We usually view a computer screen 2-2 ½’ away; an ipad or hand-held device about 1’ away and a TV screen about 8’ away. As a rule of thumb the viewing distance should be 3 times the length of the diagonal of the TV, computer screen or hand held device. Of course you can view your 42” TV from 12” away, but your eyes will be darting back and forth to follow the action and you will soon develop a headache. Similarly you can place your phone 3 feet away to read your emails on it… wait I do that now when I don’t have my glasses on!! You get the idea though. At these approximate distances, we are able to see the full image on each of the screens with minimal strain to the eyes.
Now here is another interesting thing: The next time you are sitting watching TV, close one eye and try to measure the screen size using a pencil about 6” from your eye. Put one end of the pencil on the edge of the screen and use your thumb to measure the other edge of the screen. Now open your laptop, ipad or other device and place it at the normal distance from your eyes at which you usually use it. Grab that pencil and keep it again 6” from your eye and measure the screen size. Notice anything interesting? Yes. The screen are approximately the same distance to size ratio from your eyes.
So how does that relating to viewing art online? Look at the painting on your wall from a comfortable distance. You should be able to see the whole painting and enjoy the details at the same time. If you are too close, you will see more details, but you won’t be able to comfortably enjoy the full painting without moving your eyes or neck. If you are too far, you won’t be able to see the details as much. Normally the same rule of thumb that the viewing distance should be 3 times the length of the diagonal of the TV applies here too. you would stand about three feet away from an 8x10 and about 6 feet away from a 16x20 to view it well. The smaller the painting of course, the closer you would stand. On the other hand, for epic size paintings, you may have to stand tens of feet away to absorb them in full.
So let’s bring it back to the viewing art online. Let’s say you want to enjoy looking at an 8”x10” painting online. You want to be able to properly view it as you would in an art gallery or museum. If you have an 8”x10” you would stand 3 feet away for optimal viewing as we said. Now use a pencil in the same way we did before to measure the painting distance to size ratio. Now go back to your computer. You should make sure that the distance to size ratio of the painting on the computer screen is the same as the one for the painting on the wall. You Should step forward or draw back until the distance to size ratio is relatively the same as the painting on the wall.
Most of the time we are viewing paintings in multiple magnification online. This may be good if you are looking to review the details or brushwork on a painting, but it is not the normal way we look at a painting on display. Sure we want to look at the details, but normally we look at the painting as a whole first to get a feel and an impression of it, and then we move closer to look at the details for areas that might interest us. If all we see are magnified paintings online as most of the displays are, it would be similar to us walking through a museum or art show and viewing the artwork two feet from the wall. You will learn a lot about the artists’ technique, but very little about the artworks.