With NFTs, the art market goes crypto

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3/22/2021

#hash2

Illustration by Vered Bloch

NTFs open up groundbreaking possibilities for selling digital artwork as authenticated files. Here’s what designers need to know.

4 min read

Large, sans serif letters reading “NFT” and a ornate picture frame with the JPG icon placed at its center.

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On May 1st, 2007, the artist and designer Mike Winkelmann — better known as Beeple — decided to spend an hour or two creating an image. It was a pen drawing of his uncle Jim and looked like the kind of thing a particularly talented doodler would scribble on a high school binder. Staccato ballpoint strokes outline his uncle’s impish eyebrows and defined cheekbones, while a picket fence of dark blue ink forms a bushy 1970’s mustache floating above a toothy, Cheshire-cat grin. Next to the portrait was a nickname Winkelmann himself gave to his uncle written in offset block letters: “UBERJAY.”


This pen ink portrait was Beeple’s first “Everyday,” his name for a series of works he completed, well, every day for more than a decade. He had wanted to spend an hour or two every day learning new tools and creating a single piece of art using what he had learned. Some works were abstract illustrations using software he was unfamiliar with and some were futuristic architectural renderings like something out of a scifi movie. “Everydays'' were a way for Beeple to keep himself motivated to keep learning and honing his skills as an artist, a progression you can see in real time as he moved from simple doodles to refined illustrations and into the world of 3D modeling and animation. “I thought that doing the Everydays would be a good way to make sure I’d stick at something and develop my skills,” he told Wix in a 2018 interview. Beeple stayed true to his commitment and to date has created more than 5000 Everydays.


And that might be why you’ve heard of him. Beeple packaged that milestone collection of work into a single digital piece of art titled “The First 5000 Days.” The piece only exists as a JPEG; there is no physical manifestation of the work, no way to hang it on your wall without hanging a monitor and loading it onto the screen. “The First 5000 Days” is a Non-Fungible Token (NFT) and last week it was sold by the auction house Christie’s for $69 million worth of the cryptocurrency Ethereum, the first sale of its kind for the legendary auction house.



"Everydays — The First 5000 Days” is a collage created by the artist known as Beeple. Via Christie's.

Mike Winkelmann, aka Beeple, in 2018. Photo by Alan Tzatzkin.


The NFT is the only certified “original” of that work and holds value for both the artist and the owner, and “where” that file lives on the internet is the difference between an expensive original and a worthless derivative.


What is an NFT?


As that eye watering number begins to sink in, we should explain what an NFT is. Think of an NFT as a digital certificate of authenticity that uses the blockchain to verify ownership of a given file. Many NFTs base their unique identifiers on the widely used Ethereum blockchain that also undergirds the cryptocurrency of the same name, but the file itself is not stored on the blockchain. Instead, the file’s location is stored on the blockchain so that when someone is trying to understand where the unique (and valuable) version of a JPEG or GIF is, it can be verified beyond doubt. Everyone else can still use a copy of that file for their own purposes, but without that blockchain-stored location the file is worthless. The NFT is the only certified “original” of that work and holds value for both the artist and the owner, and “where” that file lives on the internet is the difference between an expensive original and a worthless derivative.


For example, an NFT of Nyan Cat, the iconic gif of a cat with a poptart for a body sprinting through space with rainbow afterburners, was sold for $590,000 by Chris Torres, the artist who originally created the funky feline in 2011. You and I can still use Nyan Cat as a gif, but the unique address of where that original lives points to a single owner’s digital wallet or collection which bestows value on that specific version of the file.





Designers are beginning to think about how they can potentially turn their work into pieces that pique the interest of a growing collector’s market — and there have already been some success stories.


A fast growing market for digital art


If that sounds complex and a bit bewildering, you’re not alone. NFTs are a rapidly emerging sector of the art market, and with that meteoric rise can come over heated markets and misunderstandings. That being said, designers are beginning to think about how they can potentially turn their work into pieces that pique the interest of a growing collector’s market — and there have already been some success stories. Graphic designer David Rumnick, made his name collaborating with musicians like Oneohtrix Point Never and Nicolas Jaar, sold an NFT on Valentine’s Day for $20,000 and UK-based artist and computer scientist Brendan Dawes has sold several NFTs for thousands of dollars over the past few years.


For designers who might want to turn their work into covetable collectibles, there are a few things to consider. First, the NFT market is immature which means that many artists finding success are ones that already have a large social or creative following. NFTs are seen as a potential way for popular artists to monetize their work directly, but that only works if there is enough demand or notoriety to dictate a high price.


But if you’re keen to turn your work into an NFT, there are several auction sites specifically geared towards selling crypto art including Nifty Gateway, Foundation, and SuperRare. Each platform hosts work from graphic designers of all stripes, from 3D animators to illustrators to fine artists. They also take different percentages of sales and offer different terms so make sure you research which suits your needs before you list your first work.


Taking the plunge into the NFT market can feel like wading into unknown territory, but even the world’s most famous NFT artist wasn’t expecting to find this much success when he started his magnum opus 14 years ago. In a 2018 interview with Wix, Beeple claimed he didn’t glean much in the way of technical skills from his Everydays project.; it was more about the inertia and the work. “I’ve weirdly learned shockingly little from the project. It’s almost astounding how little I’ve learned, if anything,” he said. “To be honest, I kind of feel like I got a bit lucky.” Sometimes being lucky is enough, but Beeple has ushered in a new age for the art market — and for designers.