A Digital Dictionary For Artists

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There’s no denying it: the art world is shifting to the realm of the internet. Facebook has become the new storefront gallery, and Instagram is the new studio visit. To make it in today’s art market, any artist needs to face the digital world head-on. But what did your painting workshops teach you about pixels? What did art history courses tell you about FTP clients?

The Artist's Digital Dictionary

Let us pave the way for you in this abridged dictionary of digital terms: the artist edition. These are the common “tech-y” terms you’re likely to come across as an artist in the digital world, whether you’re submitting a portfolio, building an artist website, or just updating your social media pages.

Your Artwork As A File

jpeg image files on a file bowser

From Michelangelo’s David to Banksy’s Dismaland, all artworks can be rendered into a computer file. No matter what the medium or dimensions of the artwork, all files look the same. Sort of.

Unless your artwork needs to be depicted with audio or video, for the most part you’ll be working with image files. These are the ones you need to know:


There are many types of image files, but the most common that galleries, museums, and websites use for photographs is the .JPEG file. JPEG is short for Joint Photographic Experts Group, but that’s not what you need to know. What you do need to know is that these files are compressed (simplified) images that are easy to post on the web or transfer via e-mail, USB, or with a compact disc (CD). Just because they’re simple and small doesn’t mean they can’t pack plenty of detail. The .JPEG is a versatile file type that will suit most of your needs.


A “Portable Networks Graphic” is another file type for images. The main difference between a .JPEG and a .PNG is the ‘blank’ space behind the subject. If the image includes a transparent background, the PNG will keep the background transparent while the JPG would turn that area into a white background. You may end up using a PNG for your logo or special graphics on your webpage, but your artwork images should typically be .JPEG only.


Agora Gallery's logo saved as a .jpg document. No matter what color the page is that this image is placed on, the background will be white.
Agora Gallery’s logo saved as a .jpg document. No matter what color the page is that this image is placed on, the background will be white.
The Agora Gallery logo with a transparent background


A .TIFF file is typically much larger than a .JPEG. This is because it is higher quality and far less compressed. You’ll likely only ever need a .TIFF file for your own uses: its uncompressed high resolution allows for easy editing. If you have the option of saving files on your digital camera as .TIFF, then you can edit them with Adobe Photoshop, and export them as .JPEG – which you can do with Photoshop or even Microsoft Paint and Apple’s Preview.

what is a psd file?.AI/.PSD/.INDD/.IDML

Adobe’s Creative Suite has many different programs, and as an artist, you’re most likely to use Photoshop (PSD), Illustrator (AI), and InDesign (INDD & IDML). These filetypes are all native to these programs, and save the ‘schematics’ of your file. So, if you are adding special filters in Photoshop, drawing on Illustrator, or putting together a complex document in InDesign, these files will allow you to pick up where you left off and continue editing or undo edits in the future. These files are to your final image what a text document is to a printed page.

pdf logo
Ironically, this image of a .PDF logo is actually a .PNG file…


Here, we’ve only been talking about image files, but a .PDF can include text, spreadsheets, images, and more. Essentially, a PDF (Portable Document File) presents any document on a fixed layout “page.” A .PDF is a good way to combine texts with images in one scroll-able, uneditable document, but it is not the best way to present your artwork. If somebody is interested in viewing images of your artwork, send the images as .JPEGs. If somebody is asking to view a catalog from your most recent exhibition, that’s when you’ll send a .PDF.

It is not easy to embed a .PDF into a website, nor is it easy to extract images or text from it. As one of the most commonly used filetypes, the .PDF has many restrictions that make its applications limited in the art world.

The Anatomy of an Image File


When your artwork becomes an image, it is broken down into small dots (or “pixels”) on the screen. Not to be confused with the 2015 film, pixels are the building blocks of most digital images. Take any image on your computer and zoom in. (You can zoom in on a Windows by holding Control and using your mouse to scroll up/down.) You’ll notice that any image becomes a series of different-color squares.

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hermoine macura zoomed in to demonstrate pixels
Hermoine Macura Syrian Refugee Photograph on Metallic Paper 19″ x 12″ x 27″


The resolution of an image is often also called the “quality.” It refers to how much detail an image holds. Pixel resolution refers to how many dots make up the image.


A high-resolution image has more pixels per inch. Sometimes this is called DPI, which is more specifically related, historically, to the physical printing process. By fitting more pixels/dots per inch, you are making the pixels smaller, and thus allowing for more small details to be visible.

It is always easier to lower the quality of an image than to improve it.

If you save a 1 square inch image at 72 DPI, it will have 72×72 pixels total. If later you want to increase the resolution to 300 DPI, your image will become smaller and will not look sharper. While you can use some advanced Photoshop tools and techniques to enlarge low-resolution images, it is best to always take photographs at the highest resolution possible. It is always easier to lower the quality of an image than to improve it.


Unless you are a designer, you may not know what the difference is between a vector image and a raster image. The simplest explanation is that a raster image is made up of pixels and vectors are made of… well, algebra. Vector images are drawn lines and points that are made up of equations that your computer calculates in order to let you change the size of the image infinitely without losing any resolution.

