Seeing art in the real-Edgar Degas, "Woman at Her Toilet," c.1894, charcoal and pastel on paper, 95.6 x 109.9 cm, Tate Britain, London, England - as I saw it

Seeing Art In The Real vs Online – Does It Matter?

We all love looking at Art, don’t we? As artists, it’s natural for us to look at all kinds of visual art for inspiration. And there’s nothing like seeing art in the real!

Many of us look at a lot of art online whether it’s scrolling through Instagram, checking out a virtual exhibition on an artist’s website, or cruising through a gallery’s online collection. The world has changed and we have instant access to so much art virtually.

But seeing art virtually gives us only a part of the experience of looking at that art.

We see colour arrangements, note composition, explore value decisions, and discover use of edge. Whether viewing on our phones, laptop screen, or tablet, what we also see is each image pretty much the same size as the next. So we have no real idea of the scale of a painting (soooooo important!). Neither can we experience the texture of marks in a visceral way. 

For me, there truly is nothing like seeing art in the real and in the flesh!

To stand before a painting, say one that’s 400 years old, and imagine the sweep of the artist’s hand, or see the brushstrokes and be surprised by their boldness, or discover the faint hints of the initial drawing, now that’s a magical experience! You can begin to feel the concentrated effort the artist applies as they pull the pieces together. You can feel the presence of the artist who may have been standing in similar relation to the painting while working on it. This is something you won’t feel when you look at the same piece online. 

Let me share an example to give you a small sense of what I mean.

Recently I was teaching in the UK (Yorkshire and Cornwall) and naturally, gallery visits were on the agenda while in London. 

At Tate Britain, I went looking for this pastel painting by Edgar Degas – Woman at Her Toilet. I rounded the corner and there she was. I was bowled over by the size of the painting – waaaaay larger than I imagined even though I theoretically knew the size (95.6 x 109.9 cm). I tell ya, size matters!!

The next thing was seeing, up close, the marks made by this master. Wowsa!!!

Let’s have a look at the piece as it shows on the Tate’s website.

Edgar Degas, "Woman at Her Toilet," c.1894, charcoal and pastel on paper, 95.6 x 109.9 cm, Tate Britain, London, England - from the Tate's website
Edgar Degas, “Woman at Her Toilet,” c.1894, charcoal and pastel on paper, 95.6 x 109.9 cm, Tate Britain, London, England – from the Tate’s website

Okay, that’s nice. We see the woman brushing her hair, her maid to the side offering a cup of tea. We see the main parts of the painting.

Now here’s the painting as I snapped it. Yes, it’s looking through glass and has some reflection but even so, I think you can feel the painting’s boldness and vibrancy. Completely different!

Seeing art in the real-Edgar Degas, "Woman at Her Toilet," c.1894, charcoal and pastel on paper, 95.6 x 109.9 cm, Tate Britain, London, England - as I saw it
Edgar Degas, “Woman at Her Toilet,” c.1894, charcoal and pastel on paper, 95.6 x 109.9 cm, Tate Britain, London, England – as I saw it

Now let’s have a look at some cropped comparisons. First, a close-up of the woman’s hair. Yes, you can see the underpainting colour and also the marks on top in the website version but oh my, look at the photo I took! You can just about see Degas’s hand applying that olive green colour. And check out those highlights on the woman’s fingers that aren’t so evident in the website example. Also, there’s the barest hints left on the paper of the drawing of the woman’s face which then almost looks erased.

Next, let’s have a look this cropping with the teacup. Look at the scribbled lines applied over the maid’s darker sleeve. They are so visible in my photo (on the right) and almost non-existent in the close-up from the website. Look at the difference in value contrast in the light marks highlighting the arm and hands. And all those really dark marks that delineate the figure!

Next we have a section showing part of the vase and table. I love those strong, straight lines defining the edge of the table. In my photo, you can feel the energy in those marks! They’re there in the website version but aren’t nearly as obvious. The same is true of those wonderful light blue squiggles on the vase itself that say “highlight.” Again, they’re barely visible in the left image.

I loved seeing how Degas portrays the vigorous movement as the woman pulls the brush through her hair. Her fingers are barely indicated which suggests movement. If you take a careful look, you’ll see what may have been the original position of the hand, or perhaps what we see is the intentional redraw of the hand in pastel to show the movement of the brush. Also, look carefully at the photo I took and you’ll see a number of lines following the line of the arm, over and over, almost scratched in. All of this is pretty much unseen in the website image.

And finally, I had to include this image that shows a luscious and energetic application of yellow-green on the woman’s arm to the right. Visible in both images but more apparent in my photo, is the way Degas pulled some of the background green onto the woman’s upper arm. And, I love seeing the dark lines of the initial drawing.

