Go to practically any convention - from large events like Comic-Con and Otakon down to locally-run gatherings - and you'll probably be able to find a dealer's room where you can find individual artists selling prints of their artwork, often of characters from popular series like Final Fantasy or Naruto. "Technically speaking, it's illegal in North America," says Lam - also known as axl99 - since when it comes down to it, these artists are making money off of copyrighted content.
But is it morally wrong? The profit margins on selling prints are often so small that companies rarely see the point in getting involved - and many artists only aim to make enough money to cover expenses. For Matsumoto, the morality simply comes down to a matter of permission: "If someone did fan art of my work and asked for permission to sell it, I would say yes." Without permission, though ... well, she'd feel slighted at the least. Maurer, on the other hand, feels that it's a matter of profit - the little guy who just wants to cover the cost of getting to the con is one thing, but once someone tries to start a genuine profit-making business out of someone else's original creations, they're crossing the line.
Sometimes, though, the money isn't changing hands just for a print of a picture, but for the image itself. Many aspiring artists allow others to commission artwork from them. These requests are often from people who can hardly draw a straight line, but who would like to see their favorite character(s) come to life. Commissions highlight the question at the center of all of this: How much is a picture worth?
Pricing a commission is tricky work, Matsumoto admits, since so many factors go into it. Whether the artist is drawing on a tablet or with consumable items like markers and colored pencils, supplies cost money. The piece itself takes time to draw - and more than that, the artist's experience comes into play. To illustrate her point, Matsumoto paraphrases an anecdote where a customer demands to know how an artist can charge so much money for a drawing that only took him 15 minutes to do. "Because," responds the artist, "it took me 15 years so I could do that in 15 minutes."
Even if a picture isn't commissioned, it still has value, as it cost the artist time and materials. It is something he could well have gotten paid for; it is something that took hours, even days to complete. Essentially, for artists who can turn a profit on commissions, posting a picture online for everybody to enjoy is like working for free. What benefits do they find in posting their work on sites like deviantART?
For Matsumoto, it's an online presence, "like a musical artist who will have a few MP3s available for free download on their site to help spread their music. Not to mention the experience I gain from it. When I do art for fun, usually I'll experiment with some new techniques to see how it turns out." Circulating fan art through their respective fandoms generates valuable word-of-mouth advertising - as seen through the breakaway success of "Simpsonzu."
Lam agrees that one of the most important benefits of drawing fan art for pleasure is the experience. For her, it's "mostly practice, the chance to blow off some creative steam for fun. I find reinterpreting a visual style an interesting challenge from time to time."