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August 14, 2019 | by  | in Features |
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Drawn In

I watch her dark eyes, her pale face. She wears a dark blue shirt studded with silver marks. Across her chest, a leather strip with bells of different sizes. She could have walked out of my imagination, out of the pages of my favourite book and onto my wall. Next to her, held also by Blu-Tack, there is another pale, dark-haired girl. She, too, wears blue and bells, but her eyes are closed, and she cradles a small white rabbit. This art lives on my wall, and it is derived from Sabriel, which has been one of my favourite books since I was 13.

One of these pieces—the one with the rabbit—was painted by one of my best friends from school, Charis Crider. We fell desperately in love with the characters of various YA novels, swapping books, dressing as characters none of our peers recognised for costume days, squealing (or “squeeing”, in fangirl parlance) over girls with swords and boys with kingdoms to inherit. For presents, we would give each other fan-related things—a hat with symbols from Sabriel crocheted on, friendship bracelets in the colour of our favourite book covers. We would stay up late browsing fanart and discussing our favourite characters in books. As I wrote this article about fanart, I remembered who I was then: a person who forged friendships in fiction. Charis lives in the US now, but I called her to talk about fanart, fandom, and why she makes art.

I also talked to Laya Mutton-Rogers and Michelle Kan. Laya, a freelance artist and creative who graduated from Massey, makes zines and webcomics. When I talk to her, she has a mushroom-shaped pin holding up her hair, and a pendant of a bell (from the Old Kingdom Chronicles) and a clear cicada wing hanging around her neck. Michelle, an independent filmmaker and author who graduated from Victoria, makes parkour videos and wears hanfu (the traditional dress of the Chinese Han people). This is to say that both Laya and Michelle are extremely cool people, and I was glad to have a reason to get to know them beyond Twitter. Both Michelle and Laya are particularly active in making fanart of Critical Role, a livestreamed Dungeons & Dragons game with voice actors. Laya also made the other one of my Sabriel art prints.

Whatever you like, there is probably fanart for it. There are alarming amounts of K-pop fanart, and Marvel fanart, and podcast fanart—the list goes on. Fanart is a crucial part of most fandom ecosystems, and it’s frequently commercialised. Laya sells her art on Society6, as well as her own store platform (layaroseart.com). However, she makes much more money from selling her art at conventions such as Armageddon, where people come especially to buy fanart.

Michelle also sells prints of her art online, but it took a considerable amount of confidence for her to do so. “Lots of really lovely people have been saying they really enjoy my style, so I decided to open a little online store so that they could purchase or commission some of my art.” Charis has considered commercialising her fanart, or taking commissions, but the time and investment in marketing which this requires is daunting.

While fandoms may differ for different artists, the reason for creating is the same: “Fanart is active, fluid, transformative work, and with that comes the benefit of having an externally established universe already available to play with. That universe becomes a shared language between people who already know who these characters,” Michelle told me.

Charis and Laya cited the same reasons for being compelled to make fanart—it is good practice to work with other people’s worlds, and it involves them in fictional universes they care about. Laya also enjoys promoting under-represented stories with fanart, particularly of less popular or independently published books with queer characters. She has a thread of lesbian book recommendations on Twitter, and includes a picture of the main character(s) for each one. This makes the characters stand out more and helps to promote the books.

The creative process for fanart tends to start with notes: “I generally get a feeling for if I’m going to do fanart before I read the book, so I basically screenshot any character description,” Laya says. She usually makes art for books that don’t have much fanart, and can draw a character in a single sitting—a few hours—although she’s trying to space it out more.

There is, inevitably, hypersexualised fanart. I have seen things I can’t unsee. The worst of hypersexualised fanart was perhaps epitomised by a book subscription book for the YA/NA series A Court of Thorns and Roses. In August last year, the Bookish and Stuff subscription box, advertised as NSFW and 18+, included sexually explicit fanfiction, fanart of naked characters (with a towel over their genitals), and (lemongrass-scented) soap in the shape of a dick. Book Twitter, a sphere which I am unfortunately rather involved in, could not function for days. Takes ranged from ‘soap is not supposed to go in your vagina’ to ‘it is a violation of intellectual property to sell fanfiction’ to ‘the soap was black, and the character was not and that is #problematic’. It was a wild time, and the publishers of the book (which does feature explicit sex scenes, but is published by a children’s publisher) moved quickly to disassociate themselves from the box.

Art is a visual medium, and often emphasises the physical appearance of characters. Comments on art posted online are often variations on ‘hot’ and ‘handsome’. Of course, sexualisation and idealised bodies are hardly unique to fanart. Inevitably, cultural phenomena, like sexism and porn, carry over into the world of fanart.

