Beginner’s Guide to Creating Fanart

Creating art is a skill, not magic.

Digital fanart example | © Jae Bailey

Beginner’s Guide to Creating Fanart is a column by contributor Jae Bailey. In this column, Jae offers digital fanart tutorials and advice for aspiring artists.

Fan artists invest hours and hours of their spare time into their paintings, driven by their love of the source material. While some have always enjoyed drawing, others take to art to depict their favorite characters.

U.S. TV producer Bryan Konietzko wrote in 2013:

“I remember back in the Avatar days [2005–2008]… the typical fanart we would get would be a charming, childish crayon drawing stuffed in an envelope. Nowadays on Korra, I take a skewed screenshot with my phone, post it, and shortly thereafter someone un-skews it, crops it, separates the character levels, clones the background, “Ken Burns” it with a multilevel slide, animates the characters blinking and talking, tints it, and makes a GIF out of it, that I then see on the same phone with which I took the original picture. Times they are a-changin’…”

Konietzko may have been “amused and amazed” by such rapid technological changes, but others might feel left behind. If you’ve never used Photoshop in your life, the idea of getting into fanart might seem intimidating. Anyone can create and share fanart though, even absolute beginners. Below, I’ve listed what you’ll need to get started, and while practice makes perfect, I have some tips that will help stave off a lot of the problems and frustrations suffered by beginners.

What software and hardware will I need?

Traditional art requires supplies, and digital art is no different. The good news is that you likely already own all the technology you’ll need. Nowadays, free apps can be downloaded onto tablets and smart phones to create art or edit photos, so even a PC is no longer strictly required. Phone cameras are so good that you can use them instead of a scanner to import pencil drawings into photo editing softwares.

Whether you want to digitally splash paint onto your screen or scratch out the lines and planes of your favs’ faces on paper, you will need a graphics program. Scans or photos of traditional art don’t always look as good on screen as they do on paper, but the brightness/darkness levels of a scanned pencil sketch can be digitally adjusted.

Learn how to adjust layers with this Youtube tutorial:

Scan of a pencil drawing without (above) and with adjustments in an image editor (below).

Scan of a pencil drawing without (above) and with adjustments in an image editor (below) | © Jae Bailey

Industry standard software packages such as Adobe Photoshop offer older versions for free (download Photoshop CS2 for free here). Once you’ve downloaded Photoshop you can get started by completing a couple of Photoshop CS2 tutorials on YouTube, such as this one. There are also more modern, relatively inexpensive software packages you might want to try (SAI and Clip Studio Paint). What program an artist uses is a purely personal choice; I use the 11-year-old software package PaintShop Pro 9 by JASC. (The newest version for PC users is Corel PaintShop Pro 2018.) However, there are countless Photoshop tutorials online explaining just about anything from how to open a file through to how layers and vectors work. This makes Photoshop excellent for beginners. Have a question? You can Google the answer in seconds!

Huion 420 USB Graphics Drawing Tablet

If you plan on drawing digitally rather than traditionally, then a graphics tablet is a really good investment. I picked up my first one for the equivalent of $20. Even an inexpensive graphics tablet will make your life a lot easier. Although the more expensive ones have superior pressure sensitivity, they also cost upwards of $200. Don’t spend that amount of money until you are sure it will be worth it for you. Here is an example of a digital painting created with only a mouse! Good art doesn’t come from spending a lot of money on materials. A good tablet for beginners is the Huion H420 USB Graphics Drawing Tablet, which only costs $29.99.

Fanart Tips

While fanart can be very rewarding, it can also be discouraging when results don’t match expectations. The gap between expectation and reality is particularly large in the visual arts, because we’re generally very good at picturing the exact scene we want to paint. We just don’t always succeed with the execution, and the resulting disappointment makes us believe we’re untalented and should, therefore, never try again!

I’ve put together a list of tips and tutorials to help keep such feelings at bay. Remember: Creating art is a skill, not magic.

