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Etsy and Fine Art

Current issues with Art on Etsy


Etsy has I believe great potential to develop as a site for the sale of art online. It
already has a large market share, it gets significant press coverage and, given the
context, it looks good. However, if that potential is to be realised, some changes are
needed. To some extent Etsy has recognised this by employing a taxonomist to look
at the categories and tags used to describe what is for sale. My comments now are
intended to feed into that process of review. I have based them on discussions in
various forum threads, on discussions elsewhere both face-to-face and online and on
personal research. Except where I quote directly from others the opinions expressed
are mine alone. Any interpretation of the words of others is also mine.
My comments focus on four areas:
• How visible is art on Etsy. It is common to see reports in forum threads that
people ‘out there’ simply don’t think of Etsy as a place to look for art. This is
linked to another common view that Etsy simply doesn’t understand art or is
only interested in a particular type of art – there are many references to an
Etsy ‘aesthetic’.
• The site structure as it relates to art and in particular categories and tagging.
Ambiguities and apparent duplications abound. The categories/tags offered
are very confused – and confusing to anyone trying to use them and this is
compounded by the way search appears to work..
• Related to categories and tagging is the specific issue of originals, prints and
reproductions.
Summary of Proposals
1. Etsy should create a new top-level category of Fine Art to sit alongside the
existing ones of Handmade, Supplies and Vintage.
2. The existing lists of categories and sub-categories under art should be
extensively revised.
3. It should be made clear that these are actually suggested tags, rather than
hierarchical categories.
4. The tagging process should exclude certain combinations of tags
5. The search process should be revised to look only within a top-level category
as the default – this would prevent for example searches in Art bringing up
items in Handmade (and vice versa) unless explicitly chosen.
6. Original, print, reproduction and giclée should be clearly defined by Etsy
along the lines set out here.
7. Use of original and reproduction as tags for the same item should be
impossible. Until this can be achieved by programming means it should be set
out in new guidelines.
8. Use of ‘print’ in isolation as a synonym for ‘reproduction’ should be prohibited.
9. Unless originals and reproductions can be easily separated in searches, use
of the original materials as tags for reproductions should be prohibited.
10. Photography should remain as a separate art category
11. Digital art should be included within printmaking.
Visibility
One thread, (http://www.etsy.com/forums_thread.php?thread_id=6105708 begun by
derekcollins) summarised how art is represented on Etsy. For convenience I have
reproduced the first post in that thread below. Detailed numbers may have changed
since then but the broad picture still remains true.
There are 31 categories on the Etsy front page. Most of the categories state exactly
what the product is. When you read the Name you know exactly what the product is,
ie. Candles, Bags and Purses, furniture, jewelry, pottery, knitting, you get the point.
Art is a generic term that doesn't directly describe the product.
POINT 1: Art being only 1 category out of 31, makes it look like it is a small category.
If you glance though the list, you will miss it. It's Marketing 101, you only have a few
seconds to get the shoppers attention. Within a few seconds the person decides to
stay on the site or leave. If they are looking for paintings, photography or sculpture
and they are not on the list, they will probably leave.
POINT 2: All of the products in the art category are not visible, they are a click away.
You have to click ART to find out what the products are. This puts those products at a
distinct disadvantage to the products whose title are directly listed on the front page.
POINT 3: Art is a Huge category, it is the largest actual product on Etsy, surpassed
only by the category SUPPLIES.
There are 31 categories on the Etsy home page. What I am going to do now is list
some of the categories that are within the sub-category of art. I am listing them by the
number of items listed On Etsy. I am comparing how they would rank in size
compared to the 31 categories listed on the Etsy front page. (The list was hard to
compile a click at a time, so it may be slightly off, I may have missed 1, but it is pretty
close)
The 5th largest product category on Etsy is:
5th = Handmade Prints 124,000 items
6th = Painting 113,000
8th = Photography 106,000
9th = Illustration 60,000
12th = Mixed Media 51,000
16th = Drawing 39,000
18th =Collage 31,000
Is this fair that these categories are so large and have no visibility on the front page?
Just asking.
This is a list of some of the products that are listed on the front page that have fewer
items than these.

