There’s a few perennial arguments I see flare up from time to time among artists on social media, and one of the biggest is whether “fan art” (also known as IP art, aka Intellectual Property) is respectable or not. By “Intellectual Property” we mean any film, book, movie, comic, etc that already exists and was created by another person. You are a fan of this other person’s work, and you make art inspired by it, in your own medium.

Now I’m not here to get into the legalities of fan art, there are many other places where in-depth explanations exist, even on this very blog, but in short, it is not illegal to make art derived from someone else’s work, but it is technically illegal to make money from it without permission of the original creator. However there exists a huge gray area that only highly trained intellectual property lawyers can truly navigate, where many artists make a living off of work appealing to a fanbase of a certain work. Some IPs are very happy for fans to play in their sandbox, some IPs are not. Sometimes you can sneak around IP by calling something a “light sword” instead of a “lightsaber” and sometimes you can’t. It’s a risky game. I’m not wading into that topic right now.

What is completely legal is to create pieces based on other existing works for your own enjoyment and as portfolio samples. This is not only a good way to build your portfolio and your own fanbase, but it’s actually baked into many industries. If you’re going to work for Marvel or DC, for example, you usually have to have samples of their characters in your portfolio. Sometimes this is asked for officially, as a try-out test, and sometimes it’s done unasked for, but still gets the artist attention of the original company. Very frequently in portfolio reviews, I say, if you want to work in book covers, then assign yourself some famous books and put sample illustrations of those books in your portfolio. If you’re going to work in gaming it’s often the same — the best way to get the attention of Magic: The Gathering is to do portfolio samples that look like, or actually are, real MTG cards. Art Directors have a much easier job convincing our approvers (editors/publishers/authors/etc) to hire an artist if that artist has work that closely resembles what that company produces. Makes sense right?

Here’s a good example. Kevin Wada is a watercolor painter that has done numerous comic book covers. Some of my favorite work of his was on a great run of She-Hulk covers. How did he get on Marvel’s radar? By doing a personal project combining his love of the X-Men with his love of fashion illustration. This happens with a lot of the big IPs out there. Many Star Wars artists got noticed by creating Star Wars fan art. I’m not perfectly sure of the timing, but I think Jen Bartel‘s Star Wars-inspired “girl gang” piece led to her being hired to do the cover of the Women of the Galaxy Star Wars book.

Here’s a great story of fan art leading to good things. Orbit Books publishes the Expanse books from James S. A. Corey. They’ve been made into The Expanse television show, which has a huge fan base. This year is the 10th anniversary of the first book in the series, Leviathan Wakes, and it was my job to come up with the design for a special anniversary edition. This was the original cover, art directed by me, with art by Daniel Dociu, and type design by Kirk Benshoff:

In the meetings to brainstorm ideas for the special edition we talked about how there was no point in trying to do the same kind of cover all over again, Daniel had really nailed it, and hiring him to make a new piece of art didn’t really make sense – there were 8 more books in the series with his art. We thought of doing an edition with his art but no type on the outside, and that didn’t seem different enough, plus a cover without type is always a hard sell for retailers. We started thinking about what the exact opposite style of cover would be. If the original edition was painterly and illustration-forward, what would a minimalist graphic design approach look like?

Conveniently, we didn’t have to use our imaginations, because someone had already headed down that road. I found this image all over google:

It took me a little while to track down the source because it had been ripped off and reposted more than a few times, but I finally tracked it down to an artist on Etsy named Jay Clark, who had these Expanse-inspired prints in his shop:

We really liked the aesthetic, and we shared it with the authors, and they were on board, and loved the idea of honoring the fan base by using existing fan art in the new edition. I couldn’t find any info on the artist other than the Etsy site, so I sent a message thru Etsy, hoping the artist would answer and not think it was some weird scam. I couldn’t say too much because it wasn’t confirmed that we would use the art yet, and even if we wanted to, we still had to get permission from the show producers, because the shape of the ship used came from the show, not the book. (Remember I told you Intellectual Property Law was tricky, right?

Luckily Jay wrote back that he was interested in being part of the project, and shared files with me so I could try some mockups. At this point I promised we’d be paying him proper usage rights if we got the design approved, but it was a lot of maybes at that point.

The design adapted to our vision of a very magenta edition very well:

We got the author’s approval, the permission from the production company, and budget approval for 2 kinds of foil, fluorescent magenta inks, and SPRAYED MAGENTA EDGES. Sprayed edges are the most expensive effect you can put on a book because they HAVE TO BE SPRAYED BY HAND. It’s very work intensive but damn, it makes a book feel extra special.

We even got to use the map as endpapers! Printed in fluorescent blue ink in the front and back of the book, to match the blue foil rocket trail on the front:

We still wanted a nod to the original art, so I got clearance (and permission from Daniel Dociu) to reprint the original art on the inside of the jacket, full bleed without type so you can really see the art clearly.

It was a very happy email to send to Jay to say the project had cleared all it’s approvals and was headed to the printer! And now I’m nervously awaiting the final copy proof to come to me so I can check it (so nerve wracking, especially for a book with so many special effects).

I love that this edition got to honor both the original book and the Expanse fans, and I love that I got to use a fan’s work in the edition. And I’m not saying that making fan art will always lead to this kind of project, they’re few and far between, but there are many ways in which having fan art in your portfolio can help your career.

If you think about it, I’m pretty sure every artist on this blog has done fan art, and many times it has led to great projects. Donato painting Tolkien scenes is a form of fan art. Dave Palumbo painting Marvel Masterpieces is also fan art. Greg Ruth’s 52 weeks projects are fan art! A great deal of Fantasy art is fan art, and artists should realize dismissing the importance of fan art is shutting themselves off from a lot of great work and opportunities.

(Also if you’re interested in more info on the Leviathan Wakes edition, head over to the Orbit Books announcement post here.)