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The Fine Art of Success

Exploring the potential profits in fine-art printmaking.

For all its popularity, fine-art printing is still met with some trepidation by both artists and print providers alike. Artists typically have questions like, 'Should I print my own images?' and 'If not, what print shop should I choose?' For print shops, the questions echo the worries found in other segments of the large-format world: 'How will I get and keep clients?' and 'Will this be profitable?'

To get a handle on these concerns, we’ll examine the arena of fine-art printing from the perspective of four types of graphics providers: the artist printing his or her own work; the artist outsourcing the printing of images; the small, specialized print shop working exclusively with fine artists; and the bigger, more diversified print shop that has devoted some of its resources to the fine-art niche. Each of these viewpoints can shed some light on not only the technologies and methods used by the various players, but also the underlying issues and market strategies.

Artist as printmaker

As digital technology evolves and the cost of high-quality fine-art printers continues to drop, it's no surprise that more and more artists are printing their own work, rather than turning to a print shop. One such artist is Lee Muslin (www.leemuslin.com), a photographer who has been capturing images for more than 30 years and outputting her work for almost a decade.

While educated in multiple fine-art disciplines, including painting, drawing, and printmaking, the focus of Muslin's career as an artist has been on photography. She went back to school in 1995 to further her education in photography, and that was when she began experimenting with digital imaging. 'With digital imaging, I feel like I’m creating images rather than composing them in a viewfinder,' says Muslin. 'I took to it immediately.' To create her digital images, Muslin works primarily in Photoshop to combine photographs that she has taken. 'I really don't enhance the color too much or manipulate the images,' she explains. 'I also don't use many Photoshop filters, although I’ll blur some photographs for effect. The one plug-in I do use is an edge filter, which allows me to create different kinds of edges on the photographs.'

For the past two years Muslin has been capturing her images with an 8.2-megapixel Canon EOS 20D digital SLR, but before that, she shot with a standard Nikon FM2 and then scanned the film with a Nikon Super CoolScan 4000 film scanner. Since 2000, Muslin has been outputting her images on an Epson Stylus Photo 2000P with archival inks, printing on both Epson matte presentation paper and watercolor paper.

'I've run into very few problems printing my own work,' she says, crediting her education and her experience with digital printers for her success. While Muslin acknowledges that printing her own work can be time consuming, the major benefit for her is the control it provides. 'When I’m doing the printing myself, I’m in control. I don't have to go through a proofing process. If the color isn’t how it should look, I can adjust it right away. I don’t have to go anywhere. If I need something on the spur of the moment, I can make the print myself.'

The 2000P, however, limits Muslin to producing prints no larger than 13 x 19 inches, so in 2005 Muslin relinquished some of this control and began outsourcing the printing of her larger artworks. She turned to Brooklyn Editions (www.brooklyneditions.com), a small nearby shop, to print some of her pieces on canvas. At the time, the shop was using an Epson Stylus Pro 9600 with photographic dye inks, so there were some headaches that occasionally arose with the proofing process. 'Getting the final print to match the proofs I had output on my 2000P would sometimes involve various degrees of color adjustments and multiple proofs printed on canvas,' Muslin explains.

Also, she says, turning to an outside print provider means that the price at which she sells her final print has to be raised to offset the cost of printing-often to a price point that she might not otherwise choose had she output the print herself.

Eager to self-print even more of her work, Muslin recently purchased an Epson Stylus Pro 7800 after moving from New York to a bigger space in Pennsylvania. This machine will allow Muslin to print up to 24 inches wide, but bigger work will still have to be outsourced, a bit to Muslin's regret. 'I would have gotten the 44-inch 9800 if I had room for it-I’d like to be able to print everything myself.' Muslin's media of choice to use with the 7800 is LexJet's Sunset Select Matte Canvas, the same canvas that the print provider at Brooklyn Editions used to produce her artwork.

The photographer's dilemma

For some artists and photographers, the benefits of outsourcing the printing of their artwork still outweigh the benefits of doing it in house. That's the current stance of photographer Chip Simons (www.chipsimons.com). His lifelong interest in photography, his formal education on the subject at the University of New Mexico, and his self-teaching have taken him from working in New York and Paris back to New Mexico, where he currently creates his unique, surreal, and sometimes bizarre imagery. His images, often marked by fish-eye lens use, unusual lighting, and an air of irreverence, include such collections as 'I Am a Dog,' a series of dog portraits; 'Monsters and Things,' a somewhat dark collection of people wearing animal and monster masks; and the bluntly titled 'Pictures for Art Directors Who Think I May Be Too Weird to Hire.'

