Art student gains huge social media following, launches career at high school

Talented teenager Kate Powell has shared her Art projects on social media platforms since she was fifteen years old. She currently has over 12,000 fans on Facebook and 34,000 followers on tumblr, with one of her tumblr posts gaining over 112,000 notes. We talk to Kate about how she has built this following and how she launched her career before graduating from high school.

Important reading for any Art student who is considering being an artist
Eighteen year old artist Kate Powell with a self-portrait completed during her last year of high school

 

Kate is no stranger to success. She has achieved outstanding results as a student at North Halifax Grammar School, West Yorkshire, England, gaining A* (the highest grade) in OCR GCSE Art as a Year 9 student, two years younger than is expected, and A* for A Level Art OCR in Year 12. She achieved full marks (100%) for AQA AS and A Level Photography in Year 13 and is currently waiting for her AQA AS History of Art and Art Textiles results. Most teenagers would find these accomplishments outstanding enough, but Kate Powell is especially committed, passionate and driven. She has taken a Creative Foundation Certificate outside of school, produced a commissioned drawing of her headmaster, had her work published in the UK Specialist Crafts catalogue and found time to produce her own artwork, while nurturing a supportive and growing online fan base.

We were lucky enough to interview Kate below. All young artists who are contemplating a career in the Visual Arts will benefit from reading her responses.

18 year old artist Kate Powell
These are two of Kate Powell’s most recent pieces, completed while waiting to attend a Foundation Degree at Leeds College of Art

 

You have achieved outstanding results in your high school Art courses, despite completing qualifications a year earlier than most. What do you believe helped you to achieve excellent grades?

Kate: I think I managed to achieve high grades because I chose projects I was passionate about and which linked directly to me and my life – having this kind of connection with my work motivated me to work hard and prove myself. Since the beginning of my school life I have been concerned with/affected by issues of self-harm/eating disorders/ body image and after tackling these problems in art earlier in my school career I felt like my understanding came to a climax in my A2 exam piece (see below), responding to the title ‘Storyteller’. I was able to use art as a means of reflection and therapy as I tackled the issues closest to my heart, and, because I felt so emotionally invested in the exam piece, I was driven to give it my all.

Kate Powell storyteller
‘Storyteller: Recovery’, the final piece in Kate Powell’s A Level Art project, is a stunning self-portrait, completed using tinted graphite, coloured pencil, ink and collage. Demonstrating a superb level of observational drawing skill, the composition communicates a depth of emotion that is rare within a high school Art project: a visual expression of overcoming of struggles with self-harm / eating issues. The collaged, torn diary pages provide a textural base for the artwork, setting free traces of sorrow from an earlier time. Crumpled objects churn from her mouth and become butterflies (a reoccurring subject matter in Kate’s work) symbolising hope, recovery and redemption.

 

I developed my self-taught drawing skills over time (I’ve been practising drawing since I was a toddler and was encouraged endlessly by my family) but I wouldn’t have been able to achieve such high grades without the challenges set by my teachers. In Year 9 I received enormous help from the Head of Art who supported me when taking GCSE two years early.

Scatterbrain by Kate Powell

I feel most comfortable working in pencil/black and white but my Art teachers pushed me out of my comfort zone so I was able to work with different materials, collage, and on a fairly large scale. Without the diversity they inspired in my work I doubt I would have been as successful when it came to marking. In Photography, the structure of the course (with weekly deadlines and group critical sessions) put me under enough pressure to ensure I produced a large amount of top quality work, but not so much that I didn’t enjoy the lessons. The Photography timetables sent out by the teacher meant that I completed the correct amount of work every week and I could feel myself ‘ticking boxes’ as I climbed closer and closer to a high grade. I would definitely not have been able to achieve 100% for A Level without the teacher’s encouragement and strict deadlines.

One of Kate’s A Level Photography Coursework pieces, inspired by Dan Mountford:

Photography projection by Kate Powell
This image was created by projecting a drawing over a motionless male figure – connections between her Art and Photography projects feeding and inspiring further ideas.

 

Towards the end of my school life I felt that I was starting to develop a style of sorts and certainly had a clear vision of how I wanted my work to look. Whilst working on my A2 artwork I was finding more and more artists who used similar motifs in their portrait work – I found them incredibly inspiring. Focusing on details found in the work of contemporary, up-coming artists such as Marco Mazzoni, Meghan Howland and Gabriel Moreno helped me to create emotive and stylistically interesting pieces; if I hadn’t been inspired by so many wonderful artists then my work would definitely not have developed as successfully.

Kate Powell's A Level Art sketchbook
This sequence of work (primarily Kate’s A Level Art sketchbook pages) shows experimentation with media and the exploration of compositional ideas. Artist influences are chosen cleverly: seamlessly integrating with her own aesthetic.

 

You have embraced social media and used this to create large followings on both tumblr and Facebook. What strategies have you used to build this following?

Kate: I have 12.4k ‘fans’ on my Facebook page and 34k followers on tumblr where I upload and display my art (as well as personal posts and inspiration). I’ve acquired such a large audience mainly due to patience and shameless self-promotion, but certain pieces have helped my audience to grow, such as ‘I tried to draw my soul but all I could think of was flowers’ (see further below) which has 41.4k notes on tumblr, ‘Butterfly Effect’ which has 57.1k, and ‘The Butterfly Project’ (below) which has over 62k notes. Normally images with lots of butterflies and flowers are popular because they are colourful and eye-catching, but my final exam project, Storyteller, also got 10k notes. No matter how far my drawing spreads from the original post, it is always linked back to my blog, which is why my follower count increases daily.