• Sport = 327 items


• Toys = 1000 items
• Furniture = 4,500 items
• Candles 15,000
• Quilts = 16,000
• Books = 21,000
• Woodworking 23,000
• Dolls 26,000
• Pets = 26,000
POINT 4 : The term for ALL THINGS HANDMADE doesn't really refer to Paintings,
Photography, and a lot of other Items in the Art category. If you read that term, you
wouldn't expect to find Prints of paintings on Etsy, for an example. Not having Prints,
Photography, or paintings listed on the Front page only further enhances that
perception.
POINT 5: The pictures on the Etsy Home page.
We have established that the Art category is huge.
But, from what I have seen, there is a very small percentage of items out of that
category on the Front page at any one given time. This further enhances the
perception that there is [not] a lot of Art on Etsy.
The discussion on this telling post kicked around a number of options, such as
breaking out art in the category list into a greater number of headings, before coming
up I think with the simplest.
Etsy has already recognised that for the art category, the strap line ‘Hand Made’ is
not appropriate – it doesn’t fit with common usage. With that in mind it was proposed
that a new, top level, category be created of Art, to go alongside the existing ones of
Handmade, Supplies and Vintage. This would I think require a different approach to
the front page to make this four-way split more explicit. It could be argued for
example that burying the existing Supplies and Vintage categories in that list of 31
fails to give them adequate coverage either. If coupled with a revamp of the search
process so that a search on one category would not bring in items from the others
unless specifically requested this would mean that the present situation, where
birdhouses, brooms, jewellery and many other things turn up in an art search, would
no longer be possible.
The new front page could begin by asking the question ‘What do you want to look
at?’ with the four choices being graphically highlighted. Perhaps each choice could
have a graphic drawn at random from the appropriate main category, changing every
60 seconds or so. The link would be however to the detailed front page for that
category, to avoid the current obsession with front page appearances. It would also
be important I think to retain as many other ways as possible into the site so the
other items currently on the front page would be retained wherever possible – links to
the Storque, to showcases, curated choices etc.
In many ways it would be better to use ‘Fine Art’, because that would, of itself, give a
clear message about Etsy’s intentions. However, my personal position is that this
would be incompatible with the sale of reproductions. I know however from
discussion in the forums, others do not agree with this position.
Recommended:
1. Etsy should create a new top-level category of Fine Art to sit alongside the
existing ones of Handmade, Supplies and Vintage.
Structure
Although the terms ‘categories’ and ‘sub-categories’ are commonly used, in practice
it seems that there is no real hierarchical structure to the site and everything other
than the very top level of Handmade, Supplies and Vintage is actually a tag. This is
suggested by the way in which search brings up items in other categories. Assuming
that is the case, they should be presented as ‘suggested tags’ not as discrete
categories and changes made to the search process to prevent for example
something tagged with painting in the ceramics category showing up in art. It seems
likely that much of the alleged mis-tagging is because of problems with search rather
than any deliberate attempt to mislead. Mistagging does occur, but it would be much
less value if search was changed.
I have attached a detailed analysis of the categories and sub-categories as an
appendix. My comments in the appendix and below apply whether these are actually
hierarchical categories or tags. In both cases a much greater degree of rigour and
clarity is essential.
Looked at overall, the sub-categories identified under each art category show no sign
of any logic. Too often they appear to be the outcome of a perfunctory brainstorming
carried out in isolation even from the other art forms. I can see no other explanation
for what we are faced with on the site.
Long term it might be advisable to look at ways to exclude materials from tags and
add the present materials field into the search process.
Recommended:
1. The existing lists of categories and sub-categories under art should be
extensively revised.
2. It should be made clear that these are actually suggested tags, rather than
hierarchical categories.
3. The tagging process should exclude certain combinations of tags.
4. The search process should be revised to look only within a top-level category
as the default – this would prevent for example searches in Art bringing up
items in Handmade (and vice versa) unless explicitly chosen.
Original, print, reproduction
Although this issue is related to tagging and categorisation, it is an area that causes
particular argument and confusion. The term giclée is another source of difficulty, but
that is best considered as part of the original – print – reproduction question.
The key issue revolves around establishing the meaning of an original, a
reproduction and a print.
An original has been defined as a “one-of-a-kind piece executed by the artist’s
hand. This art category includes such media as paintings, sketches, colorings,
collages, calligraphy, scratchboards, and animation cels.”1 There have been attempts
in various forum threads to muddy the waters by confusing two meanings of the word
original - 'physical original' as against 'original idea'. Since Etsy is not a juried site, we
can only really consider the first – the physical original.
By contrast a reproduction is a copy of an already existing original piece of art. On
Etsy the waters have again been muddied from time to time by suggestions that the
term reproduction only applies to a copy made using the same techniques. On that
basis a painted copy of the Mona Lisa would be a reproduction, but a photographic
copy would not - a rather bizarre conclusion.
It is the area of prints that seems to generate the most problems. Some of these are
created by Etsy’s muddy categories, but even setting that aside much confusion still
exists.
Printmaking according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica is:
"...broadly, the production of images normally on paper and exceptionally on
fabric, parchment, plastic or other support by various processes of
multiplication; more narrowly, the making and printing of graphic works by
hand or under the supervision of the artist."
“A fine art print is a "multiple original." That is to say, usually within the
confines of a limited edition, the artist conceives and executes his work
specifically in the context of one or another of the serial techniques:
etching, woodcut, silk screen, lino cut, etc. Most artists feel that the technique
itself adds a new dimension to an original work of art, transforming a mere

