The Case for Open Edition Digital Prints

As it turns out, print-on-demand was one of the best things in the past 100 years for the business. It’s time now to move, so the marketing of this incredible technology catches up with the benefits the technical development have brought us.

This piece started out as a reply to the comments on my previous post, Milton Glaser Post Goes Viral – A Lesson for Not Limiting Editions.

When I realized it was more than a couple of thoughts or a quick reply, I decided to publish it as its post so more readers would see it.

So here goes with more thoughts on why I am against limiting digital fine art prints.

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Thanks to Alan, Maria, and Daniel for commenting here. Alan, I’m glad you agree. Maria, yes, I am advocating against limited editions of digital fine art prints, aka giclees. I totally agree with your husband, Drew. Other than a marketing gimmick, there is no justification for limited edition giclee prints.

It is not always easy to take an unpopular or controversial stand on an issue, especially when those pitted against you get the knickers in a knot. However, I believe this issue is too important to ignore and will continue to champion open edition digital prints because, in the long run,  everybody involved will do better as this way of thinking gains traction. The change is underway, it is not whether, but when limited editions of giclees become passe.

Limited editions arose out of necessity

That necessity became a tradition in the art business. Now some dealers and artists have it in their head it makes their art “more elite” or “more marketable” or “more collectible.” REALLY? Do the research. For every limited edition that makes it to the secondary market and sells for greater prices than initially offered, thousands of limited editions that never sell out. Why bother?

Do you know you have to comply with the laws of 14 states when you sell limited editions, including sales made over the internet? Who needs that for something you might otherwise be able to sell many more of at a slightly reduced price without the bookkeeping headaches of managing limited editions. This extra bookkeeping is annoying and is a hidden cost that puts a drag on the profitability of print marketing.

Buyers buy art they like, not limited editions

I believe most art buyers make the purchase decision on the fact they want to live with the art in their home or workplace and that being limited is not a huge buying factor. I also believe there are many dealer and galleries addicted to the notion without realizing it costs them money in the long run. Does anyone think consumers are not entirely aware that digital prints can be reproduced endlessly and perfectly? Then why in the 21st Century are we trying to pull the wool over their eyes with limited editions?

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You can still sequentially number open editions

If you want to number them, it’s fine. Just don’t limit them. I believe there would be some prints that were an open edition, but numbered, that would still find the lower numbers collectible. If you look at the crazy things that are in plentiful supply but numbered somehow, and how the lower numbers are worth more, it says it all about the collector’s mentality. Low number license plates in Delaware go for half a million. Does that make sense when you can get a brand new one for rack rates? No, but collectors don’t care.

Give your buyers what they want

One of the greatest advantages, besides no inventory, to giclees is they can be made to order to suit the customer. This development is a first for the art business, and the industry has not picked up on the fact more art would be sold if you allowed people to order the size they want. We are completely missing a huge opportunity to fill the needs of buyers in ways never before possible, and it is easy.

Show me any other art form that artificially limits how many will be sold. You would laugh at recording artist who limited sales to 1,000 copies of their CD, or filmmakers who only let 10,000 people see a film or a Broadway play that closed in two weeks when the demand for tickets was still high. Artists do this to themselves when they artificially limit the number of pieces of their work.

What if Maxfield Parrish only sold 1,000 copies of Daybreak?

Other than blindly sticking to hidebound tradition and being fearful of not being capable of getting good prices for open editions, is there any viable reason for dealers and artists not to favor open editions? What if Maxfield Parrish or Ansel Adams had put all their works into only limited editions? Can you even imagine what a loss to mass culture and art appreciation that would have been?

I can understand an artist creating a limited edition of a print that is also open with the difference being the piece was hand worked by the artist after the printing. In such a case, the artist would probably not want to make more than a 100 or so prints that way. Making a small limited edition this way makes sense and is worthy of the effort. And, can be done without sacrificing the ability to sell open editions of the same image.

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Now let’s talk about A/Ps (Artists’ Proofs) for digital prints. What the heck is that about? A way to jack up the price on a more limited edition of the same print? If limiting giclee is a gimmick, then A/Ps take the notion to another level. It flies in the face of the original idea which was that the first prints off the press, which traditionally are Artist Proofs, would be the crispest with the greatest fidelity before the plates wore down, and thus more valuable. Explain how that works with digital prints.

