Redefining “Limited Editions” for the 21st Century

Screen Shot 2014-04-07 at 7.53.37 PMThe advent of digital technology has revolutionized the print market for both artists and collectors. Traditional printmaking techniques such as lithography, intaglio, and other more traditional methods, are very closely monitored by the master printer and/ or the publisher. It was important to specify exactly how many printer proofs there were, how many artist proofs there were and how many numbered prints were made to complete the limited edition. As the prints were distributed or sold, the publisher would document how many went out and to whom. These records were closely guarded and used to verify the provenance of a particular print.

Today, artists can have their images scanned at the local copy shop, or on a home scanner and printer to produce decent results. Images can be “lifted” off of websites. Printers offering digital iris prints, Giclées, and archival inkjet prints have further confused the issues because an unlimited number of prints can be produced once a digital scan is approved. It is no longer just the artist who has control over the access to the digital files. Copyright laws for visual artists don’t help much, either. A work of art only needs to be at least 30% different from the original to be considered safe from copyright infringement…with Photoshop, that’s easy enough to do with a couple of keystrokes.

All of this is just another way of saying the term “limited edition” is obsolete when it comes to defining anything within the digital realm. As an artist, you may think you are adding value to a particular print by hand signing it and numbering it. And, in fact, you are. There has never been a substitute for the original artist’s signature. But, in regards to numbering a limited edition of prints, there is no policy in place that can verify the authenticity or numbering accuracy of digital work. The public is left to rely on the honestly of the artist, which seems like an honorable system, but will never stand the test of time. This is a perfect example of how the art world just hasn’t caught up with the technology. It is too early in the history of the process for the legality to have been challenged. But, eventually, common sense will dictate that the concept of numbering or limiting an edition of a digital print will be moot. Keep in mind this is a fairly controversial concept and you will experience resistance from printers, collectors and galleries who will urge you to sign and number your work. The choice is yours and ultimately you must do what you feel comfortable with.

In the meantime, artists should continue to sign and date their work. Typically, this is done in pencil, as pencil is more archivally stable than ink, the lower right hand side of the print, just under the edge of the margin is the usual place for your signature. If you want to put the title of the piece on the lower left side, that is your choice. If you are doing a print of a painting that already has a signature in the image, consider removing it, so that you can sign each paper piece individually.

The new world of technology has opened incredible new marketing opportunities for artists and purchasing opportunities for collectors. If you haven’t tried this process yet, there has never been a better time. The prices are lower than they have ever been, and the quality is the highest it has ever been. It allows artists to broaden their market by making work that is affordable and easy to transport. It remains to be seen how collectible these digital prints will be and how they will hold their value as time goes on. Museums and galleries are still skeptical, but there is no denying the popularity of this medium that is single handedly responsible for bringing quality fine art to the masses.