One last photo that will really show the size of this Edgar Degas pastel painting!

Inside Tate Britain - Edgar Degas pastel on the right.
Inside Tate Britain – Edgar Degas pastel on the right.

Perhaps you can now see why I hammer on about seeing a painting in the flesh, up close and personal!!

I should point out that even my photos can’t compare to standing in front of that painting, to seeing the art in the real!

I’m also going to say that many online collections offer incredible opportunities to see a painting up close and with much clearer images than the one on the Tate’s website. Having said that, always always see original artwork whenever possible. It could change your life!!

Have you ever had an extraordinary experience when seeing a certain painting for the first time in the real? If so, then be sure to share that with us in the comments! (Some of mine are: seeing Monet’s “The Magpie,” Van Eyck’s “The Arnolfini Wedding,” and Miro’s Three Blues Paintings. I cried when I saw the last ones!)

And, have I convinced you to go see art in the real?

Until next time,


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31 thoughts on “Seeing Art In The Real vs Online – Does It Matter?”

  1. I remember the first time I saw Georges Seurat’s painting Sunday afternoon on the island of La Grande jatte. I was totally blown Away by the size of the painting and the intricate way it was painted with all the tiny little points of color. Born and raised in Chicago I would take the Michigan Avenue bus to the Art Institute and was fortunate enough to attend classes there briefly and I could go into the museum anytime I wanted. It was quite the adventure. And I don’t know what centimeters is in inches but I can see what you’re saying about Degas painting being so large.

    1. Thanks Deb for sharing your wow experience with Seurat’s painting. I had the exact same response when I saw the real thing!
      And how lucky you were to have the Art Institute of Chicago so available to you – it has a fabulous collection!
      And regarding the Degas pastel, that’s why I also included the in situ photo 😁

    2. I remember seeing a series of paintings by Van Gogh at the Museum in Amsterdam in my early 20’s. They started in his early years, small and dark , progressing to his later colorful masterpieces. It was very inspiring seeing his growth. Your photos were very interesting! Just seeing the mark making was a total surprise, like those squiggles of light down one arm. Thanks!

      1. Thanks Barb for sharing your interaction early on with Van Gogh. It reminds me how much I couldn’t understand the hoopla about Van Gogh…until I was up close and personal with his work in my early 20s in Amsterdam!

        Glad you were surprised by the mark-making like that crazy squiggle on the arm

    3. I live in Madison Wi and before that when growing up in the Quad Cities so the Art Institute was a godsend. I never tire of going there and looking.

  2. Wonderful post Gail. I so understand what you’re saying. Every Monet exhibit I’ve ever seen (I’ve seen 4) has filled my soul and left me breathless! I once spent 20 minutes just sitting and staring at one of Monet’s haystacks at the Bellagio in Vegas. I’d swear he used colors that were not even invented. Same with a particular painting of the Seine in winter. All iced over and snowy. The whole painting was perhaps 1 and 1/2 values in the upper scale. I also saw dozens of paintings from his later years at the Kimbell in Fort Worth. (The Japanese footbridge!! Oh! ❤)

    1. Hi Rita! Thanks for sharing your experiences. And oh yes to that feeling of filling one’s soul!!

      And good for you taking the time to sit, really SIT with a painting! That was one of my frustrations this time round with my visit to London – waaaaay too little time and trying to see as much as I could even as I was saying, Better to see a few well than many only briefly.

      I love what you said about feeling that Monet was using colours that hadn’t been invented. I know what you mean. And I really think that comes with being with a painting in person…which is what I think you are saying too!

      Oh! 💗

  3. I was able to see Degas’ works at the BMFA several years ago and could have spent many more hours soaking in the color, the strokes, the liquid compositions of his nudes. How he developed skin tone in light and shadow with color was fascinating.
    The original shocker for me seeing live works of the impressionists was discovering a Cassatt in the Shelburne Museums reproduction of the founders NYC apartment in lil ole Vermont. The collection houses many impressionists from the founders collection. The Cassatt was an eye opener. Seeing live and up close the color and the strokes there was proof that books could never convey the real beauty of of pastel. This goes for most art but in particular pastel. Seeing those strokes catching light separating and merging color was proof that seeing pastel live, up close and personal is the only way to go.
    When one sees works via online screens they are seeing ghosts – as you show with the Tates reproduction. Go to a museum or galley and see art live.
    Thanks for the post!

    1. Ahhhh Diane thanks you for sharing your experience with Degas and Mary Cassatt! Such a beautiful description of Cassatt’s work! Thank you!!

