Relationship Building

Can You Learn to Love Fan Art? (Ep. 033)

Art teachers everywhere face the fact that many students struggle with creativity. Call it a crisis in creativity or spend your time looking for culprits, it is what is. This struggle manifests itself in the art room as copied Disney characters and anime sketches. But what if fan art isn’t the scourge we’ve made it out to be? What if fan art is actually a way for a number of students to get and stay engaged with the arts outside of class. Andrew brings on Tim to hash out the debate.

Listen to Tim rant about anime (4:00), and check out the guys’ discussion on the importance of originality (13:00) and keeping kids interested in art once they move beyond our classrooms (21:00). Full episode transcript below.

Resources and Links:




Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education, and I’m your host, Andrew McCormick.

If you’ve been teaching for a while or listened to Tim and I commiserate on the podcast from time to time, you’ll know that there is a creativity crisis in America, and especially in our school systems. Whether you want to blame it on video games, Snapchat, smart phones, the era of instant digital gratification, these kids these days just don’t know how to be bored, and how to be inventive and creative in the face of downtime. Kids these days, they don’t know how to think deeply and profoundly, and they sure don’t do it like I used to back in my day. Oh, wait a second, I’m being the grown up in the room and I just got all grumpy grandpa up in here and dropped the “kids these days” and “back in my day” bombshell.

I’m here today to maybe play devil’s advocate a bit, or maybe just argue a position that I find myself slowly creeping closer and closer to. There’s really nothing wrong with students making fan art. I know that Disney characters and anime sketches might be the bane of every serious art teacher out there, but I’m kind of wondering what the big deal is. Before I bring Tim on to argue with me, I want to explain a little bit about where I’m coming from. If we find ourselves adopting a philosophy that we aren’t in the vocational business and that the end goal of a successful art teacher isn’t to get our students to go to an expensive art school and become a working artist, but that instead all of our students benefit from building their creative capacities and their ability to problem solve and build tenacity through the arts, that they become more present, thoughtful, and mindful through the arts, then I think that we have to change our outlook on such things like fan art.

Those great qualities that I just described don’t happen unless students make a lot of stuff. If they only experience art as something, a series of hoops that they jump through for their art teacher every seventh period of the day, Monday through Friday, then that ability to build that creative capacity is pretty diminished. We need our students making a lot of art on their own time and building up this passion and desire to make art even after they’re no longer in our class and even after they graduate. I think if we can lower the bar for originality and allow students to make stuff that they want to make, without us impeding, they’re probably going to gravitate towards the sort of pop culture that they live in. That’s honestly fine. They’re making artwork. They’re building that passion. We’re not there over their shoulder, but it gets them making. I believe that in the making, through the making, that’s where students start creating meaning, and they’ll actually start to do things that are bigger, more important, and broader than if we were always only force feeding them throughout the day.

What really got me thinking about this whole idea of whether fan art is okay or not, is that we really are going through a creativity crisis. There’s a great article out there about how our school systems and our society at large, that we’re losing the ability for people to think creatively. If this rings true for you, I think that taking The Art of Education’s Creativity in Crisis class, would be great. In this class, students dissect the how and why that creativity is so undermined in our schools, and get to experiment with some ways to boost your own creativity. Head on over to and check out Creativity in Crisis and all the other great classes under the courses tab.

Now, to bring on Tim to argue the counterpoint of my fan art loving ways. Tim, going back to our episode about things that art teachers secretly hate, I know that you’re not a big fan of anime in the classroom. When we did that episode, I circled that, and I was like, “I want to come back to that one again.” I am kind of a big fan, so I’m giving you an opportunity right out the gate here. Try to convince me. What’s so bad with anime and manga?

Tim: Hi, by the way. I can’t believe I didn’t even get an introduction, but I don’t know. I don’t necessarily want to disparage the style. It’s definitely not my cup of tea, but I can see the value in it, and the kids who love it are super passionate about it, which is cool. I think you and I can both appreciate that. I think it really is over-saturated. There are too many kids doing it, and I just get to see too much of it. I know that’s sort of a personal pet peeve, but looking at the bigger picture, I think my biggest problem is that kids have trouble getting away from that style. Once they get into drawing so many different things in the anime style, it’s really difficult to get them out of that. It kind of informs all the work that they do, and they have a tough time visualizing or thinking about how to draw things in any other kind of style. I feel like that really hinders their creativity.

