The Double Entendre of the Visual Artist Selling Out

My advice for visual artists is to get on one side or the other and make peace with their decision and get on with robustly pursuing their marketing plans if that is their choice.

Two Sides to Every Coin with Limited Edition Giclee Prints

I use the highly successful open edition publisher as one example and Jen Bekman’s equally successful 20× limited edition site as examples that both concepts of limited and open can move art prints. For most artists, I still believe open editions makes more sense, but it’s an ongoing debate that is likely to never be fully resolved. What’s your opinion?

Seems like visual artists carry more baggage regarding being true to their art than other genres. Sure the rockers with message music from the Sixties and early Seventies who later turned up sponsored by beer or credit card companies took some early criticism. They took the hit and laughed about it on the way to the bank.

Today, does anybody care if the likes of Bob Dylan and U2 sell travel packages to their concerts? Are film makers, actors, or other artists held accountable in the court of public opinion for being as successful as they can be? Does being a box office success mean the main players are not serious artists?

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Download List of 7 Essential Tools Artists Use

Do Open Edition Prints Equate to Less Prestige or Less Income?

Still, visual artists are left to worry about their reputation. Oh, he painted to make money, She made her work to satisfy her collectors. LIke that is a sin. I would agree that Andy Warhol did not have in mind that his “Green Car Crash” piece was created with the thought it would be so collectible it would later sell at a Warhol record auction price of $71 million plus. Nevertheless, he pandered to his collectors and the media in the most masterful of ways and his ability to do so helped create the aura that turned into the frenzy of buying for his work at the May 16, 2007 Christie’s auction.

Somehow, visual artists still struggle with the notion of being true to their art. Many find themselves painting under aliases so to disguise their more commercial work. Heaven forbid it be revealed they painted pieces with the commercial market in mind. The concept lingers on in the digital fine art reproduction arena where artists continue to sell limited editions.

It Is Hard to Let Go of Tradition and a Certain Way of Doing Business

Yes, I realize galleries are addicted to limited editions as a marketing tool and I agree what is scarce is precious. But, I firmly believe that the idea that a piece of art is part of a limited edition is not the chief buying criteria for most buyers. They want to buy it because it fills some other need. Whether it’s the proverbial couch piece, or more romantically because it stirs some emotions within them that compells them to want to own and live with the work.

Today, fine art digital printing has evolved to the point that we can now make the piece to the size most appropriate for the buyers needs. It can be reproduced endlessly with the reverse promise of previous technologies in that the likelihood is the later pieces will be better made due to improving techniques, substrates, inks, dyes, equipment and software. I will contend more money is lost selling limited editions than is made. Some will argue most artists rarely sell out their editions anyway, so what is the harm. Good point. I think every artist with his or her salt has at least one or two pieces that have the ability to sell well for years. Problem is, there is no way of knowing in advance which piece or pieces those will be. When the art is limited, the chance it will sell well for years is lost.

Do Limited Editions Also Limit the Potential Income for Visual Artists?

Here’s an example. An artist creates an edition of 300 at $1,000 retail for a total of $300,000. If the same piece sold 1,000 pieces at $750 retail, the net is more than double at $750,000. I don’t think artists have to discount 25% to sell unlimited pieces. Maybe 10%, perhaps 15% at the most. If the work has intrinsic value based on all the things people consider when they buy art, e.g., reputation, content, size, market and so forth, then it will sell at its “value” without the gimmickry of a limited edition. The mystique of the “giclee” monicker does not alter the fact that any reasonably sophistcated buyer realizes anything that comes out of a computer can be reproduced at will.

Download List of 7 Essential Tools Artists Use
Download List of 7 Essential Tools Artists Use

When you offer a limited edition digital print, you have to sell the veracity of the artist, the publisher and the gallery that the edition size will be honored. Why not sell on the intrinsic value of the piece? You can still sign, even number for that matter. Just don’t limit. The numbering convention is yours to conceive. I suggest 1/oe, 2/oe, where oe equals open edition. The early numbers could still become collectible. Perhaps some other numbers such as the artist’s birthday, the year the piece was made and so could make them collectible in later years. Who knows what aspects collectors will put on anything years from now. But if the work holds up, you can bet some of the signed open edition pieces will have greater value than others.

