Artificial intelligence and the production of fan art

Martine Mussies

Centre for Gender and Diversity, Maastricht University, the Netherlands

[0.1] Abstract—Artificial intelligence for image generation has become publicly available. Fans are using it to create fan art, which further blurs traditional ideas surrounding ownership.

[0.2] Keywords—AI; Online fan art; Produser

Mussies, Martine. 2023. "Artificial Intelligence and the Production of Fan Art." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 40.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Alfred of Wessex was a historical figure who ruled the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex in the late ninth century. He is commonly referred to as "Alfred the Great" for his efforts to resist Viking invasions and his contributions to the unification of England. In popular culture, King Alfred has been depicted in various forms of media, including literature, film, and television. One such depiction is in the popular TV series The Last Kingdom (BBC Two/Netflix, 2015–2022, based on Bernard Cornwell's series of novels The Saxon Stories. In the TV series, King Alfred is portrayed by actor David Dawson. Based on this canon, fans create original artworks, such as King Alfred in a costume that resembles the clothes of another character from the series called Uhtred, or King Alfred with a face and haircut that resembles Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings. This Alfredian fan art is produced through a variety of techniques, including hand-drawn illustrations and digital artwork using software such as Photoshop. On sites like Tumblr and DeviantArt, fans share their artwork with a range of hashtags and little explanation. Despite the lack of context, the artistry of the creators is undeniable, requiring a significant amount of skill and creativity to produce. Some fans use a combination of digital and analogue techniques, such as creating a line drawing from a screenshot using software and then tracing over it by hand. In my research, I seek to understand the ways in which fans engage with and express their creativity through fan art. By examining the visual representations of King Alfred in this fandom, I hope to shed light on the ways in which fans reimagine and reinterpret historical figures through their art.

[1.2] The rise of social media has given people the opportunity to express themselves in new and creative ways. Through platforms like Facebook and Instagram, they can create and curate their online identities and engage in political activism and other causes that may not necessarily align with their personal beliefs (de Ridder 2021). People are using social media platforms to present themselves in a certain way to the world, whether that is through sharing photos, writing posts, or interacting with others. Through this process, they are also able to connect with like-minded individuals and form communities around shared interests, values, and causes. Social media has made it easier for individuals to share and support causes that they care about, even if they are not directly impacted by those issues. For example, someone who is not personally affected by a particular social justice issue may still choose to share posts about it or donate to related organizations because they believe it is the right thing to do. This is facilitated by social media's ability to connect people with a wide range of causes and communities.

[1.3] As a scholar, I am researching the ways in which Alfred is depicted in contemporary fan art. When people—for example, at conferences—ask me for more background information on the images, I often lack an answer. With the quality increase of art software, discerning a digitally manipulated image from a meticulously hand-drawn illustration has become increasingly challenging. Contemporary fan art, in particular, showcases myriad techniques that blur the boundaries between digital and analogue practices.

[1.4] A prevalent approach involves the creation of a digital line drawing through software like Photoshop, which serves as a basis for subsequent manual tracing. This amalgamation of digital and analogue techniques results in artworks that seamlessly merge the precision afforded by digital tools with the nuanced expressivity inherent in hand-drawn renditions. Another technique entails the printing of digital line art, followed by the application of traditional coloring mediums, such as pencils or markers, by hand. This deliberate combination allows artists to exploit the advantages of both digital and analogue realms, striking a balance between precise line work and the organic textures and colors that emerge from traditional coloring methods. Furthermore, mixed media collages expand the possibilities by integrating traditional art materials with digitally generated elements. This synthesis involves the creation of a foundation artwork through traditional means, subsequently incorporating digitally produced textures, patterns, or paintings through printing and collaging techniques.

[1.5] By fusing diverse mediums, artists elicit a rich interplay of visual elements, uniting the physicality of traditional materials with the versatility of digital media. Additional approaches include the integration of traditional painting techniques with digitally rendered textures, wherein a digital painting serves as the groundwork to be printed and enhanced with physical depth and texture through traditional mediums. Lastly, the convergence of traditional and digital sculpting techniques allows for the creation of sculptures that are initially fashioned using traditional materials and techniques and subsequently captured digitally through 3D scanning or photogrammetry. The resulting digital models can then be further manipulated and refined, incorporating both physical and virtual sculpting processes.

