If you're in the mood to browse a collection of post-modern art or throw down a few thousand on an original painting, simply power up your iPad and go no farther than your couch.

Startups and tech giants are launching fine art galleries and marketplaces online for discovering, browsing and buying art as the Internet transforms the art world much as it has the music industry. But while musicians have largely suffered financially in the digital revolution, emerging visual artists are embracing online galleries as a way to launch their careers, and seasoned artists have turned to the Web to show their work without having to secure gallery space and traveling across the country.

Sheila Finch, a landscape painter in Belmont who has been painting for about 45 years, began selling online in 2012 with San Francisco-based UGallery.

"Up until that point I had just discounted online galleries," she said. "I had always shown in brick-and-mortar galleries."

Finch, 59, spent years traveling to show her work, and struggled to produce enough paintings to fill the galleries she was in, until a few years ago when she broke her leg and had to take time off. She moved most of her work online, and continues to sell to collectors across the country, but gets to spend more time doing what she loves -- painting.

The online art world also gives art collectors and others access to more artists than ever before with a click of a mouse.

And with a growing number of online galleries, collectors don't have to wait for an art show to come to their city and navigate what can sometimes be an intimidating experience of walking into a gallery.

"People are dressed up, wearing ties. Or often you're the only one in there," said Erasmo Leon, an art collector in San Francisco. "It's almost like all eyes are on you. They're expecting you to make a purchase, and make a commission."

Leon has been collecting art for a decade, but in the last year switched to buying online, primarily through UGallery, one of several online art sites from the Bay Area that work with galleries and curate original art. New artists who have never sold their work before may sell 25 pieces their first year on UGallery, said gallery director Alex Farkas.

"The gallery scene is really hard to break into," he said. "A gallery might represent 10 people. Even in a city like San Francisco, there just aren't that many galleries."

UGallery takes a 50 percent commission; many of the site's artists also show in galleries, which typically take between 30 and 60 percent.

Tech behemoths Amazon and Google have also launched their own fine art sites in the last year. Amazon Art has 55,000 works on its site from about 250 galleries, including UGallery, and some original works cost upward of $200,000. Amazon spokesman Erik Fairleigh said people are paying top-dollar.

"We are very pleased with sales, and we are definitely selling our work at multiple price points," Fairleigh said.

Google's Open Gallery, which launched in December, is an extension of its partnership with museums and cultural institutions, which moved major national collections online.

"Now we're helping individual artists, galleries, archives or collectors to do the same by opening up the technology ... so that anyone with cultural content can publish it, creating exhibitions that tell engaging stories on their own website," said Google spokeswoman Becca Ginsberg Rutkoff.

Fine art didn't leap from gallery walls to Web pages simply with the omnipresence of the Web; rather, improvements in digital photography has made it possible to see the colors and textures of a painting online. High-resolution and retina display screens, touch screens for zooming images and the development of the tablet have made browsing and buying art a better online experience.

"You can really see the texture of an artwork," said Catherine Levene, co-founder and CEO of Artspace, a New York-based online fine art gallery. "That really is critical, and that wasn't there three years ago."

The digital age has also spawned a new genre of art and a new class of digital artists like Angeline Roussel of San Francisco, who sells drawings on the newly launched Palo Alto-based ArtCorgi, a site that commissions pop art.

"It doesn't make sense for me to have a traditional gallery because it's not the kind of work I do," Roussel said.

San Francisco-based ARTtwo50 created an augmented reality app that lets users see how different artwork would look on their wall by viewing them through an iPad screen. Almost everything on ARTtwo50 sells for $250, and after making five sales, artists can price their work at $500. Site Co-founder Patrick Coughlin said he was trying to remove the sticker shock that many consumers feel in galleries, and confusion about why art is priced they way it is.

"People end up saying 'I'm just going to go to Ikea and buy that poster,' or 'I'm going to go put up that old college beer poster for the 10th year in a row because it's just easier,' " he said. "We decided to strip all that out and get people to buy what they like when they see it."

The digital shift hasn't hurt the pocketbook of visual arts like it has musicians' because artists don't face the same threats of piracy and loss of physical sales -- vinyl and CDs -- that undid the music industry.

"Most artwork is physical objects," Levene said. "You can buy them digitally, but you have to actually physically distribute them."

While many art experts insist the physical gallery will never disappear, consumers -- even the avid art collectors -- now have fewer reasons to stand in front of a Picasso.

"I love to look at art and think about it and see what it's trying to represent," Oakland art collector Suzanne Becker said. "But there is something awfully convenient about sitting on a sofa and flipping through an app."

Contact Heather Somerville at 510-208-6413. Follow her at Twitter.com/heathersomervil.

online art galleries
Amazon Art
Based: Seattle
Features: 55,000 works from more than 250 galleries and dealers. All artists must be approved, and the site sells both original art and prints.
Commission: Sliding scale from 5 to 20 percent

ArtCorgi
Based: Palo Alto
Features: More than 50 artists and 80 styles of commissioned pop art, including cartoons, anime, sci-fi and drawings.
Commission: 20 percent

Artspace
Based: New York
Features: More than 200,000 works from contemporary artists, including photographs, sculpture, drawings and paintings.

Artkick
Based: Los Altos Hills
Features: A free app that provides streaming art to any Internet-connected TV, tablet or smartphone. Features images from museums, the Library of Congress and NASA.




Artsy
Based: New York
Features: Original art from 1,500 galleries, 200 museums and art fairs. Runs the Art Genome Project, an ongoing study of art movements that tracks connections between artists, styles and more than 90,000 works of art.

ARTtwo50
Based: San Francisco
Features: More than 800 artists, many just starting their careers. All art is original and hangable.
Commission: 20 percent, and all works are $250 or $500

Google Open Gallery
Based: Mountain View
Features: Artists approved by Google can upload their work and publish a new website or improve an existing site.

UGallery
Based: San Francisco
Features: 6,500 works from 500 artists. UGallery selects artists and accepts only original art .
Commission: 50 percent