The Art of Art
A how-to of arranging images in the home
By Kevin Conroy
Art has the power to move us, sooth us, sustain us. From the simplest charcoal sketch to the boldest mural, humankind has surrounded itself with art from the pre-dawn of civilization. “It is intrinsic to our emotions,” says Artspace Gallery volunteer Jody Singer. “It speaks to who we are.”
Ordinary mistakes anyone can make may break its impact. Hung at the wrong height, or scaled improperly for a given space, even the best works can cast an unpleasant feel. Failing to plan a grouping can defeat its intended purpose. By following a few simple guidelines, though, everyone can bring out the best from their collection.
To create a sound foundation, professional framing is essential. “Make the frame work for the piece, and work with the décor at the same time,” explains proprietor James E. Morgan at Morgan Gallery of Fine Arts. Frames should complement, not distract. “If the furnishings are heavy, contrast them with movement and interest,” says framer Sean Turrell of Turrell Custom Art Framing. “There is no one way, every piece is individual. Framing is like jewelry; the artwork is primary.”
The most common mistake made by beginners is positioning art too high on the wall. Galleries and museums tend to hang paintings at approximately eye level, or centered 60 inches above the floor. At home, of course, accommodation must be made for furniture and architectural detail, such as a mantelpiece or chair rail.
Take scale into account when choosing which pieces to hang where. Although open space feels more elegant, an undersized picture in a wide space will feel underwhelming. The other side of that coin is clutter. Be certain to leave some negative, or empty, space.
Walls are not the only place for art. “Leaning a canvas instead of hanging it turns a two-dimensional piece into three dimensions. It becomes an object,” says Turrell. Lean a picture on top of a mantle or sideboard and overlap it with a sculpture and leafy plant to lend a feeling of sophistication.
“Use an easel to angle a painting as a solution for a corner,” says Ellen Kerz of Ellen Kerz Interiors. With several pieces to display, plan a grouping. “You can place a large piece in the center as a focal point,” says Kerz, “and surround it with photography or smaller watercolors and oils. “No rhyme or reason over the sofa or sideboard,” she says, “even a stair wall. How busy you want it depends on how much space you have.”
Lay the grouping out on a bed or floor first; doing this will allow for endless changes before the first nail is driven. It will lend a sense for how it feels. Determine the horizontal center of the grouping before beginning to hang, then match it to that 60” wall height to keep the center of the cluster at eye level.
Some additional practical advice: To keep images permanently straight, hang them on two nails placed apart, about two-thirds the width of the frame. When displaying watercolors in a bright, sunlit room, pay the few extra dollars for UV protective glass to minimize fading.
A budget is only common sense, so consider estate art and less expensive prints and etchings to add variety. Education is not necessary. “Acquire images with an emotional connection,” suggests Morgan. “Find key pieces that fit the feeling of a room.”
“Dog portraits warm up a room and make it feel like home,” says Kerz.
When beginning a collection, consider accenting with utilitarian items. Hang a quilt and old farm tools with painted folk-art. Music-themed images might benefit from worn-out dancing shoes displayed with old musical instruments. Search far and wide for just the right piece. “When you see something that coordinates, grab it!” exclaims Kerz.
Aesthetic judgements are at once sensory, emotional, and intellectual. “It has to do with humanity, the appreciation of something to share,” explains Morgan. “The artist’s perspective is different from the rest of society.”
Art creates value to its surroundings, and its surroundings increase art's intrinsic value. “Art shows life and beauty,” says Singer. “It transcends the reasons why we need or want it.”