Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Is printmaking becoming the new 'painting a day'?

This post invites a discussion about the place of printmaking in the context of a changing art scene and economy via a reflection on the painting a day movement and what's been happening to paintings in the last few months.

The 'painting a day' phenomenon which saw 'lift-off' in 2006, generated a lot of artists producing small affordable works on a regular basis and selling them via the Internet. This in turn enabled a lot of people to buy original art for the first time. In time, it also widened the pool of people who bought original art and enabled some people to develop as art collectors. Many artists who kept to the discipline of daily painting also noticed how much their artistic skills improved. All to the good.

Since then our economic environment has changed and the big R has arrived. I've had a particular interest for some time in the impact of a recession on people making art and people exhibiting art. I'm interested in how it might change their behaviour. To that end I've been observing exhibitions for some time. Following the banking debacle last September, I've made a particular point of looking for changes in what gets exhibited, how work is priced and what sells.

What I've been noticing is
  • Devotion pays! Any genre which has a devoted set of collectors continues to sell well and better than most (eg miniature art, wildlife art, botanical art)
  • The type of contemporary art which used to be bought by bankers with bonuses appears to be becoming unfashionable. Values are dropping like a stone and some art is becoming unsellable.
  • Established artists with are recognising that uncertainty makes spontaneous splurges less likely and while there is still money around, it's being spent more thoughtfully
  • Professional artists with 'names', long careers, galleries and a dependence on sales for a significant part of their income are starting to exhibit smaller and more affordable works.
  • There are much fewer places to exhibit art. A lot of galleries have closed (or will end up closing). However others have begun to recognise the importance of the Internet to stimulating sales and a number are currently investing in new websites.
Galleries, art societies and painters seem to be thinking more and more about how to make their work more affordable for those who continue to buy. I've certainly seen an increasing number of smaller works in exhibitions and smaller works are therefore becoming much more evident in exhibitions as well as on the Internet...and so the gallery world is beginning to look a lot more like the Internet!

Then last week I went to Originals 09: The Contemporary Printmaking Show and realised that in looking at how behaviour has been changing in relation to the recession, I've been too fixated on looking at what painters are doing.

Here were a set of artists who are being traditional and innovative in the approaches and techniques they are using for printmaking. Here was an exhibition where all the art is original - some of it is unique and some of it comes as a numbered edition. Prints were still large - and small.

In this show as in other shows of fine art prints, I've found I'm absolutely riveted by the artists' skills in composition and different styles of drawing and mark-making. It always seem to me to be hugely sophisticated compared to what I often see in paintings. I've also concluded that the practice of printmaking means many printmakers make more effort to identify elements of line and tone during the process of designing and making a print. It certainly seems to me that prints often have a lot more impact due to their strong graphical qualities. (Let's not forget that graphical qualities are what makes a representational painting call to you from tens of feet away and say 'come and look at me'!)

Originals 09: The Contemporary Printmaking Show
Prints on display in the East Gallery of the Mall Galleries

Just before Christmas I went to The Mini Picture Show at the Bankside Gallery which is a Christmas exhibition of small works by members of the Royal Watercolour Society and the Royal Society of Painter Printmakers.

One of the things that struck me about The Mini Picture Show was how many prints it contained. It was pointed out to me that are many more members of the Royal Society of Painter Printmakers than there are members of the Royal Watercolour Society. Plus the printmakers are probably more used to working in a range of sizes from large to small. They certainly swamped the show with their work - all of which was at very affordable prices.

I don't tend to buy much original art as I tend towards the 'buy the best and make it last a long time' school of thought and many paintings that I really like fall outside my affordability range and the size of the wall space available! Instead I bought two small prints at this exhibition - as my Christmas present to me!

The business bit of the equation

Every summer, as I loiter in the Large Weston Room at the Royal Academy looking at the prints in the Summer exhibition, the '"numbers lady" in me always makes a bid for attention. I ALWAYS end up mentally totting up the huge numbers of red dots for some of the prints and then multiplying them by the unframed print price and reminding myself every single year that a print has the potential to produce very significant earnings for an artist while not breaking the bank for the collector. It's a real win-win option for both artists and collectors.

Let's also not forget that prints are also frequently delivered unframed which means you don't have to go through the business of discarding the frame it came in because it doesn't work with your decor and replacing it with something else - so yet more money saved for the collector! (Remember if it was a painting you will have paid for the cost of the frame and the cost of the commission and VAT if relevant making the frame a ridiculously expensive part of any purchase of original art which in no way benefits the artist!)

I've also been told by a number of reputable galleries which deal in prints that they're very happy to sell prints online and are also very happy to offer a "sale and return undamaged" offer to their patrons who want to see the work.

Is printmaking the new 'painting a day'?

In asking the question "Is printmaking the new 'painting a day'?" I'm not trying to suggest in any way that printmaking is a new way of creating more affordable art. Mainly because printmaking has ALWAYS been a way of people being able to buy original art at more affordable prices.

