Limited Editions Versus Open Editions | Revisiting the Debate

There is a Place for Limited Editions and Open Editions

Occasionally, I like to come back to previous posts, such as this popular one from June 2011. I do this partly because my subscriber base is steadily growing, and also because some debates are such as limited editions versus open editions are ongoing. The decision to go with open editions or limited editions in your art career is important. It needs to be thought through carefully.

The open editions print versus limited editions print debate for digital fine art giclee prints may never be resolved.

Visual artists need a clear, comfortable stance. When it comes to digital fine art giclee prints, and fine art photography, readers who follow this blog know I hold strong opinions about using open editions for marketing them.

There is no single solution to the open vs. limited edition debate.

It’s not that I am against tradition. It’s more that I believe the arguments for using open editions outweigh those for continuing to use them.

I also am the first to admit there is no 100% solution for all artists. How could there be when there is ample evidence there are many artists who continue to market their fine art giclee prints.

The Guide to Art-related Careers
Learn about art-related Careers.

There are believable points and great examples to support both sides of the debate.

In recent days, I have been reminded of how some artists are doing well in open editions while others are profiting from limiting editions. Here is a note from fine art photographer, Jeffrey Stoner. He is a long-time follower, friend, and supporter.

“Your writings about limited vs. open edition prints were one of the deciding factors in my choice to go to open prints in 2007.  It was definitely the right decision.

Nash - open edition by Jeffrey Stoner
Nash – open edition by Jeffrey Stoner

I began a series of Angora Goat images in 2008.  There are now five in the series. The goats are part of a 10-year experiment to control the growth of Canadian blackberry bushes on the open balds.

The balds are treeless mountaintops, and the one they are on is at 5800’ along the Appalachian Trail on the Tennessee / North Carolina border.  The goats are brought to the mountain top on the first day of summer and come back down the last day of summer.

The series took off, and the first goat image (Arlo) which I made in 2008 was my best selling image of all time with nine months. If I had limited the sales of this, and succeeding, goat images I would have lost a lot of income.

The Guide to Art-related Careers
Learn about art-related Careers.

And, Arlo is still a big hit. One gallery owner jokes that Arlo will pay for my retirement. I’ve included shots of Arlo from 2008 and Nash from 2010.  I’m working on the 2011 edition to the herd.” — Jeffrey Stoner

The limited editions side of the coin has a compelling rationale to it.

One look at the work and success of Peter Lik attests to the fact that limited editions are far from moribund. The list of his galleries in top art town locations is impressive by any standards, but then so is his work.

I had a long chat with Roger Laudy, the CEO and mastermind behind Image Wizards the other day. His company is the premier provider of fine art and fine art photography printed on aluminum. The results for the right images are nothing short of spectacular. Roger listened as I laid out my argument for why I believe in open editions:

  • I’m an artist advocate, and I don’t believe an artist should have to arbitrarily cap their income by limiting how many copies of their work get sold.
  • I believe most collectors will buy open editions as freely as limited, or that the upside on the open will exceed the loss on the limited.
  • In an age of digital printing where even lightly informed buyers understand there is no real limitation to a possible number of prints produced, it seems somewhat disingenuous to be selling limited editions.
  • I have more the argument, you can read about it in this post, The Double Entendre of the Visual Artist Selling Out Redux, or get more limited editions versus open editions perspective here.

Roger is in touch on a regular basis with some very successful fine artists and fine art photographers. He made the compelling point that his best customers, those who place the most regular orders, nearly all sell their work in limited editions.

Marc Montocchio Blue Marlin - limited editions
One Second – limited edition by Marc Montocchio

He gave me the example of the fabulous oceanic photographer, Marc Montocchio, who has a limited edition print on metal of a live marlin in its natural habitat in the ocean. (Oddly, the is not available now. I cannot tell if it is a temporary or permanent problem.)

The Guide to Art-related Careers
Learn about art-related Careers.

This is a one-of-a-kind piece in that taking photographs of marlins in the wild has previously never been done. He is selling a very limited edition run of the image and stands to make a boodle doing it. You can view the YouTube video on how the image was taken here.

Ultimately, every artist will come to his or her own conclusion.

So, I get it. I can look at artists like Ford Smith, Jennifer Vranes, Yuroz, Eric Hermann, and countless more who are profiting in the limited edition market. It proves it is not an open and shut case. My only retort to such overwhelming evidence of success is to question how much money those artists lose by capping their income.

The heirs of Maxfield Parrish and Ansel Adams continue to get royalties from their estates. If these artists had opted for limited editions of their work the income from those original prints would have long ago dried up.

The ongoing open editions versus limited editions print debate.