      I know a number of people who on seeing my work in the real say, Wow, so many more colours and layering of marks than visible digitally.

      Love what you said in an earlier iteration of this comment about pastel work – “See it live and one cannot live without it.” Now that’s a swoon-making comment!!

  4. There is nothing like seeing a painting in person! No online image can compare. Something about the light in a painting doesn’t translate, as well as the mark making as you wrote in the article. In person the hand of the artist is very evident. Standing in front of the paintings connects you to the artist and the emotion of it… OK, now I have to get to a museum!

  5. Hello Gail – Great Food for thought! You are right about seeing things in person, it is hard to put into words why the actual paintings sing out to us so much more than a photo can. I was fortunate to be able to go to the Monet exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, some years ago, before I even started painting. I will never forget walking into the room with the HUGE panels of water lilies. It did almost take my breath away. To be surrounded by those beautiful paintings was almost overwhelming. Such a different experience from seeing the same paintings in books. Thank you for this reminder. So many beautiful paintings come to my inbox, that I can forget to get out and see them in person!

    1. Ohhhhh how lucky to see that exhibition, to be surrounded by those HUGE panels of Monet’s waterlilies! And yes, as you say, completely different from seeing them in a book no matter how incredible the reproductions. Certainly;y in this case, size is EVERYTHING! You feel embraced by the immensity!

      I’m glad this served as a reminder to get out and see and bee with the real thing! As you say, so much beauty comes into our inboxes these days.

  6. Jeremiah Contemplating the Destruction of the Temple by Rembrandt at the Riksmuseum in Amsterdam. I was spellbound by the feelings that emanated from the painting, and stood there for 20 minutes, unable to move away. Also seeing Van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the Art Institute of Chicago was so powerful.

  7. Thank you for this wonderful post. Yes, seeing art in person is so important. When I saw Hopper’s paintings at the MFA in Boston, I had no idea he painted on such a grand scale. After studying his paintings in books, I was bowled over by the paintings size, color, everything. So, please let me know if your photos shown here, match the painting better as you saw it. Did the Tate do a disservice by posting a softer, blurrier photo? Not to question their greatness. And maybe this isn’t your point. But I have seen in my own work, what a good quality photograph can do.

    1. Ahhh yes, Hopper!! Thank you Sandy for sharing your encounter with this artist’s paintings! I know that feeling of getting to know an artist and their work and then being a bit incredulous when you see the real thing. Just nothing like it!!

      I do think my photos of the Degas work are pretty representational of the real thing. I checked the photos while standing in front of the work. I have no idea why the Tate’s image is so all-round bad but it served the purpose of clear comparison!!

  8. My daughter and I cried quietly when we saw Girl With the Pearl Earring, the benefit being that others gave us space to live with it a moment.

    My question is why your digital photos are so much more colorful/vivid/clear/better than the Tates digital images…

    1. Yvonne – oh my, thank you for sharing this beautiful and moving experience with us. How wonderful to share that moment with your daughter, to be unafraid to let your emotions flow.

      As to your question, I’m not sure why the Tate image is sooooo awful but it certainly served the purpose of my blog post!!

  9. You are so right about seeing art “in the flesh.” This past spring I saw an exhibition of about a dozen Monets in St. Louis, Missouri. One of them was massive, a water lily scene, taking up most of a large wall. And he just barely suggested the water lilies. I was shocked. Shocked! That same museum had a couple of Zorn portraits, and the astonishing highlights on the faces were like nothing I’ve seen digitally in his work.

    BTW, I LOVE the way you explicate paintings. Please keep doing it! It’s so valuable and you’re wicked good at it. (Sorry if “explicate” is not the right word, but my entire career was in writing/editing before I started painting.)

    1. “Wicked good.” I LOVE that Andrea! Sure put a grin on my face!! Thank you! And that’s certainly incentive enough to do more. (And, truth be told, I love looking closely at a painting and sharing what I see.)

      And, ohhh I loved your emphasis on “shocked” cos yes, that’s indeed what it feels like. It’s extraordinary, the size of those Monet water lily paintings and as you say, some are barely suggested. And yet we “read” them from a distance. Quite incredible. Dana (above) had a similar experience with these Monet paintings. And those Zorn portraits….It DOES make a difference to see the real thing!!

