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I Think Printmakers Have Whinged Enough

Behemoth and Leviathan

“Behemoth and Leviathan,” a print by William Blake

What’s a Gallinero? And why would you want to stay there?

Printmakers Like Rabbits Stunned in Headlight Beams

At left, “Behemoth and Leviathan” by William Blake–Fine-art printmakers today are facing challenges of sea-change magnitude. The very existence of printmaking as we know it is at stake. The issue, of course, is digital and we should have seen it coming. In fact, many of us did but remained inert, like rabbits stunned in headlight beams. “Digital” has been everybody’s issue since the electronic scientific calculator replaced the slide rule in the mid 1970s. Computers changed everything. They brought us an ever-growing set of delightful mod cons but along the way they took a terrible toll on printmaking, threatening print artists’ livelihoods forever.

Thanks to digital innovations artists who have always made their livings creating and selling hand-pulled prints must now compete with images created in inexpensive unlimited series using digital copying technology. The operative word here is “copy,” though funnily enough it almost never appears in the sales pitches. There the digital copiers prefer to refer to their ware coyly as “giclee prints.” The term “giclee” is a recent invention, essentially meaningless hype when applied to fine art, but to the uninitiated it sounds chic in the way “call girl” does when referring to whores.

Complaining Will Take Us Nowhere

I won’t bore you with protests, laments or other comments on the phenomenon, with which we’re all familiar, at the hands of which we’ve all suffered, and about which we’ve all complained endlessly and pointlessly. The question I want to pose here is: What can we do when we’ve exhausted the possibilities of whinging? Because I think we all agree that something has to be done. It’s an obvious concession to make when the alternative is starving to death. That “something,” I suggest, is to steal a march on the digital copyists, go up market and be much cleverer at marketing traditional prints. Not that this is an original observation, as Canadian screen printer/marketing guru, Andy MacDougall, has been going on about it quite convincingly for many years.

It seems to me that by lowering print prices in order to make their work more competitive, most printmakers have actually fallen into the trap laid by the digital interlopers. You have cheapened your prints—and the art-loving public’s perception of your work—in a downward spiral with no possibility of winning and a road of extremely difficult return. Just consider whom you‘re competing against: authentic industrial behemoths like HP and Epson, who make millions (billions?) selling wide-format inkjet printers, inks and papers, and now permit themselves the luxury of sponsoring fine-art print fairs and festivals. What is a lone printmaker pulling prints on a humble etching press supposed to do in the face of a company with 225,000 employees worldwide, capable of flying 50 art-world opinion makers to Barcelona for a three-day presentation of their latest-model printers, then flying them all on to another sumptuous hotel to visit Les Rencontres d’Arles, the celebrated annual international photography festival in that seductive Provençal town?


Powerless Printmakers vs. All-Powerful Multinationals

Is it presumptuous even to suggest that a printmaker and her etching press can go into battle against the giant digital multinationals? Maybe it is, but that’s precisely what I’m going to suggest, because printmakers have a lot going for them if they would only marshal their forces. To begin with their products are superior to those of the digital competition on all counts:

  • They’re authentically hand made. Practically nothing is literally hand made any more, and if it is people pay a premium price for it.
  • Hand-pulled prints form part of a living 500-year tradition. The etching press—a rigid flat bed passing between two heavy rollers—has not changed in essence since the times of Albrecht Dürer. The weight of tradition in a hand-pulled print is analogous to that of an authentic, hand-crafted samurai sword or a real Persian carpet. There is no industrial substitute. People who buy all of these works of art are aware of that fact and gladly pay more—a lot more—for them.
  • In its noblest forms—the intaglio media of etching, engraving, aquatint and mezzotint—the limited edition is inherent in the technique. A copper or zinc plate will only yield a limited number of perfect prints before it deteriorates. This is, in fact, the origin of the limited edition.
  • Hand-pulled prints are longer lasting. Etching ink is more resistant to UV rays than printer inks so its longevity is superior.
  • True fine-art prints are personalized. You can meet the printmaker, shake his hand, have a chat with him or her personally. This is a powerful incentive for many art collectors who would never consider including a digital copy in their collections.

Does this multi-faceted superiority justify placing true fine-art prints, hand pulled by their authors, in a category apart? I am convinced it does, and it does so emphatically. From this brief analysis I think there are some obvious conclusions to be drawn:

  • Authentic fine-art prints are luxury items destined for a limited market of knowledgeable collectors who are willing to pay accordingly. (I realize this is in direct opposition to the traditional view that prints are the “democratic” medium, but these new realities have changed everything.)
  • Printmakers would do well to distance themselves from all sectors of the art market where they are obliged to compete in unequal conditions against inferior digital reproductions which—insofar as the process of reproduction is based on photographs of artwork—are just high-resolution photocopies.
  • All authentic printmakers should conscientiously devote part of their work time to educating their clients and potential clients regarding the differences between hand-pulled and so-called “giclee prints.” In order for traditional printmaking to survive with its head held high a significant number of print buyers must be educated and upgraded to the level of print connoisseurs. There is, I think, no other way forward. This education campaign should include personal contacts, articles, certificates of authenticity, websites, blogs, videos and every other imaginable medium.

Victor Karsh as Inspiration

When the renowned Canadian portrait artist, Victor Karsh, acquired so many clients, including heads of state and eminences in many fields, that he couldn’t properly attend them all, he devised a simple solution. He doubled his prices. The result was that even more portrait clients decided they needed the services of Victor Karsh. Perhaps professional printmakers should be thinking, both individually and collectively, along similar lines.

P.S. Published originally by Mike Booth on Print Universe. Comments, suggestions, and initiatives will be heartily welcomed.

Note: This essay was inspired by reading Malcom Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.

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