Fan Art: When You Should Critique and When You Should Shut the Hell Up

ART… The very word invokes a range of emotions and opinions. Some of them are valid, some exist in a gray area, while others reek of insecurity. So, as someone who has both created art all her life and has completed higher education in art, I’d like to discuss a few things that have been circulating in the art realm, and more noticeably, the geek art realm especially in fan art.

I’ll start off by noting that art could quite possibly be the only profession where someone with a degree in art is both considered snooty and pretentious whilst simultaneously being under-appreciated and underpaid. If you knew how little they actually paid comic artists, it would make you sick to your stomach. Meanwhile, most of the people being snooty and pretentious about art have not actually received higher education in art. That kind of ego typically gets crushed under the weight of group critiques where you’re forced to display what you poured your heart into and watch it get ripped to shreds. It sucks, but you grow as an artist and learn to think critically and conceptually about your art. Higher education in art also provides a development of technique by being exposed to both new and traditional mediums of creation. It helps to dispel myths about what it means to be an artist and encourages experimentation and artistic integrity. A lot of people don’t have a true grasp of artistic integrity and I’ll extrapolate on that later in this blog.

Let’s dive a little deeper and zero in on how this affects the artists within the geek community; all those creators in the artist alley at comic cons who sell their geek related crafts and art prints. What is artistic license and intellectual property and how do these things interact with copyright infringement? Technically, creating and selling art of any recognizable character that you don’t own the rights to is copyright infringement. That puts 95% of the people who sell art at comic cons in a seemingly precarious situation. You see, not even the comic book artists who created the characters have the rights to them. The rights for production belong solely to Marvel, DC, etc. Do you think those property holders would sue their own artists for creating and selling prints of trademarked characters? F**k no. And, aside from a few particularly voracious property owners (looking at you Disney), you likely won’t get sued either, unless your work garners a significantamount of attention.. It’s not worth their time and resources to go after individual artists who sell Guardians of the Galaxy prints for $10 a pop when those creations only drum up more excitement and business for them. There is nothing wrong with me using a reference image of Jean-Luc Picard to create a Star Trek fan piece even though he’s not my intellectual property. But with fan art, we do have to draw a line in the sand and I’ll tell you where that line is.

Let’s say, for instance, that I took a still of Ron Perlman and Doug Jones from the Hellboy movie and used it as a reference for a painting because I LOVE HELLBOY and then decided to sell prints of it at a con. I don’t own rights to that character, but no one who matters will bother me about creating an original work of art based off a photo reference. On the other hand, my husband witnessed Mike Mignola himself (the creator of Hellboy) throw a public fit at an artist at comic con for doing Hellboy art. So what’s the difference? Why is the aforementioned art okay but the next guy gets a very public lecture? Because THAT GUY didn’t just use a photo reference like every other professional artist… he stole Mignola’s STYLE straight from the comic book. Mignola, like every other pro artist, spent his life drawing and developing that style. At that point, the artist wasn’t using his own creative prowess to celebrate and bring something new to a beloved character, he was just ripping off another artist. People buy art because of the technique and style and if you use someone else’s style, you’re not contributing enough of your own efforts, but rather, you’re riding the coattails of someone else’s creative process.

Speaking of creative process, let me take this time to nip a few myths in the bud for all those “art critics” out there. I put that in quotations because 99% of the people who criticize art have not received formal education in art, so if you’re an artist, take people’s sh*t comments with a grain of salt.

MYTH 1: Using references is cheating. Who the hell even says this except people who know little to nothing about art? I know ZERO professional artists who don’t use references. There are definitely things you can draw/paint without a reference, but that comes with years of practice that develops an artists “visual vocabulary”. If you draw something from a reference enough, it becomes second nature and you don’t need those references anymore. But EVERYONE needs a reference at some point.

MYTH 2: Light boxes and Photoshop are cheating. This is a big one and it makes me want to claw my eyes out. First of all, I’d bet a whole paycheck that if you have 2 people, one a professional portrait artist and one who crafts as a hobby, and you give them both the same reference image, a pencil, and a light box, I PROMISE one of the results will be a great work of art and the other will be a flat mess of a vaguely recognizable person or character. Light boxes serve one major purpose and that’s to shave a few hours off of an already highly refined process. If you suck at art and portraits, that will not change with a light box. The same goes for Photoshop. There is no magical “make this sh*t look good” button. There is no one filter that turns a sketch or reference into a complete and beautiful piece of art. Photoshop, like any other creative medium takes practice and skill to create great art.

To expound upon this, here are 3 works of art by 3 different comic artists along with pictures of their studios:

L. Yu Studio_LI
Leinil Yu’s Studio
L.Yu Art
Leinil Yu’s Art
s. bianchi studio_LI
Simone Bianchi’s Studio
s. bianchi art
Simone Bianchi’s Art
s.hanna studio_LI
Scott Hanna’s Studio
S. Hanna Art
Scott Hanna’s Art

This brings me to the difference between art critiques and jealous badmouthing. If someone looks at your art and says “I don’t care for this color palette” or “this composition is unsettling or overwhelming”; these are art critiques giving valuable feedback about your art. Maybe you need some practice in color theory or maybe you need practice creating a composition that isn’t crowded and leads the viewers eyes through the art better and that’s okay. If they look at your art and say “you obviously used a light table” or “you traced and put a Photoshop filter on this” or “doesn’t using a light table make the art unoriginal”; tell that mother f*cker to kick rocks. These type of comments usually stem from an insecurity around their own art. They have to grasp at straws to justify in their own mind why your art is great and theirs is mediocre. It also comes from a desperate lack of art education where every piece of art is being compared to a Renaissance painting and no one thinks Renaissance artists used tricks to make their professional lives easier. It’s called camera obscura. Look it up. Artist aren’t just artists. They’re magicians and masters of illusion. Knocking an artist for a light table is like complaining that a magician isn’t actually sawing a woman in half. It’s dumb. This is one of the many reasons why REAL art education is so necessary.

So if you’re an artist, I hope you take from this more confidence in your own artistic process. And if you’re an “art critic” I hope you take the time to shed the ill-founded prejudices that contaminate true art criticism and find a path that leads you to not being a total TOOL.

As always, dialogue is great. Sound off in the comments below!


2 Comments Add yours

  1. creativelifeclarity says:

    Loved this. I have no true art education besides taking online courses and I’ll be taking some classes this summer from ul. I’ve heard from other artists that most people, myself included, start creating by imitating others style and design but the line comes up when selling something or claiming it as your own concept. I’ve heard style will just develop as you get better but I am taking a course around fairy tale concepts which include style development videos from each artist involved. I think it’ll be interesting for sure.


  2. I enjoyed reading your post on this issue extremely! I admire your ability to clarify the key differences between making fan art and copying an artist’s style. I look forward to reading future posts here!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s