How Not to Display Your Artwork on the Web

How Not to Display Your Artwork on the Web
In the thirteen years I’ve been on the web, twelve of which I’ve spent doing professional web site design, and the last two of which have sent me to hundreds of artists’ web sites, I’ve come to the inevitable conclusion that the thing artists want most when placing their art on the web is for it not to be seen.

There are millions upon millions of bad sites on the web, but artists really work at it. Never have I seen such an array of sites in which artsy designs, misplaced cleverness, highbrow concepts, amateur clumsiness, arrogance and ignorance have been painstakingly employed to drive visitors away.

As a result of this obvious desire of illustrators, painters, comics artists, concept designers and other artists not to be seen, I’ve created a collection of handy tips for how to send editors, art directors, gallery owners, prospective buyers, webcomics readers and casual users hastily clicking away in search of some portfolio site other than yours.

Got your note pads ready?

Use a “free” hosting service that only charges by making your site display pop-up ads. Hey, free is free, right? Besides, everybody loves pop up ads. Don’t bother with real web hosting from decent hosting services even though it can cost $8 a month or less, and don’t bother to look for reviews of hosting services on reputable sites like C/Net. Also ignore the fact that blogs, when used with “pages” instead of “posts” can serve as easily constructed, pre-designed and free web sites.

Don’t take the trouble to get a domain name. Art directors will remember “” much more easily than “” when they go to hire their next artist. Plus “” is so easy to mention in conversation or recommend to someone else, and it looks great on a business card. Don’t consider the fact that domain names can cost less than $10 a year, and are often free with real web hosting accounts. Hey, the good ones are all taken or squatted on, right, so why bother? And if you do get a domain name, longer names that are more closely associated with your name or studio, and might be easier to remember, can’t possibly be a cool as bizarre, clever, short ones that have nothing to do with you or your work.

Speaking of “clever” be sure to use a clever interface design and enigmatic navigation. All art directors and gallery owners love to play guessing games, and they have plenty of time to click around until they’ve figured out where on your nifty “concept site” you’ve hidden your artwork. They’ll be so impressed with your high concept that they’ll feel the art is that much more valuable when they finally find it.

In fact, make them wait a bit in anticipation. Use an Intro Page, especially with a long, clever animated Flash intro that that can’t be bypassed, to make sure they’re in the right mood when they arrive at your fabulous Splash Page, the entire purpose of which is to force them to search for a tiny, almost invisible, “Enter Site” button and click on it in order to get to the Main Page, which should be as confusing as possible and from which they must choose “Creative”, or some other euphemism for “Portfolio”, in order to arrive at the Gallery Selection Page and be presented with choices for which section of the Gallery they want, hopefully named in some arcane terms only you and the members of your fan club would understand, and then choose a Sub-gallery, and ideally a Sub-sub-gallery, before showing them any images. Make them work for it so they’ll understand just how important your images are! Hey, they wouldn’t have gotten this far if they weren’t, right?

Use lots of bright, intense colors in the design, particularly in the gallery area. You want to make sure the colors in your images are suppressed and overshadowed by the design. After all, the web site itself is the important thing, isn’t it?

Use tiny, square thumbnails with a nondescript crop from some obscure corner of the artwork. You wouldn’t want someone to miss the fun of playing “Concentration” when trying to remember where a particular image is; and if the thumbnails clearly described the images, visitors might actually go to one they like in the eleven seconds they have to look at your site.

Even better, why bother with thumbnails or preview images when clever little dots, squares or enigmatic shapes are so much more artsy? Everybody already knows how cool your stuff is, they’ll certainly take the trouble to click through all the shapes to find an image. Plus if they come back looking for a particular image, they have the fun of discovering all over again!

Use “pop-up and close” style gallery navigation. Don’t let them be lazy and click through all of your images with a simple “Next, Previous, Thumbnails” style navigation, they might go through your whole portfolio! Better to make them work for it, open each image in a separate pop-up window and click to close it again before they can click on the next image. Your fabulous art is worth the trouble! For an extra incentive, make them wait for a JavaScript that cleverly re-sizes the pop-up window every time before displaying your image. In fact, the more pop-up windows, the better! Pop up each gallery, gallery subsection and individual image in a separate pop-up window! Wheeeee!

Speaking of Javascript, be sure to use one that makes the user’s browser window reposition itself, or forces it to full screen when they arrive at your site. Nothing says “Welcome” like yanking the user’s browser out of their hands and making it clear you don’t think they know how to view your brilliant design properly because they’re idiots.