I’ll leave it at that. As always, I know you will come to your informed decision. Two competing ideas that are both wildly successful are Art That Fits, a company owned by Larson-Juhl, the world’s largest supplier of picture frame molding and supplies. It is notably owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway group. Art buyers can browse its site and order open edition prints in a variety of sizes.

What Is Up with Will It Survive?

The other is Jen Bekman’s 20× site that sold very limited editions. It enjoyed VC investments in the millions. While Bekman ably proved the argument for limited edition prints for nearly five years, her site is limited to a landing page collecting email addresses. I take no joy in reading this article from Can 20×200 Be Saved? Anger From Collectors Mounts as Leading Art Site Flounders. It does point out the difficulty any high-flying startup can encounter.

And, the limited edition vs. open edition debate goes on… and on.

P.S. If you live in the U.S., you can order a free sample kit from Image Wizards. International orders pay a small shipping fee to have the samples sent to them.

Please Wade In with Your Opinion in the Comments Section Below.


The Guide to Art-related Careers
Learn about art-related Careers.


You may also like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

  1. Great topic, Barney, and one that I have been talking to artists about lately. I would agree with you that artists may be able to make a great deal of income from an open edition, but sometimes they create limited editions without being totally informed of the pros and cons.

    Not long ago, I had a conversation with a photographer who only sold limited editions, and she could not really give a good reason except that she “thought” she was making more money. There was no way to know because she only worked in that one model. When asked if she would be willing to try some open editions, she said that she would change one of her existing bestselling photographs slightly in Photoshop, thus creating a new image. This bothers me – it seems a middle road that is not quite kosher. What do you think?

    1. Hi Carolyn,

      Altered slightly in Photoshop sounds like a bad idea. To my mind, that is doing a disservice to her other limited edition buyers. I can’t say with certainty, but I do not know that any of the laws regarding limited editions deal with an artist knocking herself off. It is more of an ethical call than legal, probably. If the artist is comfortable in her skin doing this and is transparent and authentic in how she markets the art, perhaps it will work out for her.

    2. Carolyn,
      That makes me grin. I am an artist who has sold both limited and open edition prints. At my price points, I should probably stick with open edition, but some customers really prize their “limited” prints…
      Anyway, at a show once, I was discussing the aggravation of making a print edition too small and thus losing sales, when a fellow artist suggested using his method to solve the problem. “If you sell out a print edition too quickly, just print another in a slightly different size”…. Wha?? :-D,,, according to him this was perfectly ethical and even accepted method by national publishers. He was trying to tell me nationally known commercial print artists did it, and I did find at least one large commercial publisher that was doing it at the time.
      Like the “Altered in Photoshop” method, this is obviously unethical and dishonest – If your selling a limited number of your image, LIMIT the number.. I believe it is a personal choice, and the only reason to go limited would be that you had a confirmed collector base you knew was willing to pay a premium price for them.

  2. Hi Barney,
    As usually we are doppelgängers when it comes to policy and strategy on editions. I’d just like everyone within the sound of your voice to read the California multiples law from 1978–quite edifying. Regarding open vs limited, I think an artist should not choose just one strategy. In fact, some images being slated for open and others for limited makes sense. BUT, do not make both limited and open editions from the same image, that’s just nonsense! This really needs to be emphasized today more than ever. Thanks for keeping this important issue in the debate.

    1. Hi Gary,

      Thanks for your insightful comments. I agree, in most cases, it doesn’t make sense to have open and limited editions of the same print. Terry Redlin was able to get by doing this, but he is a rarity. Not many artists have museums built around their work. Other artists have multiple editions of limited editions in different sizes and substrates. Such artists as this have extraordinary demand for their work. Unfortunately, that is not the issue with many artists whether emerging or established. I have suggested if you want to have both open and limited that the limited be very limited. That would be say, 100 or fewer, that the size and substrate be exclusive to the limited, and when possible, that the artist hand-embellish the piece. Here is a link to an article from the Art Law Library on fine prints in California: It discusses the California Fine Prints Act, also known as the Farr Act.

  3. 20×200 is often brought up as an argument that limited editions can work. But I feel that all 20×200 proved was that a gallery can make money from it (well, for a time at least – we’ll see what happens).

    If you look at the individual artists selling via 20×200, and calculate how much the could make vs how much they did make (adding up the editions sold, and assuming a 50% commission), it is not that impressive. Most artists make no more than a few thousand dollars from each edition: nice, but not a stable, significant source of revenue.