1
Taken from here: http://www.customdesignworkshop.com/cdw/art_glossary.asp
drawing into something more sublime through one or another of the
processes of serial reproduction”.2
Outside the world of fine art, ‘print’ has developed another meaning to the 'fine art'
one defined above. This secondary meaning has been created by marketers not
artists and is literally applied to anything from posters to high quality drum scanned
reproductions of old masters. Almost without exception prints sold under the
marketing definition are in fine art terms, reproductions. They may be sold as
‘Giclée’, ‘fine art limited editions’, ‘artist prints’ or one of a myriad other terms, but
unless the image was “conceived and executed …specifically in the context” of that
print medium and has not been copied from other media, they remain reproductions.
Incidentally this marketing usage of the print has also degraded the meaning of
giclée since that has also been increasingly used to mean a reproduction.
The parallel categories of prints and printmaking used by Etsy are unhelpful in this
context. They add even more uncertainty to an already muddled situation and should
be merged, probably as ‘printmaking’. I will come back to the sub-categories included
in print, but not printmaking later.
There is a related question of how to tag reproductions. As things stand there is a
main art sub-category of reproductions, but the majority of such appear to be placed
in other categories, sometimes print or printmaking but sometimes even the original
medium.
Etsy guidelines on tagging seem quite clear:
• If the word describes what something is, don't use that unless your item *is*
that.
A reproduction of a painting is not a painting, so a reproduction should not
use 'painting' as a tag.
• What is the main material?
A reproduction of an oil painting doesn't use oil paint, so a reproduction
should not use 'oil' as a tag.
• What method or technique did you use to make it?
A reproduction of an oil painting is not painted so should not be tagged
'painting'.
• Are there synonyms?
Painting is not a synonym for reproduction, so reproductions should not be
tagged ‘painting’.
Given the current state of search, tagging a reproduction with the media of the
original image is potentially misleading and may in some legal jurisdictions be illegal.
Unless originals and reproductions can be clearly separated it should be avoided.
Use of ‘print’ as a synonym for reproduction is grossly misleading and should not be
possible.
Two other areas of uncertainty for the printmaking category remain, photography
(both digital and film) and ‘digital art’ (the meaning of which is of itself subject to
much uncertainty).
The idea of a fine art print does not traditionally include photographs, but the concept
of fine art photography is well established and it is traditional to talk of a photographic
print. Photography could be incorporated into the Printmaking category, but would
probably be best left outside as now.
2
Taken from: http://www.worldprintmakers.com/english/pmdef.htm
A much greater difficulty arises with digital art. One suggestion in this thread
(http://www.etsy.com/forums_thread.php?thread_id=6301596&page=58#post-
43165985) was for a specific category with sub-categories as below:
3-D algorithmic animation collage
drawing fractal illustration mixed media
montage painting photomanipulation pixel
vector
Should digital art be a main category in any case? Should it be a part of printmaking
instead, in which case should a digital print be described as an ‘original print’ in the
same way as say a linocut?
As for the suggested sub-categories, they again mix up media, style and to a degree,
subject. Pixel and vector are in any case redundant, since all the others are either
pixel based e.g. painting or vector based e.g. fractals. Photomanipulation is
ambiguous, since it could equally be in photography, depending on the degree of
manipulation. It is not necessarily a digital process in any case. What is digital mixed
media? I’m not aware of anyone selling video art on Etsy, so I am not sure how
animation would fit in. If it were to be included where would non-digital animation go?
I have not found anyone selling moving images on Etsy, so other than digital collage
sheets (which would be a Supply) it seems reasonable to assume all digital artists on
Etsy are selling a physical image. It seems probable that most digital artists see
themselves as working within the printmaking tradition, although terms like digital
painting are also common. However since digital images are by definition multiples it
seems most appropriate that digital art should be placed within printmaking.
There remains the question of whether digital prints are also ‘original prints’ in the
same manner as linocuts etc. In my view the test is the same - is the image made by
or under the direction of the artist? If so, then it would be an 'original print'. I'm not
sure how that would affect those prints produced and sent to the buyer without the
artist seeing them but as I understand it that is not allowed on Etsy anyway.
Like ‘print’, ‘giclée’ is a much abused term. Giclée is a printing process but as with
linocut etc it is also used to describe the prints made by that process. It properly
describes the output from Iris printers that can produce variable size dots and use
dye based inks.3 Giclée is also often used to mean prints from high-end inkjets using
pigment-based inks. These should properly be described simply as archival (if that
applies) and pigment based prints.
It has also been debased to mean simply reproduction. A giclée print is not of itself a
reproduction. The test of a reproduction remains that described earlier and is
independent of the printing process.
Recommended:
1. Original, print, reproduction and giclée should be clearly defined by Etsy
along the lines set out here.
2. Use of original and reproduction as tags for the same item should be
impossible. Until this can be achieved by programming means it should be set
out in new guidelines.
3. Use of ‘print’ in isolation as a synonym for ‘reproduction’ should be prohibited.

