The New Medium for Art

Weight of Time Passed, photograph

“Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.”

– Stewart Brand

I spend most of my day looking at paintings and photography on a computer monitor and have been researching various aspects of publishing artwork, both online and in more traditional mediums.

It has struck me that the computer monitor is becoming (or has already become) the most common medium by which we view art. It’s not galleries and museums, and perhaps not even books anymore. Our common visual reference is the monitor.

This has some potentially far reaching consequences. Monitors (assuming it’s a good one, which is becoming more common) display images with a dynamic range and quality that reproductions cannot match. Viewing a piece of art on a large, good monitor has become a really nice experience. Because light is streaming through the image instead of reflecting off of it, their is a luminosity to images viewed this way that cannot be matched when the image is on paper or canvas.

I suspect many will agree that the images on a monitor beat images in a book or a print. Now for the controversial part of my post…

How does this experience compare to seeing the original piece of art? I’m wondering if our visual taste buds are becoming accustomed to seeing art with the luminosity and quality of a monitor band whether we will become “disappointed” when we see originals. I know that I’ve already had this experience in certain museums, where my first impression of certain paintings or photographs has been one of great disappointment. Perhaps a copy I saw on a poster or in a book had been somehow more vivid and the real thing is a letdown.

I know that there are definite tactile qualities that a piece of original art has that a display cannot reproduce. This is more true of paintings than of photographs, which have no three dimensional character and are all, after all, reproductions. But I wonder how the increased use and quality of monitors and the resulting experience of viewing art might subtly influence how painters paint and how viewers react to original work?

I can’t imagine monitors will ever replace original art, but I also can’t imagine that how we see original art hasn’t been affected by this relatively new way of experiencing it.

9 responses to “The New Medium for Art

  1. Have you heard of or seen the very large photo images of Canadian photographer Jeff Wall– in light boxes– so they have the effect of computer monitors– only very very large– and the images are staged– with actors and sets.
    Because I am drawn to textures– when I see paintings in person– I am shocked at how much more textured and layered they are than when I saw them in a book–Jackson Pollack– or the immense thickness of the paint–Wayne Thiebaud — or the sheer scale of the size of the work–Anselm Kieffer.

    • The textural qualities of many paintings will surely keep many interested in seeing originals. At least for other artists – not sure the general public is as cognizant of that quality. And it’s the general public that keeps the galleries and museums open…

      You bring up scale, another important difference. Perhaps it’s even more significant since we’re now so used to seeing everything at roughly the same small size of the monitor.

      I have seen photographers using backlit techniques to show their images. While it seems a little gimmicky to me at the moment, I suspect that could change as monitors in general become more and more pervasive in our lives.

  2. As an artist who started out in stained glass window making, paintings have often been quite disappointing. You make an excellent point about the luminosity of the monitor. Problematic, for sure.

    As a result of this conundrum, I like to take photos of a work in progress, play with it in Photoshop (sometimes wildly) and adjust contrasts, value and color. This then informs the finishing of the painting.

    I agree with Donna Watson that seeing the textures and layers can make up for the loss of a photo in a book. I had the privilege of seeing John Singer Fumee d’Ambre Gris (Smoke of Ambergris), 1880 a few years ago. I stood mouth agape for twenty minutes. This monitor image doesn’t do it justice. I’m not sure why this is true of this painting.

    • I know of many artists who use something like Photoshop and their monitors as a visualization tool to play with. Not only does it look different but it is so easy to quickly evaluate different approaches or changes to the piece.

      It does depend a lot on the medium when it comes to painting. I spend a lot of time making giclee prints of original watercolors and am always surprised at how much dynamic range, color and contrast I need to remove from the image on screen to match the original. It’s sort of an odd experience to try to make something… well, for want of a better term, more visually boring. I love many of the qualities of a fine watercolor but sympathize with the challenge that medium presents to create a wide range of chroma and contrast.

  3. What a challenge you have with the giclee prints! I can see how that would be a bit disconcerting, but more visually accurate. Do you find that we are, in general, wanting higher contrasts in artworks because of the monitor’s effect?

    Sorry about the typo…meant to write John Singer Sargents’…

    • Melinda

      Occasionally I find a client who wants their giclees to look “better” than the original, but usually fidelity is the priority.

      I suspect there is a large, mostly subliminal effect going on in the general population to prefer more color and contrast in artwork. This happened in the world of photography years ago when Fuji came out with their most popular film, Velvia, which most would admit is more saturated and contrasty than reality. Yet people loved the look and over time this became the norm in photography.

      It is hard to show cause and effect but I’m convinced the effect is there to some degree…

  4. Mmm…interesting argument! “Texturists” (if there are such people!) will always be drawn to the originals, but perhaps “visualists” will be lured into the light of the monitor!

    I’ve certainly found myself favouring viewing my photos on the monitor as opposed to rifling through paper photographs. The luminosity adds so much.

    The photograph that accompanies this article evoked such memories in me, Bob! I was immediately yanked back into a world of sherbert lemon sweets in conical paper bags, liquorice, and “rhubarb & custard” boiled sweets. And all because of the iconic scales. Funny how the mind works.

  5. This is a great post, Bob. It’s sad but true that we see our works of art, our creative efforts, more often on the screen than in print. For various reasons, money, room to display them, no current shows planned, etc. I have not made a print (until just yesterday) in over 6 months! It’s hard to justify the materials and time for something for which I have no room to display. (Though it’s not unlike the past when so many of us looked at our images on a light table and then filed them away for ‘later printing’ or submission!) I would agree that there is sometimes a disappointment in the original, after seeing it on a good monitor. I struggle with trying to bring that luminosity out in a print, indeed many of us do, but it just isn’t the same.

    This picture is wonderful – I really like the overall effect and the implied texture of the image, too!

    • Brenda

      Thanks for visiting and hope to see you again!

      One advantage prints still have over monitors is that they are more portable. Until we have ubiquitous monitors as cheap as picture frames it will be hard to duplicate the experience of a gallery, even if it is in our own living room.

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