Starting again: How Instagram transformed artist Gill Button’s career

Gill Button creates oil paintings and inky portraits, posting images of her work to Instagram under the name @buttonfruit. She now has 66,000 followers and has been asked to create artwork for record sleeves, magazines, fashion houses and TV shows by people who have spotted her work on the platform. It’s an unexpected turn of events for Button, who started using the site to display personal work after becoming fed up with commercial illustration…

Button graduated from Kingston University with a degree in illustration in 1995. For almost two decades, she produced illustrations for campaigns and business magazines as well as the United Nations, and was creating much of her work digitally using Photoshop.

“I had a lot of good clients and it was going fine … but I seemed to be working more and more digitally, and I got to the stage where I was fed up with it. I needed to draw and paint and [work with] real materials again,” she says. “I had just turned 40, and I think that was a turning point mentally. I thought, ‘I can’t just do another ten years of this, I have to stop, because I’m not being fulfilled’.”

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Gill Button’s Instagram account, @buttonfruit, where she posts sketches, portraits and works in progress

Button took down her website and decided to focus on painting. She set up a Tumblr page and later, an Instagram account, and set herself the challenge of uploading an image to the site every day. “I needed something to spur me on to draw every day,” she says.

For a while, she had just one follower, who would like and repost images of her work and offer words of encouragement. Eventually, after posting work every day for several months, Button had gained a few thousand followers and a place on Instagram’s recommended users list. “And it all sort of snowballed from there,” she explains.

Button has since been commissioned to create paintings for Dries Van Noten, Women’s Wear Daily Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar and Glamour. She was recently asked to illustrate the central characters from Amazon series Transparent after the creative director of the show’s production company spotted her work on Instagram. Her artwork appears in the show’s official trailer:

“I had a call from someone in LA asking if I had time to talk about a TV show … and it was amazing, because I hardly watch TV, but Transparent is my favourite show. I was expecting them to say a new show or an obscure one I’d never heard of,” explains Button.

All of Button’s commissions now come through Instagram, she says, “either directly or as a ripple effect from it”. It’s also how her New York agent found her.

One of her most high profile commissions to date has been creating illustrations for Dries Van Noten’s Fall 2016 fashion show. (She was contacted by Van Noten after the designer’s partner spotted images of her sketchbooks on Instagram).

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Sketches and paintings posted to @buttonfruit

Button created a series of paintings for his Fall 2016 collection, which appeared in the brand’s Antwerp showroom, and went on to illustrate 1200 invitations for the Fall 2016 presentation by hand – a task that took four days. “I wanted people to be holding an original piece of my work in their hands,” says Button. She has since painted the whole collection for the brand’s latest look book and her work can be seen in the windows of stores in Paris, New York and Hong Kong.

Scrapping her website and starting again was a risk, but Button says she is now much happier and more fulfilled. “Sometimes, I have to step back and pinch myself,” she says. “There’s an actor who wants me to paint his portrait, and people reaching out to me who are really well-known in their own right. It’s opened up a whole new world.”

She is now working on a solo exhibition which opens in Paris in October and plans to take some time away from commissions after working on Transparent. With much of her income now coming from paintings, Button can be more selective about the work she takes on and says she tends to avoid jobs where she might have to compromise her style. She also makes sure to leave plenty of time for personal work, something she wasn’t able to do before.

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Image showing Gill Button’s hand-painted illustrations for Dries Van Noten’s Fall 2016 show (photograph taken by Kevin Tachman)

“I’ve done that and curtailed my work in the past … and I’m very conscious not to do that again,” she says. “I now see myself foremost as a painter and make as much of a living out of that as I do commissioned work. I’m very fortunate that I can say no to a job, or ‘yes, but I’ll do it this way, and if you don’t want me, that’s fine’. It wasn’t like that before, because making the money for the mortgage every month isn’t easy. You don’t know what’s going to happen next month.”

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Gill Button’s Instagram account, @buttonfruit

You can follow Gill Button on Instagram at @buttonfruit or see more of her work at Below, Button has also selected some of her favourite accounts on Instagram:

@unskilledworker: “There’s such depth and warmth to her work … it’s incredible that she’s only been painting for a few years.” (a moodboard run by Jean Philippe-Pons and Pierre P. Marchal). “It’s like a mood board, but all the pieces connect, and you can discover other artists and museums and different things … it’s nice to watch it unfold.”

@petraborner: “I love Petra’s work. She did have a bigger following, but then she just scrapped her whole feed and started again. She also has a separate account, @petraborneratelier, where she posts beautiful ceramics.”

@panandthedream: “Pan and the Dream posts a mix of things she’s been working on and other people’s work. She has such perfect taste, it’s always beautifully presented.”

@virgin_honey: “[Sabine Timm] creates images out of found objects … her life is so creative, it’s like stepping into a different world.”

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