... I'm not selling prints ...

(entry by David Bull)

Some time ago I was 'chatting' (via email exchange) with a friend who is trying to organize his life in such a way that he can make a living from his printmaking, and during the course of one interesting conversation he asked me a question ... but what are the collectors interested in, and how do you ascertain this?

I replied at length, and our conversation developed into an exploration of a point that I feel is one of the most fundamental but most neglected aspects of making a living by one's art ... just what is it that you are selling when you sell a print?

With his permission, I would like to bring you some extracts from that conversation ...

... but what are the collectors interested in ...

"This is easy. I've learned through my work and communication with people over the many years of this ten-year project that there is something

... and that something is the passion with which the work is being undertaken. People respond immediately when they feel that something is being done with passion (is this another word for 'vision'?)

"Why are all those people paying me good money every month to have me send them my Hyakunin Isshu prints? Sure, some of them like the poetry ... some of them have a general liking for prints ... this and that. But far and away greater than those details is the fact that people are attracted by the intensity and passion that I have brought to this - the scale of the project - the very idea that somebody could do all this by himself - by the depth and breadth of the things I show them as the project rolls on.

"Time and again I have had the experience of somebody asking for a subscription for 'just one year, I definitely can't afford more' - and then getting a letter from them at the end of that year, after they've had ten of the prints and essays, and four of the newsletters ... 'Another year please, and do you have any of the back issues left?'

"It's not because my prints are even all that good. It's because they get captivated by the passion of the whole thing ...


"So when you ask me: 'What are the collectors interested in?' I have to tell you that they are interested in whatever pieces of paper we give them - any design will do - as long as we bring passion and intensity to our work! As long as we do the best we can at any moment. Some of my older prints are just awful, with terribly weak colour printing and ragged carving. Those prints will be hanging with the rest on the gallery wall during next week's exhibition - but nobody will laugh at them or scorn them. Because they can see the progression of increasing skill level as they walk along the row of prints ... And some of those people will order even those 'horrible' prints ... They don't care about the 'technique' - they care about the passion.

"It's a source of great sorrow to me when I think of some of the excellent printmakers I know, and see the situation they find themselves in - they make beautiful prints, put them up on gallery walls, and then stand and wait, and wait, and wait, ... and they sell next to nothing. The reason for this failure - they think that it is enough to make beautiful prints. It's not enough!

"They must learn to take a wider view of what constitutes the 'thing' that is being presented to the collector. Most artists obviously think of it as being the 'print' - the piece of paper with the image. I see it very differently.

"Think back to those expensive prints that we were talking about the other day, those Rembrandts that were selling for many thousands of dollars - the person who buys one of those certainly isn't just buying it for the image alone, as beautiful as that may be. That buyer already carries in his head an extensive knowledge base full of information about Rembrandt, and this provides the background to which that particular print fits in. What he was purchasing was not just an image on a piece of paper - he was purchasing a 'feeling', in this case the feeling that 'he was now a Rembrandt owner'.

"But don't let my use of a 'famous name' artist confuse the issue. I'm certainly not famous, but plenty of people are collecting my prints. In my case, it isn't the feeling of owning a famous name print that is the important point for the collectors, it is their feeling of being a participant in, and supporter of, my large ten-year project. But it's the same point - they aren't just buying a piece of paper! The only people who buy pieces of paper are those people who are looking for wallpaper - and I don't want that kind of customer!


"The Rembrandt sitting on the gallery wall in a sense has it 'easy' - the potential collector of that print already has an extensive knowledge base in his mind about what the word 'Rembrandt' means. In the case of you or I, this pre-established knowledge base simply doesn't exist. Your print on the wall - if sitting there by itself - has to do something that the Rembrandt doesn't have to do - it has to stand completely and utterly and absolutely on its own artistic merit. Are you a Rembrandt? That remains to be seen. I'm not.

"So the question now becomes 'How can I communicate my passion to these potential collectors?' And this is why I try to involve the viewers as much as possible in 'peripheral' things. This is why each print in my exhibition has a 'story' stuck on the wall beside it ... this is why I do demonstrations in the gallery, this is why I send my newsletters out to anybody who asks ... If those people can develop some kind of 'knowledge base' about me, then the prints start to have more meaning, and thus more attraction, for them.

"When they come to understand what I am doing - how much I love making these prints - how much I love talking about them and showing them ... when they understand these things, that is when they start looking for the order forms ...

"And what it is that they are actually buying when they fill out that form? They are not just buying some pieces of paper - they are buying a piece of me ... a piece of my dream ... And I'm very very happy to sell it to them - there is more than enough to go around!