Thursday, March 7, 2024

Fan Art Explained

© 2015 Don Arday.
Fan art represents one of the fastest growing categories of illustration. Even so, it is a form of illustration that is besieged with many issues and conflicts. The problems that occur run the gamut from die hard cast in stone legal ones to problems involving the appropriateness of the art, and a bias against the art form itself.

Derivative Art

Fan art is a form of derivative art. Simply put, it is when an artist other than the originator uses imagery, characters, or settings created by an originating artist. For instance, when an illustrator uses Spiderman as a straightforward character in a promotional illustration. This kind of use requires the permission of Marvel Comics.

0% Inspiration, 100% Imitation

In 1820 the author, Charles Caleb Colton wrote, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”, which has perhaps, become a statement of justification that can be used to validate fan art. But before Colton wrote his famous statement, the English writer Eustace Budgell in 1714 wrote, “Imitation is a kind of artless flattery”. Although written earlier, Budgell’s phrase presents a much more modern-day appropriate sentiment. Many professionals in the visual communication field have the opinion that if not exactly ‘artless’, fan art is an unoriginal form of art at the very least.

100% Motivation, 0% Distraction

Many illustrators, as novices, long before they even thought about a career in illustration, drew their favorite characters from comic books, cartoons, animated movies, and video games. It was this sincere admiration for a character that motivated people to pick up a pencil and draw. And draw with a focused attention they hadn’t applied before. In many cases, this rudimentary form of fan art became the initial inspiration behind the career of illustrators, artists, and designers.

Fan Art In Education

So, is there a place for fan art in education? Well, the answer is yes, but it is probably not the type of fan art anyone would expect. When we think of fan art today, we think of subjects that originate in mass media such as comic books, cartoons, animated movies, and video games. However, by definition there is a form of fan art that has been a part of art curriculums for decades -- copying master works of art. In color theory class, I recall being required to select an existing masterwork for the purpose of interpreting the work monochromatically, with analogous colors, and opposite values using gouache. I chose a work by Robert Motherwell, other students chose works by Van Gogh, Mucha, Picasso, etc. Additionally, students in art classes can be seen in Museums copying works of art. An accepted practice, artists often learn specific techniques evident in an existing work of art by attempting to copy them.

Is Fan Art Okay?

This is important to know. According to US copyright law, fan art using settings and characters from a previously created work could be considered a derivative work, which means the copyright would be owned by the character/settings originator.

The originator retains all rights over his or her creation. So, if I did an illustration that included Spiderman, I would not own the copyright of my own work! And technically, any display of my fan art Spiderman would be an unlawful distribution of a derivative work.

Practice, Don’t Publish

So, is fan art okay? Taking a cue from ‘Fan Art In Education’ above, fan art may have a place as a learning exercise. Just as musicians learn by practicing established music compositions, so fan artists can learn and practice their craft by imitating the works of others. Copyright restrictions exist for art and music when it comes to publication and commercialization. In both cases a fan artist or a musician is bound by copyright law not to abuse the rights of the creator/originator. Any abuse is both illegal and unethical.

A Loophole

The parodying or making fun of a copyrighted character or situation does not require permission of the copyright owner. This falls into the category of “fair use”, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t end up in court.

Fair Use

Fair use is the use of a copyrighted work, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research. If the reason for use of a copyrighted work falls under this description it is not an infringement of copyright. However, the following factors go into determining whether the use would be considered fair use: The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes; the nature of the copyrighted work; the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.

No Place For Fan Art

Showing derivative fan art is risky business, especially as work samples or in a portfolio. Doing so raises several issues. A bias does exist against the art form. Many feel it does not promote original problem solving or thinking, even in parody form. It is not considered intellectual property (IP). It is looked at as a practice exercise. Most believe it is not original work, so it is either dismissed by reviewers, or triggers a negative impression. It is scrutinized for its craftsmanship. If an employer considers or desires fan art, then exceptional quality is expected.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Visual Problem Solving Explained

When it comes to solving problems and thinking up ideas, there has been a long running debate as to whether these skills must be an intrinsic, instinctual, “creative” talent within a person; or whether creative problem solving be achieved as a learned intellectual ability. For professional visual problem solving illustrators, designers, or artists it is a bit of both. Either way, it is a necessary requirement for anyone considering a career as a creative visual artist.

Professional illustrators usually don’t have the time or luxury to wait for that lightening stroke of inspiration to materialize a brilliant idea. Most of us have to work at it, that’s what makes illustration a profession. And just about every illustrator I know has a different way of solving a problem to complete a job. I’ve heard of many methods for getting the creative juices flowing, from taking a shower, to running in the park, to staying up straight for 40 hours, to eating pizza after midnight, to prayer, and to even asking pets for advice, seriously. All this in the hopes of getting a great idea.

When asked how he always had great ideas for illustrations, Seymour Chwast replied, “ I don’t always get great ideas, I just never show anyone the bad ones.” When animation director, Chuck Jones, was asked the same question, he replied with one word, “fear”. The fact of the matter is we all get ideas all the time about everything, and we do get ideas for the illustration projects we are commissioned. The problem occurs when it comes to the quality of these ideas we get. And, as it was for Chuck Jones, the “fear” of not being able to come up with an idea or of getting a dreaded “mental block”.

The solution is to apply a working method to solve the problem posed by the assignment and client. Understanding the process of thought that is involved with solving a visual problem can be very useful for challenging assignments.

Whether illustrators are aware off it or not, they instinctively apply many of the following stages of problem solving in the process of working on an assignment. The following is a process for generating ideas and avoiding mental blocks.

© 2013 Don Arday.

