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What is Crypto Art and Why Should Motion Designers Care

By EJ Hassenfratz, with Mike Winkelmann and Don Allen
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You've no doubt heard of Crypto Art...but how exactly does it work? And why should you, a motion designer, care?

What the heck is crypto art and why is everyone talking about it? Crypto art is changing the way motion designers can not only earn money, but how designers view themselves—not only as motion designers, but as capital A Artists. Crypto art is creating shockwaves in our industry, and literally changing motion designers lives. Love it or hate it, it’s worth understanding and learning more about.
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In this article we’ll cover:
  • What is crypto art?
  • How does it work?
  • Why should motion designers care about crypto art?
  • How to create and sell your first crypto art.
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What is crypto art?

Short answer, crypto art is digital art that is treated like physical art due to the ability to have verified ownership of the piece.  Just like an original painting signed by Picasso can have its authenticity and ownership authenticated, crypto art can be verified in the same way using an NFT or a non-fungible token.  An NFT is a special token that represents a unique ID that is linked to a piece of crypto art that cannot be replicated and is used to verify ownership of a piece. You can attach it to anything: a JPEG, GIF, MP4, even music. This token that proves ownership of the ‘original’ file is stored on the Blockchain which is a permanent ledger that can be accessed from any computer over the world.
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Blockchain for Crypto Art?

Without getting too into the weeds, you can think of blockchain as a massive master copy of a spreadsheet to which anyone can add a row of information, such as the unique ID of an NFT that is attached to a piece of crypto art. The blockchain can verify proof of ownership of a digital asset by checking it against this spreadsheet. This spreadsheet is the thing that makes it nearly impossible to falsify the information, because all computers check this spreadsheet against each other to verify what is original or a fake. Think of this another way: In order to verify the authenticity of a Picasso, you need a fine art expert that understands the history of the piece from collector to collector. In the crypto world, the blockchain is kind of like the fine art expert. Crypto art lives on its own blockchain called the Ethereum blockchain - more on that later.
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OK, but why would anyone pay for an MP4 you can download for free?

This is the biggest misconception. There’s a difference between right-clicking and downloading an image or animation and having it on your computer versus owning the NFT-backed original.  That image you downloaded is worthless, while the NFT backed image is the “original” piece of art from an artist. Just like you can totally go online and download an image of a Picasso painting—or buy a replica of a Picasso painting—the image and the replicas won’t be worth near as much as the verified original. You can download a GIF a million times, but they’re all worthless because you don’t own the NFT-linked version that verifies you own the original GIF. It’s all about the NFT!

Why crypto art is valuable

The value is based upon scarcity, and the fact that the crypto art is not reproducible due to the NFT. Another component is the simple fact that people place value on it. Why are some rectangular pieces of cardboard with pictures of baseball players on them worth thousands of dollars? Or Beanie Babies? Or Pokemon cards? Because collectors place a value on them (usually due to scarcity). That’s it. In crypto art land, it’s value placed on pixels by collectors. Some collectors buy crypto art purely for spectating, but others buy the work because they want to support the artist or they feel a connection to the work.
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Remember, it was only a short time ago that what Banksy is known for doing was simply considered vandalism. No one would pay for graffiti. And now, Banksy’s are worth millions. The art world is nutty like that.
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But why should motion designers care about crypto art?

Good question. There’s a reason why a motion designer would have heard of crypto art ad nauseum by now.  And that’s because a lot of collectors are really big on motion design pieces right now. Remember, NFTs can be attached to any type of art, and the type of art that is getting the most attention is motion design pieces.
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Image from Blake Kathryn

What are the benefits of making & selling crypto art?

Creating personal work is always a good thing, whether it’s for the purpose of crypto-arting™ it or not.  It allows you to try out new software, hone skills, and experiment. Some of the most successful artists in the crypto space are the storytellers. Artists such as Blake Kathryn and Shams Meccea who have been creating work consistently and have cultivated large followings on social media. Their work shows off their personality and sets a narrative. Some are treating themselves almost like their own art brand. It’s exciting to see how a motion designer's mindset can shift from thinking “I guess I’m only here to do client work” to “I’m here to create art!
One of the best parts about selling crypto art is that the artist always retains copyright and gets royalties from each sale on the secondary market. Meanwhile, when you post your work to Instagram, they can use your art any way they want for their own purposes without seeking permission. They can even edit and modify your work—or just sell it outright! Instagram and social media platforms profit off your work, while with crypto art the artist can profit off their own art. What a concept!
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Dead Memes by Filip Hodas