[1.6] The fusion of digital and analogue techniques in fan art thus demonstrates the fluidity and versatility of contemporary artistic practices, revealing a fertile ground for exploration and innovation at the intersection of traditional and digital realms. Still, the artistry of the creator is undeniable: even a nice Photoshop image still requires quite a lot of skill, especially when working from a blank sheet (digital artwork rather than photo editing).

[1.7] The emergence of AI technology has further democratized the process of creating visual representations of fandoms, allowing fans to produce their own interpretations of characters beyond the boundaries of the show's official canon. A concrete example of this can be seen in the case of King Alfred fan art, where fans can use AI to create their own visual representations of the character, expanding the range of creative possibilities beyond what is shown in the TV series or the original book series. This not only allows fans to express their own individual interpretations and feelings about the character but also fosters a sense of community and participation in the fandom.

2. AI-generated fan art

[2.1] It is important to note the distinction between digital fan art and fan art generated by artificial intelligence (AI). Digital art typically involves using digital tools to create original pieces of art whereas AI-generated art involves using algorithms and machine learning to generate art based on input data. This distinction is crucial because AI-generated art raises ethical questions around the role of human creativity and the impact of new technologies on traditional forms of art.

[2.2] Fans create AI artworks by providing the program with a prompt, which is a set of instructions or guidelines for the AI to follow. This prompt can take many forms, such as a textual description or a rough sketch of the desired image. The quality of the prompt is crucial in determining the output of the AI-generated artwork. A well-written prompt provides the AI with detailed information about the desired image, including colors, composition, and even emotions conveyed by the characters. On the other hand, a poorly written prompt can result in an inaccurate or unsatisfying output. One notable example of AI-generated fanart is the work of OpenAI's DALL-E program. This program was trained on a massive dataset of images and text descriptions, allowing it to generate highly detailed and realistic images from textual prompts. For example, for the prompt "a cat made of pizza," DALL-E might generate an image of a cat-shaped pizza with cheese fur and pepperoni ears. In the same way, fans of King Alfred can create new artwork featuring him (figure 1).

Four different medievalist images of a man with a beard and expensive clothes, which at first glance might look like they were created using various analogue techniques such as pencil sketching.

Figure 1. Some portraits of King Alfred, all made by using the free online version of DALL-E 2.

[2.3] The intersection between fan artists and AI has yielded intriguing collaborations that push the boundaries of creative expression. Fan artists have increasingly embraced AI as a tool to enhance their artistic process and expand the possibilities of their creations. This synergy between human creativity and AI algorithms has led to novel approaches, such as leveraging AI to generate specific elements or motifs that are then seamlessly integrated into the artwork. One prominent example of this collaborative process is the utilization of AI to generate intricate patterns or elements that can be incorporated into the artwork. For instance, a fan artist may employ AI algorithms to generate a vast array of flowers, which can then be selectively chosen and assembled in a cohesive composition using software like Photoshop (note 1). This method allows artists to harness the computational power of AI to rapidly generate a multitude of elements while still retaining their artistic agency in the curation and arrangement of those elements. By blending AI-generated content with their creative vision and manual dexterity, fan artists create complex and visually striking artworks that seamlessly merge human and machine-generated elements.

[2.4] Beyond generating specific visual elements, AI can also be employed to inspire and inform the creative process. Fan artists may utilize AI algorithms to analyze vast collections of fan art or source material, identifying patterns, color palettes, or stylistic elements that resonate with their artistic vision. This analysis can serve as a valuable source of inspiration and reference, helping artists explore new artistic directions or experiment with different techniques. By leveraging AI as a collaborative partner, fan artists gain access to a vast repertoire of visual data and insights that can fuel their creative output and encourage artistic growth (figure 2).

Four different photographic images of golden harp-like musical instruments.

Figure 2. Some ideas for a harp used by King Alfred, made by using the free online version of Midjourney.

[2.5] Moreover, AI has the potential to assist fan artists in the creation of highly detailed or labor-intensive artworks. For instance, AI-powered tools can be utilized to streamline the rendering of complex textures or repetitive patterns, reducing the time and effort required for meticulous manual work. Fan artists can leverage AI algorithms to automate certain aspects of their process, allowing them to focus their artistic expertise on more intricate or expressive elements of the artwork. This symbiotic relationship between human artists and AI tools facilitates the realization of ambitious artistic visions that otherwise may have been constrained by time or technical limitations.

