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The Nature of Fine-Art Printing

Five print providers share their experiences working with fine art and artists.

It’s no surprise that digital fine-art printmaking is a growing market. Since its inception nearly 20 years ago, the quality of the equipment and materials has steadily risen, while the costs of the technology have continued to decrease. As a result, a growing number of print providers and artists have capitalized on the opportunity to open their own dedicated fine-art print shop or add that capability to their existing services.

But being a successful provider to fine artists takes much more than just having the right printer, media, and inks. It means knowing how to utilize that technology to produce the best print, it means understanding color management and how to market your services, and perhaps most importantly, it means listening to clients and working with them to create something that makes both the artist and the printmaker proud.

Stand out from the rest

It was a question that kept even Shakespeare up at night that got Jack Duganne thinking: "What’s in a name?" He wanted to find a term for fine-art digital prints that was universal and would stick around. A name that would still be applicable no matter what direction the technology took. He finally decided on giclee, taken from the French word for nozzle, gicleur. "The word caught on," says Duganne, "and stayed forever."

Duganne’s contributions to digital fine art, however, extend well beyond adding a word to the lexicon. A trained printmaker, Duganne worked alongside digital-art pioneers at Nash Editions in Manhattan Beach, CA, during the advent of the digital fine-art era. After six years at Nash Editions, Duganne opened his own studio, Duganne Ateliers, in 1996. As with any new business, Duganne needed to find a way to attract new clients to his Santa Monica, CA,-based operation. "I didn’t know [what clients] I was going to get...I was on my own." As a way to draw in new clients, he set up an arrangement where he would produce one print of two or three of an artist’s images for free, and in turn, he would keep one of the prints to sell. His plan worked. "The greatest thing that happened was that when those artists got back to their studios or back to their galleries, the buzz was on. They wanted to know where they got these, how they got these, who did them, and could they get some too?"

Today, Duganne Ateliers (www.duganne.com), with a staff of three (including Duganne and his wife), has a strong client base, attracting artists primarily from the West Coast as well the Midwest, New York, and Europe. He outsources his scanning to ArtScans Studio, a scanning service begun by a former colleague at Nash Editions, David Coons. "All my profiles are created and [ArtScans] has them on hand there, so everything is dedicated to the printers and the inks and papers that I’m working with." And with Duganne’s extensive line-up of printers, his clients are sure to have their specific needs met. "The needs of the artists and the type of imagery they bring in," he says, "will determine the type of printer I’m working on." In addition to two Iris printers, Duganne uses an Epson Stylus Pro 10600 and 9800 and a 72-in. MacDermid ColorSpan X12 for printing on very large canvas and watercolor paper. Duganne also has several HP printers including the HP Designjet 130, 8750, and the new Z3100.

Just down the coast of southern California, Jim Respess also has capitalized on the power of word of mouth to establish himself as one of San Diego’s leading reproducers of fine art. After a successful career in medicine and science, Respess decided to pursue his passion for art. To further his education, he enrolled in classes at a community college, and it was there he discovered Photoshop. "I was very motivated to use Photoshop for my own artwork because I had all this surreal imagery I was trying to do in the darkroom...it’s as if I was waiting for Photoshop for several decades."

In searching for print providers to produce his work, however, he found that "while the equipment was there, there was an element of talent missing." Respess began doing most of the work himself on various shops’ machines. After learning the ins and outs of fine-art printing, he says it was a "no brainer" to begin printing for other artists. He opened Green Flash Photography (www.greenflashphotography.com) in 2000 and since then, has established a consistent client base almost exclusively through word of mouth. "I’ve built my reputation with my artists, and then they’ve sent other artists. It’s really snowballed."

Respess primarily outputs fine-art reproductions, such as oil paintings, watercolors, and pastels, but he also does printing for photographers and digital artists as well. He draws almost all of his clients from southern California-from San Diego up to Los Angeles-but continues to take on some work for clients even after they’ve moved away from the area.

He scans most of the artwork in-house with a Microtek Scanmaker 9800XL and outputs on his Epson 9600 and 9800 onto a variety of media, including papers and canvases from Hahnemuhle, Epson, and Tara Materials. While he doesn’t do any of the finishing himself, Respess provides a tip sheet on finishing or recommends his clients to framers he trusts. "I used to [provide that service], but as business has progressed, I stick to what I do best."

Similar to Respess, before New Mexico-based artists JD Jarvis and his wife, Myriam Lozada, began printing their own images, they were consistently disappointed with the results of outsourcing their work. Due to the lack of large-format printers in the area, they had to send their work to resellers or even vendors of wide-format printers. In 1997, they invested in an HP Designjet 2500CP and decided to open their own studio, Dunking Bird Productions (www.dunkingbirdproductions.com). They began printing their own work and soon, the work of other digital artists as well, picking up "whatever we could do to pay for our art habit," says Jarvis. Working out of their house, their clients are mostly local, although they have made numerous contacts outside of the area as a result of a book and several articles and essays JD has written on the topic of digital art.