Here’s another good trick, use JavaScript on your thumbnails so that they can only see your full size images on rollover, and the instant they move the mouse, change the image. The self-control necessary to keep the mouse steady, or carefully take their hands off of it to view the image for more than a split second will keep them on their toes. You don’t want any slackers looking at your stuff! Plus, this has the added advantage of making them wait for the images to pre-load before they can see them.

While you’ve got the JavaScript book out, pull out the Flash book too. See if you can find some ways to make your galleries hard to scroll, keep the text from being read by search engines and make the images take forever to display, either by long fades, dramatic transitions or resizing display areas. (Ignore the fact that Flash can be used responsibly and effectively if you learn how; that stuff’s for sissies!)

Be sure to put your site in frames! You wouldn’t want someone to be able to conveniently bookmark a page, or send a link to an individual page to, say, another art director. You want them to go through the entire navigation process everytime. Putting your entire site in a single Flash file is good for this too.

As long as you’re coding, make sure your site is Internet Explorer specific. You don’t want any bums using Firefox, Mozilla, Opera, OmniWeb, UNIX, LINUX or a Mac to access your site. If they can’t get a real computer, they should get lost.

Don’t bother to find out how to make your site search-engine friendly. True artists have always languished in obscurity. If you do go insane and decide you’d like your site to be found, don’t take the trouble to go to, or similar sites, and learn anything about search engine optimization; be sure to hire a black-ops, fly-by-night search engine optimization outfit from a country whose name you can’t pronounce, that has sent you a spam email promising to post your site to “hundreds of search engines”. (Those stories about 90% of all searches taking place on the top four search engines? Just rumors!)

Play some tricks! Use nondescript links, that unsuspecting users think are to other pages in your site, to send them without warning to eBay, your blog, a Flickr gallery or to start the unwanted download of a PDF file. What fun!

Wow ’em with sound. If your visitors are in an environment where music is inappropriate, and only have their sound on so Microsoft Word can seranede them when it belches out a document, they’ll appreciate the welcome relief from boredom that your surprise music explosion brings to them, their unspecting co-workers, and their boss, who needs to loosen up anyway. On the other hand, if they’re in a sutuation where music is acceptable, they’re certain to like what you have picked out better than what’s on their iPod, and they’ll appreciate the surprise mash-up of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and Dust in the Wind. Besides, your taste in what music they should listen to is obviously much better than theirs. If you’re creating your navigation in Flash to keep it hidden from search engines, you can add bonus sound effects to the buttons! And don’t let some namby-pamby usability expert talk you into subtle little camera shutter clicks to give user feedback when they click on a button; imagine some art director’s deilght at the button for your “About” page emitting a sound like a Star Wars light saber slicing through a jet engine housing!

Don’t learn anything about usability, information design or good navigation practices. If you’re making your site yourself, you don’t want to stifle your creativity with such things, nor do you want to be aware of them if you’ve hired a “creative” web site designer or agency who has promised to make your site “cutting edge”. All that nonsense about making a site easy to use just gets in the way. Make sure you don’t read books on web site usability, like Steve Krug’s Don’t make Me Think. Don’t try to look at your site like someone who’s never been there before. Hey, you know where everything is, if some newbies can’t figure it out, screw ’em!

Keep ’em guessing. The home page is the first impression visitors have of your site, Whatever you do, don’t set aside a space on the home page, or at the top of your blog, to give first time visitors a succinct description of who you are and what you do, or tell them what kind of site this is. What fun is that? In fact, do what you can to make the intro to your site as enigmatic and obscure as possible; this is très chic. Besides, all the important people have already been to your site and know the score; and the newcomers will love the feeling that they have arrived at the gate of a clandestine private club, and will appreciate the challenge of figuring out the puzzle while they decide whether or not to apply for membership.

Don’t focus! Since everybody important has already been to your site, design your home page for their benefit and fill it with the latest news of your comings and goings, or your insightful ruminations on last night’s episode of Lost. Don’t waste that wonderful home page space on introductions for strangers! Oh, and while you’re at it, make sure to cram as much as possible on your home page. It’s the most important page, right? So everything should go there. Make it long and scrolling and squeeze stuff into every corner. You don’t want any wasted white space! The more stuff vying for attention, the better! MAKE EVERY LINE A HEADLINE! Mix colors! MAKE YOUR HEADLINES LOOK LIKE LINKS! MAKE YOUR LINKS LOOK LIKE HEADLINES! Be sure to underline, italicize and bold all kinds of stuff for EMPHASIS!!. Isn’t this fun?! Don’t forget, the computer gods gave you a milliOn fOntS for a reason; it would be a sin not to use them.