  4. Hello Barney Davey –
    Long time reader, first time commenter:)
    In the photography community, this is an oft-contested subject. I realize photography is a different medium, but perhaps the concept I work under might have some interest for other artists.
    My initial thought, several years ago, was to only offer Limited Edition prints, because “higher end collectors perceived them as holding a higher value” and thus were more enticing.
    After a while, I started to realize that I held a different belief regarding ‘art’ and its ‘approachability’. I began to believe that art should not only be consumable by the rich.
    With that in mind, I switched future images to strictly Open Editions. The backlash, of course, came from previous LE collectors.
    There seems to be no ‘globally’ agreed upon way to offer Limited Editions. Peter Lik, as mentioned in this article, offers Limited Editions – but I think many would agree that an Edition of 950 images doesn’t seem very ‘Limited’. Likewise, his ‘Artist Proofs’ can easily reach 25 copies. Alternatively, several highly talented photographers offer Limited Edition runs of just 5-25, with only 1 or 2 Artist Proofs.
    After nearly a year of research and soul searching, I decided that the rules and stipulations set out by previous artists and organizations were akin to religious dogma. So I created my own methodology, and damn to the critics:) As a side bonus, I wasn’t able to find another photographer doing anything similar – so it had the added benefit of breaking new ground and (which is where I like to operate) and offering something completely different for my collectors.
    What I have decided to do is to offer 2 classes of prints (for each image), an already well understood Open Edition, and our new concept – the ‘Rendition’. Here’s a copy/paste description from our website:
    Each new image is ‘mastered’, and then revealed to the public. The digital file of this image is considered ‘Rendition #1′. This is the initial interpretation of the scene, and becomes the template for all Open Edition prints. It is simply resized for these smaller prints.

    The largest print size is reserved for the Rendition Prints. Once the first Rendition print is sold, ‘Rendition #2′ becomes available to collectors, and so on. Each Rendition is made specifically for each collector, upon request of purchase. The image is reevaluated, and completely remastered using the latest technologies and techniques for each new Rendition. This guarantees that each collector receives the ultimate print, unhampered by technologies from the past.

    Rendition Prints are truly ‘one of a kind’, and are unlike anything on the art market today. They are printed on the highest quality paper available, one chosen to enhance the qualitie of each image. This allows you to view your Rendition in its full glory.

    Mastered entirely for you.

    And only you.
    When I describe the concept to fans and collectors, they love it. It allows multiple price points for a wider variety of budgets. Some people simply can’t afford a several thousand dollar photographic print, and I’m a firm believer that everyone should have access to art. But for those that can, we can offer them something completely unique.
    Some images allow for even more customization. For instance, an image that I originally created in color might make me wonder about a black and white version. If that is the case, I can put that option up for a potential Rendition collector.
    The ‘Rendition’ concept allows me to offer something unique for a longer amount of time, and evolve my ‘understanding’ of my images. If you look at Ansel Adam’s work, his darkroom knowledge, style, and treatment evolved greatly over time. But if he offered only Limited Edition prints of his work following the artist community’s ‘doctrine’, he never would have been allowed to reimagine or evolve his work.
    Seems silly to me.

    1. Hi David,

      Thanks for your comments, and for sharing your process. I love your way of handling how to create prints in Renditions! I have said in the past that collectors will jump on certain things that have no more intrinsic value than other items, such as low license plate numbers in Delaware. The only thing that makes it rare is the scarcity of a low number. Otherwise, it is a piece of painted metal used to identify the car and its owner. I think for some artists, collectors will seize on certain print numbers of open editions that are numbered. It might be the day it was printed, the birthday of the artist, or something else random. In your case, it could be a certain rendition because of the unique process at the time and was only used for that one print. Who knows? It may never happen either, but your heirs may someday be very happy you have decided to create prints in this manner.

      Thanks again for your comments, insights and contribution to keeping the dialog open on this ongoing discussion.

      1. My pleasure, and thank you for the feedback!
        Two quick questions, if I may. I’m reading your Guerrilla Marketing ebook right now. I’ve used MagCloud to produce inexpensive catalogs (to hand off to potential print buyers) for a couple years now, and people love them. I have about 50 of my most popular photographs in my catalog, two per page – is this too many (should I keep it shorter?), and should I continue to keep my prices in the catalog? Thanks for your feedback!

  5. Great debate. I live in a high end art market. I my town, galleries sell original work for $2000 on the low end and over $1million on the high end. Not too many galleries sell reproductions. When I visit the homes of our most affluent friends, they have originals and limited edition prints. I’ve spoken with a digital artist who sold over $2000 worth of open edition prints on an online print on demand site. She could have never done that in a gallery here. Hence, I believe the decision to make open or limited edition prints depends on many variables; target market, level of skill and popularity of the artist, and the type of art.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Subscribe & Get the
"7 Marketing Tools Artists Need" Report

Search This Site