Instead I think what I'm suggesting is that printmaking may experience something of a renaissance during the recession in relation to people who like to buy original art.
  • For the artist who paints at present, printmaking offers an opportunity to develop and refine their existing skill set
  • For the artist as business person original fine art prints create the potential for switching towards a different business model and one which lends itself very readily to internet marketing
  • For the purchaser, original fine art prints offer an opportunity to buy original art at an affordable price
Finally - a thought - maybe there needs to be "a print a day" website? ;)

So - over to you.
  • Do you think the recession will favour printmakers?
  • Have you thought about getting into printmaking?
  • What sort of changes are you making to your practice and business model as the recession bites?


  1. I'm glad to have found your blog. I've never thought much about printmaking but you've got some good points here. Thanks so much for your insight.

  2. I was happy to see you use the term "original print". Too often prints are seen as "just" copies. As a digital artist trying to figure our how to market and price my work, determine limits on editions, etc., your post is very timely. Yes, selling unframed original prints can be a win/win for all (except perhaps the gallery). There is a big risk, however, in selling one's work too cheaply. Recession or not, as artists we must place a high value the creativity and experience we put into our art. If we don't value it, who will?

  3. I think artists with a degree background normally have included printmaking in their work as it is part of the degree course - many others specialise in printmaking and only paint occasionally.

    Some continue printmaking after the degree and others drop it in favour of painting.

    It's something that many self taught artists never try out. Partly because of the investment in specialist materials and tools for many processes perhaps?

    It's a very very process led medium. There is a lot of time/work producing a printing plate, testing it, making necessary changes and finally doing a run of prints, inking each up individually

    - as the producer you need to sell a good run of prints for it to equate timewise to painting!

    to do gallery quality prints generally (though not always) requires a printing press. The difference this makes has to be seen to 'get' the difference.

    Etchings required acids, extractor fans and safety procedures - so the sort of work in the exhibition you wrote up would be done either in Print Workshops or where the artist is wealthy enough and has the space, with some very very expensive equipment.

    Etchings and intaglio processes can only be done with a press and can't be done by hand.

    Relief processes can be printed by hand (linoprint) but as I said, a press still makes a much much better print.

    Etching presses start in the low £100's and to up to £1,000's :>(

    Anyone interested in learning printmaking with presses, good quality specialist papers etc can make enquiries to see if there is a nearby Print Workshop they can join - our local one runs courses so people can learn the techniques and go on to membership if they enjoy it.

    A good book to explain various techniques is the Encylopaedia of Printmaking Techniques - it has good examples and explanations.

    I enjoy printmaking but I'm not very traditional about it, more experimental.

  4. Thank you, Katherine for the link to my site. The concept/content of you blog is great! I see a lot of back-reading coming on :)

    Printmaking at it's best is a challenging, captivating and absolutely fascinating medium, it can be dead sexy with the amount of exciting discoveries and amazing work out there. That is to say, if an artist were to let go of the established formats and go for it. Needless to say though, a good solid background in art basics is essential - like drawing or composition, all that stuff that makes up for necessities of (graphic) arts.
    On a practical note, it is easier to sustain and grow an artist's practice if printmaking is part of your portfolio. Partially, because it opens up the inevitable "exposure/prolificity" corner of any growing studio. Partially, because it gives an artist a sense of control and independence, more available work means different and varied opportunities to show and find your collectors. Also, there is a sense of a strong professional community.
    I guess, we are always in a defence mode (and it is easier to defend together:) - industrial reproductions were the roots of fine art printmaking but also the source of confusion for public and customers alike.
    Nevertheless, most of those artist's who print don't do it just for the sake of producing multiples, it is the unique properties of medium ( "sophisticated" is a good word, thank you) that keep us involved. And it is actually a rather demanding physical occupation too :)- just try and compare the size of average biceps in the art community: printmakers vs painters. i guess, only those of sculptors' are bigger...

  5. Donald - I'm certainly not suggesting that artists sell their work cheaply. Rather that if we look at a hierarchy of pricing between different media as an opportunity rather than a problem, then I can see many printmakers doing rather well during the recession

    Putting it another way, I saw an awful lot of large oil paintings which were unsold before Christmas! I think the wake-up call is coming pretty fast judging by the 'sold' pattern which I've been observing.

  6. Vivien - thanks for all the prompts about process, that's very helpful.

    What I also found very helpful about the catalogue for the show were all the adverts about the different print courses and communities in London and further afield. Those too are extremely helpful to those wanting get a start in printmaking. I think there might be another information site in the making.......

    Isn't it interesting that the need to invest in expensive presses de facto helps to create print communities. I don't know a printmaker who doesn't have some sort of affiliation to a group. I don't know if that's general or maybe just a London thing - but it's interesting!

  7. Katherine... Thank you so much for bringing printmaking to the fore in your blog. As a long time artist/printmaker, I am somewhat dismayed at the lack of awareness that printmaking is a time-honored fine art form. Too often when one says 'prints' a dialog begins how best to make a giclee reproduction.