A Level Photography butterflies
Continuing to include butterflies as ’emblems of hope’, Kate’s final A Level Photography work ‘The Butterfly Project’ is a technically superb digital collage – a simple yet striking composition.

There are certain times where my audience grows rapidly, which is mainly due to a significant individual/website sharing my work. Popular art bloggers (such as ghost in the machine) sometimes share my work and this increases my chances of getting chosen to appear on the daily tumblr ‘radar’ where every user in the world is able to see the image for a short amount of time. DeviantART, society6 and Redbubble etc. have also chosen to share my work for which I am very grateful. The picture of me holding my drawing up whilst stood between Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman (see below) also helped boost my follower count significantly.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman drawing
Kate Powell’s autographed drawing of Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch from the TV series Sherlock.

 

Drawing fan art is a good way to gather followers with similar interests, but I always found this was less fulfilling than creating more original pieces. Certain images spread more quickly and successfully than others, mainly because of how accessible/illustrative/’pretty’ they are. Although it is rewarding gaining followers from popular drawings, I would like to start creating art that is more personal to me – which would mean making it slightly darker and less decorative, which would inevitably result in less popularity. I came to the conclusion that creating art that means something to me is more valuable than its popularity online.

A drawing inspired by Natalya Lobanova’s quote, ‘I tried to draw my soul but all I could think of was flowers’:

Kate Powell artist
This work explores Kate’s frustration at arriving at a ‘pretty’ result, when she longs for meaning. In addition to the finished work, she shares photographs of the work in progress, providing carefully composed glimpses of the making/creation process. This image wraps meaning within in it; a captivating portrait, from which we cannot look away.

 

In hindsight, the most significant thing I would do differently in sharing my art if I could turn back time would be to put a small watermark or signature on the more illustrative and ‘pretty’ pieces, because they have sadly been reproduced, plagiarised, reposted and even sold on t-shirts without any credit or link back to me.

 

How did you balance your schooling with building an online following? Did you find this difficult?

Kate: I found that balancing my school work and online sites/personal work was especially difficult in Year 11 when I was doing so many challenging subjects (sciences, maths) and juggling my creative subjects at the same time. I did extra work at lunchtime and after school so that I could manage both aspects of my work, but I found it pretty exhausting and always felt like I was either neglecting my studies or my personal artwork. I have found things a lot easier to balance during A Level because I felt more comfortable with my selected subjects and have been able to spend more time doing what I want. However, over the past two years I have still been working very hard on subjects such as History, History of Art and English Literature, so I haven’t spent as much time as I would have liked on making my own personal art. Gladly, now that I’ve finished high school I will be able to focus much more attention on art and hopefully make up for the lack of personal pieces over the past year or so.

Drawing eyes by Kate Powell
This is a personal piece that Kate created while at high school. It expresses the inner critic; the eyes of judgment and ever self-conscious brain observing ‘every tiny awkward thing I do wrong’. Despite concerns about not having been what she envisioned, this work has a raw honesty about it that resonates with viewers; executed with unfaltering perfection.

 

How has your social media presence influenced your decision to pursue an artistic career and helped you to make the transition from high school student to ‘artist’.

Kate: Since a very young age I have known I wanted to be an artist, and social media has only encouraged me. The hugely positive response I’ve received has been overwhelming and inspiring for me; I am no longer just drawing for my own enjoyment, I am providing for and entertaining an audience. It’s an interesting kind of pressure; I feel like I couldn’t ever stop drawing now that so many people have shown such immense support, and when I’m in a ‘block’ I feel the weight of expectation dragging me through it so I can keep on creating. Through tumblr and Facebook I have been able to advertise my online shops such as society6 and Redbubble and on average I make about £150-200 a month from the royalties of these sales. I found the demand for merchandise with my art on it both surprising and motivating – the thought of being a starving artist has always been a great worry for me, so seeing so many people spend their money on reproductions of my work before I’m even an established/successful artist gives me hope for the future. I feel that establishing an online presence at a young age is going to help propel me forwards in the future, and reading people’s positive and thoughtful comments every day makes me want to produce more and more work for them to see.

Print-on-demand mugs and clocks
Websites like Redbubble and society6 allow artists to sell prints of their work. Print-on-demand mugs, clocks and other products provide a way of gaining ongoing revenue and give Kate’s fans the ability to support her and share her artwork with the world.

This great video shows Kate answering some questions about her artwork:

We have published a number of Featured Art Projects on the Student Art Guide, celebrating the success of high school students. If you enjoyed this article, you may wish to read our comprehensive list of art careers and our article explaining why art students should create their own artist website.

Amiria has been an Art & Design teacher and a Curriculum Co-ordinator for seven years, responsible for the course design and assessment of student work in two high-achieving Auckland schools. She has a Bachelor of Architectural Studies, Bachelor of Architecture (First Class Honours) and a Graduate Diploma of Teaching. Amiria is a CIE Accredited Art & Design Coursework Assessor.