When I ask Charis and Laya about the dicksoap incident, they both laugh. Laya acknowledges that sexualised fanart—including ‘self insert’ fanart, where a real person is drawn into a scene with a fictional one—is “definitely a thing”, although it is very much on the periphery of her fandom communities, and she has never drawn it. Charis says that with some characters, already hypersexualised in the original, sexualised fanart is inevitable. “You have some choices where the [character’s] designs are already hypersexualised [so in fanart] you see them designed that way all the time.” While she may swoon over certain book characters—when we were younger, we definitely had conversations about our ‘book boyfriends’, who were fictional and so much more approachable and sensitive than the louts at our school—she doesn’t consider sexual appeal when she makes fanart. “Some characters are very close to you as a person…you don’t want to [sexualise] a friend!”

Fanart is occasionally accused of not being “real” art, and just piggy-backing off another creator’s success. Charis differentiates her fanart from original art. Fanart, she says, is good for practice: You take someone else’s world and “put your own spin on it”. Laya says that when she knows that people are already interested in a world, she is “more likely to post a half-finished fanart thing [online] whereas with original art, there’s no timeline I could post it on.” Fanart is also useful to show to employers, to show that she can work fast, and with other people’s ideas.

The flood of fanart seems in many ways like a new phenomenon, but fanart has old roots. Much of Renaissance art could be considered Bible fanart, and some of the most famous works of Western art have been inspired by literature—John Everett Millais’ Ophelia, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’ Oedipus and the Sphinx.

While practice and commercial potential motivate Laya, Michelle, and Charis to make fanart; the chief reason they do it is that they love what they draw. Michelle has been making fanart as long as she can remember, and currently makes fanart for Critical Role, in particular. Having followed Critical Role since it began, the show is “very personal,” she says. “Fanart for me is as much “narrative aftercare” as it is a way for me to give back to the cast. I get to illustrate moments that happen in-episode as I see them… it feels so good and worthwhile.” Fanart, Laya says, anchors her to the characters she loves. When the story ends, there is still art to be made.

Laya and Michelle, who are friends, will tag each other in pictures they draw of their favourite Critical Role character, and join art challenges together. “There’s such a massive fandom and Critical Role themselves put the art in their show,” says Laya. While she “doesn’t do it for attention,” she has gotten about 1000 more followers on Twitter since she started drawing from Critical Role.

Fanart is very rarely of the scenery described in video games or books. It is also usually not abstract. Instead, it is the characters that compel fan artists to adopt fictional universes and create within them. “A technically good plot with flat, boring characters can be insufferable, especially so if they all follow the same white bread cookie cutter mold. Diversity amongst characters, in their personalities, backgrounds and convictions, make for more realistic and emotive storytelling,” Michelle says; this is what draws her to Critical Role. Charis is also drawn to particular characters, but tries to evoke the overarching atmosphere through her fanart. For the Old Kingdom Chronicles, it is the “broodiness” she is drawn to. “I like the dark colours and still having the magic in it; it’s kind of creepy.” It is the characters that anchor the atmosphere she’s trying to evoke.

Listening to fan artists reminds me why I, too, used to make fanart—watercolours washed over quotes from the books, covered with crude silhouettes, because I couldn’t draw faces. It was an absorption into a fictional universe, the sense that any creation was a gift to the fandom and to the creator, even if it wasn’t any good. I fell in love with characters, and I didn’t want to write about them, because they already had so many words, and I was saving my words for definitely-not-autobiographical stories where biracial teenagers had to make choices that seemed significant at the time, but might not matter so much later. My fanart was not good, but it made me glad, and connected me to communities of people who loved the same things I did.

Now, I read fewer books. The multi-coloured embroidery I once had on my e-reader case, spelling out ‘fangirl’, has been replaced by a plain floral cover. The books still live on my shelves, though, and when I read them, I remember who I used to be: the girl who wandered through many fictional lands, and found solace in pages and adventure. I’ve been wondering why I keep fanart on my wall. I might try to be cool now, pretend to care less about novels and movies and the characters who help me understand myself, but fiction has never stopped beckoning.

When I came to uni, I left my family, my friends, and my bookshelves. Leaving was both grief and relief. I lost the continuity of people who knew who I was when I was thirteen and had bangs and a tendency to walk into poles while reading, and instead met new people who had less context for understanding how I had become. But I still care about fiction, and the narratives I found there: people who fell on their feet, embraced their identities, and found friends they never would have expected. The fanart reminds me of this: I am never lost when I do not love stories alone.

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