I think you need to be able to be creative, be flexible in your thinking, and I think you need a good base of how to draw things realistically before you can move on. Think about it this way. Picasso, or Kandinsky, or any number of artists really had to master that realistic rendering before they moved on to those more stylized types of work. Our kids seem to have that backwards, and it really is a struggle for them to do this stylized work first and then try and return to the more realistic drawing. Let’s face it. Realistic drawing is really, really hard, and this sort of stylization, if I can call it that, it really is kind of taking the easy way out. You have this specific way that you do things, and you’re able to take away the elements of realism. You’re able to take out the things that are too difficult to do, because you don’t have to conform to those real world proportions. When you get away from ever doing that, it makes relearning that realistic rendering, or even learning it for the first time, so much more difficult.

Andrew: Wow. Don’t hold anything back, Tim. Really tell me how you feel about anime. That was a long list, man. Hold on a second. I’ve got to just say right off the bat, I do think that this is going to be an episode where we are probably going to agree to disagree, and we’ll both probably make some good points and valid points, and I’m guessing we’ll leave it up to the listeners to kind of see where they fall in the spectrum of, “It’s really not good,” and then me feeling like that there’s a lot of positive things to be gleaned out of this, if you’re careful.

I want to circle back to a couple of things that you said in your answer. To me, I actually do have to agree. I think that kids can rely too much on that style, and it does kind of become a crutch, and they do have a hard time looking at art, or thinking about art, or making art that gets away from that style. The other thing, I think, that you mentioned was passion. I think that for so many kids, whether it’s the tie to literature and reading, they really, really are passionate about these worlds, and the thing that I love about it is it gets kids creating and making and drawing outside of class, and outside of just, “Well, here’s the assignment my teacher wants me to do.” They’re actually doing things on their own, and they’re building their own skills and repertoire without us having to kind of, like, force feed it to them. I really do appreciate that part of it.

Tim: I think that’s good. I’m always a fan of kids working on their own, but at the same time, is it worthwhile if they’re just delving into this super limited skill set that it’s so tough to get them out of? I think it’s tough to find the balancing act there.

Andrew: Let’s not beat up on anime and manga too much, because that’s just a small piece of the pie when it comes to fan art. What other sort of things would you consider to be fan art that we, as teachers, need to kind of be mindful of, or just have maybe a policy about whether we allow it, or encourage it, or how we deal with it?

Tim: For sure. We can talk about, I guess, how to deal with it. Just to answer your first question, the art forms that I see a lot of, always cartoon characters, particularly Disney cartoon characters. So many of my girls just love drawing Disney stuff. I see a lot of kids copying CD or album covers. They love doing that. The thing I probably see more than anything is just, like, directly copying pictures of celebrities. Just trying to draw them as realistically as possible, like, “Hey, look. I drew Taylor Swift,” or whoever it is. I just see, they Google their favorite celebrity and try to draw them as realistically as possible.

Andrew: I’ve got to say, that really … That drives me bonkers, and I agree with you. I think about kind of what you listed here, and that reminds me of so much of the sort of unimaginative work that you see for sale in the middle of the mall, if you know what I’m talking about. If you ever go to the mall, and it’s like, “Hey, it’s art and crafts day.” Then, it’s like, “Here’s a realistic pencil sketch of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.” It’s like, okay, I know someone’s going to love that drawing, but in some ways, that is so limited understanding of what art is, and I think that’s a societal thing. I mean, so many people equate, “Photo-realistic pencil drawing equals good art. If you don’t do photo-realistic pencil renderings of a person, preferably a famous person, well then you’re not making real art.” Boy, that stuff kind of irritates me.

I do think all of those things are kind of not great, but I’ve got to say, I think all of those things, what really irritates us is not Disney. It’s not that Disney is horrible, or an album cover. It’s just that it’s unoriginal, and it’s just, “Here’s a thing that someone else did, and now I can imitate that 100%.”

Tim: I could probably go off on that just as long as I did about anime too, but in the interest of moving things along, I’ll just say there’s so much more out there and I wish we could open people’s eyes to see that art is about so much more than how realistically you can draw something, especially a composition or creation that someone else has done already.

Andrew: Now, let me kind of try to make my stand a little bit. I want you to think about the big question that I have. I kind of feel like we gave fan art a really bad rap, and I’m starting to soften over the last couple of years. I want you to think about if there are any positives that you see for allowing fan art to sort of flourish in your classroom. As kind of a primer to this, I think about, we talk about artistic behaviors. That amazing artists sometimes steal and appropriate, and make parodies of pop culture. I mean, I’m even thinking, like, the pop artists of the 50s and 60s. Weren’t they kind of making fan art? I mean, granted, it’s got a really critical stance, but I guess I’m just feeling like, do we give it a bad rap? Are there some positive things to be gleaned from it?

