Capturing Fine-Art Success
Four companies prove the profits of fine-art printing.
Sometimes you find your niche right away, and sometimes you have to work toward figuring it out. And then, of course, there’s mastering the relevant techniques involved in that particular niche once you’ve decided upon it.
For print providers, myriad profit-center options are out there: interior décor, package printing, vehicle wraps, dynamic signage, 3D printing, and many others. Each of these has its pros and cons, and a print provider has to evaluate all of the factors in determining whether – and when – to integrate a particular niche into the business.
Could fine-art printing be one such option for your shop?
First consider that creating fine-art prints is, in many ways, an entirely different animal from your more standard jobs. As you’ll see on the pages that follow, a lot goes into reproducing fine artwork: high-end image capture, intensive image editing, precise color matching, and of course the printing. The final output typically needs to replicate the original artwork almost exactly. And that only gets you to the print itself – you might also be asked to provide services that include finishing, stretching and mounting, framing, and perhaps even marketing. In addition, you’re working with artists – who may have too little or too much eye for detail.
But the following four print shops have found success in wide-format print work for fine artists, proving that it can be a successful route to take.
New Era Portfolio: Appealing to the design trade
New Era Portfolio knows its clients, and it knows what they want when it comes to fine-art reproductions.
A 100-employee company, New Era (www.newerahad.com) opened its doors in 2000 in Austin, Texas, and produces fine-art giclée prints, among many other offerings. It has a strong client base in the design trade.
“The shop has always been a fine-art publisher, but we’ve also added photo-upload capabilities for our consumer business, and often have commercial business for our interior designers (such as for signage for restaurants),” says Joie Tamkin, director of marketing and communications. New Era even has a partnership with Condé Nast Trade Collection, a library of classic images and never-before-released archives from Vogue, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and other well-known magazines.
“We partnered with Condé Nast to bring their iconic imagery to the design trade through the website condenasttrade.com. This site allows designers to purchase Condé Nast imagery as wall art on our various materials,” she says. New Era also has a similar partnership with Getty Images and the 500px photography community.
“Our art director and co-founder, Nick Nichols, seeks out artists from all over the world to be part of New Era Portfolio. Sharing our artists’ works with the world exactly as they created it is a top priority for us,” says Tamkin. “Once an artist signs with us, we work very closely with the artist to ensure that their exclusive fine art is produced exactly how they created it.”
New Era’s customers range from interior designers to business owners, to consumers to online and in-store retailers. The company is global, although most of its current sales are in the US. Its corporate-client roster includes the likes of Hilton, Embassy, and Starwood, and, specifically, one suite in the Plaza Hotel in New York City. It sells its prints online exclusively to those in the design trade, offering buyers wholesale prices.
“We work very closely with the artists, often directing them to create new works that fit our client’s needs,” says Tamkin. “Our team of artists will commission paintings to meet client’s needs ensuring that each piece is unique. We’re confident that all of our artists know the latest trends in fine art. Everything from style, to color to composition – we keep them informed on the needs of the marketplace and they create works that meet our clients’ needs.”
At New Era’s 60,000-square-foot facility, the full-service company provides image capture through scanning (via a Cruse scanner) and also accepts digital files, executes prepress/color management, and prints on an array of materials – canvas, acrylic, aluminum, mirror, paper, wall murals, and birchwood. It also offers custom framing and shipping worldwide.
Its roster of wide-format HP printers includes: five HP Scitex LX 850 printers, two HP Scitex TJ8600 TurboJet presses, one HP Scitex FB700 UV printer, and one HP Scitex FB7600 printer.
New Era works with a range of media and substrates including EnCore Extreme White Foam Board, Fine Art Board, and Cork Board, as well as Plaskolite Optic Digital Acrylic, Breathing Color Vibrance Luster Paper, Dreamscape vinyls, and more; output sizes range from 40 to 96 inches. The shop utilizes two Zünd cutters in its finishing efforts.
The customer relationship is clearly important at New Era – they work closely with their buyers so they feel involved and then, in turn, successful.
“We partner with our customers as much as possible,” says Tamkin. “From joint marketing events to promotional e-mails and social media, we want all of our customers and business associates to feel like partners. We want to help everyone be successful.”
