Trying to pin down the do’s and don’ts for choosing and hanging art at home can make a person feel like the confused fashion victims from the popular TV show, What Not to Wear. Even with “the rules” in hand, getting it right isn’t a snap. Just having experts agree on the rules is no simple matter.
“It’s easy to overthink it,” says Billy Guess, an artist who’s hung hundreds of pieces for shows at 701 Whaley and the Tapp’s Arts Center. He compares it to drinking wine. “Someone might tell you that you shouldn’t like the sweet stuff, but you like what you like.”
Interior designer Katherine Anderson is more outspoken about the things that drive her nuts. “Too many of the same thing. Dirty frames. Cracked glass. Ugly mats. Ugly art. Shall I go on?” Having worked for an art gallery before launching Katherine Anderson Interiors, she brings the intensity of her gallery experience to every room she decorates.
Both Katherine and designer Karen Menge of Pulliam Morris Interiors say it’s a balancing act, one that goes beyond arranging the art in a pleasing display or making sure individual works are hanging level. “Art is so personal,” says Karen.
Katherine’s goal is to make the best of the things her clients like. “I want people to see things they love,” she says. But she admits she can be blunt when she helps them decide how to hang pictures. “I try to be gentle, but I also tell them if you did it well, I wouldn’t be here.”
Katherine and Karen, along with Sheree Smith, owner of The Picture Place, have weighed in on some guiding principles for choosing how to hang art at home.
1. Get the height right.
This is a rule on which all agree: artwork shows best when hung at eye level. Sheree’s rule of thumb is to position the center of the picture 62 inches from the floor. Billy favors around 60 inches.
But even this straightforward instruction comes with caveats. Art over a sofa or chair, for example, must be hung high enough so that those sitting won’t hit their heads. Sheree suggests keeping the bottom of the frame 12 inches above any seating to provide clearance.
Katherine makes a plea for common sense. In groupings or when hanging something over a piece of large furniture, she does not like to see small intricate works or group photos. “If it’s got that kind of detail, I want to be able to walk up close to it and see it,” she says.
Sheree says a frequent mistake she’s noticed is people hanging art too high in rooms with high ceilings. “If you have a 20-foot ceiling, you still need to pretend you have a 10-foot ceiling,” she explains.
2. Think about scale and placement.
When hanging an exhibit, Billy considers the size of works and the number he has to fit onto a wall, determining whether he’ll hang gallery style, with art spaced evenly in a single row, or salon style, a grouping of various sizes and styles in a more random arrangement.
For her clients’ homes, Katherine prefers the latter. She likes working with shapes and art of different sizes but, she says, “It can’t be three little pictures over the sofa.”
Karen says that she finds herself urging people to go bigger. “Many people are hesitant to buy large pieces, but some spaces demand a big piece.”
Billy, who recently moved into a new apartment with blank walls, decided to keep the small works in storage and hang the large pieces he owns. “The normal thought might be small space, small pieces, but I went with almost oversized pieces. Having less of them sort of cleans the space up.”
Sheree has found that the best way to puzzle it out is to tape paper the size of the pieces to the wall. Once the arrangement is set, the paper becomes a template for hanging. Katharine takes a more instinctive approach. “I usually bring all the art the client has and place it on the floor where I can see each piece. Then the magic begins with one or two pieces. Their placement leads the way for the rest,” she says.
3. Suit artwork to location.
Humidity and light are two factors that might make a room less suitable for a certain work of art. A treasured family photograph, Katherine says, will fare better in a hallway where light won’t fade it, whereas a little indirect sunlight might be an excellent way to highlight an oil painting.
While none of these experts recommend matching artwork to furniture, Katherine says wall color is a factor. “If you hang red art on a red wall, you will experience that piece of art differently than if you hang it on a blue wall. You want the wall color to show the art to its best advantage,” she says.
Karen says that hanging artwork is usually one of the last things her firm does in most rooms, but not always. “I have had clients start with a painting and build a room around that,” she says. “It can go both ways.”
Billy creates art installations, including one he designed to liven up his small kitchen. Using nearly 3,000 red Lego blocks, he built a dimensional piece to fit the length and height of the soffit. “Red is exciting. The idea that it’s Legos makes it playful. Fitting it to fill the space makes it more of an architectural feature,” he says.
4. Frame it well.
“Image and frame are seen as one,” says Billy, “so any framing you do reflects on the piece. Having someone frame something well makes a huge difference in how it’s presented.” Karen says framing is so important that many of her clients will buy art, then ask her firm to help them choose the frame.
Katherine sees any number of framing missteps, but she finds the most common to be a grandiose frame on a not-so-grand picture. “A big, fancy frame on a dinky picture looks ridiculous,” she says. Katherine looks for harmony — including appropriate pairing of frame color with picture tones. “I see a lot of ‘gold’ pictures in silver frames and ‘silver’ pictures in gold frames.”
5. Use proper hardware.
A single nail in the wall might suspend a small work, but there are more secure options. For heavy items such as mirrors, Sheree suggests getting a professional involved in mounting the hardware on the mirror and for hanging it in a home.
For framed work with a wire attached, she recommends going with a single hook. “The bigger the picture, the bigger the hook,” she says, rather than two small hooks to hold a large picture. Billy likes to use two particular types of hooks: OOK hangers that come in a variety of sizes, and for drywall, the Monkey Hook, a single steel piece that pushes through the wall.
Using adhesive for hanging is strongly discouraged. “Adhesive hangers just stick to the paint,” Sheree says, “then humidity comes along, the hanger falls off and takes the wall with it. The hanger has to go in the wall. Otherwise, there’s no strength.”
Both Billy and Sheree suggest using a level when hanging more than one piece side by side. “Even in a new home, you can’t trust that measuring from the floor will give you a consistent line,” says Sheree.
6. Hang things you love.
That might mean fine art for some, posters and family photographs for others. Karen and Katherine encourage their clients to seek out local, original art — and to learn what they like. Flipping through magazines to pull out pictures of art that’s appealing and visiting local galleries are two ways to develop an eye. “You might even find something you like at a garage sale,” Katherine says, “if you know what you like.”
Billy recommends finding local artists through events, such as the Columbia Open Studios tour, that give people a chance to talk to artists and see how they work, which can help a buyer make a deeper connection to a particular piece. He also seeks out artists when he travels, for example visiting studios in Nairobi and buying work from artists he met there. “You probably won’t want to wear that t-shirt in two years, but the art pieces can certainly be around longer,” he says.
Of course, not everything on the wall has to be flat. One of Katherine’s favorite groupings is a set of African masks one of her client’s collected. Sheree specializes in framing and prepping nontraditional work to hang on walls, including shadowboxes, textiles and recently, a ship’s wheel.
“It’s all taste and the stage where you are in life,” says Katherine. And when there’s a question of taste — or a total lack of it? Then, she says, “Hire someone who knows what they’re doing.”