Tim: I think you’re probably going to have to talk me in the positives, to be honest with you. I think there’s a pretty wide disconnect between what was happening in the 1960s, and what’s happening in our classrooms today. I feel like, if kids are going to be stealing or appropriating or whatever you want to call it, I feel like that should be part of a bigger vision or a bigger narrative. It needs to have an original take, or some kind of original thought with it, and our kids are just copying it because it looks cool. Very rarely do you see a kid moving beyond that. I think that’s one of my bigger problems, is there’s so little original thought that goes into it.

You can make the argument that there are some similarities to what was going on, and there are some artistic behaviors that are happening, but I feel like our kids aren’t thinking about that when they’re making that type of art.

Andrew: I really do agree with you. I’m going to circle back to something I think we talked about a long time ago on a podcast, or maybe it was even an article that I wrote a while ago that was kind of making the stance, or opposing the question, if originality is overrated. To some degree, people hear that and they’re just, like, “Scandalous. No.” I think what I mean by that, and I don’t know if I ever communicated it very well, is we put, as art teachers, such a priority on originality that I think sometimes it can be a hindrance to students just making. I think so many kids, like, they learn through the making, and they can really sort of limit or censor themselves when they think that it has to be 100% original.

In some ways, my feeling of it being okay, and it being a positive thing, if kids don’t have to worry about it being original, and they just start making, and they’re jazzed about making a drawing because it’s of their favorite character, in some ways, you’ve kind of sneakily sort of gotten them to do something that if it would have been more, like, teacher directed, or, “I won’t let you start until you come up with this 100% original idea,” you’ve kind of gotten over that hump, and I know some people are going to hear that and say, “Yeah, but then this kid is just making totally derivative, unoriginal artwork.” Then, I would come back at that and say, “Well, what is the purpose of art education for our students?” Or even on a micro level, “What is the purpose of this artwork that this student is making?” Is it pure enjoyment? Is it building skills? Is art education designed to get people to turn into Picasso and Kandinsky, or is it to give students a lifelong love of problem solving, and making, and sort of being intuitive, and engaged in stuff?

I mean, if that’s the purpose of art education and the purpose of projects, I would say, “Yeah. Draw your favorite character from Dragonball Z. Rock your socks off. I don’t care.” Then, at the same time, I’m going to be honest with that kid and say, “That’s not really original, and it’s not amazing artwork, but you sure enjoyed it, and I’m glad that you enjoyed that.” Am I way off the mark here?

Tim: I mean, you just talked for about three hours, so there’s a lot to parse through there. A couple of points that you were making …

Andrew: That was my manifesto, man. That was my manifesto.

Tim: That was just your return for my answer to the first question.

Andrew: There you go.

Tim: A couple of points that I think are worth touching on, you and I have talked before, one of our biggest jobs is just getting kids to love art. Even if I hate anime, or I’m sick of looking at drawings of celebrities, or cartoon characters, that doesn’t mean I discourage my kids from making them. You want them to do things that they enjoy, that they’re proud of, and that they show their friends. It kind of goes back to what you were talking about with the mall art. When people see that, they’re like, “Oh, you’re so good.” Kids are getting attention for their art. That’s not a bad thing. You want them to really, really enjoy that.

I think our job, as educators, is to kind of extend that. That goes to what you were just saying about talking to the kids about, “Hey, this is really cool, but it’s not super original. I’m probably not going to hang it on the wall. There’s a lot of things that are limiting about it, but if you are loving doing this, you’re getting recognition for it, and you like art more because you’re doing these things, by all means keep doing them.”

Andrew: I think what we’re kind of getting to, and I think we both agree is sort of the context of it, the when, the where, the how, the why, these students are making this work. I want to change it up just a little bit. I’m going to maybe try to summarize your stance. It’s not that you necessarily hate Disney characters, or the style of anime, or manga. It’s more the unoriginal sort of, “I’m just going to copy this and now I’m awesome,” sort of stance, right?

Tim: Yes. I think that’s fair to say.

Andrew: I’m leaning on my high school speech and debate here. I’ve just backed you into a corner, and you don’t even know it yet. If a student were, say, to create something original set in the realm or the universe of a comic book or video game, or a manga that they really enjoy, but it’s all original, I mean, it’s out of their imagination, it’s a new character, or it’s a character who exists but they’re putting them in a setting, or a pose, or a drawing that is imaginative and original, you would have less of a problem with that, right?

Tim: I would love that. I would love it if my kids do that, because I said earlier, one of my biggest problems is that there isn’t that originally. There isn’t that creative thought. If they are able to mesh that style they love to draw in with some original ideas, with some creativity, or even better yet, with some personal imagery, I think that’s a great way to go about it. That’s what I always encourage my kids to do. Those ones that seem to be stuck in that style, that’s what I’m wanting them to do, is bring some original ideas. Bring some creativity to your artwork where you can still use that style, but you’re not directly copying things anymore. I think that’s a great compromise. If we can get our kids to do that, then I am all for it.