Red Wing Framing & Fine Art Printing: It’s in the name
In some cases less is more, like the term “fine-art print.”
“I like that fine-art print doesn’t require any explanation,” says John Becker, co-founder of Red Wing Framing & Fine Art Printing, a company brand that doesn’t leave much to the imagination. “I get razzed from my colleagues about how long our name is, but it says where we are and what we do.”
Red Wing Framing & Fine Art Printing (www.redwingframing.com) was opened in Red Wing, Minnesota, in 2002, Red Wing Digital (www.redwingdigital.com), a Web-based, fine-art, print-on-demand business, was added in 2011, and Rochester Framing & Fine Art Printing (www.rochesterframing.com) then opened in Rochester, Minnesota, in 2014.
“We began fine-art printing the very same day we started custom framing in 2002. We knew we wanted to be a full-service, visual-based business, so we invested early in both custom framing and printing capabilities,” says Becker. In fact, Red Wing Framing & Fine Art Printing is now one of only four Certified Picture Framing (CPF) organizations in Minnesota, as accredited by the Professional Picture Framers Association (PPFA).
Becker describes Red Wing as a one-stop shop. His team of eight capture, edit, print, mount, and frame the image, and also provide packaging and shipping. “The only process we outsource is any kind of specialized scanning,” he says.
Red Wing has three different types of customers: the custom-framing customer, the fine-art artist, and the “passionate” photographer. “Sometimes the fine-art artists and the photographers also become framing customers as well,” he says. “Fine-art reproduction is a ‘hands-on’ process, so most of the traditional fine-art customers come from within a 200-mile radius. But, sometimes, artists can come from much farther, and then we simply make allowances for their availability and schedules.”
Becker also says fine-art photographers are much more “digital in nature,” so Red Wing can service them from anywhere, which led to the addition of redwingdigital.com.
But no matter where they are, Red Wing prefers to work closely with the customer. “Sometimes an artist will want a particular emphasis within the artwork, and it helps to know what they’re looking for first,” Becker says. “The system is otherwise very straightforward and iterative.”
Becker describes it as a two-step process at his shop: A digital file of the original art is created and then goes through a standard color-correction process. Two different proofs are then printed and Red Wing invites the artist to help edit the files one more time if necessary.
“At that point, the file is ‘frozen’ and available for production on a ‘print on demand’ basis,” Becker says. The final print media can vary depending on the artist’s intent. Fabrics, watercolor paper, canvas, and acrylic prints are the most common choices for the final print media, he reports.
“With any customer, whether it’s an artist or a museum, the important part is setting proper expectations. Expectations must include production time, print results, and costs. I try to identify any color-gamut issues early, based on professional experience and observation, especially with acrylic or oil originals. I make it very clear to my artist customers that there can only be one original piece of art and there might be some color-gamut issues.”
For output, Red Wing uses its two HP Designjet Z6100 printers and two Designjet Z6200 printers; image capture is achieved with its Epson Expression large-format scanners; and finishing tools include the shop’s D&K roll laminators and VacuSeal vacuum mounting presses. The shop produces prints ranging in size from 16 x 24 to 60 x 90 inches.
“We are on our fourth generation of printing equipment. We build our own media profiles and maintain a strict, closed-looped color-calibrated environment. More importantly, we have developed a series of unique print products – The Panel Print and The Acrylic Print – which has helped create some competitive separation. Our recent big investment has been another computerized mat cutter,” Becker says. “We now have a Valiani and a Gunnar computerized mat cutter, which are pretty busy machines.”
“It’s very important for us that our customers are successful,” says Becker. “We always refer our artists to other clients when it’s appropriate. And we of course do everything we can to make it easy and seamless for our customers to sell their art.” Red Wing showcases its artists on its various websites as well as social-media outlets.
“Fine-art printing is a relationship business. You can only earn the trust of the artist over time. Once that trust is earned and the relationship grows, business will grow. It isn't any different than any other business – if you take care of your customers, they’ll take care of you.”
