How a pencil artist built a massive audience on YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook

Jono Dry is the type of artist whose work is sold in European galleries by art dealers. He only finishes a few pieces a year, and most of his purchased pieces likely reside in the private collections of rich people, closed off from the public.

But that hasn’t stopped millions of people from viewing his work. That’s because Jono films himself drawing each piece and uploads gorgeous time-lapse videos to platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. On YouTube alone these videos have generated over 8 million views, and his success on social media has transformed him into a world-famous artist.

I recently interviewed Jono about how he built his following and in what ways he’s been able to leverage that following to advance his career.

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player, or you can play the YouTube video below. If you scroll down you’ll also find some transcribed highlights from the interview.

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This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Why Jono initially launched his YouTube channel

Jono uploaded his first timelapse video to YouTube back in 2016, but he had no real ambitions back then of making it as a professional YouTuber. “I'm interested in computers and tech and cameras. I just kinda wanted to make this cool time-lapse video of one of my drawings. YouTube seemed like the easiest platform for me to launch that. And I'd never considered actively pursuing building a channel until early last year. The videos I made before last year were just kind of like hobby videos. I really enjoyed putting them together, but it wasn't something I was doing seriously.”

So how did he decide to start taking YouTube more seriously? “There was a video editor working next door and he approached me and said, ‘Hey, if you ever need some help with editing and stuff, let me know.’ I'm not sure if that actually sparked off me taking YouTube more seriously, but I think at the time it was kind of just floating around in my head that I should really try and produce content more regularly. It was definitely an idea that I'd wanted to do for a long time, but often these ideas never really manifest. They just kind of sit in your mind and just eventually fizzle out, but somehow this one grabbed hold. So having the help of this guy to just kind of also reignite that, I think that helped me take it seriously to try and film every single drawing I was doing.”

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How he found his audience

Jono actually found his earliest success with Facebook video. “I shamelessly reached out to bigger Facebook pages and I was like, ‘Hey, look at my work. If you like it, feel free to share it.’ I felt really awkward, but I also really wanted to try and develop a following. It was something I knew that was crucial for my career. I'd email really big pages like LADbible. Some of them would get back to me, some of them wouldn't, and every now and then I'd have a bit of a lucky break with that and they’d share it. And then there'd be a huge spike in people finding me, which was lovely.”

YouTube, he said, was a different beast, because videos spread in a different way, primarily through its algorithm. “After like two years of just casually uploading a video every six months or so I had 2000 subscribers on YouTube. I then became a YouTube partner,  and it seems like there's incentive for YouTube to promote your video and suggest it to people because then they make money from it as well. As soon as I joined the partnership program, YouTube then started promoting it themselves, which was great. Loads of people started seeing it and responding really well.” 

How Jono monetizes his channel

In addition to enrolling in YouTube’s ad partnership program, Jono also began attracting in-video sponsors. “On Instagram,  Skillshare started asking me to do sponsored stories for them. I really didn't know how to navigate this and I wasn't sure how the people who've supported me and followed me over the years would react to this because it feels kind of like selling out in a way. But I gave it a shot and people were fine with it. And then I actually contacted Squarespace and I was like, ‘Hey, I actually think I could work with you guys quite well. I genuinely believe that my audience would benefit from building a website with you.’ They got back to me and they're like, ‘yeah OK, cool. Let' see how this goes.’ And that kind of partnership has grown from there, which has been really great. With this kind of job, there's not a lot of financial security, so any kind of security you can get is hugely welcome.”

Jono only draws a few large pieces a year. I was surprised to learn that he doesn’t then try to auction it to his social media fanbase. “The art world is such a weird thing. There's an agent in Europe who represents me and they basically control the price entirely. Once I finish an artwork, I basically send it to the agent and they are in control of selling it.”

He does sell the prints directly to his audience, however. “That's been a way to also just get my work into people's houses who maybe can't afford the originals. I produce really little work because it takes so long for me to finish an artwork. So I literally only have maybe like six works available a year, so it's really nice to be able to send prints to more homes and get my work onto more people's walls.”

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.