    I agree with Vivien that many (maybe most) artists come to printmaking while studying other medium. Because of the high cost of presses, ventilation systems, litho stones, etc., most of us picked it up while in art school... and most artists do not continue with it because of those costs.

    Also, because of the lengthy process of creating a print, it is not for the faint-hearted. A very time consuming art form, requiring great patience. there is nothing so rewarding than pulling the paper off the plate and seeing the end result. It's that heart-stopping 'aha' moment that keeps printmakers captivated.

  8. Veta - thanks for your very informative comment - it's especially valuable to get the perspective of a printmaker like yourself. I thought VT had to be you as I read it!

    Folks, if you'd like to see the blog of a double prizewinning printmaker (and maker of the print I lusted after!) - as featured in yesterday's blog post - do take a look at Veta's blog which is called Images & Notes

  9. Interesting. I have to say that printmaking has always been around, as you say, so your title rather misled me. It's one of several mediums that might get a bit more attention soon, like drawings, digital prints, and photography.

    The woman who taught me to paint is a painter printmaker and something that has driven my own practice was her telling me one day how printmaking took over her career - it became the bread and butter and then became all-encompassing. She regrettably lost touch with her painting. When she "retired" (in age if not practice) she returned to painting, left printmaking, and was immensely happy. I have never forgotten that lesson - the tale of choosing an art form to get by and being trapped by that choice. While it may hurt my bottom line I've always turned away from that option, and will continue to do so. (This is not *against* printmaking, but rather against making choices purely for financial reasons and ignoring creative needs.)

    Printmaking is fantastic, beautiful work. I started out as an oil painting/printmaker and I do plan to do some more in my new studio, but for the creative development rather than to hit a price point. Then again I'm an impatient printmaker - I never do large editions, often monoprints, so it's not a cost-effective medium for me. I agree wit you that working in another medium really helps your skills in every medium though.

    Some things I do disagree with though. Values are falling at the highest end of the market, auction level work. I don't know how many MAM readers it will affect. Paintings are just as viable on the internet, and if you want to hit a price point there's no reason an artist could do small format or studies for selling. I do agree that the recession will favour any smaller or editioned formats, but until I see a change in sales levels of paintings (which I haven't seen yet) I'm not going to make a rash move.

    Changes? Well, I'm working bigger and investing more into my practice! Getting a new studio. Doing a few print ads, expanding my online promotion (in money and structure campaigns). I'm raising my prices in April, per usual. The harder times are, the more you must invest in your marketing. It's precisely NOT when you should pull back. :)

    But if you're right, maybe I should invest in an etching press! One regret is selling my old one long ago. And I do love drypoint.

  10. Good and timely topic!
    Yes, I think we are on the threshold of a new resurgence of the print. "Original" and "Artist made" are the key words. I love to paint miniatures, but they often don't fill the need for that larger space the collector had in mind. Prints can satisfy that need and still remain affordable. I have indeed been thinking about printmaking.
    I have made so many changes to overcome the recession from working in a more public studio space, volunteering with arts organizations to learn more and increase my works visibility, to creating a blog for the same reason.
    All this was for the purpose of keeping up the cash flow, and yet I find I am expanding as a artist and a contributing member of a community. I have to ask myself - why did I wait until a recession?

  11. I found myself reading about printmaking in the last month. Since I read artist forums and blogs regularly, there must be something afoot that prompted my subconscious. I know part of it is that many art festivals are saying "handpulled" prints only. I have not yet gotten into giclee production of my color pencil and pastel work, though I had always thought that I would if I went into the festival curcuit. However, as I said this are starting to be banned by some. As I read about printmaking, I am attracted to the expressive qualities of this medium and to the fact that one can work large as well as make multiples. I was excited to learn there was a printmakers workshop/cooperative relatively near me that had been there for ten years and I didn't even know. I am less turned on to think this may be the latest bandwagon. Makes me feel less like I am looking into it from a true artistic expression need point of view.

  12. Thanks for the post on printmaking.
    I would expect that "works on paper" at affordable prices will get some more attention nowadays.
    In a way printmakers seem to be rather "invisible" yet on the net compared to painters.

  13. It is so frustrating as a printmaker to be told that my work is not "original", that all I do is make "copies". This is a deep-rooted misunderstanding, both in the artistic community and the realm of the art-purchasing public. Anyone who has every attempted any sort of original art print knows just how much work is involved in each and every one of the pieces in an edition (including all of those that never make it to the edition!).

    Thank you for your recent posts about printmaking, and bringing some awareness of the medium to your readers.

    I was astonished at the number of printmaking studios in the UK when updating my Squidoo lens on international print studios & groups. You're very lucky to live in place that is relatively easy to have access to printmaking expertise and the collaborative opportunities of the open print studio.

  14. As a long-time printmaker, I'm so pleased to see this discussion here with many excellent comments from printmakers. Just a couple of other advantages that I can add... First, there are many many different printmaking techniques to explore and use which makes this such an exciting way to work and is never boring. Secondly, unframed prints are light, easy to roll up in a tube or if small between mat board, and relatively inexpensive to mail to international print competitions and to buyers.


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