For the most part, they print original digital art, although they also print some fine-art reproductions in addition to a few commercial photo retouching jobs. They have an Epson Expression scanner, but outsource large scanning jobs to a contact in town. "We have a file made from there, and then I print," says Jarvis. The HP Designjet 2500CP, using HP UV pigmented inks, is still their printer of choice.

Push the boundaries

After receiving their master’s degrees from the Rochester Institute of Technology, artists and printmakers Chris Jordan and Karen Schlesinger were having a hard time finding the same printmaking services in the Albany, NY, area as they had been exposed to at RIT. "We decided that we had enough knowledge to do this. It was something that we both always wanted to do, and the time just sort of seemed right," says Schlesinger. And so after a few years of playing with the idea, they opened Digital Artist’s Space (www.digitalartistspace.com) in April 2006 in Troy, NY. Schlesinger is the company’s only full-time employee, while Jordan divides his time between the shop and a full-time teaching job.

Digital Artist’s Space works primarily with regional artists, but also offers their services-printing, scanning, consulting, and training-to local galleries, museums, and cultural institutions. The shop has had success with word-of-mouth advertising as Schlesinger points out: "We’re in a downtown area of a small town that has a lot of artists, so a lot of people have come to know us just by seeing us on the street," but the company also has had to get its name out there in print-advertising in a local magazine and sending out postcards.

Jordan and Schlesinger print reproductions of fine art as well as original digital fine art. For reproductions, they shoot large format with a 4x5 camera and then do a large-resolution scan of the transparency, using their Imacon Flextight 848. They also have an Epson Perfection V750 for scanning 8x10 film and small artwork. They output on their Epson Stylus Pro 9800 and 9600 with UltraChrome K3 inks. While offering the usual suspects in fine-art media, including papers and canvases from Hahnemuhle, Somerset, and Epson, the shop also experiments with a range of applications. "We’re always trying to push the boundaries, see what we can do with the technology. I’m experimenting with printing on Plexiglas, metal, fabrics-alternative materials that would open up a range of possibilities for artists." Schlesinger continues, "People are always going to have needs that are outside the conventional, [so] as an artist, I’m always trying to figure out different ways to approach my work."

Another print shop pushing the boundaries-quite literally-is Chicago-based Archival Imaging (www.archivalimaging.com). Five years after opening in 2001, owner Juan Galindo decided to expand his printing business to include gallery space. After moving his business from the fifth floor of a building to the spacious first floor with a large window front, Galindo opened Ai Gallery. Galindo is the shop’s master printmaker while Kimberly Hoffman, one of three other Archival Imaging employees and the director of Ai Gallery, works with clients through the color-correction process.

Archival Imaging, which prints original fine-art reproductions as well as photography, has a wide-ranging client base, including Oppenheimer Editions, which has authorized the shop to reproduce John James Audubon’s original watercolors. Hoffman’s and other employees’ involvement in the Chicago art community enables them to meet regional artists in need of Archival Imaging’s services. They also have clients from all over the world, Hoffman says. "With FTP service, e-mail, and FedEx, we easily printed an entire museum exhibit for an artist without him ever leaving Italy."

To produce its clients’ work, Archival Imaging prints on an Ixia/Iris and an Epson Stylus Pro 9600. Galindo and Hoffman prefer to use their Ixia, but purchased the Epson to print on canvas. "The dye-based inks in the Ixia," Hoffman explains, "are nice because they enable such a small dot size, but they are not water-resistant like those used with the Epson." When reproducing original artwork, they first photograph the art with a 4x5 view camera with a Better Light Super 8k Scanning back, enabling them to digitally capture up to 500 MB of information without a transparency.

The proofing process

While these five printmakers may have divergent backgrounds and utilize an assortment of technology, an aspect of their work common to them-and to most fine-art print providers-is the intense proofing process. Reproducing the correct colors and tonal balance is essential to successful fine-art printmaking. Good communication, then, between the print provider and the artist becomes crucial.

Most of the companies noted in this article print several proofs at a reduced size using the same printers and consumables. The Jarvises, for example, print approximately three proofs either at 8 x 10 or 12 x 15, depending on the size and detail of the original. The Digital Artist’s Space, printing on the same printer and media as the final image, gives artists the choice of a standard proofing service or an original print matching service. The standard service provides clients with one proof to verify color accuracy and allows for minor tweaking, while the original print matching service, which provides clients with three proofs, is a "much more hands-on process," including color management and retouching, as Schlesinger describes.

Jack Duganne usually prints three or four proofs, explaining that number "gives us a range where the artist is able to look at [the proofs] and say, ‘You know, you’re right, I really like what you did with increasing the saturation in this one, or making that blue pop up, or allowing me to see the yellow that I wasn’t able to see in the original.’" In Duganne’s studio, the artist signs off on a final proof, signing it as a BAT (or bon a tirer in French, meaning "good to pull"). He keeps that as the print to match when an artist orders new prints. "Proofing," he says, "is probably the most important part of the process." "It’s a very personal interaction that occurs between the artist and myself."