Later made digital prints should be better than the first ones

Daniel’s excellent observation about improving and changing images to make them better. I have argued his point before as well. That is, digital printmaking is an evolving art form. It is most likely that by the time an artist makes the same print in the thousands, or for years to come that the process to make them will be better. Improved printers, substrates, dyes, inks and software help printmakers to continue to turn out better reproductions than the first in the batch. Not to mention the improved skills of the printmaker, too.

This evolving situation turns the whole notion of A/Ps upside down when later prints stand a greater chance of being better than the first. We are living in different times. Consumer tastes are changing; we need to keep up with or be in front of their desires. I don’t see how limited edition digital fine art reproductions fit into the equation when the demand is for authenticity and transparency with a potential backlash against anything that doesn’t meet those standards.

Limited editions limit the income of the entire pipeline

Why should artists, dealers, galleries and printers be forced to shut off their revenue stream when a print with viral potential gets shelved because we are beholden to an old form of marketing that doesn’t make sense for anyone?

I believe a well-made compelling, excellent image can be sold as an open edition at a fair price that approximates what the price of a limited edition would be. Anyone who doesn’t believe this is possible is not selling on the value of the artist and the work, but is instead selling on some perceived notion of exclusivity and implied potential future value. Any truly good art salesperson should be able to easily transition to selling this way with no real loss of volume or income.

Things are different now, and they are not going back – Time to get with it

It seems to me if those who continue to rely on these outdated tactics are going to have an increasingly difficult time in the future. It was not that long ago that many people in the industry thought giclees and digital prints were the worst things that happened to the business. It turns out print-on-demand was one of the best things in the past 100 years for the business. It’s time now to move, so the marketing of this incredible technology catches up with the benefits the technical development have brought us.

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  1. Barney: You’re right on with this. As a giclée printing studio, i started doing LEs for my own photo art and promoted doing LEs to the artists for whom I do their prints until one of the artists told me he wasn’t going to limit editions anymore. He felt that no one really cared and it was too much trouble to keep track of. I thought that made sense so I have done likewise.

    Limited editions make sense in traditional printmaking, etching, serigraphs, etc., but not in the digital realm. And you’re also right to question A/Ps. In my view though, a true A/P is simply a print that wasn’t quite right so the image was tweaked and then the final version was produced. It is an “almost made it” version that has no greater value than the final prints, in fact it probably has less. When I make print editions for artists if I end up with what I consider to be a sellable “A/Ps” I charge them for it but I charge at 1/2 the final print price. It’s up to the artist to decide on how to offer this print for sale, if at all.

    This was a good article. Thanks for writing it.

  2. As a traditional printmaker, I always found the idea of *limited edition* prints kinda silly. Like you mentioned, it is odd to put an arbitrary cap on the number of digital images you print.

    I thought that the entire point of giclees was to be able to sell a bunch of copies of one image for a fraction of the cost of the original. Limiting the number of prints made seems like business self-sabotage.

  3. When my parents took me to the Tour D’Argent in Paris, I had duck…because that is what you order when you eat at the Tour D’Argent in Paris (I was told)…My duck came in two different courses, one white, one dark…But most memorably it came with a little folding card which when opened said: “this is duck number 1234567 served at the Tour D’Argent”…It did not say this is duck 1234567/5,000,000…It was very special & memorable for me to know that they were counting ducks…But it was also nice to know that other people after me could also get to eat a duck one day…I like the idea of numbering things, merely for the prettiness of the idea…But yes, limiting them seems mean…The Count on Sesame Street loved to number things-but wouldn’t he be appalled if he had to stop at some pre-ordained number?

  4. My feeling is that it could actually work as a disincentive to buyers if sequential numbering is used.

    How would you feel if you were an collector of “rare” prints and found the next available print number was 36,603 ?

    Or how would you feel if you bought a print from an unknown artist and were one of the few to spot the talent when you bought.. and then believe it is worth “a lot of money” when the image goes global but you then find that the artist has sold another ten thousand prints of this work and your famous print is not really worth that much more than you paid for it.

    As I see it paintings have high value because amongst other things each image is individual or at most might have a few versions.. and for me the same logic applies to prints.

    The comparison with music is not very valid.. a musician creates few “hits” but sells them by the millions around the world. An artist could create thousands of works in their lifetime.. most of which are signed and would eagerly be sought by collectors if the artist becomes famous.

    There is always a relationship between price and availability. Its perfectly valid to sell 1,000,000 signed prints at $50 each (if you want to provide art to the masses and if your writing hand holds out).. personally I’d rather sell fewer and make more per item.

    The only sector I see really benefiting from this is the mass market art you see in certain high street galleries. An edition of one hundred for them maybe puts one print in 100 hundred galleries, so if they have larger editions they have more good product to sell.

    If people are really clamouring for your work they will buy other works..

  5. There are some wonderful comments here. I appreciate the time and effort from everyone who contributed. The practice of using limited editions in giclees won’t easily be abandoned by those who feel they need them to prosper. That’s okay. I could probably never convince them to change anyway. And, there is always room for different opinions and approaches. Gary Kerr’s email to me offering his perspective is a perfect example. It is published in a succeeding post in this series on limited edition giclees.

    Andy, I do not follow your logic. I would expect any “rare print” collector to be a savvy buyer. The sort who would never buy a print from a large run. Etchings and other elite prints serve that market.

    So far, as near as I can tell, the secondary market for limited edition giclee prints is pretty soft, but then so is the most of the rest, if not all, of the secondary market. We will have to ride out the current low economic conditions before we will know if low numbered giclee editions will have true aftermarket value.

    Despite a large number, I do perceive instances when a “rare print” buyer would seek certain low numbers of a print even though it was reproduced thousands of times. This would be like first edition books. The binding, pages, paper and content are identical, except the front matter mentions it is a first edition, thus qualifying it as rare. We are talking collector mentality here, which viewed in certain ways, does not make sense.

    You say, “personally I’d rather sell fewer and make more per item.” I believe high quality giclees sold in open edition can command near the same price as a limited edition. It is a matter of marketing the artist and the work instead of some implied aftermarket value induced by a limited availability of an image. I believe most art buyers buy work because it moves them, not because they think it will double in value in 10 years. I further believe few “rare print” collectors dabble much, if at all, in the giclee market.

    Fortunately, the art market is under a big tent. That means artists, galleries and publishers can choose to go limited or open and have success either way. If you have compelling images and employ smart effective marketing, you are going to do well regardless of where you stand on this debate.

  6. Interesting article and comments.
    But in my opinion you are arguing like an investor on the stock-markets who feels that there is a bubble, who knows he is right, who warns everyone year after year that there is a problem but is proving wrong by a bullish market… Until he is right.

    My point is that what you are saying makes sense, yes a digital / giclee print is just a copy and the quality is the same limited or not. Of course LE prints are nothing but marketing to make the purchased piece of paper more exclusive, and so what? To some extent the art market is about vanity and exclusivity right? So I agree it is not completely rational to buy a LE print at a higher price than an open edition one but as Gary Kerr emphasized : that’s the way it works!

    I agree too that there is a lot of hypocrisy in the art market, because if you sell out a LE of let say 200 of a specific work, it is easy to print another “Limited” Edition of 500 this time but a bit bigger / smaller or using a different quality of paper or whatever. Ok it is hypocritical but again it works like this.

    The market (meaning the galleries and some clients, not all of them, some don’t care I agree) wants Limited Editions, and you cannot be right against a market, and I doubt you can make it evolve all by yourself… For someone claiming to advise emerging and mid-career artist I find you a bit candid here… 😉

    Maybe you are right, perhaps the market will move toward open editions in the years to come, but as for right now it is not particularly shifting in that direction. On the contrary if I judge by the success of Jen Bekman’s project 20×200 (http://www.20×
    I would be curious to know what you think about it actually? I guess it is the climax of nonsense to you? 😉

  7. Thanks for articulating this aspect of the print issue. It is logical and comes at a time when I am considering the path I want to take with prints. The gallery where I show has reported that there have been a number of people who have shown interest in prints of my work. At no time has anyone indicated that limited edition prints are even thought of. I find what you present to be intelligent and more to the point of what I want to accomplish.

  8. Thanks Barney,

    I am glad I read this. I was in the process of deciding about an open edition versus a limited edition.

    Now, I realize that the open edition can still be signed
    and numbered but there does not have to have a stopping point.

    I have been stuck in the mud for years after finding out someone took a photo of my original art design years ago and produced a multitude of prints, then sold them all over the country at trade shows.

    The printing company was from overseas and the print reproduction it has been hard to trace. I think the perpetrators sold out.

    I stopped selling any originals and 10 years later decided on giclees.People love my art so I really could be selling more reproductions and making more money.

    I really appreciate the valuable information you have shared.

