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Monday, September 5, 2011

Art Prints

As modern-day painters, we are acutely aware of the role played by the art print in today's art market. Those deriving their livelihood from the sale of original paintings lament their sapping much of the strength from the "low-end" market; while those artist who can afford the investment and have secured a ready market for prints of their own work find the sale of their creative efforts in such a product, most fulfilling. And quite apart from the economic element, artists often lament the somewhat cliche nature of the subject matter displayed in such works printed for mass distribution. But inherent in the word "mass" is the assumption that the subject matter will appeal to the masses, and it is from this that the argument arises, if the appeal is that common, is it truly art, which by their definition, involves the "exceptional?"

This question is not new. In seventeenth century Holland, from whence came much of what we know now as the modern art marketplace, etchers were acutely aware of the kind of subject matter that would insure a lively market for their work. Calendars, caricatures, genre scenes, and images depicting religion and folklore were successful.  Sound familiar?  There are differences today though.  Landscapes did not lend themselves well to the etcher's talents, nor did anything else requiring the presence of color to make its impact felt. Who would want a monochromatic image of flowers, for instance?  Today however, with modern color lithography, these subjects make up a largest part of the print market.

The Three Crosses, 1653, Rembrandt van Rijn
Artists such as Durer, Rubens, and Rembrandt were quite savvy to the art market of their day. Today, few painters would ever consider etching their own plates, dirtying their hands with ink, or straining their backs operating massive printing presses just to sell a few black and white prints for a few green and white bucks. But in Rembrandt's day, the really successful painter had to learn two trades. In addition to mastering the arts and sciences of composition, drawing, grinding pigments, and applying them skillfully to canvas, he or she had to learn the highly technical skills needed to recreate that image with a sharp stylus, scratching away wax from a metal plate, dipping it in acid, cleaning, inking, and printing it, only to repeat the process again and again until he got the image just right. And that was before he began churning out the salable prints.  It was hard, boring work, but painters knew they had to do it, or else, given the lack of copyright laws at the time, someone else would!
The Hundred Guilder Print, 1647, Rembrandt van Rijn

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