Andrew: To be fair, I don’t think kids do that on their own. They find this little niche, in this comfort of, “I can draw this character, and I can shade it realistically, and it looks like the world that it came from.” Like you said, they get praise for that, so I think it’s our job as teachers to kind of help them wean themselves of that comfort zone. I just want to throw kind of a practical tip that I’ve had with kids, because you want students to hit their interests, and if they’re really into anime, you don’t want to just out and out ban that. What I’ve often tried to do is talk about the idea of mash-ups. What would it look like if the Avengers from the Marvel comic book universe was drawn in the style of Adventure Time, which is, like, this totally different cartoon. Then, they’re having to think about, “Okay, if I smash these two things together, I’m creating something new.” Have you had any experiences of seeing kids sort of wean themselves on their own, or have you kind of done like I’ve done and tried to give them strategies to get them to think more originally?

Tim: I think our biggest issue there is, I don’t see kids gravitating toward original stuff on their own. I think it is our kind of responsibility to give them some different ideas to get them thinking, to get them looking at things in a different way. Like you said, they’re so in that comfort zone, and they have a tough time stepping out of that. If we can give them some new ideas, some fresh things to think about, while still letting them kind of keep one foot in that comfort zone, I think that’s a really good goal for us, to kind of push them toward that direction.

Andrew: It sounds to me, we’re kind of winding down, and again, I think I might not be as ever tough on it as I think you are, and you may never be as lenient on it as I am, but I think it all comes down to finding a balance between student motivation, getting them to create a bunch of artwork, if that’s what they like to make, and they make a ton of it on their own, that’s a good thing. Then, also, originality. Would you agree with that those are kind of the three points to balancing this whole thing?

Tim: Yeah. I think so. If I can sort of reiterate that point, I love for kids to be doing this stuff, especially if it’s enhancing their love of making art. I’m all for them doing that, but as art educators, we need to push kids beyond just copying, though. Like you said, original thoughts, original creations are the way to go, and if we can somehow keep the motivation of that style they love but still push them into some other realms, some different ideas, some different thoughts on what they can do with it, sort of expand their horizons, then I think that’s a win-win for everybody involved.

Andrew: I think that’s the trick, and I think you hit it on the head, is to keep them making things, because I think about, what happens to seniors when they graduate, or what happens to eighth graders when they get out of middle school? Are they just then, like, “I’m done with art now, and I’m never going to make art”? If, as a teacher, you’ve both pushed them to be kind of more original and also allowed them to hit their interests and what they’re into, you might have a person that makes artwork just for kicks and giggles for the rest of their life, which is a pretty awesome thing.

Tim: I can’t think of anything better. If we can strike that balance, then we’re in good shape.

Andrew: Awesome, man. I hope that our listeners, though … Ultimately, I hope they agree with me, and not so much with you. I think, to get anyone out there listening to show that I’ve swayed them more than Tim has, maybe you should make some anime fan art of Tim if Tim were a manga character. I think that would be great. I can’t wait to see that.

Tim: I feel like this might be one of your worst ideas of all time.

Andrew: It probably is. Well, thanks, Tim. Thanks anyway.

Tim: Thanks. We’ll talk to you later.

Andrew: Thank you, Tim, for coming on. You know, this is probably going to have to be archived in the “agree to disagree” column for Art Ed Radio. For many students, fan art is a great way to get them making artwork and keep them making artwork. Whether it’s anime, manga, or my new personal favorite, sculpture that’s disguised as cosplay, our students are finding their own ways to make artwork on their own time, and with their own inspiration. Who are we to jump in and say that that’s not valid?

This stuff usually isn’t great art, and for me, it usually never makes it to the competitions, as I find that it kind of lacks that originality piece. I’ve been coming around to the belief that this whole “originality or bust” or “originality above all else,” that can be a really tough hurdle for a number of students to get over, and it really impedes them from just jumping in and making the artwork. I think fan art can really be a great gateway art for getting kids interested in art and making art on their own time.

Art Ed Radio is developed, produced, and supported by The Art of Education, with audio engineering by Michael Crocker. For fans of the podcast out there, do yourself a favor and subscribe to the mailing list. Tim does a great job of writing up weekly highlights from The Art of Education, and it’s fun, quick, and easy, and he usually tries to embarrass me with some choice gifs out there. As always, new episodes of Art Ed Radio will be released every Tuesday, and additional content can be found under the podcast tab on

Thanks for listening.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.