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I Can Get Paid for Fan Art?!

By Jordan Kushins

Matt Needle was uninspired. In 2008, the UK-native was working a dead-end summer job, killing time between semesters at University of South Wales, Newport, where he was studying for a design degree. With no school assignments to challenge him, his motivation stalled—until he received a DVD box set of Alfred Hitchcock classics. “I loved the original Saul Bass art, and as I was watching, I thought, 'I could make some really cool, sort of simple, modern posters for the films,'” he says.

Needle's resulting posters set Hitchcock’s iconic silhouette against a boldly colored background, with a single relevant symbol—rotary phone for Dial M for Murder, knife for Psycho, etc.—set inside the director’s head. Needle posted them on tumblr to an overwhelmingly positive response; as the pieces gained attention, Needle began fielding requests for similar projects. “That launched me towards doing more minimal, vector illustrations like that,” he says. The series was the start of a career that centers in large part on making art about what he loves: Movies.

The art that set Needle on his current career path.

A GOLDEN AGE FOR TRIBUTE ART AND ARTISTS

It’s a good time to be a geek. Pop culture is more “pop” than ever, while interests once considered niche and nerdy are now mega mainstream. Within this new paradigm, fandom has become more than just a hobby: It’s a zeitgeisty juggernaut, a growing global community, and for some savvy artists, a side hustle turned legitimate money-maker. Welcome to the burgeoning world of fan art.

Fan art is a pretty basic concept: art made by fans. It can be character-driven or plot-point specific; a clever teaser or total spoiler; strictly canon or a chance to bring divergent fictional worlds together in a crossover extravaganza. The confluence of easily available digital tools and sharing via social media mans that tribute art is everywhere. And yet, particularly as more professional artists have entered the scene and elevated the form, the term “fan art” itself is a loaded one; praise or pejorative, depending on who you ask. “Some artists will take offense if you use it,” says Eileen Steinbach. “I don’t. But I also call my work ‘tribute posters;’ to me, that just feels better.”

Examples from Steinbach's portfolio.

Steinbach is a Hanover, Germany-based graphic designer whose young love for all things Disney (shout out to Ariel) morphed into a teenage Tarantino kick and now encompasses almost everything. As the sole proprietor of her one-woman-brand, SG Posters, she focuses full-time on key art—official, brand-sanctioned movie posters—and alternative movie posters, AKA tribute posters.

Both Steinbach and Needle are members of the Poster Posse. Founded and run by Don and Rebecca Thompson, the California-based creative agency has been hired by big-name studios (think Disney/Marvel, Sony Pictures, and Warner Bros.) to produce custom art for big-name projects (such as Captain Marvel, Venom, and Transformers).

Work by Poster Posse members Orlando Arocena, Luke Butland, and Rodolfo Reyes.

These artists are getting paid for their passions, for something they once did, and still sometimes do, for free. How did they make it happen?

YOUR INTERESTS (AND TALENTS) ARE IMPORTANT—NURTURE THEM

Don Thompson was eleven years old when he had his first big-screen experience. The film? Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The effect? Cathartic. From the moment the lights went down in the theater, he was hooked. Fast-forward a few decades; he found himself out of a job when the economy tanked and decided to switch gears completely—to focus on what made him truly happy. He launched Blurppy, a pop-culture site, and became particularly keen on people and entities pushing the still-nascent fan art scene forward.

To coincide with the first teaser for World War Z in 2013, Thompson reached out to a selection of artists and asked if they would contribute to a Blurppy-exclusive set of alternative posters for the film. His sales and customer-service background made him well-suited to promote the hell out of the series, and… drum roll... not long after their debut, Paramount reached out to buy the collection. “At that point, something like that wasn’t even on the radar,” Thompson says. “I just wanted to highlight the talents of some amazing artists by doing a tribute we wanted to do.”

Selections from the inaugural collection of alternative posters, designed by Adam Rabalais, Marko Manev, and Chris Garofalo.

That was the beginning of the Poster Posse. Though Thompson himself is no artist, he brought his interests and talents together in a way that benefited both him and the artists with whom he was collaborating.

PRIORITIZE PERSONAL PROJECTS

There are a lot of reasons why it can be difficult to spin up and complete personal projects, but they are mission critical for aspiring, and successful, pop-culture artists.

One example: Every year around Oscar time, Needle and Steinbach each create self-directed poster projects for major award contenders.

Matt Needle’s “For Your Consideration” series.