3. AI versus the arts

[3.1] AI has a long history of being used in the arts. From the first computer-generated artworks in the 1950s to the more recent digital art created by AI, the field of digital art is constantly evolving, and AI will play an increasingly important role in it. DALL-E is a machine-learning algorithm that generates images based on inputted data. DALL-E can generate pictures based on text, using AI. The system starts with a dataset of billions of pictures with annotations attached (often man-made descriptions), which it mines for visual patterns. From this mining, the program learns, understanding the keywords and the links between the concepts. As a result, it can create an infinite number of new combinations. DALL-E and similar publicly available programs can additionally create their images in different styles—for instance, as a pencil drawing or something photorealistic.

[3.2] AI is often a difficult subject to understand, but DALL-E makes it very vivid. At the same time, it raises all sorts of questions—philosophical, ethical, and technical—about the nature of art. Who has the rights to a computer-created artwork? What happens if I let an AI create an entire collection of artworks in the style of a successful (digital) artist? Is a DALL-E version of Mickey Mouse still copyrighted by Disney? And what if I let DALL-E create all-new art based on other users' most successful prompts and sell them?

[3.3] Within the communities of AI programs online, people often like it when others follow through on their prompts and ideas, but this practice clashes with traditional thinking from the art world (where people are actually just getting used to the idea of digital artworks). According to an August 31, 2022 post by Twitter user OmniMorpho, "we're watching the death of artistry unfold before our eyes" ( Jason M. Allen's AI-generated work, Théâtre D'opéra Spatial, won the digital art category at the 2022 Colorado State Fair, sparking controversy among artists (Gault 2022). The work was rendered by Midjourney (an AI software program very similar to DALL-E). Although some artists defend Allen's use of AI as no different from using digital image manipulation tools, critics argue that these tools are trained on the works of living artists, potentially making them anti-artist, and that AI-generated art is a form of plagiarism.

[3.4] The controversy surrounding AI-generated art echoes past debates about the impact of new technologies on traditional forms of art. When photography was first invented, many traditional artists viewed it as a threat to their livelihood because it could reproduce reality with greater accuracy than any painting or drawing. However, over time photographers and other artists began to explore the creative possibilities of photography, and it became an accepted and celebrated art form in its own right. Similarly, as AI-generated art becomes more prevalent, it is likely that artists will begin to explore new creative possibilities and find ways to incorporate AI into their own work.

[3.5] The availability of AI tools provides a democratization of art, allowing less artistically talented individuals and those with physical disabilities to create original illustrations to engage with their fandoms. DALL-E is a prime example of this democratization because it is both free and readily accessible to anyone with an internet connection. By contrast, programs like Photoshop can be expensive and require a certain level of skill and training to use effectively. Photoshop can produce more sophisticated results, but it also requires a greater investment of time and effort to master. By contrast, DALL-E offers a user-friendly interface and automation of certain processes.

[3.6] While it is important to acknowledge the rich history of artists with physical illnesses who created art without AI, such as Henri Matisse and Frida Kahlo, AI tools can serve as an additional means of creative expression for those who may not have access to traditional methods or find them more challenging due to physical limitations. Regarding fandoms, AI-generated art can help fans to participate in the community and express their admiration for a particular series or character, regardless of the fans' artistic abilities or physical disabilities.

4. The collective system of fandom

[4.1] As Jessica Hautsch (2022) has argued, works of fan art are "acts of thinking, forming part of the cognitive system of fandom" (¶ 0.1). As such, the labor of the fans is devoted to the thinking through and building of the noncanonical worlds for their fandom. In that sense, it does not matter how a work was literally created; the contribution to fandom is about the mental envisioning of the fan(s) involved. Moreover, questions around ownership in fannish communities have already proved to differ from those in more traditional art worlds. As Henry Jenkins (2008) proposes, "fans reject the idea of a definitive version produced, authorised, and regulated by some media conglomerate. Instead, fans envision a world where all of us can participate in the creation and circulation of central cultural myths" (289).

[4.2] Henry Jenkins's (2008) idea of fans rejecting the idea of a definitive version produced, authorized, and regulated by media conglomerates has significant implications for ownership in fan communities. This rejection of a singular, definitive version of characters allows for the creation of multiple versions, with fans drawing characters in different costumes, genders, and situations. However, this is not necessarily about ownership because most fans still recognize that certain images, films, or songs belong to a company or franchise.

