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Chapter: Ideas About What to Sell

Original art and reproductions

Another very common question that I have received from emerging artists is whether to sell their original works or reproductions. Following that is the question: “How do I make reproductions?”

Before getting into those two topics, let me share a piece of advice I received early in my career. I had inquired of a well-known artist: “What should I draw? I don’t know what people will buy.” His reply echoes in my mind to this very day. Very directly he stated, “Forget what people will buy - you draw what you love.”

This gets back to the topic of life philosophy. When one creates from a place of love or passion, the creative power that comes forth is quite strong. When one creates with the intent of manipulating circumstance (getting people to buy something), the creative process is distorted. Start with what you love or are passionate about in some way, then let the ideas flow from there.

Now, should you sell original works or reproductions? The answer for me from the start was a hearty both! Some artists do not like to part with their originals, and that is entirely a personal choice. My own feeling is that too many works accumulated in my storage area creates congestion, both physically and creatively. I like to keep the work moving out, so the consequential vacuum allows new ideas to flow in. Nature abhors a vacuum it is said, and you will find that the moving-out process invites the flowing-in process to continue its natural cycle.

Prior to selling any original I always create a hi-resolution (hi-res) file of the artwork. In past years this meant a 4"x5" transparency shot by a professional photographer. These days it usually means a digital file that is created either with a scanner or a professional digital camera. You will need such a file to create reproductions, so it is an excellent idea to get this done, regardless of whether you plan to sell the original work. (This also gives you an archive image should anything happen to the original.) If you do not have studio photography experience, then pay for professional quality image recording of your work. This image needs to be the highest quality possible. It can be used later to make reproductions, advertise your work, apply to a juried exhibit, etc. This is not the place to pinch pennies. If you decide to take the shot yourself, and end up with a shine or “hot spot” on the image, there is little that can be done later to restore the image to its full quality. Photoshop is a wonderful tool, but it can’t be used to replace a quality original image.

You can sell an original once. Reproductions can number in just about any quantity and tend to sell for less than an original. It doesn’t take much projection to see that selling multiple reproductions at any given dollar amount could quickly add up to more than the selling price of one original.

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How to Make Prints: Methods of Two Dimensional Reproduction

I will cover the most common forms of reproduction in use today. Many artists use one of the following methods for making print reproductions:

Offset Lithography
This is a traditional printing process involving the use of plates and ink on printing presses. Lithography is a great option for quantity if you plan to print at least several hundred copies of a print and you have the funds to cover up front printing costs. Your price per print will be the lowest with offset lithography. To find a quality commercial printer, you may want to contact your local chamber of commerce and ask about printers who specialize in artist prints. Investigate mid-size print shops. High volume shops focus on much larger jobs than artist prints, and small shops may be more geared to lower-end production printing (advertisements, flyers, newsletters and the like). You want the best quality/price ratio you can get.

A side note to printing quantities up front: these prints becomes “inventory” and will need to be tracked accordingly. Inventory is taxable at the end of the year, so you may want to check with your accountant before deciding to maintain any sizable amount of inventory.

Sometimes artists are intimidated by the higher initial cost of offset printing and inventory management. You can sometimes save considerable sums of money by doing the pre-press file preparation yourself, as opposed to having the printer include that in his services. If you do not possess the knowledge and skills to prepare work for reproduction, try finding a local graphic designer to assist you.

This term covers ink jet, giclee, and other direct (on demand) printing methods available today. At the lower end of digital printing, you can purchase a quality ink jet printer (hopefully with archival inks and paper) and print your own reproductions. This assumes that you or someone you know has the ability to prepare the hi-res files for optimal output. A high end example of digital printing would be the giclee print. While still a form of ink jet technology, the equipment used to print giclees is geared for high-end output such as art prints. Giclee prints can even be printed on canvas. Many professional color labs and some commercial printers offer giclee prints. Your cost/print will be higher than with offset lithography, but you can purchase only the number of prints you need. This can be an ideal way for an artist to get started selling reproductions. The same “pre-press” consideration applies here. If you can supply quality hi-res files, you will save money. Most digital print services providers will be happy to supply you samples of their printouts to help you make the decision.