Sacred Earth Gallery: Turn to digital
Edward C. Robison III has been in the photography business for 15 years, but he’s only had a brick-and-mortar location for the last six: Sacred Earth Gallery (www.edwardcrobisoniii.com) in Eureka Springs, Arizona, where he offers photography, printing, color matching, mounting, and varnishing on canvas.
“Initially, I was printing my fine-art landscape images in a darkroom on Cibachrome paper. But I didn’t like the look of the high-gloss Cibachrome prints, and I began looking at alternative printing processes,” says Robison. “At that time, no one was printing photographs on canvas or any alternative papers, and inkjet printing was just beginning to look good (in my opinion), so I switched from the darkroom to digital printing, and I haven't looked back. The canvas prints were a huge success.”
At the same time, Robison was also contracted by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of American Art in Kansas City, Missouri, to help photograph its art collection. “Not long after I began shooting art for the Nelson-Atkins, they received a large grant from the Getty museum to convert their studio to digital, and implement inkjet printers into their proofing workflow,” he says. This further spurred Robison’s interest in inkjet.
Robison runs Sacred Earth by himself, occasionally contracting assistants when he needs extra help. “Since I photograph the artist’s work and print it, I have a high level of control over the finished print. I typically photograph the artwork in my studio, match the art to my calibrated monitor under color-balanced lighting, and then print a small color proof,” he says. “At that point I match the proof as closely as I possibly can to the original artwork, usually acquiring an almost exact match after two to three proof prints. Then I let the artist give me feedback for any final adjustments.”
The majority of the artists Robison prints for are local – from watercolor landscape artists to contemporary stylized portrait artists, in addition to printing his own fine-art images. One of his clients is the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. “Most of my printing for the museum comprises just proof prints, which they will use for color proofing when images get printed in a book, and so on.”
Robison says his biggest challenge in dealing with clients is when they don’t have an eye for detail or color. “Because art reproduction is not the bulk of my business, I can pick and choose my clients more. I try to work with artists who appreciate the level of detail and color matching I try to achieve for them, and who are willing to pay a bit more for that extra level of perfection.”
That perfection is achieved with an array of tools including: a Canon 6D camera with a Mirex tilt-shift Mamiya 645 to Canon EOS adapter combined with a Mamiya 645 80mm Flat Field lens is used for Robison’s image capture. “I capture three side-by-side images using the shift feature to capture an approximately 50- to 60-megapixel image,” he says. “Once the image is captured, I edit and proof in Photoshop on a NEC MultiSync P221W calibrated monitor. This monitor is an IPS display with a large color gamut to show me almost the entire range of colors in the Adobe RGB gamut.”
Final output is on Robison’s Epson Stylus Pro 11880 64-inch inkjet printer. He uses a range of media at Sacred Earth, including: Epson Enhanced Matte paper for proofing; Epson Signature Worthy Cold Press and Hot Press Natural Paper; Epson Signature Worthy Matte paper; IJ Technologies Matte Canvas (both coated with Lexjet's Sunset Gloss varnish); Photo-tex for wall murals and adhesive graphics; Lexjet Satin Cloth for scrolls and wall hangings; and Epson Premium Luster 260 paper for photographic prints.
For his fine-art work, Robison steers away from using the terms ‘giclée’ or ‘pigment print.’ Instead, he prefers “Ultrachrome Prints.” “I think the word ‘inkjet’ cheapens the product and makes the average consumer think they can print that quality at home, and the word giclée is mostly associated with inkjet prints on canvas only,” Robison says. “Ultrachrome describes the type of ink used, and I think it’s similar terminology to darkroom printing – fiber-based, chromagenic, Cibachrome.”
Gallery Street: Mastering giclée
Marc Leftoff comes from a wide-format printing industry background. In 1994, he ran a company producing tradeshow graphics and signs. “But Gallery Street (gallerystreet.com) was founded and created for the art market exclusively,” says the president/owner. “We went after artists originally when the pigment inkset entered the market and knew there was a high demand for this. Artists have always been our target market.”
