Ready to set yourself up for success when it comes to creating fan art? This is the perfect recipe to get your artistic juices flowing.
There are a few tricks to get started in the right direction, and we feel this quick tutorial of an article should answer the questions you have and show you how top fan art artists stay focused. We will discuss what fan art is, some history, if it’s legal and how to create it!
First of all, what is Fan Art?
There are so many forms Fan Art can take, (including alternative movie posters) that it seems easier to come up with examples than with a proper definition. One could argue that the innocent efforts of a child attempting to draw SpongeBob SquarePants while looking at the tv are an early form of Fan Art.
The same goes for the Goku-shaped doodles that a teenager creates on a notebook’s margins during a boring class.
But Fan Art can also take the form of a very detailed illustration of Batman, conceived by a professional artist with decades of experience.
You can find traditionally made Fan Art and digitally created Fan Art. There’s Fan Art made by enthusiastic amateurs and Fan Art drawn by well-established artists.
By definition, Fan Art is fan-made artwork.
Namely, a piece of art (a drawing, a painting, a digital illustration, a sculpture) that is based on an element belonging to a story that someone else -and not the maker of this particular art piece- has created.
A fan artwork’s theme can be a character, a landscape, an object, a family crest, a symbol, or any other item that happens to be recognizable as a part of pop culture (regardless of how famous or popular the source material is).
Fan Art is born the moment someone imagines a piece of art regarding a film, a book, a series, or a videogame that doesn’t already exist within the canon of that world.
The thing about fiction is that it puts our imagination to work. More often than not, the consequence is that we wonder about aspects of a certain universe that are not explicitly told in the original story.
Fan Art is a way of exploring those ideas. Sure, you can find tons of fan-made artworks on the internet that are simply copies of certain characters or reproductions of a certain scene from a movie.
But you can also find illustrations that depict moments that do not appear in the source material. Even further, what happens if you went to see Avengers: Endgame and didn’t like the outcome of the Avengers saga?
What if you wanted a different character to live or die, to lose or win? What if you don’t ship the love interest that ends up with the protagonist at the end of the story?
Well, then if you are skilled enough, you can create your own version of things in a new illustration, and if an illustration isn’t clear enough, you can also create a comic or an animation to delve into the subject.
The written twin of Fan Art is Fan Fiction. It is even fair to say that they were born (and later became popular) around the same time.
Said time, mind you, would be the ‘70s.
This was the decade in which color television finally got to common people’s houses, and it was a big moment for fantasy and science fiction.
Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Philip K. Dick were still alive and publishing brand new novels, Dungeons & Dragons was released, Star Trek and The Lord of the Rings got their first movie versions, Star Wars revolutionized the film industry, it was the Bronze Age of Comic Books… Fan Art thrived as a new genre around that time because it was also when the number of fan conventions worldwide grew exponentially.
Fans would print their ideas and illustrations about certain lore in cheap, black and white magazines, also known as “fanzines,” in order to share them with the rest of the fan community in an effective way.
Afterward, just as the history of all media in the last century tends to go, technology became more and more advanced, the possibilities of production became wider and wider, and fan artists started producing more and more detailed works because they were less and less limited by the tools they were using to share their productions.
Eventually, as it was to be expected, Fan Art made it to the internet and made it it’s preferred home.
Fanzines are still a thing (because millennials are nothing if not nostalgic), but most famous fan artists now have Instagram profiles and digital platforms where they share their productions.
The main difference is that in the ‘70s, you had to be lucky, talented, or rich to get to see your fan artwork printed in color, and today you don’t need much luck, talent, or money to edit a picture in high quality and create something new out of it.
Today you cannot only print your Fan Art on paper (matte or glossy)but also as the stamp of a t-shirt, the motive of a mug, even as the pattern of a pair of socks!
And provided you were talented enough or had a platform big enough, would that mean that you could sell these creations and make a living out of your fan work? Oh, what a devoid-of-law and full-of-revenue world would that be.
