Grab them by the feelings
You want your work to provoke an emotional reaction in the viewer: make them LAUGH, make them CRY, or make them FALL IN LOVE. If someone flips through your portfolio and laughs at a piece or says “Awwwww!” then you know you’ve got a winner.
Don’t waste your time and talent on simple character portraits with the character posing against a dull background. Show the character interacting with an object or another person, or performing an action, in a way that reveals a hidden part of their personality or emphasizes a known part, or that emphasizes the nature of their relationship to another character, an object, or the world.
Two of the most popular pieces of fan art in my DeviantArt gallery are from the anime Naruto. They were both done years ago, when my grasp of technique wasn’t very good, but they’re still getting pageviews and favorites. In the first one, I have the titular character Naruto and the shy girl who likes him, Hinata, sharing a bowl of ramen and re-enacting the moment from Lady and the Tramp when Lady and the Tramp end up eating the same piece of spaghetti. The second piece shows a much younger Naruto playing with his teacher Iruka, and comparing the size of his tiny hand to Iruka’s much larger one, emphasizing the father-son nature of the relationship. These never fail to evoke an “Awwwww!” response.
Conversely, another popular piece in my gallery is from the anime Bleach, and it’s a one-note joke featuring three of the more elaborately-styled characters in the manga at a day spa getting their hair done. But it makes people laugh, and people like things that make them laugh.
You may instead try to tell a story. Not in the nature of a comic, with plot and word balloons and such. Instead, you want to pick one moment from a possible story that allows the viewer to extrapolate what has just happened or what is about to happen – you want to give the viewer the idea that these characters and their actions have an existence beyond the physical and chronological bounds of the picture.
The Naruto picture I mentioned above that rips off Lady and the Tramp is a perfect example: neither of the characters is looking directly at the other, and they’re not yet aware that they’re eating the same ramen noodle, but you know that in half a second they’ll find out, and you automatically imagine what will happen when they do.
Another of the top pictures in my gallery is, this time, a Naruto/Harry Potter crossover. The friend who asked me to paint it had only one request: Jiraiya, Naruto’s boisterous master ninja, as Professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts at Hogwarts. The picture I painted shows Naruto asleep in class, drooling on his desk, Jiraiya standing over him, grinning evilly and powering up a Rasengan (a special ki-power based attack), with Ron Weasley sitting next to Naruto, edging away nervously. He, and you, know exactly what’s about to happen.
All three of the Naruto pictures I mention were drawn so long ago ago that I cringe to look at the art now. It’s horrible! But no matter how awful the art is people still love them because they provoke emotional responses.
Obvious as it sounds, I find that people like pictures that provoke happy emotional reactions better than sad. I’ve got a nice picture of Tohru Honda from Fruits Basket looking all sad at a photo of her mother, being comforted by Yuki and Kyo in their rat and cat forms, but it’s nowhere near as popular as the funny and touching stuff. I think it’s because people want a happy ending. You can get emotionally wrenching and angsty in a book or comic because there’s usually a promise of a happy ending down the road, but for a picture you want to be popular I’d advise staying away from the angst unless you’re playing it for laughs. (If anyone reading this has had a different experience, let me know! I’d love to figure out more of what makes a picture appeal to someone.)
A third source of appeal for buyers is the pin-up. This is not necessarily what you’d think! “Pin-up,” in the comic industry, doesn’t refer to just a poster of a pretty girl or boy, but any sort of picture designed to go on someone’s wall. A pin-up can show people fighting, posing, or whatever, not just being sexually or sensually appealing. Sexy poses are only one category of pin-up.
So what is a pin-up? It’s not a character standing or posing slightly in front of a boring background or with no background, even if the character is wearing a bathing suit. That sort of thing is a character design, meant to show what the character looks like and a wee bit of their personality and not much else. Plain character designs are not usually very popular. A pin-up is a simple pose that captures the attention of and makes a connection with the viewer. The pin-up can do this by posing the character in a sexy way. Or it can do this by capturing a dramatic moment, such as in a fight. Or it can be compelling for some other reason – the graphic design of the poster, a powerful emotion captured on the character’s face, a stark gaze that focuses the attention on the eyes of the character, or an extreme close-up.
I think this may the hardest of all the types of picture to capture correctly, and if you’re like me you’ll have a lot of hits and misses as you’re trying to produce them. Good pin-ups may feature:
A character with a strong silhouette. If you were to shade your main figure all in black, would it leave a dramatic, interesting shape on the page? If so, you’re doing good.
Perfect anatomy and perspective. Your basic technical art skills are far more important with this type of picture than they are with the others. Emotional reactions and stories can carry a badly-drawn picture, but a badly-drawn pin-up is just bad art.
Drama. Drama in the pose, drama in the perspective, drama in the colors, drama in the design. At a recent convention, I spotted someone carrying a print forty feet away that was so compelling that I hunted the artist down to buy a copy. (This is also why you should give buyers clear plastic bags!) It features a character in a dramatic fighting pose, grinning like a madman, about to lay a righteous blow upon someone-or-other. There’s not really a story there: there’s no opponent, no emotion other than the joy of combat and sheer badassitude. The drama comes from the composition: the character’s face a focal point (which means most of the lines in the work point to his face), strong emotion on his face, the pose full of tension, and the point of view dramatically angled so the viewer looks up at the character, emphasizing his size and power. Your drama doesn’t have to be power, though: it can be beauty, love, sensuality, hate, fear, revenge, peace, joy, any emotion you can name. But that emotion should be practically dripping off the page.
Realism. If you do fan art, cartoon characters drawn or painted in a realistic style can be stunning: the more realistic, the better.
Large sizes. My 11″x17″ prints are quite popular – people like this size and larger sizes because they can pin them onto their walls at home. It costs a big chunk more to make prints this size because the equipment is larger and more expensive, whether it’s at-home printers or commercial printers making them, but people are willing to pay comparatively more.
Strong colors. This is because strong colors attract more attention than subtle ones. But subtle ones can work if other aspects of the picture are very strong, such as subtle colors that reinforce the emotion in the picture.
If you’re doing fan art you’ll have the task of picking what characters to draw. The main characters of popular shows and games are usually a fair bet, although everyone else and their dog will be doing them, too. (So you just need to do them better!) However…consider doing secondary characters. Fans of secondary characters are always on the hunt for pictures of their favorites and will descend upon your table with cries of delight if you have art of these characters because so few artists carry them, and will buy as many as they can.
As far as obscure anime, games, and manga, or ones that used to be popular but aren’t as much anymore? It’s a crapshoot. If you choose to go this route, you’ll probably hear, “Wow! That’s [X]! Nobody else has them!” lots of times from people who then proceed not to buy the art. Which would be why none of the other artists carry those characters any more. If you find the right buyers, you’ll do good, but there’s no guarantee.
If you’ve got a DeviantArt account, check your Gallery Stats for the pieces with the most favorites and comments. I find that popularity there tends to correlate with sales at cons. It’s not perfect, and skewed towards works that have been on the site longer and had a chance to garner more views, but it helps.