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Popular Moku Hanga

Item # 66078 - Andes Trekking, Mt. Huascaran - Peru - Sold for $200 - 3/20/2016
"Peru, Andes Trekking". Mountain climbers and donkeys are trekking a narrow path on the Andes mountains. Mt. Huascaran looms in the blue sky.
By Osamu Sugiyama born 1946

"During the Edo period, a woodblock print was the same price as a bowl of noodles. He advised me not to be expensive, not to be elitist. He said it's for the public because it's printed art. Make it accessible to the world." (Tokuriki Tomikichiro cited by the artist Daniel Kelly)

Moku Hanga are the Japanese words for "woodblock prints". This is the third part of an essay in which the author, Dieter Wanczura, presents a thesis for a new mass market for Japanese woodblock prints - a popular moku hanga movement - comparable to the concept of ukiyo-e (images of the floating world) in the 18th and 19th century.

This third article has some provocative theses about what printmakers should not do if they want to sell their works - especially in the Internet. I have recently exchanged many emails with two printmakers who had asked for my help what they should do to make their woodblock prints more sellable. This article is a wrap-up of my advice - wrapped in down-to-earth, not necessarily diplomatic, but crystal-clear words.

Japanese Woodblock Prints over Three Centuries

In my first article 'From Ukiyo-e to Moku Hanga' I described the mass character of the Japanese print during the 18th end the 19th century. The second part, titled 'Japanese Art Prints in the 20th Century' was about a completely different development in the 20th century. Ukiyo-e (Japanese prints) turned from a cheap mass product into mostly expensive "high art" for an academic upper middle class.

Scholars discuss in long articles whether ukiyo-e is an art form or a mass media. I do not have much interest in this discussion. As the owner of a company that tries to sell art, and as an individual that appreciates good art created with a high level of craftmaship, I am fascinated by the idea that there once was an art or artisan movement that was popular among common people - comparable maybe to today's poster market.

Now in the 21st century we have a rather high standard of living for the majority of the population in North America, Europe, Australia and some parts of Asia. And now we have the Internet as an ideal platform to sell affordable art products in large quantities.

In a nutshell, today's requirements are by far better for an art mass movement compared to the old ukiyo-e times 100 to 200 years ago. But in spite of best requirements for an art mass movement, art is today more than ever an exclusive, elite thing - outside the space of ordinary people.

The Art Circus

For most artists and for the majority of art dealers the times have always been lousy. Many artists are glad if they sell anything at all. Only few can make a full-time living from their art creations. Also among the art dealers, gallery owners and other art professionals are many that have to be regarded as hobby dealers. They either have a second job or they practice a hobby financially supported by a good income of their spouse.

At the same time a huge art circus has developed over the last years with contemporary art. It is concentrated on a small number of international galleries and recently more and more on the large auction houses in New York, London, Hong Kong, Singapur, Paris and recently also in Beijing and Shanghai. In September, shortly before the U.S. financial crisis turned into an international economic panic, one of the big auction houses sold for ca. 140 million EURO within very few days in an auction of "art" objects by contemporary UK artist Damien Hirst.

You Want to Sell Your Art on the Internet?

After several years of experience in online sales and ca. 30,000 sold art prints I still do not know for sure what and why they sell. But I have learned a little what does not sell. This experience is entirely based on online sales. The rules of the game may be different for brick-and mortar sales platforms with face-to-face selling.

I think in the long run, the Internet - unless it goes down the drain, which I consider as not very probable - will be the dominant place for the sale of art objects up to a price of ca. $2,000 to $5,000. Art objects above this limit will remain a domain for conventional face-to-face selling for a long time - in my view.

Artists who want to sell by the Internet, should follow a few simple rules of common sense. In my opinion many contemporary printmakers do everything wrong that they could do wrong under with view to saleability.

The Mistakes of Contemporary Printmakers

Here is a list of things that artists should in my experience do/not do - provided that the salability of your art works is a point for you. But even if you can afford to create art works that nobody wants, quite honestly, it is no fun for anybody.

Use Colors

Black and white does not sell well. It is a minority that buys b/w prints in the Internet. Give the world color - friendly, positive colors. Nobody except the mentally depressed want to decorate their homes with images that spread a somber atmosphere.