And be sure to center your text. It’s a well established principle
of graphic design that centered text is much easier to read than boring old justified
text. That’s why all novels, magazines and newspapers look like wedding

Once you’ve made your images inaccessible, make yourself inaccessible. Suppress any unwarranted urge you have to include a brief bio. At the very least substitute a clever “fake” bio that’s sure to leave ’em laughing. Or, if you must add a real bio, be sure to write a lengthy multi-pager with your entire life story, your views on all aspects of art, religion and politics and the details on your penchant for eating Oreos dipped in Diet Coke at 4am in your Sponge Bob underwear. Don’t include a short description of your working methods, that might be too interesting or informative. Make certain your contact information isn’t available, or be sure it’s presented as some kind of weirdly arranged interactive form, the location of which is hidden and the page for which makes it clear how much you don’t want anyone to contact you unless you already know them, because they’re obviously “fans”, and as such, beneath your notice.

Most importantly, make sure the images themselves are too small to really convey any feeling for your work. Remember – all visitors to your portfolio site are malicious parasitic thieves, out to steal your precious artwork and print it on millions of knock-off T-shirts in China! Don’t give them anything that makes your work look good enough to steal!!   Better yet, keep your work safe by not putting it on the web at all! If your work is in print, you need to write your senators and demand they outlaw inexpensive scanners, which can actually be used to grab a high-resolution, printable image of your art. Now that I think of it, it’s better to prevent your work from appearing in print too. Keep it at home in a drawer so no one can see it but you!

Or just watermark everything. Now we’re talkin’! Make sure your watermark is big and ugly and obliterates any remnant of appeal your tiny images might still allow to be present in your work. The best phrase to watermark across your images is: “I think you’re a thief, you’re not worthy to look at my brilliant work and you wouldn’t understand it anyway! Go away!”

See how easy it is? By following these simple rules, or just a few of them, you too can make your portfolio site as magnificently unappealing as many other artists! So grab your copy of Front Page and have at it!

Addendum: Due to the overwhelming response to this article, and the many requests for information that have stemmed from it, I’ve started a less entertaining, but hopefully more directly helpful, series of articles on the subject of How to Display Your Art on the Web.


236 Replies to “How Not to Display Your Artwork on the Web”

  1. One last thing you forgot to mention(while you’re still in a good mood) is to make sure that all of your website is on a single page so that the user has to scroll through 3000 miles of screen real estate to get to the bottom. From this page alone I can see that you have no idea how to design a web site.

  2. Though there can be crossovers and similarity depending on intention, in general, a blog is very different in form and function from a web site.

    This is a blog. It follows the generally accepted paradigm of displaying a number of previous dated posts on the main page (in this case 10). Were I to put “all of this site” (780 posts and 2,300 comments) on one page, it would indeed take up 3000 miles of screen real estate.

  3. An articulate and witty article which happens to be so very true. I have had to deal with an artist who I think you must have been writing about. Her sites meet almost each and every one of your points.

  4. If you want a website that looks generic that’s fine but some of us don’t – i don’t care that visitors to my site will have to work out the navigation for themselves and i get loads of daily hits. I use tiny thumbnail shots, any colour i think works in the overall design and if it’s day-glo pink then so be it and as soon as get more proficient with Flash i’ll be adding long drawn out intro’s and any other Flash whistle and bells i feel works for expressing my work.

    I don’t want a boring old ‘shopping cart’ type website, i want to have some fun with web design and i have’nt had any bad feedback from visitors so i guess it’s a case of ‘horses for courses’ here.

    My Advice…Be adventurous with your web design and make it how you want it not how anyone else thinks it should be. Individuality Rules!

  5. Thanks for your comments.

    None of what I’m suggesting precludes creativity or requires a generic cookie-cutter site (in fact most “shopping cart” sites have terrible navigation).

    I’m simply saying that usability shouldn’t be sacrificed on the altar of misguided notions of “creativity”.

    If you’re truly creative, you’ll be able to make an exciting, captivating site that also takes usablility into account.

    Most disgtuntled or frustrated users won’t give you feedback, they’ll simply leave and not return.

  6. Hi Charley,

    Enjoyed your sense of humor….as I can relate to all of the above.

    Please Note: I am currently looking for someone to build a High End Gallery site for me. I’ve talked with several guys from India who don’t really comprehend the High End notion. Seems like there cookie cutter guys.

