The easiest thing about hanging a painting is doing it wrong. But for Toby Kamps, the senior curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, its his job to do it right, and he hangs more than 300 pieces of fine art every year. There are no formulas, no cheat sheets, no Golden Ratios when it comes to picture hanging. “You’ve got to trust your eye,” he says. There are, however, some basic rules that will help your artwork look more like Monet at the Tate than Marley at Texas State.
Budget Your Wall Space: Leave generous room between unframed works or abstract art. “The gallery creates the frame,” explains Kamps. The eye gravitates more naturally towards framed pictures and representational pieces (i.e., a painting of a horse or a photo of your nephew), so you can get away with spacing these closer together.
How close, exactly, depends on the size of the picture or the frame. For larger works Kamps leaves at least enough room for a person to walk up and read a description plaque. Translated to your living room, that equals about three feet for the biggest frames you’re likely able to fit. And you can place similar pieces (a series of photos, a painting of a horse and a painting of dog) much closer together than completely unrelated works. And in dark corners, Kamps leaves twice as much room between works as he would on a brightly lit wall. Do that. Or install an extra light.
Hang At Eye Level: Figure out how far it is from your eyes to the floor, or use an average (Kamps uses 60 inches as a standard). And here’s the important part: Use the center of piece (which includes the frame, if there is one) as your reference point, not the edges of the frames, which would result in even tops and ragged bottoms. “The eye perceives harmony if the centers line up, even if the tops and bottoms don’t,” he says. This is particularly handy for installing a series along a staircase: The center of each piece should all be the same distance from each.
Pick Your Centerpiece: If you’re hanging multiple pictures together on one wall, pick one to go in the center. Kamps gives the bull’s-eye location to the most important piece, regardless of its size. You can pick your favorite. Then he radiates the rest of the works out from that focal point, always separating two same-sized pieces with a smaller one. It helps to alternate between bright and dark and large and small works as you move outward. This, says Kamps, is “to keep the energy alive.”
Keep People Out of the Corner: If you hang a profile portrait of great Aunt Millie in a corner, it will look like she’s about to run into a wall. Don’t do that—unless you’re trying to make a point.
Hang Time: How To Make Your Pictures Stick to the Wall
A black and white Alfred Stieglitz photograph will exude beauty and power no matter how it’s hung—crooked, off-center, or gapping precariously from the wall. But taking the same care in hanging less-masterful photographs and artwork that you would to install a Stieglitz, your collection can take on a bit of its eloquence.
To get the lowdown on the tools and tricks of the art-hanging trade, I spoke with Jeff Shore, the head preparator at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Curator design the exhibits but it’s the preparator who actually handles and installs the art, including traditional two-dimensional paintings, video installations, and well, just about anything an artist’s mind can imagine. (recently, he suspended a 30-foot tree draped with free-form canvases from the ceiling). While your living room installations are probably a little less complex than that, Shore has some solid advice for how to, and what to use to actually hang your artwork.
Use Solid Brackets—Not Wire: In Shore’s case, one crooked frame won’t just get him a nag from his spouse—he’ll likely find himself on the wrong end of an artist’s tantrum. So when he chooses picture hangers and wall hooks, he looks for precision and stability. He finds wire hangers “unexact.” “You have to fool with them until the piece is level, and then it gets bumped and it’s not level anymore,” he says. Wires also make it difficult to know where the center of the piece will hang, a problem that compounds when your wall plan includes 100 pieces of art. So for hangers, Shore usually opts for two D-rings or triangular hinged loops, both of which have much less play than wires. If you have to use wires—say an old frame is too fragile to change or you’re just too lazy to switch the hangers out—Shore recommends using two wall hooks to stabilize the piece a bit.