Visual Arts

Hanging Art: The “Rules” and When to Break Them


Just as taste for art is individual and subjective, so is the arrangement of art on a wall. However, if you lack confidence in your own judgment when hammering nails into a nice clean wall, it may help to know the rules of thumb the experts use. I met with Jay Heuman, curator of exhibitions at the Salt Lake Art Center, and Ricky Hansing, director of Palmer’s Gallery Fine Art, to find out the factors that guide their decisions about displaying art, both in the gallery setting and in the home.

How high?
A starting point for determining how high to place a painting is the rule of thumb used by museums and many galleries: 54-58 inches from the floor to the center of the painting. This height is based on the average height of viewers and the optimal alignment of their eyes with the piece of art. When I asked this question of the experts, Heuman immediately said “54 inches” and Hansing said “58 inches,” which just goes to show that the “rule” is not a hard and fast rule at all but a matter on which qualified experts may disagree.

In the gallery setting sometimes the artists themselves are very particular about how high they want their art hung. If you are such an artist, be sure to discuss your hanging preferences with the gallery or museum displaying your work.

Furthermore, the optimal height may also depend on the size of the painting, the size of the room, and whether there is furniture below or near the painting. If the painting is in a home, the ideal height may also vary with the height of people who live with the art. If the residents are over six feet tall, the higher measurement may be better. Or, as Heuman suggests, if the art is displayed in a room where you are mostly sitting, you may want to hang it 52″ from the floor.

When grouping two paintings, one above the other, Hansing suggests applying the height “rule” to the space between the two paintings. In other words, he marks the wall at 58 inches from the floor and hangs the paintings above and below the mark, leaving about 8-12 inches between the paintings.

Both experts agreed that hanging art too high is a common mistake in homes, but Hansing says that when he assists collectors hang paintings in their home he hangs the new pieces in a manner consistent with what is already in the home.

One nail or two? Nails or screws?
When I asked Heuman if he has any pet peeves about how others hang art, for example seeing something hung in a way that produces that fingernail-on-chalkboard kind of shiver up the spine, he confessed that he hates to see crooked art on walls. Crooked art happens when the painting is hung with wire suspended on one nail or picture hanger hook. To prevent the crooked eyesore, Heuman recommends hanging the art from two screws, carefully measured and placed in the wall to exactly match “D-rings” on the back of the painting frame, placed one third of the frame height down from the top. Of course, both screws in the wall must be exactly the same distance from the floor and checked with a bubble level to ensure the painting will be level.

Whether you use screws as Heuman recommends or regular picture hangers and wire, having two hangers, rather than one, is better for larger, heavier paintings, and will help prevent the painting from tilting the first time a door is slammed.

How far above furniture?
It seems reasonable that you might want to hang a painting higher than 54-58 inches if there is a sofa, table, or chest below the painting. Both experts agreed this is true, but both hesitated to give me a definite rule for how far above the furniture is best. “High enough that the painting is not bumped by someone sitting on the sofa,” advises Hansing. “High enough to avoid contamination with hair products,” suggests Heuman.

“But what if there are plants, or decorative objects on the table or chest?” I wonder. If the objects are tall enough to hide or detract from the painting, maybe the painting should go somewhere else, suggest the experts.

When pressed, Heuman finally advises that somewhere between four and 12 inches above the furniture would be about right.

To center or not?
Both experts recommend centering art horizontally on a wall or above a piece of furniture, but quickly admitted there may be legitimate exceptions when off-center works better.

How far from other paintings?
Heuman enjoys seeing lots of space around paintings. In the Salt Lake Art Center, exhibits frequently have as much as 48 inches between paintings, but if the artwork is smaller, or if they are related in subject, they may be grouped together with less spacing between.

The clear exception to big spaces around artwork is salon style exhibits, which, Heuman notes, is popular in some museums, particularly those displaying American art from the 19th-Century. The custom derives from those times when homes were small and art collections too large to hang in well-spaced fashion. The Renwick Gallery, housed in an elegant old building that was the first home of the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington, DC has a Grand Salon, in which paintings from the museum’s permanent collection are hung salon-style from close to the 40-foot high ceiling to near the floor. Heuman says the Art Gallery of Ontario also uses a salon style with art hanging from about four inches above the baseboard to about four inches from the crown molding. You’ll also see this style of exhibition at Monet’s Giverney estate near Paris.

In a home, Heuman notes that a salon style exhibit of your collection can be “the jigsaw puzzle that brings you comfort.” While you could measure your wall, the paintings, and carefully map the arrangement before picking up hammer and nails (or screws), you might start with a central piece of art and arrange the other pieces around it in whatever way pleases your eye.

Hansing showed me an example of this almost free form approach to hanging on one wall of Palmer’s Gallery where he has hung dozens of Justin Wheatley’s small, square mixed media canvases in vertical rows with about an inch between paintings. Horizontally, the arrangement curves along the wall in an almost whale-like shape. It’s a striking display that makes you want to get closer to see what’s on each small canvas.

Protecting your art?
Whether you are collecting art for your own enjoyment or as an investment, you should understand the possible consequences of hanging paintings in places where they can be damaged by light, heat, or humidity. Direct sunlight, for example, can quickly take its toll on any painting, but especially watercolors framed without UV protection. Guard against fading pigments by using special glass in the frame or replace the windows in your home with UV protective glass.

Heuman also advises against hanging art directly under or above heating vents as the heat can damage the art. Bathrooms and kitchens are also trouble spots for hanging art since they tend to be more humid. Works on paper can develop mold and oils on canvas may sag and droop. Acrylics are a little more tolerant of humid settings.

Some collectors may have art treasures that they don’t display at all. Heuman, for example, has a handmade artist book in his own collection that he keeps wrapped up and put away. “Art like this is meant to be enjoyed in an intimate way,” he says. “Taking it out, unwrapping it, and spending time with it is like a private guilty pleasure.”

Sue Martin holds an M.A. in Theatre and has worked in public relations. As an artist, she works in watercolor, oil, and acrylic to capture Utah landscapes or the beauty of everyday objects in still life.

Categories: Visual Arts

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