3
Giclée , the short history of inkjet digital printmaking:
http://www.worldprintmakers.com/english/giclee.htm (article written about 2002)
4. Unless originals and reproductions can be easily separated in searches, use
of the original materials as tags for reproductions should be prohibited.
5. Photography should remain as a separate art category
6. Digital art should be included within printmaking.
Appendix: Art categories and sub-categories on Etsy
The sub-categories within Art are repeated below.
aceo collage drawing fiber art
illustration mixed media painting photography
print printmaking reproduction sculpture

These are a mess. ACEO is a format, not a medium; the difference between print
and printmaking is obscure, while reproduction is at odds with the rest. How does a
reproduction fit with the idea of Handmade in the first place?
As you know these sub-categories are further sub-divided. The first of these, ACEO
appears to have the other main categories as sub-categories below it. I can
understand the logic of this since ACEOs are a very popular format. However, the
problem of distinguishing between print and printmaking and the appropriateness of
reproduction still apply. If these are indeed tags and not hierarchical categories it
creates major problems for search unless the searcher is skilled in Etsy search
syntax.
The Collage sub-categories are extremely confused.
abstract digital original collage
painting paper photo
portrait print surreal

The selection seems arbitrary. They mix styles, medium and subject, it isn’t clear why
‘original collage’ is thought to be needed while reproduction isn’t, why ‘painting’ is
there at all, or why ‘abstract’, ‘portrait’ and ‘surreal’ are in the list, but not say
maritime or landscape. Why is ‘paper’ there but not fabric? Why not mixed media?
Why is ‘print’ repeated from the top level of art categories? How can a collage also
be a print? Where is ‘printmaking’?
Drawing is even more confused.
abstract charcoal digital ink
landscape marker original original drawing
pastel pencil pop portrait
print surreal