Is Fan Art Legal?
First off, I’m not an attorney and the following is not legal advice!
Regardless of what many teachers and parents may have told you throughout your life, you can actually draw whatever you like (that is why psychologists are making a living out of analyzing people’s drawings).
You are allowed to create your own artwork based on the shows that you enjoy the most, you can also present it to your family and friends, you can post it on social media, and honestly, you can even send it to the makers of the said show as a token of your gratitude for their work.
There’s nothing illegal about making or showing fan art…the problem is trying to earn money from it.
Even if at first sight it seems unfair to the artists because they are spending all this time and effort in creating pieces of art that they’re not allowed to sell, the truth is that copyright laws exist to protect artists in the first place.
No matter how familiar and enchanting some characters might feel for the general audience, they are like that because someone took the time and the effort of creating them that way. They’re someone’s original idea.
The genius and the original authors’ work can never be dismissed only because their creations are now bigger than them.
Licensed merchandising is produced in such a way that the author gets a reward for every sale. When a fan artist sells a fan artwork based on someone else’s character and doesn’t pay royalties to that “someone else,” there is a moral dilemma.
Whether they get away with it or not is not the issue, the lack of morality behind it is because ideas are supposed to be owned and protected.
Why has Fan Art survived for decades then, if it’s considered to be neither legal nor ethical?
Well…because the world is not as binary as the Law sometimes makes it look. Some people ask permission to create fan artworks; some authors give that permission.
After all, it’s been told for centuries that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In many cases, the fan artist doesn’t have a list of followers (or buyers) big enough for anyone to really care about the legality of it.
And there are also well-intended initiatives such as Redbubble, where the website’s makers take care of each sale’s legal aspects so that the artists that sell fan-made products there can worry only about creation, without fearing some undesirable consequence.
A big problem with Fan Art is that many, many times, the content of the fan piece is different and sometimes even opposed to the values and events portrayed in the source material.
Fan Art can be disturbing or offensive, and those are the kind of cases in which a fan-made artwork could be considered an insult to the author of the original story.
It is also problematic when the fan artwork includes logos, titles, or names that could lead the inattentive audience to believe that said artwork is not fan-made at all but official instead.
You may be wondering why, if it is quite easy to prove that a certain fan artist is doing something illegal, the world is not flooded with lawsuits over Fan Art?
Because, my friend, Fan Art is basically a free advertisement. Creators are losing some money because of fan products being sold under the radar, it’s true.
But they are also saving just as much money (or way more) thanks to Fan Art.
Why? Because Fan Art has the power to build up hype and to create long term compromise with an on-going story. If a publicity campaign attempted to do the same, it would certainly cost a lot of money.
Another key aspect is that both official and fan-made products are directed to the same community: the fandom. And truth be told, fans do not appreciate being chased and hunted by their idols.
The other side of the coin is that, in general, fans don’t want to annoy their idols either. So there are many fan communities that make a statement out of not profiting from any Fan Art.
They make it clear that they’re not trying to pass as the official material, and they try their best not to harm the original creator.
While this was a quick intro to copyright you will want to read further. These articles go way deeper:
- How To Get Copyright Permissions For Your Fan Art Movie Posters
- Do Movie Posters Have Copyright?
- This Is How To Sell Fan Art Legally & Illegally
Plus, photography is a big issue, and if you use unlicensed and editorial photos in your artwork, you could be setting yourself up for a big lawsuit. This link will show you some important points to consider and hopefully prevent you from making a costly poor decision.
Should I do Fan Art then?
How correct or incorrect making Fan Art is will ultimately depend on the context. Each case is different.
Fan Art is greatly appreciated in comic conventions but tends to be quite frowned upon in academic spaces. If you are looking for a job in the comic industry, then, by all means, show your best superheroes!
But if you’re aspiring for a scholarship to study visual arts, you must show your own particular, innovative, original artwork. Most art teachers in all levels of education will rant against Fan Art at any given opportunity.