I have written about the limted edition giclee print debate before and promise to continue to work to engage the art print community in the dialog and discussion of the merits of unlimited digital prints. In thinking about this idea, it struck me as odd that “selling out” in the sense of following the money when creating art is a huge no-no for artists, yet having a “sold out” edition, or “selling out” an edition was something to strive for. Why she has four “sold out” editions. It becomes a comical twist of words, or an art double entendre, if you will. My advice is to seriously consider how to sell more art rather than concentrating on selling less in the form of limited editions.

All said, I do think there is a place for limiteds. If the edition is truly limited. For instance, an artist creates a small edition of hand-embellished (by the artist) pieces to sell in a low edition of 100 or less, that idea has merit. Even then, I would stipulate that an open edition of the same piece is available as an open edition piece available in the size most appropriate for the collectors needs.

Bottom line is the the bottom line, it’s your money, your family and your future. If you are reading this, you very likely aren’t thinking about how to get a show into MoMA. More power to you if you are, but reality for most artists who are full-time is they need to maximize their earning capacity without “selling out.” I think by limiting digital print editions, artists are selling themselves out of being allowed to make as much money on reproduction as the market will bear. If that’s the case, there is something wrong with this picture (pun intended) and it ought to be fixed.


Download List of 7 Essential Tools Artists Use
Download List of 7 Essential Tools Artists Use
Download List of 7 Essential Tools Artists Use
Download List of 7 Essential Tools Artists Use


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  1. Great post, Barney! I think discussions like this are important for changing people’s perceptions. I am sticking with open editions because 1) I can’t afford to loose money on prints that may not sell, and 2) I am holding on to the romantic notion that people should buy an art piece because they like it. I like your idea about numbering open editions. But you make a good point that technologies are alway improving, so an early print is not necessarily the “best.”

  2. Selling out means: Agreeing to do something that goes against your personal values and beliefs.

    Example of Selling Out: You believe energy drinks are bad for people, but you’ll take $50,000 from the company to be a spokesperson.

    Example of Not selling out: You believe it’s good to make people happy with your art. You sell prints of your art in large, open editions so that you can make as many people happy with your art as possible.

    My opinion on limited editions: It’s a marketing ploy, and there is no real value to the buyer. (There used to be, in the world before digital, but not anymore.) I don’t believe in it. So therefore, selling limited editions would be selling out for me.

    (However, I respect the decision of artists who feel that limited editions are in line with their personal values.)

  3. Thanks the commenters above. It is good to get other opinions or voices on subjects like this. Shelley and Maria, it’s always great to hear from you.

    Phil, I think your observation is a bit harsh, and an oversimplification. Reproductions have been part of the art business as long as there has been a way to make them. You could buy Picasso prints from Sears in the 1950s, for example.

    I think art collectors, by and large, are sophisticated enough to know a giclee is a digitally printed reproduction and can make their own informed choices about what is value.

    I have seen both open and limited edition digital prints that were exquisite and stunning, and affordable by comparison to the original. Personally, I would rather purchase a giclee reproduction from an artist I admire than buy a nicely rendered assembly-line Chinese oil painting.

  4. It did not take me long to realize I could only sell my original once, but there were more people that liked the image enough to want to own a copy. So I eventually figured out giclee reproductions were the best way to make a very high quality print, and also to leverage all the effort I had put into creating the image by allowing me to sell it multiple times. I never pretended my reproductions were originals, and my buyers all fully understand they are buying a reproduction. I never could understand people that seem to scorn the idea of reproductions, and am astonished at the vitriol hurled by certain people at the “giclee” process and product. What, exactly, is their problem?

    Recently I’ve encountered an interesting trend. In two different, high-end galleries I’ve seen something called “archival pigment print” or “pigment ink print” describing the piece for sale. When I asked asked if this was a giclee print, this was very firmly denied, but the gallerist was unable to explain to me what the difference was between “giclee” and “archival pigment ink”. However, it was clear from her tone that she wouldn’t be caught dead selling giclee prints in her gallery.

    So I wonder what people like Phil feel about “archival pigment ink prints”? I think maybe that’s what I’ll be selling from now on, and that sounds so hoity-toity I think I’ll price them higher than my originals.

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