A program for vector drawings selects points on the object as a frame of reference. By maintaining the relationship between these points, the image can be infinitely enlarged.
A program for vector drawings selects points on the object as a frame of reference. By maintaining the relationship between these points, the image can be infinitely enlarged.

When should an artist use vectors? When you are creating digital paintings or line drawings. Vectors will allow you to print your drawing any size and it’ll look as smooth and clean as it looks on your screen. If you are creating a logo for your artist brand, it is best to do this in vectors.

The image above was enlarged as a vector and as a raster image. There's a huge difference in quality.
The image above was enlarged as a vector and as a raster image. There’s a huge difference in quality.

When should an artist use raster/pixels? Photographs of your artwork will all be raster-based. Any image that was originally made outside of a drawing software will be made up of pixels. The images of your artwork, your headshot will be made of pixels: in sum, all photographs will be raster images.

File Sharing


A “byte” is a unit of measuring how big a file is. For reference, a completely blank text file is 1 byte. Small, low-quality images will typically be between 100-900 KB (kilobytes). You can tell an image is better quality when it is between 2-5 MB (megabytes). A very high quality image will be even larger than that. A very high quality video will be several GB (gigabyte). Finally, a TB (terabyte) is typically the storage of a large hard drive, capable of holding a vast number of these and many other files.upload download


You’ll come across this term when you are submitting your portfolio to galleries or museums online. To “upload” a file is to send it from your computer to the internet. You can upload to a website, e-mail, and even to a messaging program.


The opposite of uploading, downloading is when you save a file or folder from the internet onto your local device. You can download just about anything these days onto your computer, tablet, and phone.


A “File Transfer Protocol” or FTP is a way of sharing files. In simplest terms, it allows you to store your files on a third-party site/server so that somebody else can download it (with your permission).

WeTransfer/DropBox/Google Drive

These are all websites you can use to transfer files and folders to other people online.

WeTransfer will let you upload files or folders and will provide a link which you can send to another user where they can download your file. It will host your files for 7 days. If the recipient hasn’t downloaded it by then, you’ll have to upload the files again.

DropBox and Google Drive allow you to permanently store your files on their websites. Both come with limited free space with the option to purchase more. Google Drive offers 15 GB of space and DropBox starts you with 2 GB.

Zipped Folder/Compressed Folder

It can often be easier to send several files all at once, but many programs will only allow you to upload/send one at a time. When you create a zipped folder (also known as a compressed folder), you are combining all of these files into one .zip file that can be unzipped (or extracted) later.Creating a compressed ZIP folder in Windows

To zip a folder, copy all of the files you need into a new folder. Once you have all of the files copied, find the folder in your library and right click. Select “Send to” and then “Compressed (zipped) folder.” You’ll know you were successful if another version of the folder is created with a zipper graphic on it.

If somebody else has sent you a zipped folder, you can access the files inside by extracting it. Right click the folder, and select “Extract All…” A box will come up asking you to select a “Destination” for the unzipped file to be located. If you wish to change the automatically generated destination, then simply click “Browse” and choose a folder for the new files to go. Then, just hit “Extract” and you’re done!

File Size

We discussed the difference between a KB, MB, and GB, but what size should your artwork be when you include it in your portfolio? As a rule, the .JPG images of your artwork should be between 1 MB – 5 MB each. The entire portfolio should not be larger than 50 MB.


“My file is too big.”
“My file is too small.”
Open the file with any editing software. This doesn’t need to be advanced – you can use Paint/Preview – and find the ‘resize’ option. Every photo editing software has this. Simply lower the pixels, inches, or centimeters in small increments.

To see if your new file is the right size, hit “Save As” (always save it as a new document so that you don’t write over your high quality images, which you may need later). Save it as a new file, and you can check the new file size of the new document.

Image filesize displayed on Windows file explorer

Take a new picture. Make sure that your camera is set to take photos at the highest resolution. Make sure, when you transfer them from your camera to your computer, that you are saving them as the highest quality JPEG/TIFF.

If, for whatever reason, you cannot take a new photograph, then you can use Photoshop to enlarge the image. Go to “Image” > “Image Size” and type in your new dimensions. Make sure to select “Bicubic Smoother” in the dropdown menu.

bicubic smoother enlargement

The digital world is a big place, and it’s always growing. With new technologies will come new ways of sharing artwork and connecting with audiences/galleries. It can be hard to embrace these new tools and markets, but it’s worth it.

If you aren’t using social media yet, that’s a great place to get started. We’ve provided tutorials on how to use Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram to promote your artwork. There’s no better time than the present to get started.

Looking to develop your artistic career and build a presence in New York City and worldwide? Book an online career development consultation meeting today.

copyright knightIs your artwork safe on the internet? There are a number of ways to help protect your art’s copyright, and we’ve laid them out for you in a quick, simple guide.

Protecting Your Art: Copyrights



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