Ironically enough, most people without a solid art education will empathize more with an artist the moment they see a drawing of a character they recognize and like.
Not all Fan Art falls into the same category either. For example, some fans limit themselves to copy the original style of an animated series or graphic novel, while others imprint their work with an unmistakable personal style.
Some people are really skilled when it comes to mimicking someone else’s work but can’t come up with original ideas or don’t really like how their own drawing style looks, and that is completely fine as long as they have fun just making Fan Art.
For some artists, Fan Art is the door to building an audience.
Once their public gets familiar enough with their art style, they can start presenting their own original ideas with a greater chance of acceptance (such was more or less the case for Ana Godis /ana_godis and Gabriel Picolo /_picolo).
Fan Art is just as valid an art form as the next, with both advantages and disadvantages.
It is true that, when applying to Art School, a watercolor of Frodo and Gollum won’t be appreciated as part of a portfolio… but when applying to a contemporary art exhibition, a naturalistic oil painting of a vase with roses won’t be admired either.
Is a degree even needed anymore? We discuss in: Can You Be An Art Director Without a Degree?
A hand-carved wooden sculpture won’t get you a prize from Prix Ars Electronica, and a comic strip will hardly make it into a museum.
Some forms of art simply adapt to some settings better than others; it is not a problem that affects Fan Art only. If you want to become a fan artist, your professors at college may not find any value in your drawings, but the fan community that shares your vision certainly will.
Where To Start:
If you are one of the fans that really admire original content creators and don’t want to cross them in any possible way, there are some guidelines you can follow for your Fan Art to be harmless (copyright and trademark wise).
- The most obvious one is, don’t sell your Fan Art. Or at least sell it through a site or institution that will pay royalties to the legitimate owners of the intellectual property you’re using…something like Redbubble.
- If you’d rather work independently, you can also ask the copyright owners for their permission to use the characters or elements that you want to draw. It is unlikely that you will get such permission, but hey, you don’t lose much by trying.
- Sometimes, it is unnecessary to personally ask for permission because the creator of the work you like has already made a public statement about Fan Art. Many authors tolerate Fan Fiction and Fan Art, as long as it doesn’t attempt to look official or produce revenue. Other authors, well… they hate it either way.
- It is always a good idea to make a disclaimer on your platform to stay out of trouble, explaining that your work is purely fan-made and has no relation to the official deal. This won’t change the fact that you will be infringing copyright and trademark laws if you sell said work. But if you don’t plan on selling anything, then you will be recognized as someone that has good intentions at heart.
- The beginning of a worst-case scenario is receiving a request from the author asking to take down the content that you uploaded, to stop selling a product with intellectual property, or to stop producing a certain kind of Fan Art because it is read as offensive somehow… when a request from an official agent or attorney of the copyright owner appears, the smart thing to do is always to comply with it. There are many instances of lawsuits where the fan artist has been sued and ends up owing the copyright owner a lot of money.
- If you intend to make money off fan art it is probably a good idea to consult with an attorney. Attorney Lior Leser works in the world of copyright and may be worth speaking to.
- Read this article too: How to get copyright permissions for your fan art movie posters.
Are We Still Talking About Art?
Yes! I’m sorry we had to go to Lawyer’s Town back there, it was a bit of a necessary detour, but now that we’re over that, we can get to the fun part… let’s finally talk about movie posters! (Took a while, huh?).
When it comes to movie posters, you have some things that are easier and some that are harder in regard to making Fan Art.
It is easier in the sense that everyone knows how the official movie posters are, and the farther away you go from that style, the easier it will be for people to recognize your production as an unofficial one.
But it is harder because even if you completely change the style and composition of your work, you will still want to use the logos or the type that are associated with the source material, and those things are trademarks.
There are characters and stories that belong to the public domain because the creator gave up the rights or basically because they are old enough. This is obviously not the case for many movies because filmmaking as a discipline is quite new in human history.
As previously stated, this can become an issue if you’re planning to make a living out of your Fan Art, but if you want to have fun, then what are you waiting for? Start experimenting!
