October 15, 2018

Getting the hang of it: Helpful hints for displaying artwork

People love having art on their walls, but they’re often not so keen on hanging it. I understand. It can be intimidating just to get started. How do you decide what goes where? How high do you hang it? What if you put a hole in the wall then want to change where the picture goes?  So, instead of displaying their art on the walls, many people leave their precious paintings, prints and photographs in a closet or the garage to collect dust. That’s a shame. Even Velvet Elvis deserves to see the light of day. 

Well, fear not, my art-loving friends. It’s really easier than you might think to hang pictures like a pro. Just knowing the basics will empower you to turn your walls into a gallery.

Hang the art at eye level

The most common mistake people make is hanging art too high. Artworks should be at eye level, meaning that when you’re standing, you should be looking at the center of the picture. Although the size of each work varies, as well as each person’s height, a good rule of thumb is to position the center of the picture (measured vertically) between 57 inches and 60 inches from the floor. Of course, if the work is mural-sized and takes up most of the wall, then this rule doesn’t apply.

Work with the scale of the furniture

Another common mistake is to place artworks that are too small for the space allotted. Pieces that hang above a piece of furniture, like a sofa or a console table, should be at least half the width of the furniture, and preferably even three-fourths of the width, or more. It can even extend past the furniture. It’s better to be too big than too small. And if you don’t have a piece of artwork that’s big enough? Then group two or more pieces together so that, in total, they occupy enough wall space to balance the scale of the furniture.

Map it out first 

One of my tricks in hanging artwork, especially when grouping multiple pieces together, is to trace the shape of the works on a piece of butcher paper or newspaper, cut out the shapes, and tape them to the walls. This enables me to experiment with the placement of the art, moving it around without making any nail holes. 

Mix and match frames

When hanging multiple pictures together, give yourself permission to mix and match frames. I know stores often sell frames in sets with identical styles so you don’t have to think about it. But it’s actually very pleasing to the eye to mix up colors and textures — black, light wood, gold leaf, aluminum, etc. And don’t feel you need to match the wood finish on the frames to the wood finishes in your furniture. You don’t live in a Marriott.

Include mats

Mats set off the work to make it look its best. If you compare a picture with a frame alone to that same picture surrounded by a mat and frame, the one with the mat will almost always look better. I remember a recent visit to an art show in which an artist’s scribbles on index cards were framed for all to see. They were scribbles! Yet, because they were framed with a mat, they were suddenly elevated to art. (Sorry, my populist self could not deduce the deeper subtext, and I was left appreciating only the mat.) Although frame shops charge a hefty price to include a mat with your framing, it’s quite economical to buy pre-cut-to-size mats at stores like Aaron Brothers and install it yourself. 

Go nail-less

Some people who rent their homes are not allowed to put holes in the wall. Thanks to removable double-sided adhesive tabs such as 3M Command Strips, renters can still put up artworks without using nails. I was once decorating a client’s bathroom with several framed pictures. As I got out my hammer, I realized the walls were made not of drywall, but concrete. There was no way I was going to be able to put a nail through that concrete. With the client expected home in just a few hours, I quickly drove to the hardware store to pick up some 3M Command Strips. They did the job perfectly. Just be sure you check the package for the weight limitations; there are strips for lighter objects as well as heavier ones. 

Get high

One question I am often asked is how to hang artwork in a room with high ceilings. Again, work with the scale. Rather than hanging art that is proportional only to the width of, say, a sofa, you should aim to display art that is proportional to the height of the room. Tall, vertical pieces work well. My living room has 14-foot ceilings, so I have hung two 8-foot street banners to adorn the wall. Once I was helping a client move into a loft that had one very tall, skinny wall. She owned several paintings she had accumulated through the years, so I displayed them in a vertical line, reaching all the way to the ceiling. The height of the art accentuated the height of the ceiling and made the room look even larger.

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects at