Giclee Printing and Pricing for Artist Limited Editions


The giclee-- also known as an inkjet or digital print-- offers artists boatloads of new ways to make and sell art at reasonable prices, but seeing as digital printing hasn't been around all that long, the evolution of the medium is still in progress, and the market for giclee limited edition prints and other forms of digital art is still relatively disorganized. In addition, digital prints are not all that well understood by your average everyday art buyer, so in the interest of clarity, perhaps a few guidelines and ground rules are in order.

Even though the terms giclee, digital print, and inkjet print all mean the same thing and can be used interchangeably (and will be in this article), artists, publishers and galleries currently represent digital art in so many different ways that unless you know your terminology, printing processes and what questions to ask, figuring out what you're looking at can often be confusing. And when potential buyers get confused, especially if whatever they're looking at is priced more expensively than less, they tend not to buy. Or when they do buy and what they get turns out to be something other than what they thought it was or worse yet, what it was represented as-- that can be problematic as well. So being clear and direct about what you're selling and how it's priced is an important part of making the digital print selling process work.

Digital, inkjet or giclee prints can be divided into five basic categories:

(1) Images conceived and created entirely on a computer that exist only as digital files until they're printed out. These are generally referred to as original digital works of art.

(2) Photographs that are taken with a camera and printed out directly from the original digital files or original negatives. These are generally referred to as original digital photographs.

(3) Images of existing works of art like paintings, photographs, watercolors, screen prints, etc. that are either photographed or scanned or uploaded into a computer, and then printed out to look exactly the same as the originals. These are generally referred to as digital reproductions or copies of original works of art.

(4) Digital photographs or images that are uploaded or scanned into a computer and then manipulated, enhanced, reworked or otherwise altered by digital processes (using programs like Photoshop, for example) BEFORE they're printed out. These can sometimes be more like reproductions and sometimes more like original digital works of art, depending on the extent and degree of the manipulation.

(5) Giclee or digital images of any kind that are enhanced, reworked, or altered AFTER they're printed out-- like hand-embellished with paint, watercolor, collage or some other medium. These can sometimes be more like reproductions and sometimes more like original mixed-media works of art, depending on the extent and degree of the manipulation.

Digital art of all types is rapidly increasing in popularity, regardless of whether the finished products are reproductions, originals, or some combination of the two. Whatever you want to make is fine because as with all art, there are no rules governing what artists can or cannot make. However, artists, galleries and others who offer digital works of art do have a responsibility to accurately describe and represent what they're offering... and that's when things can sometimes get a little sticky.

Most giclee prints are reproductions or copies of pre-existing works of art in other mediums (like paintings, watercolors or drawings) that are either photographed or scanned into computers and then printed out to look exactly the same as the originals. If you decide to produce digital copies of your art, remember that no matter what you call them, they are NOT original works of art. They are digital COPIES or REPRODUCTIONS of original works of art and should always be represented as such. Even signing, numbering or limiting them does not change this fact. Signing an inkjet reproduction is no different than signing an invitation to one of your openings-- it's your signature on a copy of something that was printed by mechanical means; you had nothing to do with creating that copy other than printing it out from a digital file (or having a company print it out for you).

Having said that, producing giclee limited edition reproduction prints is a great way for artists to make images of their art more widely available at lower prices, and increase their collector bases by offering affordable alternatives to more expensive originals. If someone loves a particular image, and the only way they can own it is by buying it in the form of a signed limited inkject print, that's absolutely OK. You can also sell your images as unsigned unlimited editions at even lower prices if you want to make them more affordable yet.

Artists can sign or limit digital images of their art in a variety of ways in order to market them at different price points. Options include signing, numbering, dating, adding small original drawings in the margins, highlighting them with brush strokes of acrylic or watercolor, or whatever else you want to do to personalize or individualize your digital images, make them more attractive to buyers, as well as allow you to price them higher than those without any of these extras. The options or variations you offer and how much you decide to charge for them are entirely up to you.

Now for some guidelines. If you're printing limited editions, set edition sizes in advance, make them public and NEVER change them because people who buy limited edition prints often buy, at least in part, based on the size and exclusivity of the edition. In other words, if you state up front that a print is being published in an edition of ten, keep it that way no matter how much people love it, how fast it sells out or how many people beg you to make one for them. If you sell out a limited edition print and then decide to print more because it sold so well, you can be pretty sure the people who bought the first printing will never buy from you again (nor will their friends). Why? Because they believed they were buying an image with a set edition size and that they were among the few who were lucky enough to own one. If that turns out not to be true because you change the rules, you violate their trust. It's that simple and no more complicated.

Always be true to your collector base; don't ever say one thing and then do another no matter how profitable it may be for you in the short term, because you'll only be hurting yourself and your reputation in the long term. And don't fudge around when somebody asks you about an edition size just to leave all your options open. As the great infomercial star Ron Popiel once said, "Set it and forget it." You don't have to print the entire run at once; one of the great advantages of giclee printing is that you only have to print as many prints as people order, thereby saving ink, paper and storage costs. But once you come to the end of the edition, that's it. No more.

In case you're not aware of it, selling out an edition is always good for your career and reputation as an artist. To begin with, it shows people your work is in demand. It's also an incentive for people to buy faster the next time you release a print rather than risk missing the opportunity if it sells out again. The best part about sold-out editions is that they can sometimes increase in value and sell for more than the original issue prices on resale markets, especially if the artist becomes increasingly well-known and sought after by collectors. When that happens, the artist has a great reason for increasing their overall selling prices as a result.

With signed limited editions, provide documentation with every print you sell. This is an excellent way to make buyers feel confident about what they're buying. Include a detailed original invoice or certificate of authenticity with each image-- not a photocopy-- with the print's title, paper type, printer type, ink type, date printed, edition size, or other particulars. Then personally sign and date it. Not only do buyers appreciate the extras, but good documentation also tends to increase a work of art's value over time (even an inkjet reproduction or copy of a work of art). Given the choice between two identical works of art, one with documentation and one without, knowledgeable buyers will choose the one with documentation over the one without approximately 100% of the time.

If the edition is some combination of digital and original work (like hand-embellished with paint, for example), briefly describe the medium and/or production techniques. The ratio of digital to original content in your art is up to you; everything is OK as long as you're up front about it. The important thing is that you document that ratio with some degree of accuracy so that anyone interested in buying, showing or representing your work has an accurate idea of what they're getting ahead of time. For example, if you add ten brush strokes to a digital reproduction of one of your paintings, you're basically offering a reproduction; if you add hundreds of brush strokes, the giclee becomes progressively more like an original work of art. Whatever you do, make sure prospective buyers understand exactly what they're getting.

Dating digital images, either on the images themselves or on the documentation you provide is something you should think about doing. Since a digital file prints out exactly the same way every time you print it, no matter when you print it, the quickest and simplest way to differentiate one image from the next is by the date it was printed. Even though a print may be one of a larger edition, a date individualizes it, and makes it just a little bit more unique. And buyers like that. In fact, buyers generally like dated art, especially when their dates precede other buyers' dates.

Many artists don't pay enough attention to dating their work, digital or otherwise, but the more art you make and the longer you make it for, the more important dates become-- especially on your early work, especially if you have a long and productive career. Dates come in mighty handy when retrospective time rolls around too. Once again, given the choice between two identical works of art, one that's dated and one that's not, knowledgeable buyers will choose the dated one over the undated one approximately 100% of the time. Keep in mind that you don't necessarily have to date the art on the front if you don't want to, but date it somewhere, either on the art itself or on the documentation you provide with it.

Those of you who create 100% original digital compositions entirely on a computer and then print them out in editions should follow the same basic procedures as artists printing reproductions of works in other mediums. Set edition sizes in advance and never change them once they're set. Include that along with any other relevant details or specifics in your documentation.

No matter what kind of art you make, if it has digital components, never try to obscure or misrepresent that fact (as some galleries and artists are occasionally tempted to do). For example, if you print a digital print and then paint over it in any way, call it "giclee and acrylic," "hand-enhanced giclee print," "hand-embellished inkjet print," "giclee print with hand highlighting," "hand painted digital image," or "inkjet and acrylic." Don't simply call it "mixed-media." Not only does that term confuse buyers, but it's also disingenuous because mixed-media traditionally refers to a work of art that is 100% original and created entirely by hand. Digital art is either in whole or in part created with computers, printers, scanners and/or cameras; no handwork is involved in certain stages of the process. You don't want someone to buy your "mixed media" art believing that you made it entirely by hand, only to find out later that it wasn't.

Artists sometimes think about keeping all of their originals and selling only signed limited digital reproductions. Maybe this is OK if you're as popular as Thomas Kinkade, and you sell thousands of prints of every work of art you create, but when you're just starting out or you make significantly more originals than you sell, be generous. Don't hoard all the originals and sell only copies. Short-sheeting collectors is not a good habit to get into. Make sure your buyers get their money's worth; happy buyers buy more art. Artists who sell more original works of art and become increasingly popular with collectors eventually have more opportunities to produce and sell more giclees and limited editions of their originals.

For those of you who plan on producing lots of inkjet prints, think seriously about buying your own equipment rather than hiring fine art printers to do the job, or perhaps buying equipment together with several other artists. Printer prices have plummeted in recent years to the point where they can pay for themselves in relatively short periods of time if your editions sell well. As equipment becomes more affordable, hiring publishers or fine art printers to print your prints is becoming les and less cost-effective and is gradually becoming a thing of the past (except for specialized high-end fine art printers or print publishing companies known for producing images of exceptional quality). Keep in mind though that if you do decide to you buy your own equipment, you have to learn to use it.

Additional pointers:

► Shop around and compare prices between printing companies before contracting work out. Get references from other artists who use the same publishers to be sure you get good value, good service and quality images for your money.

► Make sure your image files are large enough to produce superior quality prints, and use printers capable of printing in high resolution (high dpi). You don't want dot matrix patterns to be visible on your prints (unless showing dot patterns is an intended characteristic of your art). Color fields should be crisp and clean with no overlap or fuzzy edges, even when you get up close.

► Know the characteristics of your inks. Under what conditions will they fade? Are they water-resistant? Should they be protected with finishes? Should they be displayed only in low light? If you want your art to last, it's important to use the best inks, papers, and protective coatings available.

► Experiment with different papers or other substrates to see what makes your images look best, as well as with different surface textures and finishes. Discussing options with an experienced fine art printer comes in pretty handy here.

► Use pigmented inks only and get information about how long they last. Check what's referred to as their "fade characteristics". Certain inks fade substantially over time.

► Make sure you know what specific printers are being used to print your images, as well as what inks, papers, and dpi (resolution) are being used. See samples of exactly what you're contracting for before you sign any dotted lines, and be sure the quality of those samples meets with your approval.

► Think about offering a little extra to early buyers of newly released editions-- maybe first pick at of images with lower edition numbers, a personal note on their receipts or certificates of authenticity, or other bonuses. Showing consideration to your first few buyers encourages them to buy first again, and might encourage other buyers to get in line quicker next time as well.

► In closing, never be afraid to experiment. The nature of digital art is such that you can print the same file over and over again or you can also make each image unique with relatively minor changes. You might experiment with different options like this when printing your editions. Who knows? You may one day end up pioneering variations and techniques that digital artists will follow for years to come.

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