He credits his unique style in part to a lack of finances when he first got started. 'Retouching on film,' he explains, 'was something that was always super-expensive, so that's why I developed the fish-eye style. My lighting would always add to that look. Then, as digital cameras got better, I used these techniques with digital technology.' Simons started out with the Nikon D70 digital SLR, then moved on to the D2x, and now shoots with the 12.1-megapixel Nikon D3 DSLR and a 14-24 mm lens. 'With the D3,' he says, 'I can shoot almost in the dark and I can get a great photo. I can shoot at really high ISO speeds and get very low amounts of noise and a highly saturated image.' While he shoots primarily digitally, he will occasionally shoot with film, using a Mamiya RZ67 medium-format camera with Fujifilm film, then scanning the film on an Imacon (now Hasselblad) scanner; he then does the necessary tweaks or manipulations in Photoshop.

That’s essentially where Simons' role in creating his images ends. For the printing of his images, he relies on a small print shop in New Mexico that uses an Epson Stylus Pro 9800 to output his images onto Epson photographic papers in various finishes. 'For the amount of work I’m printing, it makes sense to do it out-of-house,' Simons explains. 'I don't want to have to babysit a printer and worry about its upkeep without a constant demand for images. I also don't want to produce a big print with one little blemish on it and have to start over using my own stuff [materials and consumables].'

Simons admits, however, that there are certain drawbacks to handing off your work to an outside printer, especially when you’re not always thrilled with the results. 'I've had a lot of issues with color correcting and proofing my images. If you're not calibrating on the same machinery as your print provider, or if they’re not taking those differences into account, you'll see different things and you'll have problems. Also, my print provider hasn’t kept a history of the settings he used in printing my final images, so I never know if the next print he produces will match the last one.'

It may be the troubles that Simons has had with outsourcing his printing that has turned him away from digitally printed inkjet photographs altogether. 'There's so much money that goes into it-both from the printmaker and from those who are buying the prints-but sometimes the work just doesn't look like it's worth the money. And when large numbers of reproductions are produced of one print, the work feels detached from the artist. For me, then, it's hard to justify charging a high price for the print.'

While the continued growth of inkjet fine-art printing is evidence that this isn't the perception of fine artists on the whole, it’s an indicator of just how important it is to find a print provider that the artist feels comfortable working with and that shares his or her vision of how the completed print should look.

Precise specialization

For artists seeking that perfect print provider to output their work, their options will usually fall into one of two camps: the smaller print shop specializing in fine-art reproduction, and the larger shop offering fine-art reproduction as one of many services.

Artful Color (www.artfulcolor.com), in Apex, North Carolina, belongs to the first group. The shop was opened five years ago by an engineer with a strong background in color science who worked as a consultant in color management and print-management technology. Catering to artists looking to reproduce high-quality fine-art reproductions, photographs, and digital imagery, Artful Color began by producing mostly local work from North Carolina. Today, after steady word-of-mouth promotion about their capabilities, the shop produces work throughout the East Coast, says Stephen Carroll, the shop's production manager.

For large scale reproductions, the output process begins with the scanning of the original on a Cruse scanner, which the shop contracts out locally. 'We prefer scanning to capturing the image with a camera back-this seems to be more accurate and a bit more consistent,' explains Carroll. The shop also has in-house an Epson Expression 1000 scanner, which is used to scan paintings smaller than 16 x 20 inches; the images taken from those scans are then stitched together in Photoshop.

Carroll and crew proof on the chosen final media for a print, relying on the thoroughness of the color management throughout their workflow to ensure that the proofing process can be done quickly, accurately, and efficiently. In proofing, Carroll prints a strip of the print at 100% that generally is about two inches wide and includes most of the color range in the image. 'When I first began working here,' says Carroll, 'I would do, on average, about 10 proofs before I was happy. I’d print the strip and then make 10 or 11 adjustments in Photoshop. Now I've got the average down to about four.'

For final output, Artful Color primarily turns to its 44-inch Epson Stylus Pro 9600 with UltraChrome inks, but is looking to soon replace that printer with a 60-inch Epson Stylus Pro 11880. 'We're finding there's a greater demand for larger output among our clients,' says Carroll. The shop also purchased an HP Designjet Z3100 last year to round out its equipment offerings. The images are typically output onto Hahnemuhle William Turner fine-art rag paper, Hahnemuhle photo rag, and what Carroll refers to as a 'secret' heavyweight, matte-finish canvas.

Working with a shop like Artful Color has certain advantages for artists, Carroll explains: 'We and other specialized fine-art shops offer a finer quality of detail and have a higher threshold for what's acceptable. Smaller shops that have people with color science backgrounds oriented in color management and profile accuracy generally offer a product that’s much more accurate. When we reproduce a watercolor, you literally have to look at under a microscope to see the difference between the original and the reproduction.'