A note about archival inks and paper: I have seen artists selling prints created on low-end office ink jet printers. Look at those prints 6 months to a year later and you will often see a faded image on yellowed paper. It is similar to the effect you see on aged newsprint, and has the same cause–acidic ph of the paper. This highlights the importance of using archival paper and inks for your reproductions. The last thing you want is a happy customer today, who morphs into an unhappy customer next year, because his purchase from you had literally faded away. If you are going to invest in an ink-jet print for the purpose of making and selling art reproductions, make sure that the printer uses archival inks and supports archival papers, or at least inks specified for longevity. These printers are more common these days, and relatively easy to find.

Open Edition vs. Limited Edition Prints
Two-dimensional reproductions are often referred to as prints, and the terms will be used here interchangeably. This is not to be confused with the original print-making process where the artist actually hand-creates each print. For this discussion, a print will be known as a reproduction of an original painting, drawing or other two-dimensional piece of artwork.

An open edition print is a reproduction of unlimited quantity. You can print as many of them as you like. A limited edition print refers to a set number of copies of the work of art. Each reproduction is then signed and numbered by the artist for authenticity. As the total quantity available for sale is limited, the sale price for limited edition prints tends to be higher than that of open edition prints. This price ratio increases as the artist gains recognition.

The practice of limiting editions and numbering of reproductions dates back to early printing methods - when the quality of the images declined as the printing plates began to show evidence of wear. By limiting an edition to the best examples of an artist’s work, the artist protected both his or her artistic integrity and the value of the work to the collector. Printing methods have since advanced considerably and editions are now often limited for financial reasons. By ensuring the relative rarity of the work, an artist increases its value.

In addition to a fixed number of edition prints, there may also exist AP prints and HC prints. AP prints refer to Artist Proofs. Artist proofs also date back to early printing methods. These were the first sheets off the press which were used to determine ink coverage and general quality. As they were the first pieces to be printed, they were considered to be more valuable. AP prints are signed and numbered separately from the main edition. HC prints, or Hors De Commerce (not for trade) prints, are marked by the artist as prints to be used for business practice: such as samples, display only, etc. Occasionally there are also PP or Printers Proofs. These refer to the prints gifted to the printer responsible for printing the work.

Hand-Tinted Prints
Hand-tinting refers to the process of adding color highlights to black & white photographs or black & white reproductions. The process usually involves the application of watercolors or dies applied with a brush. Note that in the case of limited editions, any tinted prints are part of the same edition and not a separate edition. In other words, if print #43 is sold as a hand-tinted print, no other print #43 of the same image and size exists.

You can print open editions and limited editions of the same image, by the way. Try different sizes–perhaps an open edition with a small image that can be matted to fit an 8"x10" frame. Then run a larger print size in a smaller quantity and sign/number those prints as limited editions.

A limited edition print should include a “Statement of Reproduction.” This can be a small piece of paper that contains at minimum the following information: title of artwork, reproduction method, artist name, publisher name, image size, copyright declaration, edition size and the number of the print. Also include your contact information. If you mat your prints, this statement should be affixed to the backing board behind the print.

All prints should be nicely presented for sale. A matted print makes a much nicer presentation than an unmatted print stuck in a bag. Also, make sure to cover the print in a clear, gallery-style presentation sleeve. Any backing board used should be clean and neat. Foam core has a much nicer look than corrugated cardboard.

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Custom Work & Commissions

While the reproduction market holds the potential for solid income, some artists find that selling only reproductions becomes somewhat impersonal. A nice overall approach is to combine selling reproductions with the cultivation of commissions or custom work. Alternatively, you could focus exclusively on custom work.

Custom work takes on many forms. Any time a client commissions you to create a unique original, it is considered custom work. A couple of examples would be murals and portraits. Remember that you retain copyrights as the creator of the work. In most cases you will not be making reproductions of custom artwork. However, should your client have plans to do so, he or she must have your permission and obtain a written copyright transfer from you. (More information on copyrights for visual artwork is coming up soon.)

People love personal art, and portraits can be big business. You may specialize in family and children’s portraits, pet portraits, house portraits or even specialty portraits such as images of boats, cars or wild animals. Rather than trying to be everything to everybody, consider narrowing your focus to those topics you enjoy. That will help you target your marketing and clarify who you are to the buying public.

If you are skilled in Adobe Photoshop and image preparation, you can offer additional services with your portraits. For example, for an added fee your client receives an electronic scan of his/her pet portrait, ready for reproduction. He can then use this scan to order custom notecards or other products for personal use. A client who has a house portrait done might want to order personalized family greeting cards using the artwork you created. The possibilities are endless. Write a release of copyright for the desired (limited) reproduction use and include that with the additional fee. As few artists think to offer such a value-added service, this can be great PR! (You might want to make sure that your signature in the artwork is legible and easy to spot so that a recipient of said greeting card can find you with an internet search later if he/she wishes!)