Jim Respess also understands the importance of the relationship between the printmaker and the artist. After printing several proofs for a client, he sets up a meeting with the artist to compare the original and the proofs. "Sometimes it takes 10 minutes, sometimes it takes three hours. It depends on the piece and also on the artist."

Kimberly Hoffman with Archival Imaging explains, "Our printing process varies for each client...Anticipating the client’s needs saves both their time and money, as well as ours." She adds, "Without a great client/printmaker relationship, you do not have a great printmaking relationship. We pride ourselves on our friendliness and [our] ability to understand our client’s needs. "

Even in the best client/printmaker relationship, however, artists will sometimes ask for the impossible. JD Jarvis admits that although you may have the most advanced equipment and are very knowledgeable about your work, a print will not always turn out exactly how an artist imagines it to be. On working with original digital art, he says, "No matter how fine a RIP you have or how wide the gamut of your printer...a lot of the time, artists will come to you with colors that look great on the screen, but are way out of the gamut of paper and ink. You need to work with them so they understand that the work on paper is almost a totally different thing [than the digital file]. The file is more or less a tool that you can use toward getting the best print that you possibly can."

Echoing Jarvis, Duganne maintains that "there’s no color management that will dial in the piece the way the artist visualizes what the print is supposed to look like." But Duganne capitalizes on this fact, urging the artist to think about his or her work differently. "You’re creating a new piece of art," he tells them, "Here’s your opportunity to do something you wanted to do in the original, but you didn’t get to do because of [certain] limitations...You’re not making other originals of your painting, you’re creating original prints here."

Have a "seasoned" eye on staff

In tandem with the importance of the proofing process is the value of having a knowledgeable artist on staff. A successful printmaker should be able to speak to an artist, and as Karen Schlesinger explains, "If you’re targeting artists, you have to understand their needs, and I think [that’s] very difficult if you’re not an artist yourself." JD Jarvis expounds upon this idea: "Having a printer that knows what is required and is willing to do the work in order to get it as perfect as possible is essential...From my experience, I know where I’m going to need to adjust a specific area in order to bring it into acceptability, so it really requires a seasoned eye and some experience." Similarly, Jim Respess prides himself on building a reputation on his ability to reproduce the colors his clients want: "The proof is in the printing. The talent is to be able to look at the colors on the proof, look at the original artwork, and see what needs to be done."

While knowledgeable artists are certainly assets to a fine-art print shop, Kimberly Hoffman points out that a variety of skillsets are needed for a business to be successful. "I think it is very important to have a mixture of people in your studio." Juan Galindo, the shop owner and printmaker, has a very technology-driven background while Hoffman has a degree in graphic design, and another coworker is a skilled photographer. "We need all three of our full-time staff to make it work," she says.

The future of fine-art printmaking

Digital printing, still in its infancy compared to traditional printmaking, has come a long way over the years and is constantly evolving. This rapid growth and the popularity of the technology may have printmakers wondering where digital printing is headed and what that means for them.

The commercial viability of the technology and the subsequent advancements in printers, inks, and media have opened up a world of possibilities for the fine artist. "There really is no limitation for the artist now," says Jack Duganne. "Artists aren’t having to compromise their standards when they’re having prints made because they can get [the prints] exactly the way they want them. Duganne also sees the trend of artists personalizing their work after it is printed. "I see a need to humanize the work and get the hand of the artist back into [it]." Enhancing the image after it’s printed, he says, helps people who buy the art see the work of the artist rather than seeing it as just a reproduction.

The introduction of new printers is also sure to create a stir in the world of fine-art printing. "HP and Canon are coming out with commercial machines that are less expensive than the bigger machines out here," says Jim Respess. "So that’s good competition-it will raise the quality [of the marketplace]." He also anticipates the release of inks with more longevity and color gamut. One problem, though, that he foresees with the introduction of new inks is the change in color profiles. If a client asks for a reprint of a piece done a few years back, the print provider will essentially have to start from scratch in order to match it to the original reprint.

And with these advancements, as it has in the past, the role of print provider will continue to evolve. With the advancements in technology and more affordable prices, JD Jarvis acknowledges that artists may invest in this equipment for their own studios rather than outsourcing all of their work, however, he believes that the print provider will always play an important role in the reproduction of art, especially in artwork that was not originally done digitally.

Whatever direction these advancements push print providers in-whether it’s to become more innovative in their work or to offer a wider range of services or to further develop their expertise on the subject-it looks like the boundaries are few. "The future, as I see it, is just explosive," says Duganne, "There really is no limit to what can be done in terms of the quality of the work."

Clare Baker is assistant editor of The Big Picture magazine.

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