The challenge that such a specialized shop encounters is that it only appeals to a small market niche and, as a result, finding profitable customers can be a challenge. Artful Color, Carroll says, aims to work with artists who are successful in selling their work and so need a large number of prints output. The alternative is 'working with a lot of different artists who only print a small number of prints, which is a lot of work for marginal return,' he explains.

The benefits of running a specialized fine-art print shop, however, lie in the profitability of fine-art printing. 'In a production shop, oftentimes you have to produce thousands of signs just to make a profit-and if the shop messes up, you're on the edge of making a profit or losing money. Fine-art printing has a little more of a buffer because people are willing to pay more for a premium product.'

And there are personal benefits to working at a fine-art print shop, Carroll adds. For one, the work is always interesting: 'I never know what's going to come through the door. I never know because there's such a wide range of art out there.'

A small but growing percentage of work

While smaller, more specialized shops are often the choice for fine artists, bigger shops capable of producing a variety of jobs-from P-O-P displays to superwide banners to vehicle wraps-in addition to fine-art prints have had success in this market as well.

Take, for instance, Extreme Graphixs (www.extg.com). The Gaithersburg, Maryland-based shop opened in March 2003 and since then has offered clients a range of services including graphic design, prepress, and large-format printing-as well as fine-art printing, which now comprises a steady percentage of the shop's work.

To reproduce the artwork that comes through its doors, Extreme Graphixs uses a PhaseOne scanback camera to capture the image. 'A lot of the art is at least 24-inches wide, and we'll reproduce pieces 40-inches and up. For those sizes, a scanback camera works better than a flatbed or rollfed scanner for us,' says Adam Elrich, owner of Extreme Graphixs. 'We’ll often go through several rounds of capture,' he adds. 'It may take half a dozen attempts to get the reproduction that we want.'

The images are color corrected in Photoshop and the artist is then called in to examine the print on screen; additional color corrections are made if needed. A physical proof is output on the same media that will be used in final printing. If the artist approves the file, Elrich explains, the final print is output and a master file is created for that print for the shop's archives.

The shop primarily relies on its HP Designjet Z2100 for output although it also has a Z3100 and a Z6100. 'We've found that the Z2100 get the job done. Sometimes the finite detail is so limited that you're just splitting hairs, so even with a 12-head device, you're not going get that much more accuracy.' The shop then prints the images on a mix of media from HP, Breathing Color, and LexJet.

While adding fine-art reproduction services to an already full-service production-level shop may seem costly and perhaps more trouble than its worth, Elrich explains that the venture can be profitable if done right. Although a great deal of time and energy may go into producing that first print for an artist, the steady flow of residual orders from an artist make the avenue worth pursuing.

Says Elrich, 'An artist who’s a regular seller may call me up and say, 'Give me 10 of this print or 15 of this print.' We have it streamlined to the point where we can just go straight to output and he can have the prints in his hands in 24 hours. Very few artists work with us only once. If they're serious about their art, they know that it's going to take time to produce it, and if they're willing to take that time, they're not going to be jumping around from one facility to the next.'

Keeping these customers happy, then, is key to a successful business. Elrich credits having a fine artist on staff as an equipment operator and color corrector as an invaluable component to his customers' satisfaction. 'I've found that someone who’s just an output operator isn’t going to invest themselves in the character of a piece. Because [Extreme Graphixs’ staff member] is an artist, he can absorb himself in the artwork and come up with really great solutions with the client for production purposes.'

Elrich continues to explain that Extreme Graphixs has also found success by maintaining close relationships with their artists and really listening to their concerns and ideas. 'We don't just have a 'get it out the door' mentality. When it comes to developing the art-reproduction component of the shop, we treat it like developing a practice-much more so than just doing business for business's sake.'

Perhaps one of the biggest benefits to artists working with a larger shop like Extreme Graphixs, points out Elrich, is the lower production costs that they will often find. 'We offer custom solutions and really work with the artist in the pricing to make sure that we can assist them in getting their work out into the marketplace affordably and not make it cost prohibitive to the average consumer.'

Fine-art printing currently accounts for about 15 percent of the shop's jobs. 'And that number is growing,' says Elrich. He credits this to a growth in the interest in fine-art reproductions for commercial environments. 'We're taking pieces of fine art and reproducing them on multiple platforms. Instead of just printing them back onto canvas for fine-art-related substrates, we're putting them on buildings or in shopping malls.' Riding the wave of success in those areas, Elrich hopes to double his art clientele in 2008.

Clare Baker is assistant editor of The Big Picture magazine.

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