Another popular area of custom work is murals. Many businesses and individuals desire painted murals, for both interiors and exteriors of buildings and other structures. If you are a painter and like to work large, this may be an ideal market for you. The number of mural painters is far fewer than the number of portrait artists, so competition is less keen. Try contacting your local chamber of commerce for assistance in getting the word out about your skills. Also contact local interior design firms and let them know about your mural work. Marketing materials help a great deal here. Make sure your business cards and flyers get into the hands of each person you contact. Also, take lots of pictures of any completed murals as those will be part of the portfolio you build to show potential clients. Murals are terrific from a marketing perspective. Just think of all those people who drive or walk by every day and see your work!

Let other artists know about your availability for custom work. An artist that specializes in small portraits may be happy to refer a mural job to you. You may also be treated to overflow work from an extremely busy and over-booked artist.

Contracts & Agreements
It is a good idea to use a written contract or agreement for each custom artwork order. A contract outlines the agreement, copyright ownership of final artwork, and any special terms. It is common to require 25% or even 50% of the total price as a deposit along with the signed contract, with the balance being due upon delivery. Your personal tastes are the ultimate guide for contract terms. Requesting money up front, however, seems to separate the serious art clients from people who waste your time. My own agreements state that the deposit is non-refundable should the client decide to cancel the project.

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Important Thoughts about Copyrights

There is a great deal of easily-accessible information regarding copyrights available online, so I will not attempt to cover the topic at length. I would like to mention some highlights, however, as many of the artists who write to me seem to have no idea what a copyright is or does.

In short, a copyright refers to what its spelling implies. It designates who has the right to copy the artwork. This is obviously important if you plan to make reproductions or license out your images. A copyright is a form of intellectual property.

In the case of visual arts, a copyright pertains to the artwork created by an artist. The copyright is separate and distinct from the artwork itself. In other words, the purchase of any artwork, including original work, does not include the transfer of copyright, unless specifically stated in writing. As the artist, you own the copyright as soon as you create the piece. No part of the copyright transfers to anyone else unless you specifically state that in writing. The only exception to this rule is when the artwork is created on someone else’s payroll. When you create a work of art as an employee or as a “work-for-hire,” the copyrights become the property of the employer.

Again, other than the above exception, you own the copyright as soon as you complete the artwork. Registration of the copyright with the Library of Congress is not required for ownership, but is required to pursue any legal action. If someone commissions you for artwork, and intends to reproduce that artwork, that person will need a written release of copyrights in order to legally reproduce the image.

You can extend a limited license of your artwork in order to allow others to reproduce it. For example, you could grant a one-year license to a t-shirt company for the right to reproduce a specific image or group of images onto t-shirts only. You would charge an up front fee for this, or negotiate royalty payments based upon product sold. With that example, the power of copyrights should be come apparent. One successful image can be used in a variety of ways, and not just by you. You can license an image to other businesses for a number of uses. You could sell your original painting, yet earn income off reproduction and licensing of the work for years to come.

You may be asked for one-time use of your images for specific projects, like yearbook covers, program covers, special event t-shirts and other special event needs. You can charge a fee for this one-time license, or donate the use for free. Just make sure the terms of the agreement are in writing. Either way, a credit line should be part of the agreement. Any reproduction of your work should be credited with your name, the title and/or type of artwork, and hopefully a website or blog address. Also ask about display advertising in exchange for use of the artwork, especially if no monies are exchanged. Say for example that a local garden show wants to use your floral painting for its program cover. You might request a nice display ad in the program in exchange for one-time reproduction use of your work.

The copyright symbol (©) does not have to appear on your artwork or reproductions as you own the copyrights to your work whether or not you use the symbol. However, use of the symbol does indicate to people viewing your work that you know you own the copyrights to your work. Most of the general public is not familiar with copyright law, so many artists choose to use the copyright symbol as a statement. It is a visual declaration of your right to reproduce the work.

Just as copyrights protect your artwork, they protect the work of other artists and photographers as well. One should never copy another artist’s work or use it as a reference guide for creating work he or she plans to sell. In addition to violating copyright law, such a gesture doesn’t say much for one’s creativity!


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