      Good to know you were a writer/editor before painting lol! And, it appears “explicate” is indeed the correct word. Thanks for the intro to that word and meaning 😁

    2. Before I truly had the heart of an artist I accompanied a friend to a Van Gogh exhibit out east. It was crowded and a bit uncomfortable, but I forgot everything when we rounded a corner to see Vincent’s bedroom and bright yellow straw chair. The bold impasto and freshness of his brushstrokes was overwhelming. I was unprepared for my powerful visceral reaction- tears running down my face. I had never reacted to any art this way before! It was a bit scary but very remarkable! It looked as though Van Gogh might have just put down his brush and walked away.

      1. Susan thank you so much for sharing this spontaneous and moving experience with us! It’s quite something isn’t it, to find yourself with tears running down your face and feeling a visceral reaction in your whole body. I love love that painting can do this!!
        And…I think you always had the heart of an artist…

  10. Great post, thank you! I agree completely that the best way to see art is live and up close. Too bad the museum is so slack about their digital reproductions! Usually there are several choices online of important art works but then you really never know which is closest to reality. There must be more reliable websites than the Tate.

    I saw some Degas pastels a few years ago in Milwaukee and they were very vibrant. Just as it is better to see the art in person when possible I also think that painting from life is a much better choice than from photos. And when photos are a must such as doing landscapes in the studio I do think studies done from life are just as important as photo references and I use both. But I never copy one photo. I use several different photos and print them out in black and white because the camera really lies about colors outdoors. And it puts everything in focus which is not the way our eyes see things. Photo images are great for what they can do and we do get to see a lot of artwork we would never see otherwise but we need to be aware of their limitations.

    Thanks so much for showing a comparison. Even though it was with a camera, it made a good point that all photos are not the same or as helpful.

    1. Thanks Patricia! The Tate reproduction really was a particularly bad one so I kinda lucked out as it helped me make my point! There are numerous galleries with high resolution, extremely clear reproductions online. It’s quite incredible actually. I think we may have COVID to thank for the increase in availability online of museum collections.

      Thank you too for bringing in the idea that working from life is more valuable/better than working from a photo. I couldn’t agree more! Working from life gives you knowledge that you can bring to your studio work inside, that’s for sure. Thanks for sharing your process and knowledge with us!

  11. Hi Gail – I loved your post! I knew as soon as I saw the photo from the Tate that something is wrong there. Pastels are so vibrant! Thank you for sharing your photos and the information about the size of the painting. When I was in my 20’s I worked in NYC and I would often go to the Met by myself and I’d take friends there too. If my friends couldn’t find me in the museum they knew to just go find Monet’s Poplar Trees and that’s where I’d be! I bought a print of it and had it hanging in my apartment for years.

    Several years ago we were in Paris, we got there at night. The next morning I was ready to go to the Museum de Orsey and see all of the great art and the employees all went on strike that day. All the museums in Paris were closed. We were only there for the one day so I never got into any of the museums. It is a trip that I wish to make again one day! You are so right that art in person is so different than digitally viewing it. Wherever we travel I always make it a point to go to the local gallery, whether it is in a big city and well known or just a small town and local artists. It’s so inspiring!
    Thank you again for sharing.

    1. Alison, I smiled at your story about your friends knowing exactly where to find you in the Met!

      And ohhhhhh what bad luck about your timing and the strikes in the Paris museums. I do hope you get back one of these days. And…seeing art in galleries big and small wherever you travel, that’s just marvellous and, as you say, so inspiring!

  12. Great post. I could never see what everyone thought was so great about Van Gogh. Until I saw his Starry Night on loan at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco. It is a very small painting but it totally blew me away. I kept going back to that room to look at it again. I did not go up close like everyone else. I stood at the back of the room and from there you could actually see the stars twinkling. I did not buy a poster or a cup or any of the other stuff on sale. Nothing could compare to that view of the real painting.

    1. Reba, I was of the same mind about Van Gogh (see my response to Barb above). Thank you so much for sharing your experience, of how you stood back and saw the stars twinkle. And yes to not buying merch – better just to see the work online OR, better yet, once in a while in the real!!

  13. Great post as always. What a dramatic difference in these two shots. This explains why I hate to submit a photo of my works to be judged for a show. It never reflects the true nature of the work.

    1. Many thanks Kyle! As I said in an earlier comment, I think I got lucky with how dreadful this digital image is! It certainly helped make the point.

      And I hear you about submitting a photo that just doesn’t do your painting justice. If at all possible, it’s wise to have a professional do the photographing. For sure, there’s nothing like seeing the real thing AND having online shows has opened up the opportunity to many artists to be considered for a juried show where many couldn’t have/wouldn’t have entered before.

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Gail Sibley

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My love of pastel and the enjoyment I receive from teaching about pastel inspired the creation of this blog. It has tips, reviews, some opinions:), and all manner of information regarding their use through the years – old and new. Please enjoy!

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