The 13-year-old business based in Roswell, Georgia, focuses on digital capture, color management, giclée printing, liquid varnish, and canvas stretching. “We produce giclée prints and call them giclées,” says Leftoff. “But if a piece was shot by us, color managed by us, and printed and varnished by us, it gets the name Masterpiece Giclée which we have trademarked. It just means it’s as good as it gets in color, sharpness, density, accuracy, and longevity.”
For digital capture, Gallery Street uses its Epson Expression tabloid flatbed scanners as well as a scan-back camera with a Cambo large-format body and Rodenstock Lenses. “We have an incredible digital-capture system: the BetterLight Super 8K 4x5 scan back camera/scanner that produces files of such extreme resolution that we have been known to scan things like granite, wood, and fabrics for the textile industry,” says Leftoff. The shop also prints regularly for photographers and digital artists who provide their own digital files.
Gallery Street builds its ICC profiles in-house on a regular basis. “We have to make sure every printer/media combination is constantly calibrated and profiled at all times,” he says. “Media lots and ink lots change from each batch, and those subtle differences require meticulous scanning with spectrophotometers to pick up on variances that may affect final output color.”
The shop only prints using aqueous-based pigment inks and offers canvas and fine-art papers that are 100-percent cotton rag with smooth, textured, and velvet finishes, says Leftoff. The printers used at Gallery Street are a Canon ImageProGraf iPF9400, iPF8400, and iPF8300, as well as an Epson Stylus Pro 9890 and a Roland FJ600.
Liquid varnish coating is done by hand, not via machine, and canvas stretching is done using wooden bars sourced only from “properly managed forests,” says Leftoff. “We offer standard depth stretcher bars as well as deep gallery wrap bars for ‘ready to hang’ prints.”
Gallery Street, made up of five employees, prints for high-end artists who are gallery owners or have artwork sold in galleries all over the US on a daily basis. “We have built an amazing online ordering system that allows for easy file upload and repeat ordering,” says Leftoff. “Our goal is to make it very easy for a client to order what they need with online accurate quotes, instant order confirmation, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Gallery Street also produces giclée prints for independent artists, both professional and amateur, as well as works with schools and organizations that “might need basic art reproduction for kid’s art, archives, and even ancient documents or relics,” he says.
“We work directly with our artists and always strive to reproduce their work with the most accurate color reproduction possible. As the printers and inks get better, so do we. There shouldn’t be a question of whether or not a giclée matches the artist’s original artwork, so we take pride in the fact that our clients are very happy with our color reproduction,” he says. “Once we match a client’s original color, we lock it in. As long as our printers are calibrated and profiled properly, we can assure our clients they will always get consistent color and quality.”
Leftoff says it’s not that difficult in getting artists to be involved in his shop. “Artists talk to each other and when one finds an excellent resource for getting incredible giclée prints produced, they share that info with each other,” he says. “Once we get a client, we keep them. Once they see how good we are, they don’t go anywhere else.”
It’s the working with the artist as a client that is a challenge in itself, but it’s a challenge Gallery Street understands and deals with because if they don’t, they’ve lost their business.
“Think about it: They’re artists – they know their work better then anyone else out there. They’re more critical of their work than anyone else on the planet,” Leftoff says. “We push our machines and this technology to the limit to get every bit of color and quality perfection juiced out of our workflow. If we fail at any single step of the process we will know immediately when we present the final work to the client.”
He explains the feeling of returning an oil painting back to an artist along with a fine-art giclée of that piece on canvas, waiting for the artist’s judgment. “The artists are programmed to be critical, and we are ready for it. We’re that confident and that good. We have to be – otherwise an artist will not come back to you for future work. Without a doubt, that’s the most challenging aspect of dealing with the fine-art market.”
Gallery Street even gets clients from its competitors. “There are not a lot of shops who are still in this business. It’s very challenging,” Leftoff continues. “A decade ago, many thought they could get into producing giclées for artists, but they started dropping like flies. It’s hard work keeping these artists satisfied. Many of those competitors threw in the towel and got into a different line of printing, or completely out of the business all together. There are very few dedicated giclée houses out there that are confident enough and good enough to exist in this business. But a few still remain and we often hear, ‘Why didn’t I come to Gallery Street in the first place?’ We love hearing that.”