Web Sites Offer Canvas and Feedback for Young Artists

By Ying Chan

Costly supplies, smelly paints and tedious cleanups, to say nothing of working in isolation, are just some of the trials that many artists have long endured. Now, online drawing Web sites offer aspiring artists a digital canvas with none of the costs — or mess — of physical art supplies, as well as a community of online artists who provide feedback and friendship.

In recent years, young artists have been flocking to Web sites like ratemydrawings.com, known as RMD, a site that allows artists to illustrate and showcase their work online, while receiving feedback and support from members of the free, online drawing community.

"And a fairy is born" is one of many fantasy drawings created by an artist using online alias Blackbird666999.
     “And a fairy is born” is one of many fantasy drawings created by
an artist using online alias Blackbird666999.
See the artist’s full gallery.

“I mainly use RMD as a drawing Web site, but it’s nice to socialize with people sometimes,” says Olivia You-Tuon, 15, a Canadian artist who joined a little over a year-an-a-half ago, using the online name Memories (see the artist’s gallery). The site, she adds, is “easy to use and fun.”

About 50,000 artists, the majority from the United States, have joined RMD since it was launched in December 2005. According to quantcast.com, a site that measures Internet traffic, RMD has four times more visits than its closest competitor, iscribble.net; the site boasts over 130,000 monthly views from the United States alone. The largest demographic to frequent the site is teenagers, who make up 35 percent of the site’s U.S. traffic, followed closely by adults 18 to 34 years old.

You-Tuon’s reaction to the site when she first discovered it may help explain its appeal. “I was like … ‘Wow, you can draw on the computer and there are so many great drawings!'” she says. “Seeing beautiful artwork motivates me to draw.”

RMD also offers free access to easy-to-use drawing software. Using either the Java or Flash-based drawing tool, artists can easily submit their artwork online to categories ranging from manga, a Japanese style used in graphic novels, to realism, without having to purchase complex software like Adobe Photoshop and Corel Draw. For any novice digital artist, RMD’s tools are a welcome relief.

Java, the most complex software offered by RMD, offers layers, unlimited ink and other advanced tools that resemble some basic functions in Photoshop. Flash, while limited in ink (in order to prevent files from becoming too big), provides animated playback of artwork that repeats the entire drawing process stroke by stroke. Artists can often learn new techniques and styles just by watching the illustrations replay before their eyes.

“What I really like about RMD is looking at drawings — it helps me improve and gives me tips,” says You-Tuon, who was referring, in this case, to illustrations completed with Flash.

With over 500 rates, Feefiry's collaboration with Liquid_gibbon90, "Last Song," has become one of the top drawings of all time.
     With over 500 rates, Feefiry’s collaboration with Liquid_gibbon90,
“Last Song,” has become one of the top drawings of all time.
See the artists’ full galleries: Feefiry, Liquid_gibbon90

The critique system, implemented in May 2009, helps artists hone and develop their skills. While well-developed critiques are rare, artists say they benefit from even the few brief comments—for example, suggesting that an artist correct proportions or perspective — posted about their artwork. And praise — “You’re awesome,” “Great work” or “Love the colors” — offers encouragement that is often hard for young artists to come by.

For artists who want to work together simultaneously, the site’s Drawchat feature allows members to communicate with one another online in public, or password-protected, chat rooms while illustrating on a shared Flash page.

As the site’s name implies, members within this cyberspace community rate each other’s artwork on a score from one to five. But while an artist’s rank depends on the ratings she receives, ratings and rankings aren’t everything. “It’s like sitting in the most fun art classroom you ever attended with tens of thousands of other artists,” says Mick Gow, the chief executive of Mixart New Media and founder of Ratemydrawings.com. “People that are addicted to RMD all realize the same thing at some point — they stick around for the friendship, feedback and to learn from each other.”

You-Tuon credits the site’s feedback features with helping her improve her artistic skills. Among more than 7,000 artists who are ranked, Tuon is No. 36.

While rankings are not the best measure of an artist’s talent, they do help artists improve their skills. “It’s a place to actually, not so much be competitive, but to see what the bar is — what the level of competency is,” explains Tom Lulevitch, an art professor at Baruch College. “Seeing so much of the same work done everywhere, it’s either going to be more of an incentive to be unique or admit that you need to practice more.” In the case of manga fan art, for instance, artists sometimes illustrate images of favorite scenes or characters that other artists may also use as a reference to improve their own skills or create their own styles.

Although Lulevitch praises the site’s wide array of tools, he doesn’t think RMD is a serious platform for artists to showcase their art, gain recognition and make it big. “I don’t know what’s accomplished by this site,” says Lulevitch, a professional artist himself. “I think it’s the pleasure of sharing what you’ve done, knowing that a lot of people will see it and that you’re not just sitting at home alone, looking at your drawings and thinking, ‘What am I doing this for?'”

Equilibrium's piece, "Frozen Dawn," is one of the top drawings of the past month.
     Equilibrium’s piece, “Frozen Dawn,” is one of the top drawings of the
past month.
See the artist’s full gallery.

Gow says RMD’s community-building opportunities are the single biggest draw for young artists. “It’s the commenting, rating, collaborating, drawchat, forums, subscribing to one another, adding friends — all that stuff that connects artists with one another,” says Gow.

An illustrator himself, Gow started developing the site because of his love for art. What began as a sideline has rapidly become the focus of his attention. He devotes most of his spare time, when not working 30 hours a week on his Web design work for other companies, to improving the site, which he calls his “most passionate project” yet. In the news and updates section of the site, artists are informed of various policy updates and new features, testaments to Gow’s dedication to his project.

For now, RMD, which is run by Gow and a small team of paid developers, barely breaks even. One of the site’s only sources of income is the small number of advertisements that appear through automated ad platforms like Google AdSense and Google AdWords. Using these platforms, advertisers simply choose key words that describe site content, such as “drawing” or “art,” which are related to whatever service or product that they are trying to sell, and their ads can instantly appear. Most ads that appear on the RMD are from art schools and art supply businesses.

Another source of income is corporate sponsorships, including Amazon.com, which also provide prizes for randomly selected winners of RMD’s monthly competitions. After Gow pays for the sites operating costs, “what is left pays for pizza for me to munch on while I’m working,” he says. Gow, who hopes eventually to make the Web site “more of a business and less of a hobby,” has already started writing his business plan to attract investors.

Whatever direction it takes, RMD’s mission, says Gow, will continue to focus on providing a safe haven for young artists. “The goal of RMD isn’t to launch artists’ careers, it’s more of a learning community — don’t get me wrong, though, we take art and drawing seriously.”