    Would you…do you still build galleries? I’m looking for something like the Stair Sainty Gallery…..If you have time Google Stair Sainty Gallery….it should be the first link. There will be a music intro page. It’s very nice. I’m looking for something along that line.

    Perhaps….If you do not currently do not build sites…you could direct me to someone who can do a stunning high end site.

    Thanks for reading this.


    D. Todd

  7. C: I’ve printed this article and given it to a friend, who is a sculptor, and desperate for a website. She hooked up with someone whose sample sites on their website follow every single rule listed above….unbelievable. The sites posted are great for a business but not an artist. I didn’t think anyone could use all your rules in one site. Anyway, I plan to jump in and help her out using your other article as guidance. Thanks for your help. You are a wonderful teacher and mentor!

  8. Great article…..unfortunately, I don’t think it matters which way one might choose to display art. Many of my friends, as well as myself, have come to the conclusion that if someone wants to purchase an art piece….they will probably need to actually see it in person. A website is good for general observation, but, if someone wants to purchase…unless they have purchased from the visual artist before, they might have to see it, up close.

  9. You might think so, but the experience of the growing number of “painting a day” painters, who have sold hunderds of paintings directly through ebay or their blogs or web sites over the past two years, indicates otherwise.

    Granted these are generally small pieces (often postcard size) at the low end of the price range for original paintings ($100 – $300), but they sell online on th ebasis of posted images (and perhaps with the additional reassuance of comments on the artist’s blog by satisfied buyers).

  10. You forgot one – in spite of everything you do to dissuade them, someone might actually want to read the text on your site. You can deal with these people by displaying everything in 9 point text, preferably in a color that blends indistinguishably into the background, which should preferably be as busy as possible. That way, the ones that don’t go blind go crazy trying to decipher your words of wisdom…

  11. I like SimpleViewer. I think it’s one of the best free options for creating an interactive online gallery. The navigation is simple and easy to use, as is the application itself.

    I’m not deterred at all by the intelligent use of Flash. The stats for Flash 7 (required to see SimpleViewer galleries) are above 97% market penetration. Those few users without it would be given a message to upgrade. (And I think most of those machines are probably in the dusty back offices of business, and are not likely to be anyone’s primary machines.)

  12. That’s great to hear. I know very little about coding, so the only other option was to create an html gallery where each image had it’s own page. I guess I can always include a link from the Simple Viewer gallery to an html gallery for those who’re experiencing trouble viewing.

  13. You could, but I actually wouldn’t worry about it because the percentage is so small.

    It is important, though, that your site have a home page with text information readable by search engines.

  14. I do plan to have a splash/home page with links to the various sections. Do links and the Index Page Title get picked up by search engines, or will I have to include plain text in the body of the page?

    By the way, thanks for all the information you’ve been providing. It’s been phenomenally indispensable.

  15. Love this post, it actually had me laughing. I’m glad someone else is annoyed with the unnecessarily long (or just plain unnecessary) flash intros.

  16. After finding this site when I was looking on how to put my art on the web, it really didnt set well it made me think, I might as well continue doing my pictures and just keep putting them in the closet and let them keep building because Ive done
    paintings for years and never displayed anything, but I keep having people tell me I should somehow, besides that its not the money thats kept me going in this adventure anyway, it must be the smiles I get when someone sees my work or recieves something Ive done, I guess my question is if someones stealing alot of your art are any of you actually making anything online displaying it? It would be nice to make something on it but if its going to be nothing but a headache I would rather not display it at all ty

  17. I also was wondering about printing where would a person start with getting prints of his or her work, Ive seen some places to get it done but they want to make 200 to 300 prints at once or nothing at all I dont think I would need that many to start could anyone help here?

  18. Ed,

    If you are getting gratification and feedback from displaying your art, it seems to me that is in itself a worthwhile result of taking the trouble to post it online. Most artists that I know want their art to be seen, even if they go about it the wrong way sometimes.

  19. Tricks and flash and hiding and more tricks…Artist needs to show their art? For what?…Replace the word Artists with Image Makers, that is nearer the truth…Art web sites are mostly commercial places for selling and nothing else…Art on the web doesn’t really exist except in the minds of them that put their so called Art on it…The Art web is an incestuous place with ego driven self gratification as its immediate goal, which it succeeds at by offering free portfolios to unsuspecting individuals who actually believe that someone will ‘discover’ them. The sad truth is the free sites need the contributors to encourage the Google adword placements which gives them cash, and the spiders gather emails so we can all benfit from larger sexual organs offered in the terminal emails one begins to receive once one accepts a ‘free’ web placement. Then of course there is the ‘family’ sales. Where the new artists invite their grandmothers and Uncle’s to visit the site to gain a pat on the back and perhaps sell a painting on the cheap, more self gratification. And so it goes on. However on a positive note, the web provides something to talk about and a handy way of amusing oneself by being cynical….Thanks….George Barry,

  20. Wow, George, you seem to be surprised and dismayed that art is part of commerce (or vice versa), but I think if you look back, even the Sistine Chapel was created for profit. Artists have to eat.

