Fine Canvas Prints Aims to Preserve Phoenix Artwork with Ultramodern Technology

Matthew Owens and Glen Allen discuss what they want to try scanning next: Negatives? Sculptures? Bigger frames? Transparencies? Black light reflective images?

"We haven't seen much that we can't do," Owens says, pointing to the 10-foot mega scanner in the center of Fine Canvas Prints' studio in North Phoenix.

The two talk rapidly about huge concepts and technical details like they're picking up a years-long conversation that is rarely heard or understood outside this office. They toss around jargon like "tri-lineal scan," "depth of field," and "K-7 inks." Owens wears beat-up sandals, Hawaiian shirt, Panama hat, short shorts, and a nice gold watch. Allen prefers a business casual look, topped with ear gauges and a black fedora.

Together, these men aspire to make fine arts prints respectable again, while using some of the world's most holy shit!-inducing scanning technology [our words, not theirs] to archive and promote local visual artists.

"There's not a lot of these machines out there, because they are God-awful expensive," Owens says as the Museum Special Cruse Synchron Table ST MS runs a 5-micron wide beam (under 1/5,000 of an inch) across a framed painting.

He's not lying. A recent upgrade to the Cruse alone cost nearly $30,000. Developed by a sole German firm since 2005, Owen's Cruse is among the largest models in the world. It looks like a 1950's movie hologram machine, or maybe a disco tank.

"But it's super productive; you can get so much done," Owens says.

The scanning process usually takes an hour, and the image files it spits out can be up to 25 gigabytes. While photographers must set up lighting, make adjustments and do hundreds of hours of back-end editing to make a print look perfect, Owens says, Cruse scanners do the job faster and more true to the original art.

"This is a system that really captures art," he says. "It's very standardized. The lighting is the same. The workflow is the same, so that the results that come out are very consistent."

The only other Cruse scanner New Times could confirm in Arizona resides at the Phoenix location of Thomas Reprographics. Hope Joy, the company's strategic account representative, says they bought a Cruse 10 years ago so they could scan bigger and better images.

In an email, Joy wrote that Thomas Reprographics mainly uses the mega-scanner for family photos, but that "it has allowed diversity for Thomas to reach out to local artists, young artists and hobby artists to capture their work and begin the reproduction."

Owens says the market for his Cruse-quality scans is still new and undefined, but Fine Canvas Prints focuses almost exclusively on fine arts. He emphasizes that his "product" is more than just the physical print copies of an artist's original work. After years of perfecting the system in silence, he's ready to "sell" the ability to archive, document, and distribute art in new ways.

"At this point, our primary market is helping artists make prints, giving them -- gosh, how to explain it? -- prosperity, because they can do more with their images," Owens concludes.

Glen Allen, who recently joined forces with Owens because of his background in business, graphics and automation, says they are working to establish a non-profit wing of Fine Canvas Prints. It's called Druidian Arts Foundation, which will more specifically aim to promote local arts and culture through digital archiving of Valley artists.

The entrepreneurs are setting their goals high; ultimately, they would like to create an arts center that connects artists both to potential buyers and to one another, creating a "digital museum" of scanned prints in the process.

"I see this as the seed for a bigger project," Allen says. "It's not just about making money. It's about really helping [to] develop an economy based on art."

It's impossible to say how plausible this goal is, especially in Arizona's urban desert. However, Allen says the wide open, Wild West business market in Phoenix makes for a great environment to take big risks.

"I think it is just a matter of exposure, and getting people to understand that it's not just about the technology," Allen says. "It's about the whole model of supporting the arts and the artist and preserving culture. That's kind of our selling point, is the relationship-building aspect."

Fine Canvas Prints is still a business.

Scans are about $250 per session, but that often includes multiple pieces or large-scale artwork. Prints are an additional 10 to 15 cents per square inch of the original art, depending on paper quality.

But the company also takes on some artists pro bono, if their work is uniquely challenging to the Cruse and the artists couldn't afford the services otherwise. Allen, a practicing artist, ties this back to their company identity as a service tailored artists' needs.

"As an artist, I've been completely frustrated by making prints for shows," he says, because "you never know what you're going to get [from other reprographic companies]."

Fausto Fernandez, a Phoenix and L.A.-based painter, couldn't find anyone in town who could handle his large-scale paintings. His realtor knew Owens, however, and connected them. Owens wanted to show Fernandez how much better Cruse scanner quality would be, and invited the artist to bring some work over and watch the process.

"It was like a mutual collaboration, in a weird way," Fernandez says of the first session. "Matthew lets artists experiment, and I just don't get that with the other companies."

There are other decent reprographics services in town, Fernandez says, but he insists Fine Canvas Prints deserves better recognition for the quality of its work.

"I don't think a lot of people know about Matthew. In naming it 'Fine Canvas Prints,' I thought of Giclee prints, which is kind of unfair."

(The term "Giclee" refers to works of art, often stock images, inkjet printed onto high quality printer or canvas and sold in large quantities, as popularized by Thomas Kincaid and others.)

Like Fernandez, Phoenix arts stalwart Beatrice Moore says "the whole Giclee movement" turned many artists were off to making prints of their own work. In fact, until the past year, she had never made prints of her work, partly because of some bad experiences getting paintings photographed.

Unlike Fernandez, Moore is reluctant to give a firm endorsement of Fine Canvas Prints. She finally decided to get prints done with them (recommended by Fernandez) because she realized prints would give more people access to her art, because of price and availability.

Still, Moore concedes that the entrepreneurs have a shot at success. Allen is plugged in to local arts, she says, and Owens "is very cognizant of the quality issue. I think they're both very in tune to trying to create a quality product for local artists."

One of the biggest misconceptions Owens feels Fine Arts Canvas still faces is that "we're just making posters."

But he also acknowledges other perception hurdles the gigantic Cruse scanner will have to jump: Some artists and collectors only value originals. Some artists are afraid to "integrate digital," or just think the process cheapens their art. The equipment will, inevitably, be leapfrogged by better technology (though both Owens and Allen say they believe this will take decades).

In between checking emails, looking over a client's scan, and perusing used VW bus ads online at his studio, Owens says the secret to making his new business model work is simple.

"Make prints that look real," he says. "[Artists] don't like prints because they don't look accurate."

In the meantime, all he and Allen can do is spread the word locally and keep scanning paintings, five microns at a time.

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