How crypto art helps Motion Designers think like an Artist

The really cool side effect of this crypto art thing is that you are seeing a lot of motion designers taking on the mindset of a traditional fine artist.  Motioneers are getting creative and generating series of motion pieces such as the Dead Meme series by Filip Hodas, where the digital art looks like it’s in a museum, resting on a pedestal with museum labels.
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Gavin Shapiro's "Broken During Production"
Artists like Gavin Shapiro (known for his intricate looping dancing flamingos) are doing clever series such as his Real Collectables for an Imagined Reality, where he aims to combine the strengths of digital and physical art to create a new, unique experience.  Much like Filip Hodas, he sells digital art that looks like physical art, even “broken” versions.  His digital kinetic sculpture of a dancing flamingo that was “broken in production and sold as is” is a perfect example of how artists are blurring the lines between physical and digital art.
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Beeplemania

Enter Beeple.  Talk about setting narratives and building a following. Aiming to remove the stigma some may feel towards crypto art—and trying to bridge the gap between the physical and digital worlds—Mike Winkelmann started selling pieces that include both a physical token and a NFT on the blockchain.  This means when you buy certain Beeple pieces, you’ll be sent a physical token (see above image) that includes a digital screen that can display the crypto art (made by Infinite Objects) along with a certificate of authenticity, and it comes in a fancy box.  By the way, Mike and his wife make these tokens by hand. There’s a joke here about the benefits of thinking inside the box...
Beeple’s crypto art has sold for millions—and that is no mistake.  Mike has his finger on the pulse of this crypto art movement. He knows how to market his releases and extract maximum value from his works. But he also realizes that there’s a lot of work needed to be done to not only educate people on crypto art (he regularly makes the rounds on podcasts to talk cryptoart like the SOM Podcast), but to push marketplaces to remove the friction that exists in purchasing crypto art. For example, the site he sells his art on, Nifty, is one of the only sites that allows collectors to purchase using a credit card versus Ethereum.
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OK, how can I get started selling my crypto art?

OK, OK, you’re sold. You want a seat on this crazy crypto art train. How do you get started? There are a bunch of crypto art marketplaces out there that you can sell your art on.  Think of all these places like individual eBays where you can sell them for a fixed price, or have collectors bid on them.  The one downside is that most of these sites are a bit of a walled garden where you have to apply and get accepted to these invite-only platforms. Some are easy to get into, like Async.art (which is a programmable art marketplace) and Rarible - some are very hard.  Sites such as SuperRare, KnownOrigin, and Nifty Gateway (where Beeple sells) are very popular and have a strong community of creators, but are very hard to get accepted into.  On the other hand, OpenSea is the largest platform for crypto art where anyone can easily mint their own NFT art without having to be accepted.  You can also buy SuperRare, KnownOrigin, and MakersPlace pieces on OpenSea.
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Ethereum for crypto art

An important aspect about crypto art is that it’s bought and sold with a specific type of cryptocurrency called Ether (ETH).  Ether is the crypto currency of the Ethereum blockchain that NFTs live on. Think of Ether like casino chips. Each casino has its own unique chip you need to buy with money to then use as currency to pay, play, and get paid in. And much like casino chips, you can always cash out your earnings and get dollars back. While some sites allow you to buy crypto art using credit cards, when you sell it - you’ll always get ETH in return that you’ll have to then convert back into whatever non-crypto currency you want.
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Glitch City - Bubblegum Crisis by Jerry Liu

Setting up your crypto wallet

When you sign up for a crypto art marketplace, you’ll need to make an account and attach a crypto wallet. You need a crypto wallet because—in order to be able to sell or buy crypto art—you have to have a funding source to withdraw cryptocurrency from or deposit it into. These sites will require you to create a wallet via MetaMask or Fortmatic where you can link the wallet to your marketplace account.
To start selling, you’ll need to have your crypto wallet filled with ETH. “Wait, I have to have money to sell my crypto art?” That is correct. Everytime you sell a piece, it needs to be tokenized/minted to be able to go on the blockchain.  Minting is the process of authenticating your artwork so it can always be tracked and traced to the original owner. This minting process has a fee attached to it called gas fees that have to be paid with Ethereum. Gas fees are basically the cost of electricity for all the computers calculating the transaction and tokenizing your work. These gas fees can vary and change at any moment based on computing demand. And you thought just the concept of crypto art was confusing!
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Game Cube by Jerry Liu

Getting Ethereum for crypto art

OK, so you have to pay these gas fees using Ethereum (ETH) that you need in your crypto wallet. So how do you get ETH to put in said wallet?  Sites like Coinbase are popular sites to trade currencies (like USD) for cryptocurrencies.  By creating an account on Coinbase, you’ll have a Coinbase wallet that you can then wire money in to from your bank or Paypal account.  Then you just need to exchange your USD to ETH. Then, using the ETH in your Coinbase wallet, you can transfer money to your Metamask/Formatic crypto wallet that is linked to your marketplace account and you are then ready to mint your first piece!
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Dropping your first piece of crypto art...like it's hot

