A curious case for fan art in artistic success

This is actually cross-posted from my deviantart gallery journal, but I thought it was interesting anyway.

Or : How fan art is actually potentially necessary for artistic success.

This is a rambling musing, but bear with me here.

Fan art is a topic with which I’ve struggled for a long time. As an artist, I’ve always heard and fully believed “Originality over fandom”. I subscribed to this over many many years. However, in recent years, seeing certain things, I’ve come to question the evil of fanart and begun to see it in a strange, almost… necessary evil light. Let me explain.

In the beginning, when I was drawing, I often drew inspirations from things I already knew. Indeed when I was a wee artist, I would draw some of my favorite cartoon characters, comic book idols, and various characters I deemed awesome. However, unlike the world today, when I grew up, there was no internet. The artist’s sketchbook was intensely private and the only place you would likely encounter the public versions of such tribute to favorite works were through official channels of carefully selected fan arts from contests or sent into a magazine or something. Or potentially at shows or conventions, particularly comic conventions.

My own artistic attempts, which would be right at home with the other young artists who now post every other doodle on DA or their gallery of choice depicting their favorite characters from their favorite shows, comics, or other properties, never saw the light of day. At least not publicly. By the time I actually got a chance to put things online, I was already aware of the issues of copyright around fanart, and was mature enough having been hammered with the philosophy of “original is best” to put up only art that was, by my standards, reasonably original.

I didn’t see a lot of recognition early on. Even now, I’m quite obscure compared to the 15 year olds that have been posting nothing but Naruto and Bleach fan art for a year.

There were, a few times, admittedly where I have put a scribble of fan art, or quazi fanart. I had a commission of Hellsing, a doodle of Father Nightroad from Trinity blood, here and there, I’ve dabbled.

And I’ve noticed something strange.

My Hellsing artwork is among the most popular things in my gallery (aside from the stock brushes). It has at almost double the page views and comments of anything else I’ve got. Many of my less popular works put together. And this made me ponder.

Since Deviant art has gotten the group function, these fan works have received more attention, getting shared and seen by new eyes as they are added to the groups.

This made me ponder further. And thinking about it, I realized something.

There are many artists who become well known through fan art.  Spacecoyote (aka Nina Matsumoto) gained fame, fortune and and Eisner award as a result of her well known Simpsons fan art piece “Simpsonzu” being discovered for example. I know I’ve heard of other artists getting work based on a fan art work, and I’ve realized, finally, why.

In the art world, its actually EXTREMELY rare that people hire you to do completely original work. Original in the sense of being given the free reign to do literally whatever you please. Most of the time, you are working within some kind of framework of an existing property or coming up with original ways of refreshing something that’s gotten tired, or maybe coming up with a new take on an older property. Most work you do will be polishing up or re-imagining something that’s already existing as another person’s idea/character/environment. Honestly, when do you REALLY get to do YOUR OWN ideas and get paid? How much attention does original art get in comparison to amazing fan art?

Many companies are beginning to embrace fan artists, showcasing their work (Blizzard’s featuring of fan art comes to mind), and starting to look to employ the talents of remarkable fan artists. Fan artists get some amazing exposure and attention and then suddenly they get a chance at paying work that might actually earn them professional recognition. How rad is it really for a mega man fan to suddenly be working for Capcom? Or a WoW fan suddenly contracted to do work for Blizzard? Or perhaps it was your love of Assassin’s Creed, or My little Ponies that landed you a gig working on that or similar products? If you want to work in comics, it used to be standard that you submitted a portfolio full of DC and Marvel heroes.

But the trick here, is not all fan art is gold. While its all fine and dandy to make fan art, and yes, fans will always be attracted to some degree, this is where the originality bleeds in to the equasion.

People (and companies) want to see a unique/fresh and brilliantly executed take on their properties when they are shopping around for artists. Most artists of any sort, be they designers or illustrators are hired on a style/look basis 90% of the time. If you DO delve into the world of fan art, remember, you need to really put yourself and your style into the work, not just copycat the original material. The reason that spacecoyote got her gig with the Simpsons was because she took the Simpsons and translated them into her own style, she didn’t just copycat it. It was such a unique execution, it attracted the right sort of attention.

What the companies are going to pay you for is the uniqueness and polish of your own style melded with their property. That’s the balance. You can’t just copy, you can’t just reproduce, you can’t just be shiny, you have to bring something, that spark that no one else has to the table and fan art shows that you can apply it to things other than your own personal ideas.

And once you have enough success in bringing other people’s ideas to financial success, the chances are you’ll know enough contacts, and enough about the industry to do the same with your own. And having a small hoard of fans of your work doesn’t hurt either. Just because they found you through fan art, doesn’t mean they won’t be attracted to your original stuff too.

So, fan art isn’t the villain I thought it was. In fact, the more and more I look at it, It’s becomes necessary to some degree for artistic success. Maybe I won’t be so hard on myself now when I feel the need to draw Alucard or Father Nightroad…

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