The fine-art printing market requires knowledge and skills the commercial wide-format market does not–here's what you need to know.
By Jake Widman
Making fine-art prints might seem like an easy “side step” for a wide-format print shop. After all, it’s just another form of ink on substrate, right?
Right—but also wrong. Fine-art printing differs in many ways from commercial or business-to-business printing, and failure to take those differences into account could sink any attempt to enter that market.
For one thing, the clients are different—artists aren’t like your other customers. Furthermore, the process requires specialized materials and knowledge. And good word of mouth trumps advertising even more than it does in the commercial market.
To find out what it takes to be successful in the fine-art market, we looked at several shops that have made a successful go of it. We talked to representatives at Ditto Editions in Salem, Massachusetts (dittoeditions.com); Silicon Gallery Fine Art Prints in Philadelphia (fineartprint.com); Iolabs in Pawtucket, Rhode Island (iolabsinc.com); Masterlab in Salt Lake City (masterlabphoto.com); and The Color Group in Seattle (thecolorgroup.com). The first three started business as fine-art printers, while Masterlab grew out of a traditional photo lab, and The Color Group began as a traditional color house.
Moving into the fine-art market is possible for any shop that doesn’t take the requirements for granted. From our conversations, we’ve come up with eight principles that, if followed, can help you make a successful foray into that business.
Principle 1: Artists are picky
Artists aren’t like commercial customers—they require a lot more personal interaction. Eric Nielsen of The Color Group says, “You have to work with artists closely. Rarely will an artist just drop something off and expect to pick it up five days later. It’s not like they’re buying a tradeshow banner that people will walk past for two days. Their work might be hanging somewhere for 50 or 100 years.”
Rick De Coyte of Silicon Gallery Fine Art Prints echoes Nielsen’s sentiment: “With artists, it’s not ‘Here’s the image,’ ‘Here’s your money.’ Artists are going to demand that you make the print the way they want it rather than just taking it the way it comes out of the machine.”
And Masterlab’s Heath Brown warns that sometimes artists will ask for the seemingly impossible. “Artists can get to the point where they’re seeing something that isn’t even there. A piece might have 20 different reds, and they want each one nailed distinctly.”