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Meet the artists turning GIFs into legitimate careers

Philip Intile, or Pi-Slices, created the GIF Artists Collective to organize artists across Tumblr.

Philip Intile is a rising senior in high school. He already has his eye on a potential career path: one that loops on and on and on.

He’s only 16, but Intile is an artist (known as Pi-Slices in the GIF art world). He’s a GIF-maker and the founder of GIF Artists Collective, a group of digital artists whose “GIF art” was recently spotlighted by Tumblr, the micro-blogging platform that houses much of their work — GIFs of sliding rays of sun, GIFs of brains melting into a slippery pink ooze, GIFs of abstract crystals morphing shape and shifting color.

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GIFs, those moving pictures (“Harry Potter-like” as one GIF artist described) that endlessly loop on Tumblr, Reddit, imgur and more, have previously been confined to the role of quick reaction or speedy punchline — a snap-of-the-fingers from Ru Paul’s “Drag Race” or a clipped pratfall from the latest YouTube sensation, repeated over and over and over.

The GIF Artists Collective wants to change that.

The collective is showcasing some of the best GIF art on Tumblr and beyond and nourishing a growing community of artists and illustrators paying their rent in GIFs.

And there’s never been a better time to get into GIFs: This is the decade of international GIF festivals, artists collaborations, street art GIFs and even London galleries that ask you to snap a QR code for a GIF-tastic experience.

Since starting in November, the collective has been taking submissions on monthly themes and is attracting more and more attention since got a recent boost from Tumblr corporate. The staff included the URL in its weekly trending e-mail and sang it out on the trending topics section, viewable to all users of the site.

“Without GIFs,” reads the accompanying text, “There would be chaos.”

GIF-ing your name out there

That’s where Tumblr comes in. Tumblr means your GIFs can be shared widely, and people can follow your blog and find your work.

People like Christina Lu began their careers on Tumblr. A former illustrator for Buzzfeed and currently working as a GIF artist at ad agency Huge, she knows the secret to an excellent piece of GIF art — it’s more than ripping a movement from a Bravo TV show and adding a sassy caption.

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“It’s just like one little detail, “she says. “It’s just a tiny dynamic element that makes it super fun. The GIF is a not a still — it tells its story in one second.”

Illustrator Miguel Co became famous on Tumblr for exactly the kind of simple illustration Lu describes: his GIF of an artist staring at a blank sheet of paper went viral within hours. The only moving detail: a single spinning wheel, forever loading in the center of the page.

“The first GIF I ever made was kind of the one that became really popular,” Co remembers. “It was kind of crazy. It’s a very simple image; it’s not like my usual thing … it was like a crazy amount of notes within like an hour.”

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But when you search Tumblr blindly for GIFs, or google “GIF art” at random, it’s still much of the same — GIFsets from Bravo TV shows, uncredited pulls from other illustrator sites.

“I think most people still think of GIFs as celebrities making funny faces or small clips from TV shows or movies,” says Jonah Nigro, an artist known on Tumblr for his abstract GIFs that loop waves and shapes and color — definitely not your average GIF found on giphy. “GIFs as an art form still have a long way to go before they are recognized as such by the mainstream.”

“I hope nobody’s relying solely on GIFs for their livelihood!” says Robin Davey, an artist and illustrator whose work has appeared in Time, the Atlantic and more. “For me, it’s a supplemental skill to my career in illustration and animation. With that said, GIFs have been hugely valuable in popularizing my work and getting my name out there.”

Many GIF artists began their careers in art school, as animators or illustrators or pursuing another artistic path — but others, like Intile, came to the medium entirely through Tumblr.

“My interest in GIF-making was mostly sparked by its accessibility,” he said. “Anyone can make GIF art once they have the right programs to do so.”

He posted his first GIF — a simple rotating blue pyramid — to Tumblr and began sharing his work there more frequently. When Tumblr featured his personal blog on its radar, a feature to highlight trending blogs and encourage other users to follow, Intile saw a huge spike in following, adding thousands of followers in mere days. He gained 10,000 Tumblr followers in a single year, and now his blog Pi-Slices has more than 22,000 followers.

Tumblr is legendary for its obsession with GIFs — finding the perfect reaction GIF is part of being a good citizen of the network. Tumblr recently announced “Tumblr TV,” full-screen versions of GIFs you can flip on and off like TV channels. Users can search GIFs on Tumblr, but it’s harder to surface GIFs made by artists with appropriate credit.

That’s where GIF Artists Collective comes in.

Giffing offline

You still can’t hold a GIF as you would a sculpture, or any other piece of tactile art — but soon, that could change.

Some artists say they’ve been paid anywhere from $600 to $1,500 for a single GIF to run as an illustration, and Nigro says he’s seen publishers pay GIF artists double the rate usually offered to traditional illustrators. The rates are evolving, however, and these same publications can also pay more for static images if the repurpose value is higher. Those images can, after all, live off the Web, while GIFs are limited to digital platforms.

“I’ve found that the only way to market yourself is to just put your work out there and cultivate a particular style and following,” Nigro said. “If you keep putting your work out into the world, and people like it, someone will see it and want to hire you.”

Meanwhile, companies like Electronic Objects and FRM are making products that showcase GIFs as one would a painting, or a sculpture — they’re like “digital frames” to display GIFs on your wall as art, to be admired, appreciated and watched.

Robin Davey says there’s an “immediacy” to GIF-making that draws people to the images.

“It’s actually easier to articulate what I do now than when I had a more behind-the-scenes role in animation,” Davey says. “I can show someone a GIF on my phone and say, ‘Here’s what I made today,’ rather than saying, ‘Well, I did some exploratory foliage designs for a jungle scene that may or may not see the light of day.’”

It’s this “immediacy,” Davey says, that really connects to viewers.

Intile sees a future in which performing artists will commission GIFs for concerts — giant GIFs that play on screens at Coachella, Bonnaroo and more. He’s already designed GIF covers for songs promoted online, and the still, unmoving 2D version can even decorate the physical copy.

“It’s looking more and more like we will be teaching our kids to use stereoscopic cameras instead of to mix primary colors and stay inside the lines,” wrote Fueled’s Kayla Bibeu. “We’re refining our art like we’ve refined our character usage; this is how we teach art in the new age.”

She wrote that in 2013 — since then, the Internet has changed. And so has the GIF world.

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