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Digital Print as "Objet D’art"

When I was teaching 2D Digital Art I always talked about the creation process in terms of on-screen and off. Unless you own a large format printer (which many cannot afford to maintain) at some point you have to let go of your baby that you've nurtured and finessed on screen and send it off to the faraway land of the print studio. This can be daunting. I've printed my own work, and even then it is hard to see the image go from light on screen - which is what you were used to seeing the whole time - to pigment on paper. The image changes. Sometimes for the better and sometimes not. This transition is difficult most times because the print is never exactly what you have come to love on screen. It is always a little darker or a little less contrasty or a little more red, etc. Just not the same. But then you live with the print and if you are lucky you begin to fall in love all over again and you form a new conversation with the tangible object.

Now imagine making something and then releasing it to the hands of a print technician (possibly someone you don't even know) to finish off? Artists have a very personal connection with their artwork and we don't often think of it this way but most of the time 2D Digital Art is a form of collaboration at some point in the process. In terms of reproduction let's take it back to Digital Art's precursor, Photography. Darkroom photographers were able to reproduce their images but the process of reproduction was a craft in and of itself. The photographer makes aesthetic decisions in the darkroom that greatly effected the final outcome of the print. The print became an "Objet D’art". Can a digital print contain that same sense of craft?

I think the key to keeping the integrity of the art alive is to form a relationship with your print technician. I work with a technician who prints work for artists (not large businesses) and who is very in tune with nuances of the printing process. He goes out of his way to communicate with the artists and strives for perfection when it comes to the print and the artist's expectations. I got lucky and connected with a great printer via a recommendation from a trusted professional in the field. If you don't have such a recommendation it may take some research and some test prints with various printers to find the connection you are looking for - but it is so worth the time. Without knowing who you are collaborating with, you are letting someone else finish off your work with no say in the matter. This leads to a disconnect with your own creative process and work that will potentially fall short of your artistic vision. Make the printing process a true collaboration.

Back to the digital print as "Objet D’art", let's first talk about what exactly that term means. This term describes an art object that is of high quality, typically handmade, that is considered especially beautiful and valued. Can these words describe a digital print? Why not?

To draw on the Photography comparison again, the wet darkroom process is typically viewed as being superior to a digital print process. This is a common perception that needs some rethinking in my opinion. I have experience with both, with a BFA in Darkroom Photography and an MFA in Digital Art. Printing in the darkroom is a unique experience. You are completely engulfed in the sights (or lack thereof) and smells. The image magically appears on the blank sheet up paper right before your eyes. It is a very romanticized printing process. While digital printing is much less nostalgic, it is no less valid. The amount of control you can cast onto the print is equal if you are the one printing in both situations. In the darkroom you can adjust the papers, chemicals, and filters to change the outcome of a print. In the digital darkroom (aka photoshop) you can adjust the value and color, and then move on to making paper choices and manipulating inks and such to produce a print of your liking. Each process affords one the ability to "manually" control the outcome, in which case, I think it is safe to even say that both verge on earning the label of handmade. Both use the machine to help reproduce the image, potentially an infinite number of times. To keep the value of the image in tact I would suggest limiting your editions and if you really want to, keeping the original print a single edition.

Now this takes us back to the importance of knowing who is printing your work, communicating with them about your personal aesthetic needs, and trusting they will do their best to follow your lead and meet your standards. If you can find this person, while you still have to let go of your baby, you can at least come to terms with the idea of the collaborative process in relation to your final piece.

The fiinal digital print,, thanks to vast improvements in print technology, can be high quality and allows the informed digital artist to leave their authentic mark. I have personally seen many beautiful prints and the value, while still working itself into full acceptance in the art market, is certainly on the rise. A full conversation on that topic too will come another day, but the digital print as "Objet D’art"? If the artist's intentions are true and the artist's hand is involved in as much of the process as possible then in my mind the answer is most certainly a resounding - Yes!

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