Come up with an idea
The first thing to do is to choose a subject for your Fan Art.
You can select a movie you really love or one that has an interesting aesthetic. You can look at the official movie poster and wonder what you would have done differently. Check out this page where artist and movie poster art director Jeff Stevens recreates his version of the Akira posters.
Maybe you would have picked an iconic scene to be the public face of the story? Or you would like to see this advertisement in a vintage style?
Maybe you prefer to do a character series and have different posters with the same color palette? Or to give each character a different set of colors!
What if you studied art history like crazy, and now you can imagine Hunger Games Art Nouveau or Post Impressionist Pixar?
Can you imagine a fiery kiss between two specific characters? Were you hoping for some event that didn’t end up happening in the official story?
All of these options and way more are possible in Fan Art. While official movie posters are created to sell tickets (and therefore need to operate under the rules of publicity), Fan Art is free of doing its own thing.
This popular article explains the differences: The Difference Between Commercial Movie Posters and Fan Art
If you can think of it, you can draw about it… provided that you practice long and consistently enough.
Fan Art is an amazing opportunity to develop your artistic skills because it provides subjects that are familiar enough for you to realize it when you’re making an anatomical mistake and also interesting enough for you to keep trying to do better.
If you want to improve your coloring skills, you can choose a famous film poster and try recreating it with different color choices, analyzing how much of the original meaning changes.
If you want better to understand the importance of lighting in an illustration, choose a thriller movie poster and discover how less scary it becomes if you make everything lighter and more colorful.
If you must develop a recognizable style of your own, look at your favorite movie character and ask yourself, “What are the elements that make this character design unique? Is it a gesture? Is it the hairstyle? Is it the wardrobe design? Or some tiny detail such as a scar or a missing tooth?”
Once you recognize those elements, you can begin sketching that character in as many different styles as you can think of until you find something interesting enough to deepen your efforts.
Try different tools and techniques
Fan Art is also a perfect excuse to get out of your comfort zone and try new media. If you’ve been meaning to get better at Photoshop, you can grab an original movie poster and play around editing parts of it until it becomes something new and different.
You can always get inspiration by looking at what other fan artists are doing: James Chapman (/chapmangamo) draws pictures of films using nothing but Posca markers; Aveline Stokart (/aveline_stokart) recreates scenes from movies in digital illustration form, using Procreate; Abigail Larson (abigail_larson) inks her drawings by hand and then either traditionally watercolors them or colors them digitally (and even though she has a big amount of followers and a lot of original characters, she will still drop the occasional fan illustration, as long as the movie is Tim Burtonish or dark and romantic enough).
DeviantArt has been a temple of Fan Art for decades; it is always a good place to start looking.
The internet is full of Fan Art.
Big films tend to inspire tons of fan-made artwork, especially when the story involves Fantasy or Science Fiction. Fans love to feel like they’re part of the film’s experience, and a lot of them will be content with creating something that looks similar to the original thing.
Remember that there is a difference between making Fan Art just for fun and making it as an artistic expression.
Both are completely valid, but the second one requires a greater effort. If you want your artwork to stand out in the sea of illustrations that are based on the same characters and objects, then you will have to be innovative and original (yes, it can be done while borrowing someone else’s characters! That is why there are like a million movies and series about Dracula).
Play around and create new posters for the films you love, keep working until you find results that satisfy you.
When you are not limited by marketing principles, you can gender swap characters, crossover your favorite franchises, anthropomorphize animals, and animalize humans.
In this copyrighted world where everything seems to have been invented already, it’s important to find your own trademark.
Learn Poster Design
The cool thing is that here at Poster Grind we are developing an online tutorial specific to movie poster art and design. We suggest you sign up for the Newsletter as subscribers will be the first to be notified when classes drop. All classes are taught by actual movie poster artists, art directors, and creative directors working within the industry.
Until then you may find our free tutorials on our YouTube channel here.