    We all showed our art to our relatives at first, the point is to keep working and graduate from there to a larger audience.

    Yes, the web has its own circuitous economics, but many artists are curretly using it to advantage, finding a wide exposure for their art, whether for gratification or profit, that they might not have access to otherwise.

    Some are even taking the spam you mention, and turning it into subjects for painting.

  21. I always read these thinking I’m going to see something about my site covered in one of the “don’t do’s” and in the end, I’m relieved that my portfolio design doesn’t employ any of those things common in annoying sites.

    My pet peeve are the right-click disabled, pop up in your face with an insult about not stealing things. I can’t believe people don’t know the variety of functions you can perform with the right click while surfing the web. I actually had someone use my work without reading my terms etc. and told me that because I didn’t right-click disable, that she thought it meant “free to use”.

  22. Thanks for all the tips.
    About navigation with “Next/Previous” etc (instead of pop-up windows the user has to close), am I right in thinking this uses Javascript, and search engines will therefore not be able to find your images? (For that reason, I’m giving visitors a choice of both methods, but worry that is clunky). Also, can you recommend any such navigation scripts that are easily customisable?

  23. Moria, sorry for the delayed response.

    No, unless you’re avoiding the task of simply putting a set of HTML links on each page by using an automated script, a “Next/Previous” navigation does not require JavaScript.

  24. Thanks! What a marvelous accident that lead me to your blog! The first thing I did was take the music off my first page! :-) Thank-you for your forthright humour and great advice. I have bookmarked this page a will keep it handy as I rework my web site!

  25. As a writer and former Creative Director, I appreciated all your comments. I passed them on to some other freelance writers, fellow members of Working Writers of Wisconsin, and received very positive feedback from those who work with graphic designers.

    Great site!

  26. Charley, I was led to your web site while searching for more information about Rian Hughes. Thank you for providing so much information on your site. In my searches, I’ve been led to your site a number of times and its always a very happy surpise. It must be lovely to share your passion with so many. I love the history of American illustration. What a rich history we have. What a country! I am flabbergasted at the amount of art history, new art, and changing art venues accessible today on the net. It seems to grow and improve weekly. You are a wonderful conduit of information. I am very grateful for the time you take to share. Thanks Charley. Betty.

  27. chop-stix, Barbara, Joel and Betty,

    Thanks for you comments and kind words.

    It’s always gratifying to know that the effort I put into the posts is helpful and nice to hear that it’s appreciated.

  28. Hi Charley,

    Been a long-time Argon Zark fan (I’m talking ’95 and Headscape days here ;) and only recently bumped into your world again after unearthing my hardcopy of the first AZ book when unpacking some boxes. I was very pleasantly surprised to see that Argon still continues in his plight to unseat Nastysoft, although updates seem to travel veeerrryyy slowly over PTP…

    With regards the (somewhat dated) rants above, I have found Jeffrey Zeldman’s “A List Apart” to be a very good design oriented source of thoughts and inspiration.
    ALA has also been around for a long time, so chances are this is not news to you.

    Keep up the good work,

  29. Haha, great read. I’m annoyed by pretty much everything on that list, though I am happy to say that I specifically avoided most of them in my recent redesign.

    This does cement for me the idea that I need to get some previous/next buttons going on my gallery, though. Boo.

  30. GREAT article…lol… I’m brazillian and almost every artist’s website here is just as you described! It’s an international norm!

    And..well…I’ll improve my website (and finish the english version), I have to make a few changes there. Thank’s alot!

  31. Great post! I’m sure it’s going to be very useful to lots of artists online.
    I’ve just read this one day after I launched my new web site so after reading this I’m glad that I didn’t do any of the things mentioned here. Phew!

  32. Cool article,

    There are plenty of “how-to” guides on the internet, but I found this post really compelling: I had to read it all, and some remarks will be useful when tweaking with my little wordpress website about illustration. I wish I had some web design skills so I could immediately take some SEO action, but I’ll slowly get there!

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