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The Truth About FAN ART in Portfolios

Multiple pieces of fan art are blurred in the background, while white text reads "What is FAN ART?" directly in the center on top of it all.

Within the online art space, artists fall under multiple genres and communities depending on what they post most frequently. The largest overarching subgenres of artists are original content artists and fan artists. Original content artists mainly post work that is 100% their own creations, and fan artists mainly post re-imagined artwork from their favourite works of fiction. The styles for both can vary heavily, but fan artists tend to have a tougher time when it comes to portfolios for art school because schools don’t favour fan art within submissions. But why is that the case? Is fan art really not a valid showing of skill? Here’s the truth about fan art within portfolios, and the reasons why fan art may hurt your portfolio even if it’s so popular online.

What is fan art?

Multiple forms of Animal Crossing fanart are shown, including a song, a pair of earrings, an illustration, and a grouping of fan made YouTube movies.
Animal Crossing has a very wide variety of fan art, including music, fan made movies, jewelry, and more!

Fan art, or fanart is the re-imagining of pop culture done by varying artists. Whether it’s fan fiction, headcannons, theories, redraws or just regular illustrations, fan art is considered the fan’s way of showing how much they love and appreciate whatever it is that they’re creating artwork for. Though fan art isn’t always illustrated -- it can be animated, written, sculpted, you name it! Some songwriters even write fanmade songs or parodies of other songs that relate back to their favourite works of fiction.

Why is fan art so popular?

A screenshot of a few Discord servers pertaining to Pokemon Go.
Discord servers are created for fans of games, anime, and much more!

Fan art helps artists connect through shared interests. I’ve met quite a few online friends through the fanart I’ve drawn, including fan art of other artists’ characters! Even if the viewer isn’t an artist, fans of the media will always want to share work from recognizable and loved pop culture. These are called fandoms -- they’re the community that is created from a shared love of a specific corner of pop culture. Especially with the rise in digital art as an accessible medium, artists all around the world find it easier to connect and create with each other.

Many artists become well known for illustrating fan art for specific fandoms and become recognizable throughout the community. The majority of the most well known artists are incredibly skilled, all with large varieties of styles and mediums. Fan art is also a plausible and common avenue that can jumpstart art careers, making it a fun way to get your name into the professional art world.

What’s considered good and bad fan art?

Two illustrations of Animal Crossing robots.
Animal Crossing villagers drawn as robots!

I’m not here to police how you illustrate. In fact, this has nothing to do with art styles or skill levels. This is more about how you go about illustrating your fan art -- whether you’re re-imagining it, or directly copying/tracing.

Re-imagining is the majority of fan art that you see. Original illustrations featuring characters or settings from pop culture are all good examples of fan art! From an artistic standpoint, re-imagining pop culture is a great exercise, and can subconsciously train you to get better at design and anatomy by learning from masters. Re-imagining is also a way of recreating something that can add new meaning and/or context to the original. Gijinkas and modern redesigns pay tribute to that sentiment.

But fan art that’s a direct copy of existing artwork is an absolute no -- you should never include those in portfolios, whether they’re for school or for work. Worse still if it’s a copy of someone else’s fan art -- while it should never be put into a portfolio, it's good practice and ethical to always ask the original artist for permission before copying their work, even for a study.

A master study of Hiromu Arakawa's "Fullmetal Alchemist".
A master study of Hiromu Arakawa's "Fullmetal Alchemist"

Does that mean that copying is a bad form of fan art? Not necessarily. Copying is a way to study -- studying from a master artists’ work is an encouraged practice amongst the majority of artists. These even have a name, master copies or master studies, where artists directly copy or study off of master artists, most notably classical artists such as Rembrandt or Michelangelo. While it can be done with current and modern artists, studies from historical artists are embraced far better than fan art from anime or manga. However, studies must be labelled as such, and studies should remain as just studies. When it comes to current pop culture that’s illustrated, you should never claim a direct copy as something entirely your own. Though sometimes, master studies are allowed in portfolios, you should notate it as a master study in the description. For instance, you could say “Mastercopy of Michelangelo’s “Three Labours of Hercules””, or whatever piece you decide to study from.

Can I use fan art in my portfolio?

Like I mentioned in the beginning, fan art is generally not allowed when submitting a portfolio for school. But if fan art is so skillful, why is it not allowed within a portfolio?

When it comes to school portfolios, art schools would much rather see your original work than fan art. But there are 3 main points for why schools don’t like fan art:

  1. They see way too much of it. Not only is fan art mainstream and everywhere on social media, it also appeared in way too many portfolio submissions -- so much, in fact, that some schools had to ban it.

  2. It's not original. From an ethics standpoint, it feels as though you’re using another artist/designer’s work as your own, and may not feel like you’re showing the skill you’re capable of.

  3. Legal issues -- if you’re copying a photo or screenshot, it may infringe upon a photographer or another creator's work. Schools also like to reuse portfolio work to advertise for their programs, and fanart can’t be used as advertising material due to it not technically being original work.

Overall, most schools don’t think fanart is a helpful assessment of your skill because you technically aren’t the original designer. If you absolutely MUST include a piece, make sure it’s re-imagined fan art, and something that provides new meaning or context to the original. When in doubt, consult the guidelines for portfolio submissions, or send an email to the school’s admission department for more specific questions.

However, when it comes to professional portfolios for work, fan art isn’t as frowned upon as you might think. Many artists have gotten jobs because of fan art, and many professional artists still continue to create fan art! For instance, one of the main art directors for the Detective Pikachu movie was hired because he’d been illustrating realistic Pokemon for years. In fact, I remember seeing his work when I was a kid! So keep creating fan art -- even if it’s not allowed in schools, because it could land you many creative opportunities, relationships, communities, or even a job in the future!

There you have it! If you’d like to keep creating fan art in a more casual setting, check out our Cartooning and Anime classes, where fan art is used to inspire and practice artistic skill! If you’re building an art portfolio, see our portfolio resources, or consider our art mentorship classes, where you can book a one-on-one portfolio assessment, designed to help you create a flawless showcase of artwork for your next school portfolio!

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