Again styles are mixed with media and subject, but added to that are other strange
things. What for example is the difference between ‘original’ and ‘original drawing’?
What does ‘pop’ mean? How can a drawing also be a print? Many people think of
pastel as being a form of painting. How would you categorise ink and wash? Where
is ‘printmaking’?
Fibre art (sorry – I’m English!) Why is this here at all? How is it different from crochet,
knitting or needlecraft? On a related point does the search pick up fiber/fibre?
Confusion also reigns within the Illustration category.
Abstract charcoal digital fashion
ink landscape marker nude
original illustration pastel pencil pop
portrait print still life surreal

Styles, subject and medium are again mixed up. Why original illustration (and not
reproduction)? Still life appears here but not in drawing – why? What is an illustration
as opposed to other forms of art? Do cartoons go in drawing or illustration? At the
moment they are in neither. Again ‘print’ appears but not ‘printmaking’ (or
reproduction).
Mixed Media gets worse.
3d altered assemblage book
mixed media mosaic scrapbooking
original

How does 3d differ from sculpture? Altered what? What is a mixed media book?
Does it mean altered book? Yet again why do we have ‘mixed media original’?
Mosaic is just wrong. It is a medium in its own right. If it has to be at this level it
should surely be under Collage? This time neither print, printmaking or reproduction
appear.
Painting has the usual mix of media, subject and style.
abstract acrylic canvas digital
encaustic gouache landscape oil
original painting pop portrait print
reproduction still life surreal watercolor

Why original painting? Why print? Why is reproduction suddenly in there (especially
when it also has a category of its own) although still no printmaking? Why some
subjects and not others – e.g. still life, maritime, aircraft, animals, nude? Why canvas
but not paper or board?
Photography is equally confused, in fact almost bizarre.
abstract black and white collage cyanotype
digital film landscape lomography
macro nature pinhole polaroid
pop portrait surreal ttv

We have the usual mixture of medium (film/digital), subject and style, plus other
options unique to photography. Why cyanotype, but not sepia or platinum or gold
toning? Why black and white but not colour? Lomography and Polaroid are about
types of camera so why not 35mm, medium format, large format? Is pop here a
subject (music) or a style? If a style what does it mean? Why no fashion or nude as
subjects? What about urban, photojournalism, candid? Why ttv? (I had to Google it to
even find out what it was.) Why not photography with other vintage cameras? Toy
cameras?
The Prints and Printmaking categories raise many questions, starting of course with
why both? What is the difference if any? Linked to these is the Reproduction
category, which has sub-categories that overlap with both, but doesn’t include the
categories that one might assume are actually being reproduced.
Prints has these sub-categories
aquatint collograph digital drypoint
engraving etching giclee gocco
letterpress linocut lithograph mixed media
monotype screenprint stencil woodblock

Printmaking has all of these except ‘digital’ and ‘giclee’.


Reproduction on the other hand only has these:
archival digital giclee illustration
limited edition open edition painting

I understand that at some stage the printmaking category was added, printmakers
haven’t apparently expressed concern over the terminology. It isn’t clear however
why the existing print category was retained, unless it was in related to some
confused thinking about the nature of an original print and the idea of a reproduction.
Why are digital and giclée included in ‘print’, but not in ‘printmaking’?
The concept of prints as multiple originals is inseparable from the idea of an edition –
whether limited or open – and yet these terms are not included in either prints or
printmaking, only in reproductions.
Gocco is simply a form of screen print made using a particular piece of commercially
available equipment. Once produced I’m not sure it can be identified as being
specifically produced that way? If not why is it separately listed? Linocut is there but
not woodblock – or is woodblock meant to be a part of engraving?
Sculpture is not an area I have great knowledge of but also appears to have
problems.
abstract animal assemblage ceramic
clay fiber figure found object
glass installation metal mixed media
mobile mosaic painted paper
people plaster stone wood

Again there is a mixture of styles, materials and subject. What is the difference
between ‘people’ and ‘figure’, or ‘assemblage’ and ‘mixed media’? Is mosaic a form
of sculpture in its own right? What is the appropriate category for a sculpture
assembled from pieces of wood – ‘assemblage’ or ‘wood’?