Needle’s “For Your Consideration” series allows him to experiment with new techniques, as well as revisit and revamp older ones. He generally fills a couple sketchbooks every few weeks with ideas; projects like this give him the freedom to implement them in fresh ways, free from a client’s needs. “I started out doing a lot of collage in university,” he says, but he found himself skewing toward an ultra-minimal style for professional work. On his own terms, testing his limits becomes part of the project itself. He’ll scan anything from an old speaker he found in the attic, to stones and debris from the beach where he lives, and then pull these textures into Adobe Photoshop CC or Illustrator CC to create a physical/digital hybrid.

Eileen Steinbach’s 2019 Oscar tribute posters.

Steinbach’s style is different. She’ll use pen and paper for quick ideation, but mostly just when she doesn’t want to forget a concept. “Generally, I sit down with Photoshop or Illustrator—it’s a combination for me—and then just play around,” she says. “I try bring some kind of ‘Ah, that's clever!’ to every design—something that makes you want to look twice. It’s a lot of trial and error to get that one smart idea to work.”

Don and Rebecca also host semi-regular “Passion Projects” for the Poster Posse; these non-commissioned calls for art function as creative prompts for anyone in the crew with interest and time. The completed work becomes part of a larger portfolio, and one more thing to show prospective clients your true potential.

SHARING IS CARING—AND STRATEGICALLY SMART

Like Needle, Steinbach also got her start on tumblr. “I was sharing my posters and they’d get picked up by outside outlets that thought it was the original, ‘official’ stuff for the movie,” she says. “I was like: ‘If they think they’re real, there might be a chance I can actually do this.’ Social media was the reason I was able to get into it.”

Since going freelance last year, almost eighty percent of Steinbach’s paid, professional work has come from Twitter. That’s major, but no accident; not only is she vigilant about sharing her own art there (and on Instagram), she also loves promoting other artists in the community. She is encouraging, engaging, and ultimately, wildly excited to be part of a world where she can post a tribute to Jonah Hill’s mid90s, and he’ll reach out directly for a print. (Yes, that happened.)

On the flip side, Thompson spends tons of time scrolling through Behance looking for artists who might be a good fit for the Posse. “If something draws me in, I’ll go through their portfolio. If I like that, I’ll check out their social media presence. I’m not necessarily looking for a large audience; I want to see passion, how you interact with fans, and what kind of mood you set. They gotta be good people.”

Ultimately, the act of putting your work out there makes it that much more likely it will get found; from there, anything is possible. Make sure your hashtag game is dialed in; for instance, although Steinbach calls her work "tribute posters," she uses terms like #fanart in her posts). Be genuine. Be you. And don’t be a jerk.

KNOW YOUR RIGHTS

There's one tricky—albeit boring—element of all this: the legal stuff. Because, by nature, fan art is dealing with someone else’s intellectual property, there are all kinds of fair use and copyright details that become especially relevant if you want to sell, rather than simply share, the work you’re creating.

After Jonah Hill reached out to Steinbach about her mid90s poster, she also received an email from the photographer who shot the image on which she based the work. “Even though I was very specific in the comments that it wasn’t for sale," she says, "my first thought was, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to get sued.’” It turns out that the photographer was also into the poster and just wanted a print.

While the industry is receptive to fan art and tributes, it’s worth becoming familiar with the laws and rules that protect these properties.

DON’T WORK FOR FREE

One of the most awesome things about sharing your work is building an audience that truly appreciates it. Many of those people are also creators, which opens up opportunities for collaborations, but there is etiquette around building those relationships. “About 20 times I week I get emails from people telling me how much they love my work, asking if I could do the poster for their short film or project—then telling me that they don’t have a budget,” Needle says. “It’s a pretty shitty thing to ask a designer. It’s like asking a plumber to come round and fix your sink for free.”

Steinbach has the exact same issue. “I can be somewhat flexible on prices if I have a good feeling about the person, but I usually respond: ‘I do this for a living, so as you can imagine, I can’t do this for free,’” she says. 

Take yourself, and your art, seriously enough to know its worth.

A selection from the Poster Posse's "Passion Project" prompts, designed by Andy Fairhurst, Doaly, and Simon Delart.

DON’T FORGET TO HAVE FUN

For fan art to go from literal to lyrical, it needs to embody and express more than the sum of its parts. “It’s about evoking themes and the feeling,” Needle says. Because those who make it are generally enamored of their subjects, fan art can bring people together in genuine, and genuinely wonderful, ways. Throughout all the self-driven projects and self-promotion—the hustle—it’s essential to remember why you started creating it in the first place. “I’m a girl from Germany,” Steinbach says incredulously. “I hope I don’t wake up and realize all this has been a dream. It’s been a wild ride, and I’m still amazed by everything.”