Mind your Sizes

That is the most no-seller stupidity that unfortunately so many contemporary printmakers do. The prints they produce are too large. One of the reasons why contemporary artists produce such XXXL sized prints is to get attention in large exhibition rooms.

But how can a collector store prints that do not fit into the largest drawer? One can buy special cabinets for print collectors. I do possess one that I fortunately received for very little money. Normally these cabinets cost an arm and a leg and they look ugly in any house or apartment. So what shall an average collector do with your monster prints? Store them on the floor or on top of some gigantic cabinets?

Prints in the typical ukiyo-e size of Oban (ca. 10 x 15 inches = 25 x 38 cm) or Dai-Oban (ca. 14 x 18 inches = 35 x 45 cm) can be shipped from Germany to the USA as a registered letter for costs of ca. $30-40. Any sizes above cost a minimum of $70.

Internet buyers are extremely sensitive towards shipping fees. But on the other hand Internet buyers do no longer read anything on the web site, including the shipment fees. But they read their invoices and their credit card statements and are upset when you charge $60 shipping fee.

The most stupid thing an artist can do is to create low-priced prints in large sizes. And it is even more stupid by an Internet dealer like artelino to accept such prints for an auction.

And finally there is the problem of safe packing for large prints. Over the years I have experienced the most unbelievable packing by artists, but also by art dealers, gallery owners and private collectors. Artists send their monster prints usually rolled like posters in a tube. But that does not work unless you have years of experience.

In 99% of all cases, prints packed in a tube will arrive with the edges creased on both ends. Also the surface of prints may get damaged by rolling them. Even we at artelino with the experience of thousands of packages shipped, have learned our lessons. Whenever possible, we ship in very large, sturdy flat packages. The material has to be custom-made and cannot be bought anywhere.

Huge Margins - What for?

A wide-spread foolishness in modern printmaking are HUGE margins. What for? For nothing - no, worse than that. You drive up the shipment and the framing costs.

Ugliness Does not Sell

Would you hang a print on your wall with an ugly subject or something that looks ugly in the eyes of most people? I would not, and I am sure that 99% of common people do not.

Most people want to see something pleasing. That does not mean that you have to produce kitschy commercialized stuff. It is like movies. One can produce a movie that is praised by critics but that nobody wants to see. And you can produce trivial, low-level movies that fill the movie theaters. Only few can produce great films that are both blockbusters AND great art movies. In my view, films like "Lord of the Rings" or the "Star Wars" series are such films.

Remember: The greatest art is to create art works that blow your socks off and are at the same time blockbusters.

Do Not Produce Rubbish

If you are among the top ten best selling contemporary artists in the world, you can afford to spill your morning coffee over an empty canvas and praise it as great art. If you have an excellent salesman behind you, you might even get a lot of money for it. There are always some nutsos with too much money somewhere on this globe who are stupid enough to spend big money on rubbish.

Craftsmanship Counts

For you as a moku hanga printmaker this kind of "art" will not work - even if you are among the worldwide top hundred moku hanga printmakers. Buyers on the Internet appreciate and honor elaborate work. You need excellent craftsmanship. Mainly among the Western moku hanga artists the majority is simply technically challenged. In my experience these works of simplicity are no-sellers in the Internet.

Regional or International?

The subjects an artist should choose, depend on where he wants to sell - in a regional market or international. The question of the "right" subject is not as obvious as for instance "right" sizes. I will discuss this in the fourth and last article about "popular moku hanga".

Learning from Ukiyo-e

The Japanese printmakers of the 18th and 20th century knew how to make a print that can be sold. Classical ukiyo-e have small margins and the sizes are oban (ca. 10 x 15 inches = 25 x 38 cm) - ideal to collect them in a folder and keep them in a drawer - which the Japanese did, and therefore so many are still well preserved. These old ukiyo-e were a mass business for the commoners - real art (or maybe art media) for the people!

Of all modern Japanese artists very few come next to this old ideal. The prints by Katsuyuki Nishijima are for instance very close to the old ukiyo-e concept. He sells his prints by the thousands. Take a look at them. Some may consider them as kitschy, but they look nice, can be created with a reasonable amount of effort and time and they sell.

Literature reference

The citation by Tokuriki Tomikichiro was remembered by Daniel Kelly, who had learned the art of woodblock printmaking from this great Japanese master. The Tokuriki Tomikichiro statement was found in the following book:

Dieter WanczuraAuthor: Dieter Wanczura