What The Numbers Mean
Probably the only reason we number our prints is that some art festivals require it. This is based on the questionable belief that numbers add value by assuring the buyer that we are not flooding the market with that particular image and thus adversely affecting their resale value. Unfortunately, there are no standards (that I have found) on what the numbers represent.
Print numbers are usually expressed as a fraction. The first number (the numerator, for those more mathematically inclined) indicates how many prints we have made so far. The second number (the denominator) represents a commitment to the maximum number of those prints we will ever make.
In the old days, printing in batches was customary (and practical), so the denominator represented the total number of completed prints. An artist couldn’t make another batch without great effort. Today prints can be made individually, as needed. The denominator is now only a promise by the photographer to show some restraint.
I believe that for most photographers, citing those historical reasons that no longer apply, the number pair only refers to prints of a particular size. That means that the number 13/200 on a 12″ by 18″ print of a specific lighthouse picture means that you are looking at the 13th 12 x 18″ print made of that picture. The photographer may also have another 95 (of say 100) 16 x 24″ prints of the same image. And after s/he sells just five more of those 16 x 24″ prints to reach the maximum promised, s/he may either start printing a slightly different size (maybe 18 x 27″) or make just enough changes to the image in post-processing to start the numbering all over again.
To further game the system, some photographers also add a few artist proofs to the collection. Others have been known to hold back the first block of, say, ten numbers to sell at a higher price after hitting their agreed print limit.
Theoretically, the smaller the denominator, the greater the value of the print. So the denominator has no other function than as a marketing ploy. Based on that theory, there should be an ideal number of prints for each image to maximize the artist’s profits from the picture. Unfortunately, there is no practical way for the starving artist to know what that ideal number is. For some of them, this is like a game of blackjack, where it is essential to guess as low as possible without going below the number of prints you are likely to sell (whatever that number might be).
How We’ve Done It
“In the beginning,” a few years B.C. (before canvas), we printed on an assortment of fine art and photo papers. When we were required to add numbers, we decided to have just one numbering system for each image, regardless of size. We set the maximum at 300 prints and retroactively reserved numbers for everything we had already sold. And although Nancy’s hand-made note cards with a 3½ x 5″ image on the front are the same quality as the rest of our work, we didn’t include them in the numbering system. When we started printing on canvas, we felt that it was different enough to justify its own number system. When some festivals required a denominator of 250 or less, we acquiesced.
The New Rule
We are now simplifying. We will merge the two number systems and print no more than 250 copies of any image in any size* on any medium. This means that for a particular image, if we’ve printed 12 on paper and eight on canvas, our next print on either medium will be 21/250. If or when we start offering acrylic or metal prints, they will still be part of the same numbering system. How we handle the numbers we have already issued is still under consideration.
* We still exclude note cards. In fact, Nancy doesn’t generally sign or number anything with an area smaller than 144 square inches (excluding canvas gallery-wrapped edges).