armor-clad knight that has more than 400 retweets and more than 5,000 likes. The same day, @elioliart, an account owned by twins Elena and Olivia Ceballos, posted a panel from their cosmic-themed webcomic The Moon and Me, which has generated more than 900 retweets and more than 12,000 likes. Original art aside, art history accounts and accounts that curate feeds of classic art fare just as well: On May 5, the Gustav Klimt Bot posted Klimt's classicized early work Allegory of Sculpture, and it has picked up nearly 600 retweets and more than 4,000 likes.

Beneath Twitter's reputation as a shitposter's heaven, art lovers often prefer it to platforms that promote other forms of content (like Instagram, which pivoted away from photos and art to video, chasing TikTok’s success), and artists use it as a portfolio and work-in-progress platform to showcase everything from drawings and pixel art to vector-based illustration and video game development. It doesn’t, however, substitute traditional portfolios, which artists still tend to keep as a more “permanent” showcase on platforms such as Behance or on their own website domains.

Colorado-based engineer Andrei Taraschuk, who created a series of art-historical bots that share art of specific artists or institutions on Twitter, sees it as part of a shift toward a visual way to convey information. "I don’t think it’s just Twitter. Information is increasingly shared by visual modalities," he says. "That creates more opportunities for artists to get their work seen and, hopefully, bought: I think Twitter will continue to be a more text-heavy medium, as opposed to Instagram, but more and more, people expect to see the visual arts to communicate." On that note, he praised Twitter's image-optimization efforts, including the meme-friendly grid and the option of having an alt text.

In general, social media has been crucial in connecting independent artists to wider audiences. "I think social media has played a crucial role in making the work of independent visual artists accessible to the general public," says Esther Goh, an illustrator based in Singapore. "You don't necessarily need an agent or gallery to represent you in order to build a career if you target the right audience."

Chelsea Faust, a pixel artist based in the US Midwest, noticed that Twitter works better as a community-building tool compared to Instagram, which at first glance might appear a more apt medium for sharing art. Twitter “rewards interactions,” she says. “I use Instagram for basically a gallery, as most interactions on there are shallow due to how the social platform works, unfortunately.”

Part of the reason behind Twitter’s success as a home for artists is structural: Twitter allows users to post up to four images, which can each illustrate one detail of a piece or highlight different stages of a work in progress. Unlike Instagram, where reels and short videos end up being a full-screen user experience, it integrates animations seamlessly in the timeline and feed, both as gifs and as short movies, which makes it particularly attractive to game developers and animators. This is the case for Isaiah Toth, a full-stack web developer who also works on the indie title No More Fathers, an adventure game full of lush landscapes and sweeping environments. "I have attempted Reddit and TikTok, but Reddit's audience was pretty rough," he says. "And TikTok took forever to set up then wouldn’t let me upload … so I gave up on it for now." On Twitter, he says, Toth found a community of fellow developers who are eager to share feedback and help one another.

Twitter is also easier for artists to see patterns and figure out what will generate the most interest or engagement for their work. "Twitter users love colors, they like well-known pieces, and they like dynamic pieces," Taraschuk says.

Toth notices patterns in which his work resonates with viewers as well. "People love animals: I showed off some highland cattle one time and it blew up," he says. "Another great post type is often grass, clouds, or some other environment. Shaders are big to share, but I think primary game mechanics that look smooth and fun also blow up.”

Some chalk it up to escapism. "I think the more details you have, and also showing your process gets more views," said Gregory Fromenteau, principal art director at Behaviour Interactive by day and a surrealist illustrator specializing in whimsical animals and architecture in his off time. “Whimsical pictures tend to get more audience too,” he says. “People need to dream during these difficult times.”

This, however, does not automatically translate into a quest for perfection. "Work-in-progress pictures also often get more likes than the finished product," says Lewer. "This is a meme amongst artists."

With Elon Musk’s bid to take over Twitter, there is widespread concern about what the platform will look like and what content will be allowed. Still, the artists surveyed expressed their intention to keep using Twitter, also because they feel like they know how to harness the community-building tools. "I would tell anyone to look into specifically what they hate about Twitter and try to mold the platform to be more welcoming to them: Use blocklists, mute words," says Faust. "If this can't be done then it may be best to just not use Twitter at all, even if you feel like you need it."

Still, there are tangible rewards to be found on social media, especially on Twitter, and they do go beyond being able to charge more after developing a following than you used to, as Lewer is able to. For some artists, it’s a way to make a little money from their passion, or just to engage with it and their fans at all. "I do find that social media is integral," says Faust. "This is primarily because I am a highly introverted person, and it provides me with a way to get my work out there without having to attend events to network." Fromenteau, who wants to keep his illustration career separate from his day job, found work through social media too. "I did some pieces for private collectors. I did not expect to do it, but when I have a good connection and the request makes sense to me, I'm happy to make it happen," he says.

In the end, though, even those who don’t share their art or curate art-themed accounts still benefit from the presence of art on Twitter, and that goes beyond potential patrons scouting talent for commissions. "People love to see art pop up in their feeds," observed Taraschuk. "For many, it feels like a small refuge in an otherwise adversarial space. It doesn’t require people to defend their views or read bad news; it simply asks people to make a moment and admire beauty."