The Assignment (The Problem Stage)

Client Input
Usually a description with a collection of facts and information describing the assignment and the desired outcome. The assignment will probably be related in terms that are familiar to the client. Most likely the information will be in non-art terms and may involve marketing information and technical specifications. This is a good thing, as clients generally don't have knowledge of visual terminology. You may receive the assignment directly from the client or from an intermediary such as an art director or an account executive. Either way it won't be from an illustrator.

Reinterpretation of Client Input
To prepare for the process of “creative construction” it's necessary to translate the client's description into artistic terms that you can work with, i.e., a personal reinterpretation that applies to pictorial terms and ways of working to allow you to act on the assignment task and content. Reinterpretation will help identify any missing information the client overlooked in assigning you the job, in which case you can ask for further explanation, additional facts, or clarification.

© Don Arday.

Creative Construction (The Thought Stage)

Open Brainstorming
When you begin to think about a problem, it is important to record any and all ideas, thoughts associations, experiences, first impressions, etc. about the subject. The record of this activity may take the form of visual sketches, written words or short sentences. These will become the building blocks of further ideas. And it is absolutely critical you remain non-judgmental about the ideas you come up with, good, bad, ugly or even silly ones. Don’t disregard any ideas. Know that brainstorming is a very personal activity. At this stage the ideas generated are for you and you alone, and sometimes thoughts that are seemingly unusable may lead to ideas that are. Also, it is not sufficient to simply have the thoughts; they must be put on paper in one form or another. This process can be completed in a short period of time or it can take much longer.

Focused Brainstorming
This thought session involves searching for ideas independent of the first thought session, trying to expand the number of ideas to add to the material you already thought of to produce final sketches to present. The main difference is that this time you should relate all of your ideas to the assignment. Try to improve on your original set of ideas. Once again, try to avoid metal blocks by being to judgmental about your ideas. It's often our own judgmental expectations that stand in the way of our creative thinking. 

© 2013 Don Arday.

Research (The Education Stage)

Subject Research
One of the most interesting things about being an illustrator is all the things we learn about various subjects, in order to produce illustrations. You must familiarize yourself with the subject of your design problem. This will aid in eliminating stereotypical ideas you may have concerning the subject such as previously publicized phrases or visuals. At all times during this process you should be adding to your cache of ideas. Research is an important part of any problem solving process and should be part of your creative fee. Although I prefer to brainstorm ideas prior to researching facts, some illustrators prefer to proceed directly to the research stages before attempting any brainstorming.

Media Research
These days it is especially important to consider the media requirements of the assignment. You must become aware of the specific production processes, materials, and limitations that will influence the completion of your illustration. Budget also becomes an extremely important consideration here. This research will help you make visual and production decisions that will influence the look of your illustration. For example, a small, illustrated logo or icon will work better with a high key contrasting color scheme. Dark colors and subtle tones should be reserved for larger display formats. Also, an illustration that will appear on the web may require a different amount of detail and production resolution, than one that will be printed with a 200 line-per-inch screen on a sheet-fed offset press.

© 2013 Don Arday.

Evaluation (The Decision Stage)

Idea Review
Now it’s time to be judgmental. Idea review is the time to look for some personal benefit that might result from your choice of ideas. This is the stage where you assess all of your thumbnails and other recorded material and select those ideas you feel the most positively about. You can set your own personal criteria to judge the quality of the ideas, like which ones would enhance your portfolio, which ones will best suit your style, or make a great composition. Or you can place classifications on the ideas such as practical, attractive, unique, client suggested, etc.

Criteria Review
Consider the criteria given by the client. Re-evaluate your materials and relate them to the requirements of the problem reinterpretation. Search for unique qualities inherent in your ideas to bring attention to your client and even yourself, or ideas that may lend themselves to added benefits, such as a concept that is versatile or marketable. Criteria review is when you choose ideas that will benefit the client and cross-reference them with personally beneficial ones to choose which idea(s) to present. The idea(s) that will motivate you the strongest and you will be most excited to produce--a win, win situation.

© 2013 Don Arday.

Development (The Proposal Stage)

Idea Implementation
Now that you know exactly how you want to proceed with the assignment, obtain the specific visual references necessary to visualize your ideas. Begin the final sketch stage, all the while ironing out compositional problems. This is also the point where you should consider the actual working methods needed to produce the finished illustration that will be dictated by the sketch. It is advisable to plan out a logical schedule of action when the sketch is approved to save on time and any production answer questions the client may have.

Support Rhetoric
Sketches don’t sell themselves these days so it’s very important to provide some verbal support for your idea, whether it is spoken or written. Even though you may have provided verbal support, be prepared to justify all decisions concerning the idea and your sketch. It is not enough to be able to intuitively produce a pleasing idea. You must sell your idea clearly. The idea, in turn, will be sold again by whom ever you sell it to, especially if your client must present it to their superior or a constituent. See “10 Steps To Presenting Illustration Ideas Successfully”, posted on 12/11/12,

© 2013 Don Arday.

Production (The Finish Stage)

This is the stage where approved ideas are turned into finished illustrations and prepared for delivery and commercial production, most likely, as a digitized file. All the formal visual and media considerations are finalized at this stage; media, format, size, composition, color scheme, visual elements, digital resolution, file preparation and archiving, etc.

Final Review
You are finally finished. But are you? This is perhaps the most important stage prior to the release of the finished illustration, and the one illustrators most regret not doing. Take some time to look the final illustration over very carefully and make sure you are completely comfortable with all the decisions you’ve made. I call it the 5-Minute Rule, take 5-minutes to look over the work. If something “bothers” you, then correct it. It’s the last chance.