Art isn't just about creating, it's also about sharing. Once you've made a beautiful work you're proud of, it's only natural that you'll want others to see it too. There are several ways to do this. Of course, you could frame your paintings and drawings and hang them up at home, or put them on display at an exhibition. But you can also go digital and share your work online, by posting on social media or on your very own free blog.
If you do want to put your works online, send them by email, or even have digital prints made, then you'll need to digitise them. If your painting is smaller than A4 size, you could do this by popping it on to an A4 flatbed scanner. However, many artists work at sizes bigger than A4 and, while A3 scanners are available, it's a bit extravagant to buy one just to scan the occasional painting. Besides, flatbed scanners aren't great at capturing the depth and texture of paint. The best way to digitise your work is to photograph it.
What we'll demonstrate here is how art galleries and museums have digitised their art archives, but we'll do it in a way that won't require expensive kit. In fact, you might already have most of the items you need.
To capture your work at its best, the two most vital things are to control the lighting and set up your camera as accurately as possible. This way, there shouldn't be a lot of messing around with a – if you get the shoot right, minimal computer work will be required.
Once you've set up your makeshift studio for digitising your artwork and photographed a few pieces, it'll become second nature. You could go ahead and start digitising your entire portfolio of work – even the sketches. People love looking at all aspects of art from the very earliest stages to the end result.
What you'll need
Gather together the following for your makeshift photo studio. You should have most of these things to hand, but if not, they are easy to borrow. Also note that there is plenty of photo-editing software available to download for free.
- Artist's easel
- 3mm sheet of MDF board
- Thin pane of glass
- Digital SLR camera
- 2 soft box lights (or floor or desk lamps)
- Some black cloth or felt
- Some black paper or black sugar paper
- A computer and photo-editing software
01. Controlling the light
Don't worry, you won't need to create darkroom conditions for this, but it is a good idea to block out any light from any windows and close any doors if they are also letting in light.
Here we've used a piece of black paper and parcel tape to cover a Velux window in the loft room that we're using as our digitisation studio.
If you prefer, you could use blackout cloth instead – this is easily available online. Simply cut it to fit the window's shape, and fix it in place with masking tape (especially if you're concerned about the paintwork). Don't forget to turn off the room's main light when you're ready to start shooting.
02. Organise the artwork
Choose the pieces of art you want to digitise and then organise them into groups according to size. This will make things much easier once you start photographing the work, as you won't need to keep adjusting the easel, lighting and camera set-up for each painting. Instead, you will photograph all the smaller works together, all the medium-sized ones, and finally all the big ones, having to make only minor adjustments.
03. Setting up the easel
An ordinary artist's easel is perfect – if you don't already have one, see if you can borrow one. The back of the easel needs to be as close to vertical as possible. You could use a spirit level for this but we're doing it by eye. Next place a sheet of MDF onto the easel, followed by your sheet of glass, in portrait aspect. Fix them in place using the easel's clamps.
04. Bring in the lights
Place the soft box lights about six feet apart, facing one another, on each side of the easel. If you haven't got soft box lights like the ones we're using, floor or desk lamps will do the job. Just make sure they're at the same height and can provide fairly even lighting across the front of the easel. Don't worry too much about reflections – we'll show you how to control them.
05. Position the camera
Attach the digital SLR camera to the tripod and adjust its height so it's roughly level with the lighting and the easel. You can move it up and down to get it perfect once the artwork is in place. We'll shoot in portrait orientation because the wider your set-up is, the more chance of reflections. Even if your artwork is landscape format, place it in portrait orientation and simply rotate the image in your computer software.
06. Get the artwork ready
Make sure your pane of glass is clean. If your artwork was made using a medium that requires fixing (such as charcoal or pastel), make sure this has been done and the fixer is dry before placing the art behind the glass and in position for you to photograph it. We're photographing a life-drawing on some flimsy newsprint that's been rolled up, so the glass really helps. Pegs can be used to secure the glass to the backing board, flattening the artwork.
07. Line it up
Raise or lower your camera so that the centre of your shot is as close to the centre of the artwork as possible. Then move the lights to try to make sure they are not being reflected in the glass. Look through your camera's viewfinder and keep making adjustments until it's right. You might find you need to get someone to hold a piece of blackout cloth in a certain position to help dim away unwanted reflections.
08. Camera action
Set your camera to take photos at the highest resolution possible, then start shooting. We'd advise three shots per artwork, each at a different shutter speed. Once you've taken a few shots, take the memory card out, pop it into your computer and check the quality of the photos on your computer. It'll be easier to spot any flaws on the computer screen than on your camera's smaller display. If you can see any small reflections or things you want to change, make the required adjustment to the set-up and take some new shots.
09. Camera to computer
When you're done, transfer the images to your computer. If you've used your camera's RAW image format, which captures the best detail and colour depth, then you'll need to convert the files to a format your software can handle. We recommend saving in TIF format to begin with. JPEG will discard most of the detail.
10. Digital editing
You can use a free application such as GIMP or Paint.NET. Choose the photo with the most accurate colour representation from each set of three. Crop the image to the area containing your artwork, and save this as a new file. Use the edges of the crop box to determine whether or not your artwork is being seen flat-on. You might need to make tiny adjustments or rotate it ever so slightly. When you're happy with it, save it as a TIF for printing, and as a JPEG for websites or sharing on social media.
11. Ready to share
Now that your file is digital, there are many things you can do with it. You can upload it to an online portfolio, or to your Facebook page. You can have giclée prints made and give them to your friends or sell them. Or, why not use your artwork to create your own set of greeting cards? The possibilities are just about endless, but the important thing is that other people can now enjoy looking at your art as much as you enjoyed creating it.