Expectation (left) and reality (right) | © Jae Bailey


  • Start small, e.g. draw just one character at a time. Build up to having two characters interacting in a scene.
  • Practice and share your line art first. Save shading for the future if you struggle with it.
  • If color is intimidating, start off in black and white.
  • Follow how-to tutorials but draw a character from your fandom instead of the generic one in the tutorial.
  • Don’t be afraid to use reference photos of the actors! It’s what the professionals do. Disney animators have models pose, so they can see how two people interact. You don’t have that luxury, but you do have Google Image Search!
  • Trace if you have to. You will still learn something from tracing, and many professionals started off tracing when they were younger. If you didn’t spend every free minute of your childhood tracing comic book characters then you have a lot of catching up to do, right?
  • Cut out photos and paste them together. Draw on top of photos. Play around with Photoshop filters. Any art you create is worthwhile, and you will learn something from it.
  • Study art you like, both the masters and other fan artists. Download their art, open it up in Photoshop, and use the color picker to study their use of light and color.

The digital art community is generally very supportive, but you might encounter some who try to persuade you that you should be able to paint any sword fighting character in a photo-realistic manner without using reference photos. But the truth is that professional illustrators use references all the time, and some also paint over photos. Similarly, most artists will use references at least until they are good enough not to need them (but if they are aiming for photo-realism, then they will always need to use references).

By using references, or even by tracing over photos at first, the art you make will be closer to what you have in your head. This will keep you from crumpling up your piece of paper or deleting your art work in a fit of frustration!


Sharing Fanart Online

Most professional digital artists have painted fanart and even include it in their portfolios. As long as the art is transformative in nature and doesn’t infringe on the copyright holder’s ability to earn money from their copyrighted work, then your fanart is “fair use” according to the Bern Convention which governs international copyright. So posting your fanart online is not a problem.

There are many websites where you can share your fanart: Tumblr, LiveJournal (English and Russian), DeviantArt, Facebook, and Pixiv (Japanese). Choose the one where your fandom is most active and find out how other fan artists share their art on each platform. For example, on Tumblr, art works are placed into fandom tags (only the first couple of tags count! Use those wisely and add tags such as “my art” last of all). On DeviantArt, you should add your submitted image to the relevant fandom galleries so that fans can find your drawings.

Now go have fun creating and sharing fanart!

Read Part 2 of Beginner’s Guide to Creating Fanart. Then read Part 3.

About Jae Bailey (17 Articles)
Jae Bailey's life-goal is to invent a job that combines science, fandom, and really hot curries. Jae holds a PhD in Physics in one hand and a graphics tablet pen in the other.

5 Comments on Beginner’s Guide to Creating Fanart

  1. This awesome

  2. I really like you tips, especially that it is okay to trace for practice as a beginner. People get extremely worked up about that but everyone has to start somewhere.
    I would like to also point to The Gimp, which is open source and free and runs on all platforms and there’s a ton of tutorials how to do things. Just like you mentioned it for PS up there.

    • Yeah, that’s true, there is Gimp! I probably should have mentioned it, but since there is now the alternative to pick up photoshop for free it just didn’t seem worth pointing it. Sadly, old photoshop is still more powerful than Gimp, simply because Gimp doesn’t support vectors.
      Also, as much as I can’t stand photoshop, it is the industry standard and by learning that rather than Gimp someone really is learning a skill that is valuable if they want to go into illustration professionally at some point.

      Glad you liked the tips in this article! And I think a lot of the people who get worked up about tracing are the same people who get upset about people using references. It’s very frustrating to see. People like that used to be the norm on professional and semi-professional artist forums too (they also used to get extremely upset about fanart of any kind being part of someone’s art portfolio). Which just goes to show that it’s all nothing but snobbishness. I mean, there are still people like that, but they are mostly ignored now.

      I was just working on an illustration project for a children’s card game this month and a couple of days ago it occured to me how similar my style is to that of the Smurf comics. I’ve not worked cartoony before in my entire adult life and I realised the only reason I could actually pull off drawing in a cartoony style now is because I spent years as a kid tracing and later free-drawing Smurfs. And that was the point of my article really… tracing is often the first step, but I think a lot of artists forget that, because they did all that tracing in primary school. But many didn’t, and it’s still a useful step, even if it isn’t the end goal!

  3. Rachel Smith Cobleigh // November 24, 2015 at 5:32 am // Reply

    Wow, this is great! I didn’t know there were free versions of PhotoShop available. I’ve long struggled to get over the black-and-white hump into color artwork, so thanks for these tips and references.

    • Glad you found it useful! I was thinking to do something about colouring black and white pencil (or digital) sketches for the next article actually! 🙂

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