Dabe Alan / Cook and Becker

Turning video game concept art into museum-quality prints: the high art gamble of Cook and Becker

Turning video game concept art into museum-quality prints: the high art gamble of Cook and Becker

While the tiresome argument over whether or not games are “art” continues in some circles, the fact remains that the act of creating games leads to much art being created. Many talented artists create hundreds, if not thousands, of images during a game’s pre-production and production cycles. Cook and Becker, an art dealership and gallery, wants to take those images, create a limited number of prints, and unleash them into the art world.

We spoke with Maarten Brands, an art dealer who works at the gallery, about this movement to turn video game art into… well, “actual” art. “There was this bafflement that video game art was so unrepresented in the art world while at the same time being so influential, and seeing these really interesting parallels between what game artists are doing and industrial design, architecture, landscape painting, photography etc,” Brands stated. “Also the notion of concept art, which often expresses a visual idea in it purest form without gameplay or commercial constraints was very interesting to us.”

The process in turning concept art into something collectors may be willing to buy and hang on their wall is more intricate than it first appears.

It has to be good, and it has to be exclusive

Unlike paintings, where there is one original, much of the artistic work done for video games is created using a series of image editing programs and tablets that allow the artist to “draw” or paint directly onto their virtual canvas. There is often no physical component to the piece, but Brands pointed out this concept isn’t new to the world of art. “It is the same process with contemporary art photography, which is also all digital now, and many mixed media,” he explained. “Nowadays, somewhere in the creation process of young artists a computer usually makes an appearance. We are indebted to photography that paved a lot of the way in terms of accepting prints and mechanical reproduction as part of contemporary art.” He also pointed out that we’ll soon be dealing with 3D printing’s influence in the world of sculpture.

This is how it works: Cook and Becker license an image from the game’s publisher or developer, and then they work with a printing specialist and the artist to make sure the printed image matches the goals of the artist precisely. A limited number of “museum grade” prints are made of each image, and these are then numbered and sold. Once that printing is done, that’s it. No more will be made. “We sign an agreement with everybody involved that Cook & Becker governs this edition—that these are the Digital Originals—and both the printer and the artist sign a Certificate of Authenticity. Buyers are officially guaranteed that an image will not be reproduced outside this edition,” Brands said.

Even though the piece exists only in the computer before the printing process, or in perhaps in fact because of it, the gallery’s official page states the following: “Because we exclusively sell prints made from digitally created art and not reproductions of paintings for example, our prints are considered to be the originals. Only the highest-quality materials are used.”

Of course, Cook and Becker is asking collector prices for these prints, and in the art world there is the expectation that pieces bought for display or collection hold their value, or even appreciate as time goes on. That is only possible if the image is controlled, which requires legal protection to make sure no prints are made at a later date. That can be a hard sell for many studios.

“The tricky part can be that we usually ask for an exclusive license to use their images for the fine art market, not a problem for studios per se, and a license of indefinite duration, which can be a problem,” Brands said. “We can only guarantee to our customers that an artwork is ‘the digital original’ and will never again be reprinted outside of the edition that Cook & Becker offers unless we have a license that is exclusive and with a very long duration. Again, preferably indefinite. If there is any doubt about this on the side of the customer or collector he or she will be much more hesitant to pay a high price for the artwork, rightly so by the way, and it becomes much more difficult to show this artwork at prestigious art fairs around the world.”

This is an interesting experiment, and Cook and Becker has signed deals to release art from games such as Killzone and, more recently, Bioshock Infinite and the past Bioshock games. Brands told me that other deals have been struck, with details coming soon. While people love to say that gaming is art, it’s unclear whether gamers, or the modern art world, is ready to buy art from games.