the edition debate

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to handle editions. When I first started looking at prints on Etsy, I was blown away by how many were “open edition”. It just seemed unnatural! I’m grounded in traditional, hand-printing techniques, and I am used to the idea of there being a limited number of identical images made. But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. The limited edition is a physical reality, a limitation imposed by the media in which you’re working. There are some processes that are more fleeting, where the image physically wears out until you no longer have something to print from. Stone litho, for example. When we did it in Intro to Print, we were lucky to get twenty prints. Granted, an experienced printer would do better, but they still couldn’t pull a thousand, which is something that can easily be done with a digital file. Digital prints are, well, digital. Quality doesn’t decrease with time. As long as you have the original file, there isn’t any change in the image (barring color shifts between printers). So I feel like the limited edition is tied in part to the breakdown of the printing materials.

It’s also tied to the amount of work involved, and for many artists to the idea of scarcity and collectibility. I can spend the same amount of time on a digital file as on a steel plate, but the time spent printing the two is drastically different. I have no work involved, really, in printing a digital file (just the cost of ink and paper), and can print a lot more in an hour than I could by hand with a plate. If you’re pulling a perfectly registered, ten-color silkscreen print, that is a hell of a lot of work. I can see wanting to limit the number that you ultimately make. I suppose if I was doing etchings with additional colors and plates (getting there!) I’d not want to pull hundreds, because it would take me ages and I’d ultimately go crazy. Or get bored.

I’m not so sure about the collectibility; I think that depends on audience, and even that has changed over the last few years. Far more artists are selling work online now, and while for some it’s in addition to shows and galleries, for others it’s their only outlet. I think that if you were in a gallery selling prints, you might limit an edition because only so many people would be likely to see your work, much less buy it. But now the audience is worldwide– if your art is online, it can be seen as easily by someone on another continent as by people entering the gallery.

And again with audience… I suppose that if you were only interested in selling to art collectors, you might want the image to have fewer instances because that makes them more valuable. But what if you just want to share your work with others? What if you want everyone, anyone, to be able to take your print home and enjoy it? The more I think about it, the more I like the idea of an open edition because nothing pleases me more than the thought of being able to give a print to every person who falls in love with it. If it’s only fifty people, that’s fine. But if it’s five hundred, that is so flattering! I’d hate to tell the other four hundred and fifty people that they can’t have one because they weren’t fast enough.

In State College every summer we have the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts (or Arts Fest). Their application stipulated that all prints had to be signed, limited editions, which really annoyed me. There were no rules saying a jeweler has to limit the number of identical pieces they’re making, or glass blowers, or potters. Basically, if I showed up with an open edition of prints, they’d tell me to leave.

/end rant.  So… I’m thinking about offering open editions of any digital prints, and maybe doing some of my etchings that way. My very first etching is pretty much already like that; a year and a half later, I’ve printed it I-don’t-even-know-how-many times, and there is no edition. I print it in whatever color I feel like.

And for the other etchings, like the insects, I really don’t know. My etchings are on steel plate, which can supposedly be used hundreds of times before wearing out. Maybe I’ll set an impossibly high number and just print a few at a time so they’re always on hand?


How do YOU feel about editions? Does it depend on the type of print (ie digital vs etching, woodblock, silkscreen), or whether it’s a reproduction (ie repros of a painting, since the original is definitely one of a kind)? If you are buying art does it matter more that you’re one of a select few that own it, or that you can own it at all? Are you more influenced by price (since open edition prints generally cost less)?


4 thoughts on “the edition debate

  1. Zen and the art of printing by Leigh Ann Sammis. Beautifully spoken from the heart. I agree with your stance and support you in your decisions. A more down to earth artist would be hard to find.

  2. In some ways, my editioning habits are influenced by my own success. Because I never sell a high volume of prints, especially the time-consuming multi-color big woodblocks, it doesn’t make sense for me to make many. I think I’ve only ever sold out of 2 or 3 piece editions!
    But my small monochrome prints? I can’t be bothered. I’ll just make them on demand, and the amount I charge reflects that.

    In summary, I mostly agree with what you said! :)

    1. Thanks so much for your input! :D

      That’s a really good point, about tailoring your editions. I guess if you’ve been doing it and you know your market and your limitations (time, size, time, more time…), then it’s easier to gauge…?

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