    Thank You, Vanessa

  9. All through this post and similar posts and in the comments the term print is frequently used as if it was a single type of thing. It isn’t. Most of the time what you are talking about is a reproduction – a copy of work produced in another medium.

    While I don’t like the use of the word print to describe reproductions, I accept that in common parlance that is what happens. However I expect artists to adhere to higher standards. All reproductions may be prints but not all prints are reproductions and using the term print or even worse art print without qualification to mean a reproduction, unless the meaning is crystal clear from the context, is damaging to everyone involved by creating confusion and uncertainty in the minds of buyers.

    I know that reference has been made to ‘traditional’ print media like engraving, linocut etc, but there are a significant number of artists, including me, who work in new media who also see themselves as printmakers. These prints are usually produced using the same technology as the reproductions, so again talking of giclee prints as if that alone was enough is misleading. My giclee prints are not reproductions of work in another medium. They have no physical existence except as a print.

    As it happens, with a few exceptions where galleries have insisted, all my digital prints are sold as open editions, largely for the same reasons you set out in this blog.

  10. I did say that print on its own is meaningless, so I agree with you. I would like artists as a group to be be more rigorous in use of terms, so that we recognise differences in usage when they occur, but I’m not optimistic, even as I make the call!

    The marketing use of terms like print, limited edition, etc ranges from confused, through confusing to downright misleading. I’ve seen for example monoprints offered for sale in editions of 150! You really had to dig deeply into the site to find out what was really being offered.

    In practical terms many ‘digital prints’ are mixed media in the manner of production, but not in their output. Digital print has its faults, but I think best encompasses that particular process of printmaking. Some printmakers disagree I know, and see no resonances between digital printmaking and the more traditional forms. I obviously disagree, especially since in my work the image moves between media in the production process – in both directions. A pastel drawing may end up as part of a digital print but equally a digital image may be used to create a stencil for a screen print or a solar etching.

    Despite all this I’m not fully convinced by ‘convergent media’. It seems to be used largely as a term for the bringing together of broadcast and online programming and as a term for an art form it seems too obscure. I’m equally unhappy though with ‘new media’ (when does it stop being new?) or ‘digital print’ – and I HATE giclee!. I think at the time that Graham Nash was experimenting with the old IRIS printers, he coined the term ‘digigraph’, based on ‘serigraph’ used by early screen print artists to differentiate their work from graphics. I could live with ‘digigraph’, but I suspect the moment has passed.

    In the end, despite the problems I will probably stick with digital print. For me it says what it is and how it is made and places the work alongside all the other print forms. I will probably still stick with open editions though.

  11. Can you have a limited edition print of a painting in one size and have an open edition print of that same painting in another size? Or…would it be best to just paint another similiar painting for open edition prints?

    1. Sure, you can do it that way. It happens all the time. The key is consistency and transparency. I think publishing multiple size limited editions is confusing. But, multi-size open editions are no problem.

  12. I have just discovered this post and have found it really interesting and useful. A fair bit of my work is created digitally using photoshop as the main tool for composing the finished piece of art (the work also incorporates scanned elements, textures and effects that are created by hand, specifically created for inclusion in the final digital piece, which then undergo recolouring, manipulation and effects). I’m not sure that I would describe these works just as “digital prints” but more “original digital art” (they are original works that do not exist as a physical piece) but I’m not sure that this term sounds correct either? Either way I try to give buyers an honest description of how the work is created, so that they can buy my work knowing it is not a reproduction of an original. I was recently thinking of doing a limited edition run of a new digital piece but having read this I think I am sold on keeping them open. I do like the idea of sequentially numbering as well and this brings me to the question – how best to do it? Does anyone know of a “preferred way” of adding or writing the open edition number on their print? Is there an emerging protocol for this as there is for limited editions in the bottom left for example (ie. 50/100)?

    1. Thanks for your comment. So far as I know, there is no protocol for numbering open editions. I have suggested 1/oe where oe= open edition, or 1/unl where unl= unlimited. I think whatever you use should be published on your website and consistent with everything you do.

      What you describe in making your art is consistent with a term I coined “convergent media”. Here is a link to some posts I have published on the subject:

  13. Barney thank you so much for all of this. Why is it that its considered not good to not sell my originals, I liked the printing idea because the work I do with pen and ink could never equally compensate me, I’m considered a “hoarder”, what is wrong with me keeping my originals?

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