You got your crypto wallet ready to go and you’re ready to sell your first piece! What now? Marketplaces allow you to upload many file formats, whether you’re wanting to mint a still image, animation, or even an interactive AR format. Then, it’s very much like selling something on eBay. Set a description, add tags, and then set your “Buy It Now” price—or minimum bid price if you want collectors to be able to bid on your art. You can even set a time limit on how long your piece is up for sale. You can sell a single copy or “edition” of your work, or multiple editions of the same piece. The more editions you make, the less valuable that piece can be worth. Once that’s all set up, you can tokenize and mint your piece (think of this as digitally signing your work) and create your first drop. A drop is what putting your cryptoart up for sale is called. Once you drop, you can sit back, relax, and let the ETH roll in.

How to sell your crypto art (selling out in style)

Once you sell a piece, you get paid in ETH which will be deposited to your crypto wallet that you connected to the marketplace which you sold your piece. You can then leave that currency in your wallet or transfer your ETH to a currency trading side like Coinbase to convert to USD or any other non-cryptocurrency. ETH is much like Bitcoin where the price is very volatile and changes minute by minute. For example, when I sold my first NTF, the Maneki Neko above, I made 1.5Ξ (1.5 Ether) which at the time 1Ξ equalled around $620.  At the writing of this article, 1Ξ is now worth over $1,350.  So there’s always consideration to whether you keep your earnings in ETH or cash out to a non-cryptocurrency.
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Get rich with crypto? Not so fast, Picasso

Crypto art is not a get-rich-quick scheme by any means. Most crypto art is only sold for a few dollars. In this way, the crypto art world is much like the traditional art world, where it’s dominated by a tiny few that are very successful and make loads of money off their art. This is due to rich folks diversifying their investments, and you’re seeing the same thing in the digital art world. The world is very much the Wild West, and you’ll see artists you’ve probably never heard of making tons of money off amateurish-looking shiny sphere animations. But you’ve probably seen fine art that makes you wonder why someone paid thousands of dollars for it. I’m looking at you, banana duct taped to a wall.
If you had a presence online before crypto art (like Beeple), you have a ready-made following that is probably willing to buy your work. If studios couldn’t find your work online to hire you, how are collectors going to find your crypto art? Sure, you may not make much (or any) money selling crypto art if you don’t have much visibility. But the side effect of creating tons of work and sharing it could be gaining the visibility that will help you land your next client gig, or at the very least up your skills and help you discover your artistic voice.

What kind of crypto art should I make?

Popular crypto art seems to have a specific aesthetic, but that doesn’t mean you will be successful trying to chase what’s trendy. Be true to yourself. Work on the thing that you’re going to really commit yourself to, work hard, and create the things that you want to make and are passionate about creating. Listen to that inner voice.  The more you do that, the more people will see that, and it will resonate.
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Environmental concerns for Crypto Art

New technologies usually don’t come without their major kinks. There is one big consideration when thinking of creating crypto art. Remember crypto art lives on the Ethereum blockchain. Blockchain technology itself takes a massive amount of calculations that require even more massive amounts of energy, and the current model is pretty harmful to the environment. This means that yes, when you create crypto art you contribute to that energy consumption. There is work being done to get the Ethereum blockchain to a much more sustainable path (called Ethereum 2.0) that aims to reduce energy consumption by 99%.

Can I really be successful in crypto art?

Put it this way—artists are already doing personal work or spec work either because they simply enjoy the act of creating or in hopes a client will eventually see their work, hire, and pay them. Why not try creating work in hopes a collector will enjoy it enough that they want to invest in your success and support you by buying your work? 
“Invest in me?” you may quip.
Well, yes, you can think of it like that. Crypto art almost acts like an investment. So instead of having to be like a company that goes public, you can be an artist that people can invest in. It’s kind of like an IPO except it's based on motion designers as the entity that’s going public. Another thing to note is that crypto art has a history of appreciating in value each year, on average of around 7% increase per year.
Coming from experience, there’s a complete shift of mindset the moment someone buys your first crypto art piece. And let’s just call it art, OK? You cross the threshold of being just a motion designer who works for clients to an artist whose creative voice and vision people value. Realizing that there are other paths to success as a motion designer is a very liberating experience.
At the end of the day, what do you have to lose...other than total dependency on clients?

More resources to learn about Crypto Art