15 February 2018

CAN I REALLY MAKE a LIVING at THIS? (part 2 of 3)

Can I really make a living at this sort of art? Is the market big enough to support one more illuminator or sacred artist?

I was asked these questions recently by a talented painter who had just begun to sell her work. This is the second part (of three) of my reply:

As I wrote earlier, only about half of my income comes from original drawing. The other key (of mine, at least) to making a living as an artist is to make use of the artwork that I have already made. A copyright to a work of art can be more lucrative than the work of art itself (especially here in the United States, where big evil media corporations and wealthy cults have such strong interest in keeping their intellectual property out of the public domain. If the current laws continue to stand, my artwork will be making money for my heirs eighty years after I am dead). Don’t ever surrender, sell or share a copyright. And be sure to have a (very) high-quality scan or digital photograph of every work of art you make, backed up on multiple data storage devices, kept in different locations.

Obviously, I don’t want to cheapen my artwork by reproducing it carelessly. A religious artist should use his life’s work to fight against falseness and trivialization. I don’t want to set up a Zazzle or CafePress store where my artwork would be printed on iPhone cases and coffee mugs. I can’t claim to be a total purist here, or I would not even scan it and display it online at all, but I do try to give careful consideration to what is implied by the different ways of reproducing it.

In an age of flashy mass media, people generally do not look at pictures long enough to notice their details or learn from them; a couple of seconds, if the studies taken in art museums and galleries are accuratue. So I am willing to present my pictures in certain popular forms if they have the effect of making people pay attention to them longer. I’ve had three coloring books published, and I am looking into jigsaw puzzles.

I design a lot of ornament and lettering in the process of making my drawings, and I have been trying to find ways to make this profitable also. I have a line of print-on-demand fabrics in the works. All of this, though, is experimental at this point; giclée prints and letterpress prints are what actually make up a substantial portion of my income.

Giclée prints are made from a high-resolution digital scan or photograph, by a spray-jet printer, on thick archival paper. My drawings are small enough that I can scan them myself and prepare the print files (remove dust, fix the color balance et cetera) using Photoshop Elements. I do not own my own printer; probably I would save money if I did, but I don’t want to deal with another machine - so I send the files to a commercial print shop. What is nice about giclée prints is that, even though they are more expensive per-print than offset or letterpress prints, there is no need to order a lot of them at once. I only ask the pressmen to run them as I receive orders. That way, there is no risk of losing money by investing in a lot of prints that do not sell.

And since most of the people who buy religious images do so for the sake of devotion (not as collectors or investors) there is no reason to limit the editions. The buyers don’t care that much about a signature on the front or a number, and will pay about the same for a print without those. The practice of limiting editions started in an era when prints were made from irreplaceable metal or wood plates that wore out over time, and thus had the purpose of quality control. It still has this purpose in traditional printmaking where the plate, block or stone is prepared entirely by hand. But no modern printing method in which the image passes through a digital stage requires this; here, it is just an artificial way to raise prices.


I have mixed feelings about making and selling digital prints at all. I think that digital prints are to original artwork as CDs are to live music. I don’t mind musicians making and selling CDs; I own plenty of them. Recorded music is useful for research and education. But I also see very plainly that it is fake, and that a society in which most people are convinced that listening to music is a matter of accumulating data and pressing buttons on electronic devices is a society that will not produce or support many real, good musicians. My wife is a singer, conductor and sometime composer, so I am especially sensitive to this. As Catholics, making a distinction between what something truly, substantially is and what it looks or sounds like is at the center of our religious experience. And any fake thing that we are asked to treat as real (just because it looks or sounds real) undermines that.

So I try my best not to say or do anything to imply that a digital print is a substitute for original artwork. I consider the relief (letterpress) prints that I sell under the Millefleur Press imprint somewhat different. Relief printing involves actual contact between paper and a plate, and a reflected image in a single color of ink. Essentially, it is the same method used by Gutenberg, and I believe that the printing press emerged in late medieval Europe due to the cult of relics and the distinctions between their different classes (I explain this at the end of my lecture Invention and Exaltation). Admittedly, the process of making a printing plate from one of my drawings involves a digital stage (a 1200 dpi bitmap file that is printed as a film positive that is photochemically burned into the plate). But I nonetheless feel more comforatble presenting relief prints as works of art in their own right - derivative works of art, works of art of a lower class, but works of art nonetheless, especially when I color them by hand.

However, the risk involved in making relief prints is much higher, because I need to pay for the press run and materials up front. And while there are people who get excited about letterpress, linseed-oil based ink and handmade laid paper and understand how special these things are, there are a lot more people who would rather have a digital print in full color. Realizing this, after analyzing sales for a few years, I set aside my most ambitious plans for Millefleur Press. One day (when my drawing hand starts to shake, I suppose) I plan to spend my time formatting and publishing fine press books and presenting my life’s artwork therein. But that is no task for the present, when I still need to worry about making ends meet.

A more immediately profitable way that I have found to use my existing work is simply to copy it (by hand, as original drawings to sell). This is becoming a more and more important part of my business. It is such a simple idea that I am surprised it took me so long to realize it: making two very similar drawings earns me twice as much money, but takes a lot less than twice as much time because the research and composition need not be repeated. I am at a point where I cannot devote any more time to drawing that I already do without neglecting my family or risking repetitive motion injuries to my hands and wrists. This is a way to produce more artwork in limited time. I have never been in the habit of making preparatory sketches or rough drafts; if you are, think about making them in such a way that they could become salable works themselves.



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