[4.3] In most fandom spaces, stealing others' fan art and reposting it as one's own is frowned upon, demonstrating a certain understanding of ownership, particularly when it comes to fans' own fanworks. As fans actively engage with each other's works by remixing and reusing them, they are participating in a form of what Axel Bruns calls a "produser community" (2008). In the fannish communities, "users become producers of content, and use and production are intertwined, so that the old distinction between producers, distributors, and consumers no longer applies" (Mussies 2021, 66). This already has blurred ideas surrounding ownership, and AI will contribute to this diffusion even more.

[4.4] In the context of AI-generated art, the use of AI tools allows for a different kind of produser, one who is both the creator and the user of the tool. In this case, the user is not only shaping the content but also programming the tool itself. However, it is important to note that AI-generated art is still created by a program, so the produser in this context is the person who creates and trains the AI rather than the end user who is simply utilizing the tool. So while the concept of produsage still applies to AI-generated art, it has a slightly different connotation than in other forms of participatory culture.

[4.5] Thus, the advent of AI-generated art creates new challenges for ownership in fan communities. While AI-generated art provides a means for those with physical disabilities or limited artistic skills to create original illustrations, the question of ownership and credit arises. Because AI-generated art is created by machines, there is no individual creator to credit or compensate. This raises questions about the commodification of art, particularly as AI-generated art becomes more common in fandom spaces. It is important for fan communities to navigate these issues and establish clear guidelines and ethical practices around ownership and credit in the age of AI-generated art.

5. Reflections and further inquiries

[5.1] Many people I speak to at conferences regard AI fan art as an end point. If the computer has created the artwork with minimal human influence, they ask, where is the line? Is this still art at all? If yes, then who is the artist? I believe these questions are irrelevant to fan art. Who made a particular image and how do not matter; the work functions in a produser community, so the image is not the end but a means toward it. The image is a vehicle to (collectively) create a fictional world. In fannish spaces, AI does not replace humans but augments their skill sets, providing the fans with new opportunities to explore new avenues through designing AI-generated images. Moreover, fans can also use AI to generate ideas to work out themselves, for example, through collage techniques.

[5.2] The collaborations between fan artists and AI do not diminish the significance of human creativity and skill. While AI algorithms contribute computational capabilities and generate content, the artistic vision, intentionality, and manual execution of fan artists remain integral to the final artwork. Fan artists actively shape and mold the outputs of AI algorithms, imbuing them with personal expression, context, and emotional depth. This collaborative interplay between human artists and AI technologies yields a unique fusion of artistic sensibilities, technical capabilities, and imaginative exploration. AI can be used to empower fannish creators by democratizing the act of producing an image to share a vision of the fandom. AI realizes the fannish dream, as described by Jenkins (2008), in which everyone can contribute. This also becomes relevant in the process of young people curating their identities online.

[5.3] Further inquiries should be made into the effects of AI-generated content in fannish spheres. For example, does it matter to readers of fan fiction whether a story is written by a human or a machine? What happens when fans have photorealistic images generated of celebrities in sexual poses? What if fans have new art created in the style of their favorite computer games and the companies behind these games see that generating the AI works is cheaper and faster than human artists? AI is still in its infancy, but it is already raising all sorts of questions and concerns in various contexts, including the world of online fan art.

6. Note

1. A method I employed myself to create new fannish images for my exhibition "Verbeeldingen" at the Neude Library in Utrecht, the Netherlands, in February 2023.

7. References

Bruns, Axel. 2008. Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond: From Production to Produsage. Oxford: Peter Lang.

De Ridder, Sander. 2021. "The Banality of Digital Reputation: A Visual Ethnography of Young People, Reputation, and Social Media." Media and Communication, 9 (3): 218–27.

Gault, Matthew. 2022. "An AI-Generated Artwork Won First Place at a State Fair Fine Arts Competition, and Artists Are Pissed." Vice, August 31, 2022.

Hautsch, Jessica. 2022. "Pic Sets, Fan Cognition, and Fannish Networks of Meaning." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 38.

Jenkins, Henry. 2008. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.

Mussies, Martine. 2021. "'Dashing and Daring, Courageous and Caring': Neomedievalism as a Marker of Anthropomorphism in the Parent Fan Fiction Inspired by Disney's Adventures of the Gummi Bears." Dzieciństwo. Literatura i Kultura 3 (2–3): 60–83.