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A YouTube for artists

DeviantArt, which hosts a wide range of user-generated artwork, may well be the most popular site you've never heard of.

DeviantArt gets 1.5 billion page views a month, making it one of the most popular Web sites that many people have never even heard of.

Despite the name, only a fraction of the art on the site is what might be labeled deviant. In reality, the site boasts millions of user-uploaded works of art, everything from photography to 3D digital conceptual art to old-fashioned canvas-and-paint portraits.

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Think of it as a YouTube for artists trying to show their own work. Pieces can be viewed, commented on, even added to a user's own gallery of favorites. The range of work defies characterization, but there is a heavy dose of cartooning and fantasy art as well as some adult content, which is blocked for unregistered users.

In some cases, artists have posted their digital leftovers in a "stock" pile that other artists can use as the genesis for their own work.

The site's goal, in a nutshell, is to democratize and inspire art.

British photographer and art student Lara Jade said it's the community of artists and diversity of artwork that drew her to the site back in 2004.

"Everyone can post their work, no matter what medium they work in," Jade said in an e-mail interview. "There's also the opportunity to get feedback and suggestions on your work from peers."

In a few cases, she said, she's worked in collaboration with other DeviantArt creators.

The downside, she said, is sometimes she finds that her work is being used by someone else without her permission and in ways she never intended. In the worst case, she said, she found her work used as the cover for a porn DVD. (She's suing over that one.)

Despite that, Jade continues to post on the site, particularly because of the feedback she gets from the large community of artists and art devotees.

"When I first started out, my work was very amateurish as I was just beginning to experiment with photography and Adobe Photoshop," she said. "Most of the helpful critiques I've received from other artists on DeviantArt have made me want to try new things and continue to improve the quality of my work," she said.

DeviantArt is itself at a crossroads.

Growing to millions of artists has meant that the company and its site has had to find ways to scale its community, a challenge to the way it has done business.

"We love the way that deviantART has grown organically; artists telling artists, art lovers telling art lovers, for 7 and a half years, he said. "We grow internally in a very organic manner as well. Much of our team comes directly to us from within our (now rather huge) community."

The site has largely relied on the honor system and self-policing to ensure that artwork is used in the way it was intended. Often, though, artists put high-resolution images of their work on the site, leaving plenty of opportunity for the unscrupulous.

The site doesn't go in to details on its finances, but it is a for-profit entity that generates significant revenue--"Meeeeelllllliiiiooooonnnnnnnns!," according to co-founder and CEO Angelo Sotira.

The site is owned largely by current and former staffers--there are close to 50 full-time employees, with much of its sales reinvested in growth and new developments.

Sotira said he had been hoping the site could keep its workforce to fewer than 65 employees.

"We've been hoping to keep it under 65, but I'm afraid we're in need of quite a few more of the best and brightest this year," he said. "We'll be growing to 80."

Last week, the 8-year-old site announced that it had received its 50 millionth artist-generated submission. In January, the site had 23 million unique visitors. It also launched a feature that allows non-artists to start their own art "collection" of others' works and share it with friends.

Conceptual artist Daniel LuVisi said he has gotten a lot of work through the site, including some freelance work for some pretty big companies.

Much of his art stems from the worlds of movies and computer games, two of his other passions. "My work is mostly inspired by those...because they're the reason I'm here in the first place," he said. "Art was brought out of me from comics, cartoons, films, and games. It's definitely a huge inspiration."

LuVisi likes the exposure he gets from posting on the site, but most values the tight-knit artist community feeling.

"I just pray it never turns into a popularity contest or the likes of MySpace or Facebook," he said.